Who could argue against the concept that corrupt officials should be punished? Didn't we hear from the Russian leadership, including President Vladimir Putin and Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, that corruption is Russia's worst enemy? Why such an outcry, then, in Moscow as well as in the U.S. business community regarding the Sergei Magnitsky Act? It is currently moving through the Capitol Hill bureaucracy and, according to its sponsors, is supposed to help Russia fight its monstrous corruption.
This bill, which is turning into a major irritant in U.S.-Russian relations, threatening to deal a fatal blow to Obama's "reset" policy, references the death in Russia in 2009 of Sergei Magnitsky, who died while in pre-trial detention on a tax fraud charge after being refused medical treatment for his illnesses. The bill calls for U.S. visa denial and assets freeze for all Russian officials involved in mistreating Magnitsky or in some other "gross human rights violations."
Many observers have pointed to the fact that by pushing this bill, Congress is not only overstepping its authority, but also represents clear evidence of selective justice - something for which we frequently accuse Russia - since, regrettably enough, similar cases of deaths in prisons due to denial of proper medical care happen in many other countries, including, sadly, the United States. It is also worth mentioning that "gross human rights violations" occur in many other countries, including some of United States' staunchest allies.
Why, then, point the finger at Russia? Is it really the worst perpetrator of corruption and violator of human rights? Not by a long shot. Besides, the U.S. State Department has already compiled a black list of Russian officials to be denied U.S. entry visas. As for freezing their illicit assets, if it is proven in courts that they are indeed illicit, this can also be done by the executive branch of the U.S. government without congressional involvement.
Somehow, there is reason to suspect that the Magnitsky bill has little to do with fighting corruption or punishing Magnitsky's tormentors and much more with "baiting the bear" or, putting it more accurately, poking Vladimir Putin in the eye. Why the congressional sponsors of this bill would do that is anyone's guess. It is easy to see, though, that demonizing Putin, whose cooperation in many parts of the world we need, totally contravenes U.S. business and national security interests.
Some of the leading American business associations, such as USA Engage, National Foreign Trade Council (NFTC), U.S. - Russia Business Council, American Chamber of Commerce, and others uniting thousands of U.S. companies involved in foreign trade, are not very pleased with the Magnitsky Act either. NFTC President Bill Reinsch expressed the view that "this bill, if passed, will not only unnecessarily complicate U.S.-Russia relations, but it also has the potential to damage U.S. diplomatic relations worldwide. As the administration has already taken steps to enact appropriate measures regarding this human rights violation, we strongly urge Congress to refrain from taking any further steps that would put U.S.-Russian relations in unnecessary peril."
Another highly controversial action by Congress is the linkage of the Magnitsky Act to granting the PNTR to Russia by graduating it from the infamous Jackson-Vanik Amendment (JVA). Presenting this graduation from JVA to Russia as a carrot that has to be supplemented by a stick in the form of the Magnitsky Act is just too cynical for words.
The great irony is that it is not Russia that now needs the JVA graduation (if it does, then for moral satisfaction only), as the JVA has not been active since 1994, anyway. It is American business that needs this graduation to avoid penalties after Russia formally joins the WTO this month. In essence, the Jackson-Vanik nonsense would then become a sanction on American business.
As Martin Sieff from The Globalist points out: "Cheap demagoguery and policies based on tabloid emotionalism make for bad, even dangerous foreign policy. The progress of what's known as the Magnitsky Act through Congress is a classic example of this."
No wonder the latest congressional job approval ratings are in the single digits.
Edward Lozansky is president of American University in Moscow and Professor of the Department of World Politics at the Moscow State University.