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Not another Jackson-Vanik!

Not another Jackson-Vanik!

Just what is Bill Browder really playing at? 

After the high-flying American investment banker was ousted from Russia in 2005, his lawyer Sergey Magnitsky was killed in police custody four years later. It is said that Magnitsky earned his Steve Biko-like death after the lawyer, investigating the authorities’ dismantling of Browder’s Hermitage hedge fund in Moscow, uncovered a massive tax fraud perpetrated by the highest levels of the Russian government. It involved the use of forged Hermitage documents and $230 million in loot. Medvedev promised an investigation, which  is currently progressing about as quickly as Medvedev’s own political career.

So far, so 21st century Russia. But the twist is that the US congress is about to pass a law based on the case: The Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act. If it passes, the legislation would ‘require the State Department to identify and sanction Russian individuals that it judges responsible for Magnitsky’s death, as well as other Russians “responsible for extrajudicial killings, torture, or other gross violations of internationally recognized human rights.” Those listed by State would be denied visas to the United States and could be subjected to asset freezes and banking bans in the West’.

According to this weekend’s Financial Times piece, 6o Russians are already on this list.

So what’s wrong with punishing a bunch of bad guys who killed an innocent lawyer for uncovering their multi-million dollar financial scam? Nothing, if that was indeed what the bill is about. However, its real purpose is more likely to punish Russia for its own sake. For Browder himself, the motives are less clear. Certainly, it’s at least partially about actually getting justice for his late friend; Browder must feel guilty and personally responsible for Magnitsky’s death. Yet I can’t help thinking that Browder is set on punishing Putin for having exiled him and destroyed his multi-billion dollar business. In this, he has found some impeccable allies on Capitol Hill.

Firstly, consider some of the bill’s main cheerleaders, as listed in the FT: Arch Russophobe hawk John McCain, the AEI’s Leon Aron, the cold warrior Dmitry K Simes, and British conservative MP Dominic Raab. What unites most of these people is a fear, mistrust and/or hatred of Russia.

By sheer coincidence, agitation to pass the Magnitsky Act is happening just as the Obama administration has heightened its attempts to repeal the paleolithic monstrosity that is the Jackson Vanik Amendment.  It too was supposedly motivated by high-minded concern for human rights — except it targeted the right of Jews to leave Russia and specifically referred to “non-market economies.” In spite of the fact that Russia has left its Jewish citizens emigrate freely since the ’80s and has been a market economy for some 20 years, the law remains on the books, and Russia-US trade remains a hostage to it.

Jackson Vanick should have taught us two things: the main purpose of so-called human rights legislation passed by foreign policy hawks and Russophobes is to punish Russia, not change its behaviour. And, once passed, it is likely to stay for good. Even after Russia complied with every postulate of J-V, the law has not been repealed. So was it really ever about human rights?

Now that J-V is finally looking like it might be on its last legs, the Russophobes in Washington are clamouring for something to replace it with, another all-purpose tool of blackmail/leverage to be used for any point they see fit, from now to eternity.

Ironically, the Magnitsky Act would make it even less likely for the perpetrators of his grisly murder to be brought to justice, as in catching the culprits, Russia will look like it is bowing to US pressure — an image of weakness that Putin will resist at all costs.

Of course, that possibility does not deter McCain et al., for whom Magnitsky is just another pawn in their implacable desire to prolong the Cold War.




Vadim Nikitin

Vadim Nikitin was born in Murmansk, Russia and grew up there and in Britain. He graduated from Harvard University with a thesis on American democracy promotion in Russia. Vadim's articles about Russia have appeared in The Nation, Dissent Magazine, and The Moscow Times. He is currently researching a comparative study of post-Soviet and post-Apartheid nostalgia.
Areas of Focus:
USSR; US-Russia Relations; Culture and Society; Media; Civil Society; Politics; Espionage; Oligarchs