An inconvenient sleuth

By Carroll Colley

Washington is on the verge of completing an improbable trifecta in U.S.-Russian relations. In August, the Obama administration helped guide Russia across the finish line for World Trade Organization membership. Congress is now fast tracking an end to the Jackson-Vanik amendment, a piece of Cold War-era legislation that ties trade policy to human rights, and one that has remained a bone of contention between Moscow and Washington for more than twenty years. Finally, Congress is also about to establish "permanent normalized trade relations" with Russia.

So why are relations on the verge of a potentially serious turn for the worse-and perhaps a reassessment of the "reset" in U.S.-Russian relations? Because this legislation will also include the so-called Magnitsky Act, which publicly rebukes the Kremlin for its poor human rights record.

Sergei Magnitsky, an attorney investigating a corruption case involving tax fraud charges against a UK-based investment firm, announced he had uncovered evidence of collusion among police, organized crime figures, bankers, and the Russian judiciary to push the company out of business. In November 2008, Magnitsky was arrested on corruption charges and held for 11 months without trial. He then died in prison under disputed circumstances. An independent human rights organization, Moscow Helsinki Group, has accused Russian security of torturing him. Magnitsky's death provoked international criticism, but a defiant Russian government continues with a posthumous criminal case against him.

The Magnitsky Act will publicly name and shame Russian officials involved in the case, bar them from receiving US visas, and freeze any assets they hold in the United States. Moscow, as you might imagine, is incensed. The Kremlin sees the bill as evidence of continued anti-Russian sentiment in the United States - -Mitt Romney's campaign comments about Russia were grist for this mill -- and as an intrusion by the U.S. into Russia's domestic affairs. The House looks set to vote on the legislation tomorrow, the third anniversary of Magnitsky's death. The Kremlin promises to respond to the bill's passage by retaliating in kind.

The Magnitsky Act won't damage President Vladimir Putin inside Russia. He remains Russia's dominant political figure, his approval numbers are strong, and few Russians closely followed details of this case. Yet, Moscow remains extremely sensitive to international charges of human rights abuses and corruption of government officials. That leaders of Russia's nascent opposition movement have endorsed the Magnitsky Act aggravates the Kremlin even more.

Moscow has already floated suggestions for a 'black list' of US officials, including those connected with the extradition and trial of convicted arms dealer Viktor Bout or with the prison at Guantanamo Bay. Of more concern is the likelihood of increased pressure on U.S. industry operating in Russia, including, for example, unannounced tax inspections of U.S. companies, delayed or denied licensing or registration procedures, and other bureaucratic complications.

While the Magnitsky Act will punish those involved in the case, it won't do much to improve Russia's human rights regime in the near term. Several incidents since Putin's inauguration in May demonstrate that the state continues to use force to weaken the political opposition. Russian officials recently announced the arrest of political activist Leonid Razvozzhayev on charges of orchestrating a series of riots. Razvozzhayev insists that Russian security officials kidnapped him in Ukraine where he was applying for political asylum, transported him back to Russia, and gained a confession from him by torturing him and threatening his children. Politically connected murders of journalists and human rights activists are no closer to being resolved.

U.S.-Russian relations are now likely to enter a period of strain and recrimination, though pragmatism on both sides will prevent a total collapse. The U.S.-Russian "reset" was a good idea at the time and produced significant results, but there is only so much it can accomplish with so much continuing mistrust on both sides.

Carroll Colley is an analyst in Eurasia Group's Eurasia practice.