U.S.-Russian Juvenilia

A student at the University of Virginia asked my opinion of the Magnitsky Act and the Russian counter actions. I gave a reply in the discussion of Reagan and Gorbachev but will repeat what I wrote and elaborate on it here.

The action of the U.S. Congress in passing the Magnitsky Act and the reaction of Russian politicians that followed it remind me of school kids exchanging imprecations in the schoolyard. Except that, in the current instance, the fallout affects innocent people. The Magnitsky Act was not a way to encourage solution of the underlying Russian problem, which is the corruption of many elements of the Russian bureaucracy, including law enforcement. By diverting Congressional attention from pressing domestic problems, legislation such as the Magnitsky Act contributes nothing to solving the urgent tasks now facing the government of the United States. It is a diversion with an impact the opposite of that which was purportedly intended.

I do not argue that the treatment of Magnitsky was not a serious scandal. But it was a Russian scandal (despite the tangential involvement of Americans) and Russians, like everybody else, don’t like other people minding their business. It is quite reasonable for the U.S. to refuse visas to persons involved (something that did not require legislation and in fact was being done before the legislation passed) but quite another thing to pass a law requiring that that be done. That set up a direct confrontation that actually reduced Russian government incentive to deal with the problem.

The Russian reaction is one that is going to cause greater damage to Russians than to Americans, particularly to the orphans who will not be able to find loving homes. It does very little damage to U.S. interests, so one may ask, why would the Russian government in effect penalize some of its most vulnerable citizens? Unfortunately, it is an important element of human psychology to respond to something considered an insult with an insult in turn. When you have a regime that needs the image of an external enemy to justify authoritarian rule, there is an incentive to make the most of any perceived insult even if it is nothing more than a statement of the truth.

But for an insult to be effective, it must be perceived as such and most Americans are blissfully unaware of what the Kremlin thinks of them or of the U.S. Congress, and even if they were paying attention they wouldn’t care. They don’t need Russians to tell them our Congress has been dysfunctional of late.

President Reagan understood that the best way to increase respect for human rights was by private diplomacy. He noted in his diary early in his presidency that we had been “too up front” in our human rights policy and needed to refocus on private channels. He also recast our comments to avoid direct demands on the Soviet government to do something but instead sought to establish a dialogue over how we could cooperate to improve respect for human rights. When Foreign Minister Shevardnadze asked Secretary of State Shultz, in their first private meeting, if he could raise questions about race relations and the status of women in the United States, Shultz replied, “Be my guest.” He added that he thought we were making progress but we still had a way to go and could use all the help we could get. This attitude eventually brought about private negotiations that emptied Soviet prisons and insane asylums of political prisoners, established freedom of travel and emigration, and encouraged a relaxation and eventual end of press censorship.

How should we have handled the Magnitsky case? We should have notified the Foreign Ministry privately, without publicity, that until the case was clarified, visas would not be issued to the people involved and that we would assist the Russian government in its investigation by identifying any international movement of funds by the persons involved, their relatives and associates. But not a peep publicly. This would give the government a chance to bring the culprits to justice and take the credit for it. The guilty might still not be touched if their connections were so high as to give them immunity, but it would maximize the Russian government’s incentive to do something.

There is another aspect of this. The Magnitsky Act was sold in part as a replacement for Jackson-Vanik, an amendment to the 1972 Trade Act that denied most-favored-nation status (equal trading rights) to non-market-economy countries (meaning Communist countries) that deny or restrict the right of their citizens to emigrate. The Soviet Union stopped forbidding travel abroad and emigration in its last year and the restrictions of Jackson-Vanik should have been lifted at that time. Once the Russian Federation became a market economy in the 1990s, there was no legal reason to apply Jackson-Vanik, even if Russia had restricted emigration, which in fact it did not. However, important elements in the U.S. Congress used Jackson-Vanik to pressure Russia on unrelated trade issues. This was a case not just of moving the goal posts, but of picking them up, putting them in a truck, and saying “We’ll decide later where they belong. Meanwhile, you must move the ball another ten yards and we’ll think about it.” Not very persuasive. And it makes future demands and red-lines must less effective.

Finally, as an American, I find it outrageous that a Congress that cannot pass a budget, that threatens the nation’s creditworthiness by playing political games with the debt ceiling, that has a confidence rating among our public in the single digits, would presume to teach other countries the elements of democracy. The State Department wanted to deal with this issue privately, but Congress refused to “lift” Jackson-Vanik (even though logically and legally it did not even apply to Russia) without the Magnitsky Act. Both sides are acting like headstrong juveniles, but in this case I would specify that the “sides” are the U.S. Congress, not the Obama Administration, vs. the Putin Kremlin, which controls the State Duma.

I hope that, despite the emotional outbursts on both sides, our governments will continue to cooperate in those many areas where our interests coincide. As for developments in Russia, the future will not be bright for its people if more is not done to curb official corruption and to nourish an independent judiciary with integrity. As for the United States, if our Congress continues to be incapable of meeting the country’s urgent needs, succeeding generations will be doomed to live in a second-rate, declining power. In both cases, failure to move successfully in the 21st century world would stem exclusively from domestic causes, not from malignity or hostile machinations from abroad.

This entry was posted in In the United States, In the World, Musings and Polemics. Bookmark the permalink.

17 Responses to U.S.-Russian Juvenilia

  1. ShoeOne says:

    Putin longs for a return to the Soviet Union; Congressional Republicans long for a return to the Cold War. It’s a marriage made in heaven.

  2. Jack says:

    I’m not sure Putin wants to return to the Soviet Union. He has said that nobody with a heart does not regret the break-up of the Soviet Union, but nobody with a brain would try to reconstitute it. He does want a Russia that exercises hegemony over other ex-Soviet states. But most of them have enough inner resources to resist too much intrusion into their internal politics. Of course Putin is looking for an external enemy to justify his tendency toward authoritarianism, just as many of our neo-cons and supremacists (who seek hegemony over the entire world) look for “threats” to justify large defense budgets and intrusive policies.

  3. ShoeOne says:

    Sorry, I’ve gotten too used to speaking in Tweetspeak.

  4. Jack says:

    I hear that can be pretty effective, but I haven’t taken to it yet. Still just as long-winded as ever!

  5. Brian Runyon says:

    It’s been a while. Good to hear from you again. I’m not a fan of the Neocons in the Republican party or the Tea party. I prefer moderates like Jon Huntsman. I condemn President Putin’s responce to this act by banning adoptions. A foolish and in my view stupid gesture.

  6. Jack says:

    He is using it politically. He feels he can undermine critics at home by claiming that they are inspired by Americans who hate Russia. Meanwhile our Congress is happy to play into his hands to please a few of their constituents.

  7. Brian Runyon says:

    If I were him, I would not have made such a bone-headed move.

  8. Jack says:

    Neither would I, but I’m not the president of anything!

  9. Jack says:

    Hypothetical question that cannot be answered. I believe the country would be at least marginally better off if he had allowed Medvedev to have a second term. But maybe political forces in Russia made that impossible. Future developments are simply not predictable. Too much of the important political maneuvering is going on behind the scene for an outsider to grasp.

  10. Brian Runyon says:

    I see. So strange. Here I am, a 25 year old blind man from Ohio interested in foreign policy blogging with one of the experts on Soviet policy. A lot of the troubles in US-Rusian relations seemts to stem from mistakes we made after the cold war ended.

  11. Jack says:

    This is a point I make in my book, Superpower Illusions. Of course, we shouldn’t blame everything on the U.S. Others bear a greater responsibility for most of the problems. But we could have nudged things in a better direction by different policies in the 1990s, and the Iraq war was a very large mistake, as were tax cuts when we were fighting two wars on borrowed money.

  12. Brian Runyon says:

    I agree. Other countries made mistakes, but the US is partly to blame.
    What do you think the US should have done differently?

    • Jack says:

      I described that in my original post: handle it privately with the Russian Foreign Ministry. Why single out Russia in formal legislation when other countries also commit egregious human rights violations? If one’s desire is to help correct a bad situation, then it is best not to use tactics that simply make the situation worse!

  13. Kate Svyatets says:

    It is never easy to find a solution for promoting and defending human rights in another country. The Magnitsky Act is not perfect in this respect, either, since it has no enforcement of human rights promotion in Russia. However, the Act can be still extremely useful in helping the opposition movement in Russia to make publicly known who of the Duma and the government owns real estate and other investments in the United States.

    Even aside from the outrageous law banning adoptions by Americans, there is a very peculiar situation now in Russia when government members who are especially vocal and hostile to the United States turn out to own multimillion properties in the same country they criticize so much. Their children study in top American universities. Their names are being made public by the opposition movement, usually followed by the politicians’ explanations that the property is owned by their wives/sons/grandmothers/uncles. This hypocrisy is very visible, while the mainstream Russian establishment pretends there is nothing wrong going on.

    The question still remains about what would encourage human rights protection in Russia better than the Magnitsky Act. Most probably, international media attention to human rights violations, economic “sticks” and other economic measures will help. Since it seems that concerns over their properties abroad might be almost the only instrument of influence over those politicians, Western governments may use this as possible influence.

    Now let’s wait for the names of the persons under the Magnitsky Act and see how fair the list is. This exchange of laws (the Magnitsky Act and the adoption ban) resembles Cold-War tendencies. Let’s also hope next year will bring positive developments, with Russia’s Olympic Games as a good-will opportunity for both sides.

  14. Jack says:

    Thanks for your comments, Kate.
    As I see it, it is one thing for non-governmental organizations to publicize abuses, or report on financial irregularities. It is another thing for the legislature of one country to stigmatize another. Note that the Magnitsky Act singles out Russia. It does not apply its sactions to human rights violators in other countries. Why not, if this is an appropriate way to deal with such offenses? There is not even a direct American citizen interest in the Magnitsky scandal. Brower, who is financing this campaign against Russian officials, was born in the U.S. but renounced his U.S. citizenship to avoid paying taxes to the U.S. He is now a British citizen.

    Another, and for me, most powerful reason for not following this course is that it just doesn’t work. You get into a tit-for-tat situation that makes it difficult for either side to back down.

    Yes, it should be publicly known when government officials use illegally acquired money to buy assets, particularly assets abroad. But there are plenty of organizations to ferret out and publicize this kind of information. It should not be done publicly by governments except by mutual agreement. And it should not be done at all by legislatures, who are not, under our constitution, responsible for conducting foreign relations.

    By the way, the Magnitsky Act applies to officials who are credibly alleged to engage in torture. I note that there is a front-page article in the New York Times today with the headline: “U.S. Practiced Torture after 9/11 Non-Partisan Review Concludes.” It would seem to me that the duty of the U.S. Congress is to see that those persons are brought to justice before mandating sanctions against accused persons in another country.

  15. JamesBeach says:

    Ambassador Matlock,

    Fantastic comments and insights, as always. Just to add to your thoughts about Brower, during the mock Magnitsky trial a few weeks back, his (Magnitsky’s) former employer, Firestone, admitted that they assisted Hermitage (Brower’s $5 billion private equity fund) with hiring invalids for the purposes of tax evasion. Unreal. However, I am encouraged to know that the US government entity with the most knowledge (State) did not support this Act.

Leave a Reply