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OK of Russian trade bill is victory for human rights activist

The provision in a measure approved by Congress punishes human rights abusers, including those involved in the death of a Russian lawyer.

December 06, 2012|By Don Lee, Los Angeles Times
  • Nataliya Magnitskaya in 2009 holds a photograph of her son, Sergei Magnitsky, a lawyer who died in jail. William Browder, an investor and former client of Magnitsky's, has been telling leaders in the U.S. and other countries about Magnitsky's story and the human rights problems in Russia.
Nataliya Magnitskaya in 2009 holds a photograph of her son, Sergei Magnitsky,… (Alexander Zemlianichenko,…)

WASHINGTON — After months of delays, U.S. lawmakers finally passed a trade bill with Russia. And perhaps no one was as deeply moved as investor William Browder.

His emotions had nothing to do with the commercial implications of the legislation, which normalizes trade relations with Russia and should give a boost to big American exporters such as Caterpillar Inc. and Deere & Co.

Instead, Browder's focus was entirely on a provision that would punish Russians accused of human rights abuses, specifically those involved in the 2009 death of his onetime Russian lawyer, Sergei Magnitsky.

Since Magnitsky was beaten to death in a Russian jail cell three years ago, after authorities arrested him on what Browder believes were trumped-up charges of fraud, Browder has devoted much of his life to telling leaders in America and other countries about Magnitsky's story and the human rights problems in Russia.

Every six weeks over the last 2 1/2 years, Browder had traveled from his home in London to Washington; by his count, he has met with one-third of the members of the House and half the Senate.

After the Senate voted 92 to 4 on Thursday to approve the bill, which cleared the House last month and is expected to be signed by President Obama, Browder could hardly contain his feelings.

"This is really a tribute to Sergei Magnitsky. I was touched and awed that his story would have such a visceral impact on lawmakers in America," he said from New York.

But the Russian Foreign Ministry was quick to condemn the passage of the measure, comparing it to "a play in the Theater of the Absurd."

Congress was "just motivated by a vengeful desire to settle scores with Russia for its principled and consistent line in foreign affairs in favor of rigorously following international law," the ministry said in a statement on its website.

The trade bill was a top priority for American business groups. Even though the U.S. exported just $8.3 billion worth of goods to Russia last year out of a total of $1.5 trillion globally, American companies see vast opportunities in the world's ninth-largest economy, with a sizable middle class and rich resources.

In August, Russia joined the ranks of the World Trade Organization, and Congress needed to grant Russia permanent normal trade relations in order for U.S. businesses to take full advantage of the lower barriers and other market openings created by Russia's entry into the WTO.

Congress could have taken action years earlier to normalize trade relations with Russia. But lawmakers were content to leave things as they were because it gave them some leverage in its dealings with Russia.

"It was the WTO that forced the hand of the United States," said Jeffrey Mankoff, deputy director of the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank.

In approving the new trade bill, lawmakers repealed what was known as the Jackson-Vanik amendment, a Cold War measure that set conditions on American trade with the former Soviet Union to ensure that Jews and other minorities in that country could freely emigrate.

The Jackson-Vanik amendment had long irked Russian leaders, and many American officials agreed that the restriction had become obsolete. At the same time, U.S. officials have remained dissatisfied with the level of corruption and human rights violations in Russia.

While the trade bill approved Thursday got rid of one irritant in bilateral relations, the Magnitsky provision for months has been met with sharp criticism and threats of retaliatory action from Russian leaders. The Magnitsky measure would penalize Russian human rights violators by withholding visas and freezing financial assets.

The Russian ministry's statement suggested possible retaliation.

"We don't want to discard the positive achievements in our bilateral relations reached not without difficulty over the last years," the statement said. "But we should be aware that the bill adopted by the Senate will quite negatively affect the prospects of the bilateral cooperation. Naturally, the blame for that entirely lies with the United States."

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Additional negative comment, though probably not from Russian President Vladimir Putin, should be expected, said Anders Aslund, a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics. Aslund said that in some ways, Russia already had responded by pursuing anti-America propaganda, expelling USAID and reinforcing anti-human rights legislation.

Mankoff and other analysts view the Magnitsky measure as a largely symbolic move. Some in the Senate sought to widen the Magnitsky provision to include all countries, but there appeared to be insufficient support for such a sweeping measure.

As for Russia, it remains to be seen how many people will be added to any kind of list for sanctions. And it's not clear how much influence there would be in blocking some Russians from traveling to the U.S.

"I don't think it's going to change the way the system operates," Mankoff said.

Browder, for his part, was much more hopeful that the new legislation would have a powerful effect. He said he hopes that all the people involved in the death of Magnitsky will be brought to light.

And he said he will be lobbying other countries — Browder will be talking with Canada's parliament next week — to enact similar legislation that would hold human rights violators more accountable and put pressure on governments like Russia.

"This is a huge deal," he said. "It hits their Achilles' heel."

don.lee@latimes.com

Times staff writer Sergei L. Loiko in Moscow contributed to this report.

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