Magnitsky List Runs Counter to Russian and US Interests

The Magnitsky Act is a political mistake of the US elite and is unlikely to produce the desired results. This is potentially dangerous because the new law is unlikely to be short-lived. Just like the Jackson-Vanik Amendment, this act will remain part of US legislation for decades to come.

The Magnitsky Act is a political mistake of the US elite and is unlikely to produce the desired results. Moreover, this document will give those opposed to the expansion of Russian-US relations a fresh argument to assess those relations in an overly emotional manner. The Magnitsky List is like a shot which has missed the target. The US Department of State has enough mechanisms at its disposal to prevent undesirable individuals from obtaining entry visas, purchasing real estate, receiving medical treatment or studying in the United States. In other words, this act adds nothing new to the various mechanisms the US Government executive branch already possesses.

But, as often happens in such systems one branch, the legislative branch in this case, has decided to become involved in a process which has always been the exclusive preserve of the executive branch: that of drafting visa policy and overall foreign policy with regard to Russia. As a rule, these decisions would be made by the State Department. But members of Congress decided that they would also like to take part in this process and under the Magnitsky Act, they now have the right to advise the President of the United States about who should or should not be admitted to the country, and about who should be suspected or not suspected of committing a crime in Russia. Although Congress has exercised this right in the past, it has now been formalized in law with regard to Russia. In this sense, to a large extent this was just a confrontation inside a small segment of the US elite, because the majority of the US elite, not to mention US public opinion, did not even notice it.

The crux of this confrontation is about who has more opportunities for influencing this process than others. Senators, Members of Congress, US civil society and non-profit organizations have received an additional right to take part in drafting visa policies with regard to Russia. Their desire to ensure such changes is understandable because one government branch always wants to take over some authority from another.

The US Administration reacted negatively to the approval of the Magnitsky Act and initially took an irreconcilable stance. But when it became clear that there was no turning back, the White House did its best to minimize the potentially negative consequences of the Magnitsky List. And, most importantly, they managed to ensure a purely legal approach toward compiling this list, which does not contain any political sympathies or antipathies, and does not blacklist any people for their political views, behavior, programs, political actions, etc. The document lists those individuals who are suspected of complicity in concrete crimes, and who have persona non grata status in the United States. In this sense, the US Administration has succeeded in curbing the ambitions of some members of Congress and those of a section of US and Russian civil society who advocated an extended interpretation of the list.

US Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul had every reason to call this document counterproductive. Unfortunately, it remains counterproductive. It is common knowledge that Congress, civil society, human rights activists and anyone else, not just Americans, can suggest individuals to be included in the list or removed from it. The President has to revise and publish this list on a regular basis, to introduce new sanctions or to lift them in some cases. It is possible that political criteria could be introduced in the compilation of the list. This is potentially dangerous because the new law is unlikely to be short-lived. Just like the Jackson-Vanik Amendment, this act will remain part of US legislation for decades to come, and it will continue to be effective, even after White House administrations change hands. Every new President and Congress, as well as civil society and human rights organizations, will have to deal with this act. The potential danger lies in the fact that this affair might become politicized and dramatized, and could reach the point of absurdity and hysteria.

Russia has every reason to feel offended and insulted by the US approach toward this issue, but I do not think that it should blacklist US officials. First, it is unclear why Russia should copy what are not the best examples of US policy. Second, by doing something in response, Russia once again starts reacting to the actions of other countries, like it always used to in the past. I believe that this is a vicious circle of Russia simply reacting to something done by someone else. It continues the policy of responding to the actions of others, instead of pursuing a proactive policy, and this makes Russia vulnerable.

I hope that the publication of the list will not provoke protests in Russian society. The scale of anti-American sentiments is considerably exaggerated. Russia is a sufficiently Americanized country in terms of its lifestyle, mentality and system of values.

As for political aspects, it is saddening to say that the people voicing anti-American rhetoric find it easier to make a career in Russia. This problem is typical of the entire post-Soviet period. The more you criticize America, the more outspoken your criticism of the United States, the more attention you get, and it becomes much easier for you to achieve success. It is easy to build one’s policy on confrontation and to incite public opinion, but let’s hope that this will not happen. On the other hand, we should not believe that this brief 18-person Magnitsky List was compiled because the White House became scared of Russia's actions. Some people are trying to convince everyone that this is the case, but they are wrong. The US administration talked about precisely such a list from the very beginning. The US elite never seriously discussed the possibility of including all members of the Russian Parliament or certain Russian politicians in this list. All the rest was mere propaganda, journalistic opinions or all sorts of conjectures, which one or other side portrayed as serious points of view.

As for the Dima Yakovlev Law, which has been passed by the Russian Parliament, its current version will fail to accomplish its intended objectives and solve the problems of orphans in Russia. Of course, the law forbids US citizens from adopting Russian children, and there is no hiding the fact that there are adoption problems in the United States. However, this should not become the main content of Russian-US relations. These two huge countries have a big influence on the global situation. The two superpowers boast tremendous nuclear potentials, large economies, and natural and intellectual resources. Efforts to reduce Russian-US relations to the Dima Yakovlev Law or the Magnitsky List amount to intellectual impotence displayed by the elites of both countries, and to an intellectual blind alley. It would be bad if everything were to boil down to this. It would not befit the two great countries, which are big, influential players on the international scene, if their relations were reduced to such everyday pinpricks.

Apart from Russia and the United States, this would negatively affect the entire global system. In terms of Moscow’s reaction, we should keep in mind that it is the current president of the G20. In 2014, Russia will assume the presidency of the G8, and it will head the BRICS group in 2015. Therefore, for a long time to come Russia will be able to play a very active role on the international scene, orchestrate international relations and become the main author of the agenda. Russia will have big opportunities, which should not be wasted on new legislation like the Dima Yakovlev Law, but on the contrary, take on the form of serious mutual projects.

Politicians need to see the wood for the trees

I believe that the lists which have been published will not influence the nature of bilateral relations, whose agenda includes very serious issues, including Syria, Iran, the situation around the Korean Peninsula and the economic situation, all the more so since Russia is president of the G20. Preparations for the St. Petersburg summit, which will be attended by the presidents of G20 economies, have entered their final stage. Prior to that, national leaders will meet at the upcoming G8 summit.

Of course, various factors will always hamper the smooth development of mutual relations. A good politician should be able to see the wood for the trees. This is also true of the Magnitsky List and the Dima Yakovlev Law. The task of politicians is to realize that Russian and US global interests coincide far more often than they oppose each other. 

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.