Misreading Magnitsky & Congress From Russia

Russian opposition bloggers were ecstatic on Saturday, after the United States House of Representatives passed the so-called Magnitsky Act with bipartisan support on November 16, 2012. Part of a comprehensive bill which would also repeal the Jackson-Vanik Amendment, the Magnitsky Act would ban travel to the United States for government officials implicated in the death of Sergey Magnitsky, a Russian lawyer who died in prison, allegedly because of torture. The Act is meant to punish these officials, since the circumstances of the case were not properly investigated by the Russian government. The Russian government reacted with a scathing statement criticizing such “meddling” in its internal affairs.

US Senator John McCain speak about Magnitsky at an OSCE summit. YouTube screenshot. November 17, 2012.

Never mind the official response — Russian bloggers covering the passage of the Act appear to regard it as a fait accompli. For example, opposition leader Boris Nemtsov (who along with historian Vladimir Kara-Murza actively lobbied [ru] for Magnitsky Act passage) blogged [ru]:

Закон этот принят только потому что в России уничтожено независимое правосудие. Когда оно будет восстановлено, я буду первым, кто будет настаивать на отмене Закона Магнитского.

This law was only adopted because Russia does not have an independent judiciary. When it will be reinstated, I will be the first to demand its repeal.

Oleg Kozyrev similarly blogged [ru]:

Все же у нас есть страна-друг. Это США. Конгресс США принял закон имени Магнитского. Европейские страны также должны дальше продвинуться в принятии этого закона, если действительно разделяют демократические ценности. Страны, не принявшие этого или подобного закона, не могут называть себя друзьями России, ибо друг слушает народ России, а недруг – только российских коррупционеров и отморозков из числа силовиков.

It appears that we do have a friendly country. It's the USA. The USA Congress has adopted the Magnitsky Act. European countries should also move ahead in passing this law, if they really share democratic values. Countries that haven't adopted this or similar law can't call themselves friends of Russia, since a friend listens to the people of Russia, while an enemy – only to corrupt Russian officials and thugs from the security forces.

Twitter user @uumich was even more forthright [ru]:

Палата представителей конгресса США приняла Закон Магнитского!!! Ну что, бляди, доигрались? И это только начало…

The USA House of Representatives adopted the Magnitsky Law!!! Well, bitches, got what you wanted? And that's just the beginning…

Unfortunately for Russian supporters of the Act, it's still far from becoming a law. Perhaps unfamiliarity with the US legislative process is to blame for the misconception that the Act has now “passed.” After all, Russian bloggers can only draw on the Russian system for comparison, and the Russian parliament is to all intents and purposes unicameral.

Back in the States, the Magnitsky Act will now head to the Senate for approval, where, although it has been reported on positively by the Senate Committee on Finance, it can still be filibustered by any single senator when it reaches the floor. Even if it passes the Senate, the Senate version of the bill will need to be reconciled with the House version. After that it will come to the President's desk — who can of course choose to veto the whole thing.

The fact that the Act passed in the House 365 to 43 means very little in terms of actual bi-partisan support. Republicans in Congress have long lobbied for the Act, while the Democratic administration has been neutral on the subject. Since the House is controlled by the Republicans, its passing was all but assured. This was helped along by the fact that voting for the Act was a cost-free way for House Democrats to make a political statement. (In general, once a bill has gathered enough support to pass, it tends to pass by a larger margin than registered support indicates, as congressmen try to cover their bases.)

Since the Democrats control both the Senate and the presidency, there are still plenty of points of failure for the Magnitsky Act, as long as the US administration chooses to pursue its policy of non-confrontation with the Kremlin.


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  • If you want to see how right Tselikov is about how Russians fail to understand the U.S. political system, you need go no further than his own failure to understand it as reflected in this article? Does Tselikov even know that Magnitsky is tied to the repeal of Jackson-Vanik, which is something the POTUS desperately wants and something his party supports? Is he aware that nobody thinks the POTUS will veto this law, and that there is no reason whatsoever to believe it won’t sail through the Senate just like it did the House? Does he REALLY believe that a 365-43 vote doesn’t mean anything about the support for the bill? He certainly doesn’t have the guts to go on record predicting that Magnitsky will falter in the Senate or be vetoed. So basically, what he’s written is hypocritical, arrogant gibberish.

    • agoodtreaty

      Kim, Andrey isn’t making any hard predictions precisely because of the contingency highlighted in this post. We welcome comments from readers, but it would be nice if you could actually *read* the posts before commenting. Your second question (did Andrey know that the Magnitsky Act is tied to Jackson-Vanik) boldly ignores the post’s second sentence. Read past the title: it helps.

      • agoodtreaty

        There is no basis for saying that the legislation isn’t a sure thing yet? What about the fact that it has only passed one of three hurdles? I suggest that you calm down, and appreciate the actual argument here: that many RuNet bloggers don’t seem to realize precisely how the U.S. system works. The argument is not that the Act will necessarily fail. It simply hasn’t succeeded yet. This isn’t speculation – it’s just the state of affairs right now.

        • Mark

          “What about the fact that it has only passed one of three hurdles?”

          I would have said that was a quite reasonable assumption. And oh, look!! Liberal lickspittle and opposition western toady Vladimir Kara-Murza thinks so, too! Except he thought the bill clearing the House Committee on Foreign Affairs was the first hurdle, which would mean at that point it had three to go rather than two, as Kevin sees it.


          I certainly wouldn’t have read Kara-Murza as a Putin sycophant. Once upon a time, La Russophobe didn’t think so, either.


          But, obviously, now he’s an utterly wretched, vacuous pseudo-journalist, just like Kevin. How are the mighty fallen.

          Be careful what you wish for, Kimbo. In fact, the assessment is exactly correct, and the legislation must still get past the Senate – which it probably will – and the President, which it also has a good chance of doing. But it has been enjoined with the Trade Bill which will grant Russia Permanent Normal Trade Relations (PNTR) with the USA. American businesses are extremely interested in getting this done before Russia joins the WTO, this year.


          If the President vetoes it because of the Magnitsky component, no Trade Bill, and no relaxation of trade barriers for American businesses although they will be relaxed for Europe. According to the NYT, the USA could stand to lose $19 billion over 5 years.


          Every member of the WTO must grant all other members PNTR. If this doesn’t get done, the U.S. will be in violation of WTO rules, and Russia would be within its rights to deny its markets to United States businesses. Quite apart from the possibility of doubling trade – or not – Russia is forecast to spend $500 Billion over the next 5 years on infrastructure improvements. American businesses could be a big part of that.


          Or not. Even if the bill passes and PNTR is granted – as it has to be, let’s not kid ourselves, it’s the law – but the Magnitsky bill passes along with it, I can’t see too many contracts going to American companies, and there is no WTO law that can force Russia to select them.

          • Oh, nonsense. I don’t see Russia sending back any of the Skolkovo checks or promises of investment from GM, Intel, IBM, etc. There’s plenty of business already with Russia. Right when USAID was being kicked out, GM was placing large investments. Trade during this period that Magnitsky was being debated has only gone UP as McFaul will be the first to tweet. All this silly scare talk of $19 billion is fake and hypothetical edge-casing. Regardless of what the US does or doesn’t do, Russia might take its infrastructure shopping to Germany or Turkey anyway as it has many times before. When Russia stops letting things happen like a company’s tax guy die in prison or a journalist get assassinated, business will take care of itself and improve when there is the rule of law. There isn’t now.

          • Mark

            Gosh; you seem to know more about business and trade than the American business lobby. You talk a good game, but have you any supporting figures which show trade between the USA and Russia growing during the period Magnitsky was being debated? I’m curious, because figures published by the Wall Street Journal – only last week – show both imports and exports dropping through 2012, imports by more than a third.


            Typically, the American business lobby is not a generator of “scare talk” when it reflects that they are the ones who are scared. Of course it’s hypothetical – if they could see into the future they’d provide exact figures. But if there were no risk, I can’t imagine they’d create one just to scare good Americans from doing their duty. I see also that there is pressure to expand Magnitsky to punish any Russian officials who are perceived to be acting to suppress the political opposition in Russia, such as Alexey Navalny, who was specifically mentioned although he does not even hold any elected office. I can’t imagine that being misused to influence Russian politics from afar.

            The CEO of Caterpillar was unequivocal when he said passing Magnitsky was likely to ruin Caterpillar’s business in Russia, which is considerable. There’s more competition than you think, America doesn’t manufacture as much itself as you think, and trade between the two countries isn’t as solid as you think.

          • Gosh, I get to have an opinion on this based on what officials say. McFaul has repeatedly tweeted that trade has INCREASED, so take up your beefs with him, I only know what I read in the newspapers. Perhaps the WSJ knows better, but I’d like to see this over time. Is is a natural fluctuation? Is it significant?

            I’ll bookmark this page and come back a year from now to see if Caterpillar’s business is “ruined”. But trying to prevent anyone’s tax lawyer — including Caterpillar’s — from winding up dead in pre-trial detention should be something even Caterpillar should care about.

            Why the trash talk about Navalny “not holding any elected office”? Where is that specifically mentioned? Not in the WSJ article linked. Or wait, trash talk implying that somebody is going to misuse Magnitsky to punish Navalny unfairly. Or…what exactly is it you are trying to say, Mark? Are you engaging in agent-of-influence type confusion tactics again? Why?

            For one, nobody has to be an elected official to have an influence. You aren’t either, yet you try to be influential. People in society get to have media and blogs and get to have political parties and social movements to try to influence things, you know? You don’t have to care for Navalny — I don’t — to appreciate this basic democratic truth.

            For another, the Magnitsky list doesn’t have to apply to *elected* officials but any official or person acting in official capacity — a state actor — violating human rights.

            For yet another, what weird contorted notion gave you the idea that American officials and Congress people are going to use Magnitsky to try to suppress people in the opposition they may come to dislike, or who may be found to suppress others or…gobbledy-gook.

            So let’s come to the point. In fact, it’s more than fine that the Magnitsky list is indeed open to future violations of human rights. These would be the kind of serious cases — deaths in detention, assassinations — that already prompted the Magnitsky Act in the first place, not every little thing.

          • Mark

            Boy, once you tuck a misconception under your arm and run with it, you’re like a fullback.

            I thought I was quite clear when I said “I see also that there is pressure to expand Magnitsky to punish any Russian officials who are perceived to be acting to suppress the political opposition in Russia, such as Alexey Navalny, who was specifically mentioned although he does not even hold any elected

            All right, let’s take it in small manageable bits. I said “I see there is pressure to expand Magnitsky”, because, there IS pressure to expand Magnitsky. As mentioned by Vladimir Frolov in the Russia Profile Experts Panel, in his introduction,

            “The bill originally sought to deny U.S. visas to and freeze the U.S. financial assets of Russian officials implicated in Magnitsky’s death. But its scope has been broadened, and now it says that if a Russian government official uses his or her position to illegally arrest or harm a journalist or a human rights activist, that person and his or her family will lose the privilege of traveling to the United States and keeping assets there. They will also be publicly named and shamed.”

            For the record, I think Mr. Frolov is premature and that this provision is not law. However, he says further down, “Another argument in favor of the Magnitsky Act is that by broadening its scope to cover other human rights violations, it becomes possible to punish those Russian government officials who may be responsible for persecuting the political opposition in Russia, including the leaders of Russia’s protest movement, such as Alexei Navalny.”


            Right about here is where your train of thought derailed. This provision is not sought so it could be used to punish Navalny, or any other opposition leader. It is sought to punish those who are perceived to be OPPRESSING Navalny, or other opposition leaders. This goes way beyond alleged human rights violations and crosses into political meddling to load the dice in favour of the opposition, a function once performed by busybody NGO’s.

            The Russian opposition is pressing for this expansion of Magnitsky.


            While Kasparov goes further, and says once the law is adopted, the opposition in Russia can provide lists to the U.S. government of officials it wants sanctioned.


            Are you disagreeing that Navalny is not an official holder of an elected office? Why must I supply proof of a negative? Would you like a list of elected officials for Russia, on which Navalny does not appear? The only position to which Navalny is “elected” is the manifestly silly playacting Coordinating Council, which was decided by online voting and in which only a tiny minority of the Russian electorate participated. It was not announced in accordance with Russian law as an official election, and was not inclusive, it violated election law six ways from Sunday, which is likely why it was so easily highjacked by Sergei Mavrodi.

            This IS in fact important, because Navalny has been elevated to a leading figure in the Russian opposition simply based on his irritant value, by the western chattering class. Therefore, those who would have the law changed argue that Russian officials who hold a government office should be targeted in order to protect non-officials who decide they would like to hold public office, but simply can’t be bothered with the fuss of an election. And the opposition will provide the names. So that the USA can blacklist them in an illegal procedure, in a country where it has no jurisdiction, finding them guilty by default without a trial.


            Stay classy, U.S.A.

        • It’s not like “how a bill becomes a law” is THAT hard to follow, and it’s not THAT different than the system of different readings in the Russian parliament.

        • As noted above, the Senate passed the law even more overwhelmingly than the House had done, and Obama meekly and instantly signed it. The only issue there ever was concerning this measure was whether the Republican-controlled House would pass it. When they did, it was over.


  • The US Senate has easily and overwhelming passed Magnitsky, by the stunning margin of 92-4, even more lopsided than the House. So the final word is in on the prognostications of this “expert” on the US Congress. http://www.freedomhouse.org/article/freedom-house-applauds-us-senate%E2%80%99s-passage-magnitsky-act

  • The Obama Administration was never “neutral” — it made very clear that it opposed the bill. Amb. McFaul tweeted openly against Magnitsky. Eventually the Administration filed a pro-forma statement of formal policy that constituted a tepid support, but it continued to lobby against it, and Obama supporter Sen. Kerry, who is tagged as possible Secretary of State, pushed hard against it, too, openly, using that same kind of moral-equivalency piety we see from Rothrock and you on Global Voices, namely that the US has “its own problems” and “shouldn’t point the finger” at Russia.

    Nonsense. The US has a viable court system and adversarial defense and a free media — Russia lacks all those things in sufficient strength to prevent and prosecute numerous abuses. Hence Magnitsky.

    And as you know it now passed in the Senate anyway, 92-4, because Sen. Cardin and others managed to keep Jackson-Vanik retirement and Magnitsky together and to prevent a return of the bill to the House over an artificially induced “internationalization”.

    But there’s still the president’s possible veto. And some of his “progressive” pals at the last minute have cooked up a Syria-related gambit to agitate people to stop the entire law again under the guise of concern about seeming to trade with the supporters of mass murder (we already trade with Russia even without these bills). Let’s hope Obama does the right thing here.

  • And for the final nail in this utterly vapid pseudo-analysis by Mr. Teselikov, Obama has signed the law without event. http://www.voanews.com/content/obama-signs-russia-trade-human-right-magnitsky-bill/1565274.html

    No apology, Kevin? No, didn’t think it would come.

  • […] these MPs be included in the list of Russian officials banned from travel to the US by the “Magnitsky Act.” […]

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