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Misreading Magnitsky & Congress From Russia

Categories: Eastern & Central Europe, Russia, Digital Activism, Human Rights, International Relations, Law, Politics, RuNet Echo

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 [1], the Magnitsky Act would ban travel to the United States for government officials implicated in the death of Sergey Magnitsky [2], 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 [4] [ru] for Magnitsky Act passage) blogged [5] [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 [6] [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 [7] [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.