Magnitsky Bill and Russian National Interests

03.07.2012

Russia should operate based on its national interests. If Russian national interests require that certain U.S. officials are banned from entering Russia, then the Russian Foreign Ministry should do so because it’s in Russia’s national interests, and not because it’s a response to actions by the U.S. This passive aggressive position doesn’t suit Russia.

Valdaiclub.com interview with Nikolai Zlobin, Senior Fellow and Director of the Russia and Asia Programs at the World Security Institute in Washington, D.C., member of the Valdai Discussion Club.

What do you think is the likelihood that President Obama will veto the bill on visa sanctions against the Russians who are allegedly involved in human rights violations (the Magnitsky list)?

Vetoing this bill by the president of the United States is highly unlikely. The White House and the State Department have made an administrative decision with regard to this issue a long time ago. This list has been used by the State Department for a fairly long time, and these people are banned from entering the United States.

Many in the U.S. administration are saying that this move is more pro-Russian than anti-Russian. Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev have on many occasions stated the need to combat corruption. Therefore, the Americans are thus helping them by not letting in people who committed crimes in Russia and are seeking refuge abroad. These people will be unable to leave Russia and won’t be allowed to transfer their money, families or property to the United States.

If President Obama vetoes this bill, it will trigger a violent reaction in Congress, primarily among the Republicans, who are seeking to discredit his Russia policy, because he and his administration spearheaded this list. If Obama vetoes it, it will cause a huge wave of criticism.

Do you think the Magnitsky List will be expanded? When will the names on this list be disclosed?

Each country can decide who and when can cross its borders without providing any explanations. The fact that the list is being adopted by Congress as legislation makes it more stable. Otherwise, it could have been modified to accommodate internal instructions from U.S. officials. This will not happen to the Magnitsky List.

Once Congress passes the bill, they will no longer be able to keep the names on this list secret. Under the Freedom of Information Act, any journalist, including from Russia, will be able to request the names.

How will passing the Magnitsky bill affect Russian-American relations? What measures may the Russian Foreign Ministry take with regard to the United States?

First and foremost, retaliatory measures are bad politics. When you react to something, you are becoming a dependent figure and start following someone else’s agenda. This is not a good position for any country, especially Russia.

Second, Russia should operate based on its national interests. If Russian national interests require that certain U.S. officials are banned from entering Russia, then the Russian Foreign Ministry should do so because it’s in Russia’s national interests, and not because it’s a response to actions by the U.S. When it happens in a different way, as in this case, then a question arises as to why it wasn’t done earlier.

Third, the issue is being overdramatized. Several dozen people are denied U.S. entry visas, which is standard practice. Several dozen, hundred and even thousand people are blacklisted in Russia and can’t get entry visas to Russia. I don’t understand the logic of the Russian Foreign Ministry and the Russian establishment, who are trying to make visa issues a focal point in relations between two nuclear powers. Russia shouldn’t overstate the importance of this U.S. decision and act like someone whose feelings have been badly hurt. I am against all retaliatory actions, especially so with regard to such a trifling matter as visas and using such powerful instruments as the Foreign Ministry and State Duma. This passive aggressive position doesn’t suit Russia.

Some senators who enjoy the support of both the Republicans and Democrats in Congress, including John McCain and Ben Cardin, have said on many occasions that they would vote for repealing the Jackson-Vanick amendment only if the Magnitsky bill is passed. Is it likely that the Jackson-Vanick amendment will be repealed before Russia accedes to the WTO? Does Russia really need this amendment to be repealed?

Russia doesn’t care about this amendment. Each year, the U.S. president issues an order to suspend it for a term of one year. It exists only on paper. However, the situation has changed. In the past, Russia wanted this amendment to be repealed. Ironically, if it’s not repealed officially, it will affect U.S. businesses, which will then have restricted access to the Russian market once Russia becomes a WTO member.

The problem is that there was no lobbying inside the United States for repealing this amendment before. When major U.S. businesses start realizing that they will be losing out to their European and Asian competitors, they will push to have this amendment repealed by Congress. Bear in mind that members of Congress and particularly Senators have their own agenda. They might come up with some conditional clauses, as was the case with chicken legs, division of fishing areas and so on.

Why is it that while the U.S. Senate is looking into the visa sanctions bill against the Russians who are allegedly implicated in human rights violations, U.S. visas are being issued to members of terrorist organisations? For example, Hani Noor Eldin, member of an Egyptian organization that is deemed a terrorist organization in the United States, was issued a U.S. visa at the end of June.

Foreign policy is a sophisticated tool and there can be no cookie-cutter solutions for all situations. I am always against criticizing any country for using multiple standards in its foreign policy. Multiple standards can be called a reality of foreign policy. If Americans pursue a particular policy in Egypt, then it’s quite possible that they want to talk with various political forces and try to turn foes into friends. They are good at it. However, they are good at making foes out of former friends as well. Therefore, I believe that visas are as much part of the U.S. foreign policy as pipelines are of the Russian foreign policy. I don’t see any problem with flexible and possibly controversial U.S. visa policies.

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

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