This map shows where cargo bound for NATO troops coming in and out of Afghanistan passes through -- Russia. If the Magnitsy Act to deter impunity in abusive Russian officials doesn't pass, then Russia will have an even greater chokehold over us.
Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD) and Sen. Jon Kyle (R-AZ)have co-sponsored the Magnitsky bill to seek accountability for top Russian officials responsible for the death of Sergei Magnitsky, a Russian whistleblower tortured and left to die in pre-trial detention -- and other defenders of the rule of law in Russia and other countries.
As sanctions go, it isn't that ferocious -- it involves making a list of those responsible for human rights violations and not letting them have visas to come to the United States.
Unfortunately, in the protracted process of getting this piece of legislation passed, it has been watered down -- first, by hiding the list of those responsible for human rights violations -- the State Department insists that it remain classified so they have a free hand in diplomacy with Moscow -- and second by internationalizing the Russian problem and making it ultimately a bill about all countries. Even so, we should support it -- it's all we got between principled defense of human rights and handing the Russians the moral victory of removing Jackson-Vanik without any sense of obligation for the remainin institutionalized human rights problems.
These capitulations were both concessions to the Obama Administration which was terrified of dissing the Russians during the "reset". Officials worked furiously against the bill, and continue both to knock it and misrepresent Russian opposition attitudes toward it. Russian Amb. Michael McFaul has repeatedly characterized the Russian opposition as wanting to remove the application of Jackson-Vanik and grant Permanent Normal Trade Relations (PNTR, previously known as "most favoured nation" status) -- yet deliberately then leaves the story half-told there. He doesn't say that in fact opposition leaders have also demanded that the Magnitsky bill pass in tandem with the Jackson-Vanik motion. One Russian blogger summed it all up: he fears that the Magnitsky list is what is running Russia these days, and things are getting worse.
The "internationalization" of the problem is strange, given that Congress passes country-specific legislation all the time. But it likely comes from the the State Department's Department of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, which wants to avoid appearing to "gang up" on any one country or tie its hand in comfortable talks with any one country, and would prefer to universalize the issues. I'm really all for universality, but I'm for applying evenly and universally and going where the violations are. The gross violations are not in the Bahamas. They're in Russia. It's ok to single out and name and shame Russian officials.
Usually at this point some Twitter twerp tells you that the officials haven't been found guilty yet, so they shouldn't be shamed. Except...if you're the prosecutor in an alleged tax fraud case, and you're made the decision to put a law-firm's expert like Magnitsky in pre-trial tention, and then put the squeeze on him to get him to cooperate instead of claim that it's those officials themselves who are the fraudsters, hey, you deserve to be on a list. Visas to countries are privileges, not rights. Owning property or having assets in countries are universal human rights, they are subject to sanction if you are a human rights abuser. So the list should stay.
I don't know the Hill politics to know whether the "internationalization" of the bill in fact gets the back up of conservative Republicans who want to focus on Russia, or whether it will in fact help the nervous liberals who are more of a problem to buck up. Sen. John Kerry was worried, for example, that the US has its own problems with human rights and shouldn't be seen to "point the finger". Point away, I say, the other three fingers pointing back at you are your own country's vigorous litigators who work day and night to prevent or prosecute the kind of thing that happened to Magnitsky. No worries. What so many liberals can't concede in making moral equivalencies between US and Russian rights abuse is that America has the infrastructure to report and litigate such abuses; Russia does not. Difference!
Now, why is the Obama administration so galvanized to stop the Magnitsky Act, distract from it, delay it, and make it go away if only they can just get Jackson-Vanik removed as a "thorn in the Russian side."
I thought it was just old DSA-style politics with Obama personally not wanting to challenge Russia and feeling faintly as if there was something "progressive" about the Soviet Union and the Kremlin today, even. You know, favouring the line on the Kremlin's agitprop outlet for the US, RT, which is really warmed over Brezhnev-era anti-American propaganda that today, Vladimir Posner would be embarrassed to be flogging since he "parted with his illusions".
But silly me, always looking for reds under the beds, eh? There may be more than a strand of this old-style socialist politics floating around this discussion, but here's what's really going on:
60 percent of our cargo bound to and from the war in Afghanistan is now going through Russia.
Now, I follow the Northern Distribution Network very carefully. I even have a newsletter just on this subject. I used to write about on the subject occasionally for eurasianet.org and followed the sterling reporting of Deirdre Tynan who used to cover the NDN as her main topic. Perhaps all of us at eurasianet.org were prone to seeing the world too much through the lens of Central Asia and the Caucasus -- Russia isn't usually part of the beat there, except occasionally when it relates to the stans.
In peering at the wrong end of the telescope, if you will, where it bottlenecks in places like Uzbekistan at the Termez port and the railroad to Mazar-e-Sharif, or studying the re-fuels at the Ashgabat airport or the flights from Almaty or even the trucks through Tajikistan -- all supplemental to, and for a time even supplanting the route through Pakistan upon which the US depended, we would tend to forget the rest of the route and where it ran: Russia.
Once only five percent of this traffic ran through Russia; today it is 60% as McFaul reminds us in an interview in the Russian press recently.
While some might fear if we piss off the Russians by passing Magnitsky, they might choke of this route, Russia has a certain practical interest in the US withdrawing troops from the reason it views as within its sphere of influence.
While Russians like to be spiteful and unhelpful about Afghanistan, and rub it in about "lessons learned," in practice, they more or less cooperate with the US and NATO -- if anything, they complain about their own surging numbers of drug addicts and deaths when the US decides it should guard poppy fields instead of burn them for tactical reasons to win hearts and minds. But if Russia rattles its sabres and threatens to choke off this area merely because we want to do right by Magnitsky and other victims, it merely helps continue conflict -- a weakened and trapped America facing an unreformed Taliban isn't going to end the war but protract it, further destabilizing Central Asia and ultimately Russia. A weakened NATO in the last year of the war is a conflict generator if the regional powers don't cooperate, just like conflict has escalated in Syria because the US cannot find a way to act and Russian aids and abets Assad, and just like war has broken out again in Israel and Palestine at a time of American preoccupation with self-inflicted wounds and passivity in standing up to Hamas.
I was so startled that this Russia-dependency number had gone up considerably from when I had just looked at it a few months ago, that I asked McFaul if he were sure it was correct and whether he was really counting all that freight through Uzbekistan -- for the sake of which our government has prostrated itself to the dictator Islam
"Look at the map," he shrugged on Twitter -- and I looked again at a map I had studied many times (above). The reality is, the trips to Moscow and even Vladivostok that Hillary Clinton and others in the Administration have made all year are about exactly this 60%: getting the men out, and getting the heavy equipment out of the failed war in Afghanistan by 2014. I sometimes enteratain the thought impractically of whether we should leave equipment or even give it to countries in the area in exchange for better cooperation or behavior. But...it will end up in the wrong hands and these regimes don't stay bribed when the fix is put in -- they demand more.
So... just as Obama II starts, and we need a strong signal that the US Administration will adhere to human rights values that were very shaky on Russia in the last term with the ill-conceived "reset," we've got this 60% stranglehold factor. Will we really let it get to us?
Now, maybe there are slower, more expensive, and dangerous ways to get these things out -- it's mainly getting out that is the issue now -- but maybe they aren't real options. It's cheaper and easier and more prudent, say the realists, simply to friend Russia and do what it wants.
Clearly, one of the things it wanted among many was to get rid of USAID. USAID made the Kremlin feel like a third-world country. Google's Sergei Brin is rumoured to have called Russia "a third-world country with snow" -- he's never made the country of his birth a destination let alone home, and likely it's because of the way Jewish mathematicians like him were treated there in the Soviet era.
But snow or no snow, Russia wants to think of itself as a G8 member that doesn't need a hand-out. Perhaps that's why it filled EMERCON planes with blankets recently and sent them to the flood victims in New York and New Jersey. Great! I hope they send pododeyalniki! I hope they send them to our babushka who still has no power out in Seagate!
Now, why should we be afraid of the Russians swaggering like this? Of course we've followed all the bad things that have happened lately to demonstrators and opposition leaders, media and NGOs; the new law on foreign agents decided to harrass NGOs who get foreign funding as if they were spies and saboteurs. By not pushing back, the US is enabling further repression; in fact, while I believe that states like Russia always oppress human rights for their very own reasons and internal dynamics (unlike Human Rights Watch and others who craft a narrative of cause-and-effect between US wrongs and other countryies' wrongs), I do think that when the Kremlin feels a sense of impunity and a sense of no restraint, they are more abusive. That's just obvious from patterns of behaviour for decades.
If we forsake Magnitsky and the other victims of human rights abuses in Russia which range from NGOs now facing intimidation to threatened and beaten journalists to Central Asian workers suffering racist attacks to more than 400 disappeared persons in Chechnya, then we are enabling oppression. This oppression doesn't stay caged at home; it spills over into behaviour everywhere around the world. Russia is just as nasty to the UN Security Council as it is to its own demonstrators these days; it is taking an axe to long-established practice at the UN treaty bodies promoting human rights just as much as it is to its own Constitution. Abusiveness isn't compartmentalized, where you can get cooperation in one area while in other Russians are beating the crap out of someone; they will beat the crap out of you too, whether in business or sports or travel where you think there are no politics.
If Magnitsky doesn't pass because Obama's close friends and supporters on the Hill are too afraid to upset him and the Russians with criticism in the face of Moscow's outrageous howling over being called out, then it will not get better. We will not be stronger in facing their next round of abusiveness and outrageousness at home and abroad. Sadly, the Kremlin only understands principled strength in the fact of their awfulness. If there is still a strain of 1970s detente-nik thinking or 1980s freeze hopefulness or 1990s reforms in anything anyone is crafting to deal with Russia today, it's all wrong. All wrong.
Human rights legislation can't work miracles; it can't resurrect dead lawyers and human rights defenders from the grave or obtain justice for them. But it can deter. It can push back. It can say, "You can't get away with this so easily" at least in some expression of principle with a few sanctions.
Let's do at least that much for Russia's human rights victims, so we are not victimized ourselves in a hundred settings; it is in our self interest as well as the altruistic interest of the victims to pass a law that renders abusive officials unable to shop at Bloomingdale's or buy a ranch in Virginia.