A U.S. visa ban for Russians implicated in the death of anti-corruption lawyer Sergei Magnitsky threatens to undermine the “reset” in relations between the two countries.
U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration barred several Russian officials from the U.S. for their roles in the death of Magnitsky, who advised London-based Hermitage Capital Management Ltd. before he died in a Moscow jail in 2009, the State Department in Washington said on July 27. Russia will retaliate, the Foreign Ministry in Moscow said.
The ban may harm Obama’s attempts to strengthen ties with Russia as his administration seeks cooperation on issues ranging from sanctions against Iran, North Korea and Libya to the transit of supplies to Afghanistan. Trade between the two countries rose 35 percent last year to $31.7 billion, according to the State Department.
“It appears that the reset policy is collapsing,” Ariel Cohen, a senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation, a Washington think tank that describes its mission as designing and promoting conservative public policies, said by phone yesterday. “The Obama administration is caught between a rock of realpolitik and a hard place of its and Congress’s human rights agendas.”
The dispute comes amid frustration at delays to Russia’s entry into the World Trade Organization and U.S. plans to place elements of a missile-defense system in eastern Europe. Russia will take “corresponding measures” in response to the visa ban, President Dmitry Medvedev’s spokeswoman, Natalia Timakova, said yesterday without providing details.
“The Russian side won’t leave such unfriendly steps without a response to defend the sovereignty of our country and the rights of Russian citizens against unjustified acts of foreign states,” the Foreign Ministry said in a statement published on its website July 27.
The State Department has no comment on Russia’s vow to retaliate for the visa ban, said Julie Reside, a spokeswoman.
“We’re following our own protocol in how we deal with this,” she said. “We expect to continue working with them on a range of issues.”
Magnitsky, a former partner at the U.S. law firm Firestone Duncan and a lawyer for Hermitage, once the biggest foreign investment fund in Russia, died in November 2009 after almost a year in pre-trial detention.
He said he was abused and denied medical treatment to force him to drop fraud allegations against Interior Ministry officials. Prosecutors this month opened an investigation of two prison officials, including a doctor, over Magnitsky’s death.
The State Department confirmed on July 27 that it imposed a ban on some Russian officials after an “extensive” probe.
“I know they’re trying to help,” Mikhail Fedotov, head of Medvedev’s human rights council, said by phone on July 27. “They could have helped us in a different way -- a way that wouldn’t cause friction.”
The ban came after U.S. senators including Republican John McCain of Arizona and independent Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut proposed legislation that would impose tougher sanctions, including a visa ban and asset freeze, on 60 named officials implicated in the Magnitsky case.
They are from the Federal Security Service, the main successor to the KGB, the Interior Ministry, Prosecutor General’s Office, Federal Tax Service and Federal Prison Service.
The Senate legislation would also target any Russian officials responsible for extra-judicial killings, torture or other gross human rights violations, with the aim of protecting whistle blowers who expose illegal activity by the government.
The Russian human rights council, which also investigated the Magnitsky case, presented Medvedev with its own list of those who may be responsible.
“This list is more frightening for people responsible for Magnitsky’s death because if it is put into practice, it will open a door to prison for them,” said Fedotov.
Vice President Joe Biden in February 2009 announced plans to “reset” relations with Russia. Later that year, Obama and Medvedev brokered a new strategic-arms reduction treaty. Biden said during a visit to Moscow in March that the two countries would expand cooperation to include economic issues such as U.S. support for Russia’s bid to join the WTO.
The “reset” has increased cooperation between the nations on a range of issues, including nuclear security and isolating Iran, Obama said May 26 after meeting with Medvedev at a summit of Group of Eight nations in Deauville, France. The two leaders have built an “outstanding relationship,” he said.
“We’ve always said that’s not going to be done at the expense of our basic principles, including human rights,” State Department spokesman Mark Toner said.
The two countries may face a new strain in relations after media reports of Russian involvement in a bombing near the U.S. Embassy in Georgia, said Fyodor Lukyanov, an analyst at the Council on Foreign & Defense Policy in Moscow.
U.S. intelligence agencies linked a Russian agent to bombings last year in Georgia, including one near the embassy, the New York Times reported today, citing an American official.
A Sept. 22 blast in a vacant lot about 200 feet (60 meters) from the embassy wall didn’t injure anyone or damage the embassy, the newspaper said.
The row over the visa ban is a product of increasing Congressional pressure on the Obama administration to toughen its stance toward Russia, said Andrew Kuchins, director of the Russia and Eurasia program at Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, yesterday by phone.
“It’s definitely an irritation,” he said. “There will be some tit-for-tat, but it wouldn’t be a big blow to the core issues that the Obama administration sees as important for the reset and what our interests are in cooperation with Russia.”