Russian Blacklist Fight Lacks Courage and Conviction

Russian officials have gotten themselves worked up over the U.S. government’s public naming of 18 Russians it considers to be human-rights abusers. It’s hard to understand why.

The administration of President Barack Obama published the list last week, as required by a new U.S. law named after Sergei Magnitsky, a Russian lawyer who died in jail after trying to expose official corruption. Russia retaliated by publishing its own list of U.S. citizens who it believes have violated the rights of Russians. Both groups are barred entry to the offended countries.

The U.S. list looks as though it was drawn up reluctantly, with much effort not to offend Moscow. With only 18 names, it’s tiny compared with the more than 23,000 Russians who were denied nonimmigrant visas by U.S. consulates in 2012 (who in turn make up only 9.6 percent of the total 241,000 who applied). The list mostly includes the investigators, bureaucrats and prison officials implicated in the death of Magnitsky. None of the Russians on the list are particularly important: The highest-ranking official is Oleg Logunov, former deputy head of the Investigations Committee, the Russian equivalent of the FBI, now working as deputy to President Vladimir Putin’s envoy to Russia’s Northwestern Federal District.

Magnitsky, a lawyer for the Moscow firm Firestone Duncan, accused Russian officials of illegally obtaining a $230 million value-added-tax refund using the companies of his client, U.K. citizen Bill Browder’s Hermitage Fund. Magnitsky was then charged with tax fraud and put in jail, where he died at the age of 37 after being refused medical help. Browder went on a PR offensive, convincing U.S. legislators that they had to act against Russians guilty of human rights violations by passing the Magnitsky act.

The people on the U.S. list aren’t all untouchable in Russia. One of them, former tax official Olga Stepanova, is under investigation in Moscow for obtaining fraudulent tax refunds -- though not ones related to the Magnitsky case. Two more are hardly the kind of human rights violators the Magnitsky act targeted. Kazbek Dukuzov was accused of killing U.S. journalist Paul Klebnikov in 2004, acquitted and then sought again for the same crime. He is now on the run. Lecha Bogatyrev is sought for allegedly playing a part in a contract killing of a Russian citizen in Austria.

There’s also a classified part of the undesirables list. The daily Kommersant reported, citing a “source close to the U.S. administration,” that the secret list is “half the length” of the public list. According to the New York Times, Ramzan Kadyrov, head of the once-troubled and now expensively pacified region of Chechnya, is on the list.

Kadyrov reacted sarcastically to his reported inclusion. “I have never had the slightest desire to visit” the U.S., he wrote on Instagram. “A few months ago even my horse was not allowed to go there to take part in the races. The poor horse became sick with disappointment.”

Moscow’s official reaction was so hurt and indignant that one might think Putin, not Kadyrov, had been declared persona non grata. “These documents, the Magnitsky Act and the Magnitsky list, are examples of illegal documents,” thundered parliament speaker Sergei Naryshkin, according to the RIA Novosti news agency. “I am astonished that the legislators of a state that calls itself law-governed … can pass laws that violate fundamental jurisprudence.”

In the time-honored diplomatic tit-for-tat tradition, Russia’s list also includes 18 people: four involved with the Guantanamo prison and the legal justification of the use of torture there, and 14 others who handled the cases of two Russian citizens convicted of serious crimes in U.S. courts: pilot Konstantin Yaroshenko, sent to prison for 20 years for drug smuggling, and Viktor Bout, sentenced to 25 years for arms dealing.

“In every country there is a list of people whom that country does not want to admit” said presidential aide Yuri Ushakov, according to RIA Novosti. “We have one, the Americans have one, and these lists are, of course, much longer than 18 people. But no one has ever mentioned this publicly. This is something new in diplomacy and it goes against all the rules and norms that have been accepted for centuries.”

On April 15, U.S. President Barack Obama’s National Security Adviser Thomas Donilon visited Moscow and met with Ushakov. The latter said after the meeting that Washington’s signals were “positive” and that Putin would “pick them up,” RIA Novosti reported.

The Magnitsky case is not likely to turn into a major diplomatic quarrel on the scale of the 1986 free-for-all that resulted from the arrest of Russian diplomat Gennadi Zakharov in Washington. Back then, the Reagan administration expelled about 100 Soviets, and Mikhail Gorbachev’s Soviet Union withdrew all the Russian support staff from the U.S. Embassy and kicked out 10 diplomats.

Diplomats will, in most cases, find a way to mend fences and maintain their working relationships, including the cool but respectful interaction between Obama and Putin. It takes much less courage to play tit-for-tat than to admit that Magnitsky may have been right after all, and that the mid-ranking bureaucrats on the U.S. list did indeed steal hundreds of millions of dollars from Russia’s budget.

(Leonid Bershidsky, an editor and novelist, is Moscow correspondent for World View. Opinions expressed are his own.)

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