Magnitsky Act Backlash

On Friday, December 21, the Russian State Duma passed the anti-Magnitsky Act that if signed by President Vladimir Putin will take effect January 1, 2013. The anti-Magnitsky bill forbids dual US-Russian citizens from participating in foreign NGOs and will ban US adoption of Russian orphans, in addition to banning specific US citizens from entering Russia. Russian officials wish to create the Dima Yakovlev List in retaliation to the Magnitsky list to punish US officials implicated in human rights violations against Russians, including adopted children. The list is named after a Russian boy adopted by a US family who died after his family left him in a locked car.

The Russian bill was proposed in opposition to the US Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act passed December 6 to replace the Russia and Moldova Jackson-Vanik Repeal. The Magnitsky Act imposes asset freezes and visa bans on Russian officials suspected to be responsible for the death of Sergei Magnitsky, who accused the Russian IRS of tax fraud and later died in jail. However, the opposition fears that the Act will go beyond punishing only those officials implicated in Magnitsky’s death.

Critics of the Act say the list should not be open to additional names. Furthermore, they think the criteria for adding names to the list are too ambiguous and should require a more stringent legal process prior to addition. Moscow’s Levada Center says only 14 percent of Russians opposed the law while 39 percent supported it and 48 percent were undecided. Andrei Sidorov, Assistant Dean of the World Politics Faculty of the Moscow State University, calls the law patronizing and criticizes it for targeting economic relations with human rights rhetoric. Sidorov says, “The Magnitsky law reflects the interests of a lobby that seeks to prevent its competitor from coming onto the U.S. market.” Stephen Cohen, an NYU professor and expert on Russia, also warns that US corporations and Russian oligarchs will use the law to liquidate property and stifle the economic power that their Russian rivals have in the United States.

Masha Lipman, editor of the Moscow Carnegie Center‘s Pro et Contra journal suggests that although Russians dislike US interference “they hate their own officials more” and therefore welcome the accountability provided by the Magnitsky Act. Dmitry Lovetsky of AP illustrates a demonstrator holding a poster saying “Add Putin to the Magnitsky List” at a St. Petersburg rally last weekend.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, speaking at the International Parliamentary Forum this December, stressed that the Magnitsky Act was not passed diplomatically and will promote conflict in US-Russian relations. Oleg Ivanov of the Global Times fears that the current Magnitsky situation will incite negative repercussions for cooperation on terrorism, arms control, and non-proliferation, and will strengthen Russian-Chinese alliance on issues of sovereignty and non-interference. In order to address the concerns of critics of the Magnitsky Act and strengthen US-Russian relations, the US should offer specific criteria for adding names to the Magnitsky List and guarantee due process prior to the addition of names.

Julia A. Heath is an independent foreign policy analyst and educator.