The U.S. Senate passed a bill today that could totally derail relations with Russia.
The main bill itself is unlikely to be controversial in either country — finally normalizing US trade with Russia (now a member of the WTO) and ending the Cold War hangover.
But the Magnitsky Act, a human rights act intended to blacklist a number of allegedly corrupt officials from the US, has been viewed as an insult in Russia, and it has the potential to undo any goodwill created between the two nations.
The Magnitsky Act was named to honour Sergei Magnitsky, a Moscow-based lawyer for the Hermitage Fund, who claimed he had uncovered a huge tax fraud, before being arrested on controversial charges of his his own. Magnitsky died in prison in 2009 after neglect, poor sanitary conditions, and, by some reports, torture.
While Pussy Riot garnered more headlines, the Magnitsky case may be the best reason to criticise Russia’s human rights record, with Hermitage Capital’s Bill Browder leading the charge. The mysterious group of Russian officials behind the alleged fraud have been dubbed “Klyuev Group”, and a number of witnesses in the international cases against them have apparently dropped dead — including one just last month in the UK.
Russia has never shown much inclination to investigate Magnitsky’s death further, and officials view the Magnitsky Act — which aims to bar those suspected of involvement from the US — as an insult. Russian Prime Minister Dimitry Medvedev has said “It’s inadmissible when one country tries to dictate its will to another”, while President Vladimir Putin’s press secretary has said “an adequate response will be certainly forthcoming“.
There has been talk of a blacklist of US officials with links to Guantanamo Bay in response.
The bill now goes to Obama, who once had high hopes of a “reset” for US-Russia relations. If he signs it, we guess all talk of the “reset” may be over.