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Reset on the Ropes?

5:11 PM, Jun 14, 2011 • By DANIEL HALPER
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Earlier today, Republican Rep. Peter Roskam, deputy whip in the House, put out a statement signaling his support for the Justice for Sergei Magnitsky Act.

“As the Obama administration continues its efforts to ‘reset’ relations with Russia, the United States Congress can and must press for progress on democracy and rule of law in Russia,” said Congressman Peter Roskam. “Congress is considering legislation with bipartisan support that would impose targeted sanctions on Russian officials complicit in human rights and rule of law violations like the murder of Sergei Magnitsky, a lawyer working to uncover official corruption, and businessmen like Khodorkovsky. I plan to support such legislation and hope to see it become law.”

The Magnitsky Act, which has been introduced in the Senate by Democratic senator Ben Cardin with broad bipartisan support, including cosponsorship by leadership in both parties (Kyl and Durbin), has support from some of the usual suspects (Lieberman and McCain), and even some of the newest members (Blumenthal and Rubio). The bill would require the Obama administration to compile a list of officials and individuals in Russia who have been complicit in human rights and rule of law violations. Those who make the list would be blacklisted from entering the United States, and their assets and bank accounts in the United States would be frozen.

It’s the kind of smart sanctions the left is always calling for – but it’s also a very sensitive issue for the Russians (and the administration), to put it mildly.

Eli Lake had some good background on the issue in the New Republic, not long before the bill was introduced. “The reason this is effective is because the guys who are responsible for these kinds of crimes like to spend their money in the west,” Pavel Khodorkovsky, the son of the jailed Russian dissident, told Lake. And indeed, even as this bill was moving in the Senate, President Obama released a statement with his nominal Russian counterpart, Dimitry Medvedev, pledging U.S. support for a normalized visa regime between Russia and the United States. It’s clear that the Russians wanted Obama to pick a side.

Last week, Putin’s right-hand henchman came to town for a series of administration meetings, the subject of which has been the focus of much speculation. Leading Russian opposition figure Vladimir Kara-Murza offered the likeliest explanation:

Two weeks after a bipartisan group of US senators introduced a bill that would ban Russian human rights violators from entering the United States, one of the prime candidates for the blacklist hastily flew into Washington. Vladislav Surkov, the Kremlin’s longtime deputy chief of staff and one of the main architects of its authoritarian policies, arrived in DC on Monday—ostensibly to discuss the business of the US-Russia working group on civil society, cochaired from the American side by Michael McFaul, President Obama’s senior Russia adviser and soon-to-be ambassador in Moscow. Discussions were conducted in secrecy: no official comments or press releases were issued by either side, before or after the meeting. According to the sources of Moscow’s New Times magazine, the real reason for Mr. Surkov’s visit was the Kremlin’s concern over the Senate initiative.

If the Russians were concerned over the Senate-side action on the Magnitsky Act, they ought to be downright perturbed by the strong statement today from a member of the Republican leadership in the House. Whatever influence the Russians can bring to bear in the Senate by way of the Obama administration, a Republican House isn’t likely to spend a lot of time worrying about how this is legislation is going to affect President Obama’s precious reset. 

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