Will the Magnitsky bill “replace” the Jackson-Vanik amendment?

(This piece originally appeared on Russia Beyond the Headlines)

A piece of legislation is moving through the U.S. Congress. If adopted, it’s likely to further damage U.S.-Russia relations and, as some analysts predict, may even serve as the fatal blow to the Obama administration’s policy of “reset” with Russia.

The legislation in question, the Magnitsky bill, bears the name of Sergei Magnitsky, a tax attorney who died under suspicious circumstances in police custody in Moscow in 2009. After accusing a number of Russian law-enforcement officials of embezzling funds from the state treasury, Magnitsky was arrested and held in detention without trial for almost a year. While in prison, Magnitsky repeatedly complained of worsening health conditions, but received no medical treatment.

It’s hard to see how American national interests were damaged in the Magnitsky case. Yet last year, Sen. Ben Cardin (Democrat-Maryland) introduced a bill, S. 1039, that would deny U.S. visas to and freeze financial assets in the U.S. of Russian officials implicated in Magnitsky’s death. This spring, a similar bill (H.R. 4405) was introduced in the House of Representatives.

From the very beginning, the Obama administration has been opposed to the Magnitsky bill, arguing that it would negatively affect U.S.-Russia relations. In a preventive measure of sorts, the State Department composed its own list of 60 individuals related to the Magnitsky case whose entry in the U.S. would be banned. With this list in place, the White House claimed that the Magnitsky bill was “redundant.” In a parallel track, the administration put pressure on the bill’s major sponsor, Sen. Cardin. This has worked: recently, Cardin came up with a modified version of the bill addressing some of the administration’s concerns. In particular, the updated version makes it more difficult to add names to the list of human right violators that the bill would create. The major contentious point is the identity of the people on the Magnitsky list: the State Department doesn’t want to disclose names of individuals it would ban from entering the U.S., while the Magnitsky bill would make the names of the “offenders” public. Now, the White House is actively pushing for a provision in the bill that would allow the State Department keep some names on the list confidential on the ground of “national security interests.”

In recent weeks, the Magnitsky bill has come to the forefront of congressional attention – the reason is Russia’s upcoming accession to the World Trade Organization. Congress has to respond to Russia’s WTO membership by passing legislation granting Russia permanent normal trade relations (PNTR) status. Failure to grant Russia PNTR status will hurt the interests of U.S. multinational corporations, which risk losing business in Russia to their European and Japanese competitors.

Standing in the way of the PNTR status, however, is the Jackson-Vanik amendment, a notorious relic of the Cold War that still deprives Russia of the PNTR status as a punishment for restricting Jewish emigration in the 1970s. And here things get complicated. Congressional Republicans refuse to just repeal the Jackson-Vanik amendment; they insist that something else should be put in place to hold Moscow accountable for what they routinely describe as “human-rights abuses.”  Many consider the Magnitsky bill as a natural replacement for the Jackson-Vanik amendment.

The situation looks especially peculiar in the House of Representatives, where the Republicans hold a majority. On June 7, the Foreign Relations Committee of the House approved its version of the Magnitsky bill, clearing the way for the bill to be taken up by the full House. Characteristically, Committee Chairman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (Republican–Florida) has so far refused to schedule a hearing on the PNTR legislation. It is therefore possible that the House will adopt the Magnitsky bill without repealing the Jackson-Vanik amendment, a scenario that would be a nightmare for the White House.

In the Senate, with the Democrats in majority, events are developing more favorably to the administration. Recognizing political realities on the ground, Sen. Max Baucus (Democrat-Montana), whose Senate Finance Committee is in charge of passing the PNTR legislation, has proposed to link both bills: to pass the PNTR legislation – while simultaneously repealing the Jackson-Vanik amendment – along with passing the Magnitsky bill. This approach looks increasingly like a winning proposal, especially since Baucus secured the support of Sen. John McCain (Republican-Arizona), the leading anti-Russian voice in the Senate.

Meanwhile, on June 19, the Magnitsky bill was expected to be considered by another profile Senate committee, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. This hearing was postponed, and there were attempts in the Russian media to attribute the delay to the meeting between U.S. President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Los Cabos, Mexico. These speculations are completely ungrounded: the hearing delay was requested by a member of the committee who wanted some additional time to review the bill.

When speaking with journalists in Los Cabos, Putin downplayed the significance of the Magnitsky bill. This is exactly the right approach. The Magnitsky bill is not about human rights or corruption in Russia: it is about continued attempts by the anti-Russian lobby in America to humiliate Russia, to show it that it will never be treated as an equal partner to the U.S. The less Moscow pays attention to the bill, the sooner its uselessness will become obvious, even to its most ardent supporters.

About Eugene Ivanov

Eugene Ivanov is a PMI-certified Innovation Management Consultant who helps organizations increase the efficiency of their internal and external innovation programs.
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12 Responses to Will the Magnitsky bill “replace” the Jackson-Vanik amendment?

  1. Alex says:

    Hi, Eugene

    We discussed this many times previously & I believe, we have similar views on this issue. Just few remarks (since I read your post, I have to say something, right? 🙂

    re. your “the State Department doesn’t want to disclose names of individuals it would ban from entering the U.S ”
    Does not want like this ? http://www.csce.gov/index.cfm?Fuseaction=Files.Download&FileStore_id=1744 – the link comes from the official CSCE site, not from some paparazzi (or a boobsy Russian “spy”).

    A part of Cardin”s bill “extrajudicial killings, torture, or other human rights violations committed against individuals ..or to expose illegal activity carried out by officials of the government “ makes me think of Craig Murray http://www.craigmurray.org.uk/archives/2011/12/in-bed-with-lola-and-gulnara/ (look at the photo in the front post 🙂 & the links there – eg. http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2003/may/26/nickpatonwalsh as one of the examples).

    IMHO, the Russians should speak less about how they are going to respond – why tie your own hands? (besides there is the 1st rule of the hunter: the longer you wait, the bigger game you can shoot 🙂 . In that regard IMHO, Putin’s replies on the press-conference were just the right tone (I would’ve enjoyed if there were a little bit of poison, but his last remark could be just right portion).


    (and you don’t need to say “Amen” – I know that it is due:)

    • Eugene says:


      The CSCE is the Helsinki commission of which Cardin is Chairman. And he obviously wants to publish names. The DOS is another matter.

      Sure, you could also add pictures of Rumsfeld shaking hands with Saddam Hussein, and the McCain-Lieberman-Graham trio kissing Gaddafi. Realpolitics, what do you want?

      I agree that Putin’s recent reaction was right. On the other hand, if a year ago, Russia forcefully promised some really tough counter-measures, who knows, the final outcome could have been different.


      • Okan says:

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  2. Alex says:

    My post with two or three links in your spam

  3. iastreb says:

    I wonder if passage of the Magnitsky Bill in the US will actually have the effect of having more Russian capital stay at home (and thus finding more productive use). I wonder if that’s part of the reason why Putin pooh-poohed it Mexico.

    • Eugene says:

      Very good point. However, I suspect that business money has very little relations to the money earned by people that might go on the Magnitsky list. Still, very good point.


  4. A fine article as always Eugene. As I have said previously your writing about the Magnitsky list cannot be faulted and is actually outstanding.

    I do so hope some influential both in the US and Russia read your articles. Russia’s entry into the WTO was a great opportunity to build a strong commercial relationship between the two countries that would benefit both and which might eventually lead to an improvement in their political relations. That opportunity is being lost because of arrogant stupidity on the one side (the US) and numbing incompetence on the other (Russia).

    • Eugene says:

      Dear Alexander,

      Thank you as usual for your kind words. I do believe that Russia’s entry into the WTO will augment the undeniable achievements of the previous years, such as the New START and the 123 Agreement. The three are legal entities, and I hope they all will survive the short-term political turbulence caused by the particular configuration in the Kremlin vs White House (i.e. Putin vs. Obama/Romney). Or, as you shrewdly put it, the arrogant stupidity and numbing incompetence of the current administrations.


  5. George A. Marquart says:

    Most Americans sense that the assessment in this article is wrong, but they do not know why. The reason they don’t know why is because of the immutable law expressed in the saying at the top of Johnson’s Russia List, “”We don’t see things as they are, but as we are.”

    The fact is that the values of Russian society and American society are different. It is a fact that is difficult to accept, but essential to our understanding of the conflicts between Russia and the USA.

    Let us look at the “anti-Russian lobby.” There is no such thing. A lobby is an organization that is paid by certain people or companies to promote their interests. They all have to register. It is possible that there are people who understand a little bit about Russian history and they do not want the excesses that happened there to happen in our country. Moreover, because our country is founded on a universal idea, “We hold these truths to be self-evident …,” not on ethnic or geographic givens, we do not feel the necessity to limit our protests to malfeasance in our own country. You may be able to appreciate that, inasmuch as Internationalism was probably the most positive aspect of Soviet ideology.

    It is part of the value system of our society that when we are made aware of outrageous cruelty and injustice, whether in our own country or in another, we do what we can to bring the guilty ones to justice. That is all the Magnitsky Bill is. It is not some conspiracy of economic or political or imperialistic interests to harm Russia.

    Mr. Browder, the head of the Hermitage Fund, is quoted as saying, “”You can’t steal $230 million from the Russian budget without having very, very senior officials involved.” That is something few Americans understand, but almost every Russian does. At the same time, we Americans mistakenly believe that spokesmen for the Russian government always lie. We are wrong. Often they are scrupulously honest, but we cannot see it because of “what we are.” We all thought that it was a lie when Browder was not allowed into Russia as a threat to national security. But it was not. That is why Putin downplayed the importance of the Magnitsky Bill; he is the last person in the world who would want the truth to come out. But it will, as the truth about the Soviet regime is now being told by the survivors.

    George A. Marquart

    • Eugene says:

      Dear George,

      Thank you for your comment.

      Let me start with saying that you are completely wrong on the account of anti-Russian lobby. Sure, as much as I know, there is no an organization registered under the name of “Anti-Russian Lobby.” However, there is a lot of registered organizations — and I can point to a few, if you so wish — that explicitly express anti-Russian views. And yes, they are paid by people and organization that promote their own interests. If this is not a “lobby,” then I’d appreciate your explaining me what lobby is.

      Second, let me remind you that at certain point, William Browder was an ardent Putin’s fan — for as long as he’s been able to make money in Russia. Then, something happen — and I leave it to others to explain what specifically — and he became a PRINCIPLED Putin’s critic. Then, Magnitsky died. Under normal circumstances, Browder would have to pay a hefty compensation to the Magnitsky family. However, if Browder could prove that it was the bloody Putin regime that was responsible for Magnitsky’s death, then obviously he didn’t have to pay a penny; moreover, he himself suddenly became a victim. That’s how the Magnitsky Act was borne — and all credits go to Sen. Cardin who was so willing to play for the fool in the process.

      Finally, as a supporter of universal values all around the world, you may appreciate my next post where I suggest making a few more lists in addition to the Magnitsky list. Unless, of course, you believe that the United States share more “values” with Pakistan that it does with Russia.

      Best Regards,

    • Alex says:

      The values of the two societies are in fact the same – they are Christian.

      What is different is the culture – in this context defined as a set of standard social behavioral patterns expressing the underlying values. Such as eg. (1) “linear” versus “circular” thinking – i.e. “one job at a time” vs. “let’s think of our actions in a broader (social) contexts” – and the related (2) priority of the “individual interests” – e.g. (sometimes subconscious) American belief that taking care of the individual interests, will automatically take care of the society’s. The differences in these two areas largely determine the problems in US-Russia inter-Governmental communication or international policies. Please, notice – problems do not exist between the two nations – it is the problem of communication between what supposed to be the representatives of them.

      At the same time, while there is no doubt that most Americans (as most Russians) do share the belief in “universal justice” – or Christian values, if you want, it is not everyone who does in both nations. Especially, among the big business. To assume that these people, having enough money and political clout cannot influence the political decisions on behalf of the whole nation, would be naive. And if what you mentioned as “something few Americans understand” is eg. Watergate scandal just to name one, then most Americans do not know their own recent history. They should.

      I absolutely agree with your observation “we Americans mistakenly believe that spokesmen for the Russian government always lie. We are wrong.” However,
      Re.:” as the truth about the Soviet regime is now being told by the survivors”
      “.. absolute truth exists only in the mind of God. We human beings are forever searching.”

  6. Maricruz says:

    You don\’t know history, Mark.Of cruose Jackson-Vanik had excellent effect. As has to be stated again and again because of this perspective you\’re articulating (not new), which the Russian government has been first to always promote (especially lately), while the numbers of emigration dipped after the first year, they went up again when the US remain firm in its resolve to keep it in effect and go through reviewing performance on an annual basis. The waiver process made it possible to hold hearings on not only emigration, which was all that was specifically addressed in the amendment, but on other human rights issues. Jewish emigration continued steadily for years afterwards. To look at the initial drop when the Russians tried to backlash with it is only a narrow slice of the history you have to look at its dramatic effect over the next decade. Jewish emigration would never have been resolved without it, because it was a demonstration of will that the Russians tried to break via Gromyko, who worked with Kissinger who opposed it to undermine it. It\’s really a contest to try to figure out which is more corrupt, Russia or Ukraine, but certainly Ukraine is no worse, and arguably has had more experience with more democracy whatever it\’s many problems.Indeed, all the Kremlin understands is resolve, and that is indeed what is required.Magnitsky isn\’t narcissism you appear unable to explain why a tax lawyer in a tax dispute, even if true, should be arrested, and then cynically tortured and allowed to die. The Magnitsky Act also addressed many other crimes, including those of Kadyrov, the strongman of the Chechen Republic. It\’s about impunity in general in Russia, which is a problem not only for human rights, but business.No one has ever questioned Magnitsky\’s status as a lawyer, this is a new twist. Where did you get that?The Magnitsky case is emblematic of everything that goes wrong in Russia, first for its own citizens, then for foreigners trying to deal with it. It\’s about callous cruelty, corruption, cover-ups, lack of due process, and that\’s worth addressing head on.

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