Vlad the Violator

Experts criticize human rights violations of Russian president

Vladimir Putin / AP

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The United States and other Western nations should be doing more to respond to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s human rights violations, members of Congress and foreign policy experts said Monday during a United States-Russia relations event hosted by the Foreign Policy Initiative, Freedom House, and the Institute of Modern Russia.

Rep. James McGovern (D., Mass.) said the current trial of dead Russian lawyer Sergei Magnitsky represents a "malevolent move" that makes "it clear that Russian leaders recognize that they no longer have the support of the people they govern, and so they must resort to scare tactics to try and keep the lid on dissent."

Magnitsky was killed while in a Moscow detention center in November 2009 after being imprisoned by Russian authorities. He claimed to have uncovered massive tax fraud that involved Russian government officials.

The Senate passed in December 2012 the Magnitsky Act, which applies visa sanctions to Russians who are believed to be engaged in human rights violations.

Senator Ben Cardin (D., Md.), who sponsored the Magnitsky Act, said the "objective is not to ban Russians from visiting the United States or using our banking system."

"The objective is to get Russia to do what is right for its citizens," he said.

The Russian government, led by President Putin, recently banned Russian children from being adopted by American parents in response to the Magnitsky Act.

The FPI event also featured two panels of Russian experts who analyzed the current situation in Russia and proposed how the West should respond to the humanitarian crisis since Putin’s reelection.

Putin has passed several resolutions since his reelection that suppress political dissent and negatively affect Russians, including the jailing of the band Pussy Riot, the decision to end cooperation with USAID, and approval of a new clamp down on pro-democracy groups and nonprofits.

The first panel, which consisted of two Russian politicians and a leading humanitarian, discussed the situation from a Russian point of view.

Dmitri Gudkov, a current member of the Duma, said he was "very grateful" for all American families who adopt Russian children. Gudkov was one of only eight Duma members to vote against the adoption ban.

Ludmila Alekseeva of the Moscow Helsinki Group, a Nobel Peace Prize candidate, talked about the difficulty that nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) are facing in Russia since Putin’s reelection.

Any NGO in Russia must declare itself as a foreign agent, which denies them access to bank accounts and office space in Russia.

Mikhail Kasyanov, the former prime minister of Russia, said Russian media and propaganda outlets work to equate the term "foreign agent" with "foreign spy." As a result, Russians are often unwilling to work with such groups.

Opposition to Putin is difficult due to the nation’s propaganda machine, said Kasyanov.

Gudkov, of the Duma, commented that the rise of the Internet is helping to spread non-propaganda news. However, this is leading to a crackdown of bloggers who write critically of the Russian government.

All the members agreed at the end of the first panel that the Magnitsky Act was speeding up change in the Russian government and that it is easy for the Russian people to understand.

The second panel said the West must take a firmer stance against Russia.

Kristiina Ojuland, a member of the European Parliament, suggested a trans-Atlantic system of targeted sanctions against the Russian government that would not hurt the Russian people.

Vice President of the European Parliament Edward McMillan-Scott said there must a strong working relationship with the U.S. Congress in fighting for human rights in Russia.

Lilia Shevtsova, of the Carnegie Endowment, suggested a transactional relationship with the Russians that would guarantee desirable results because Russians do not want to be preached to from the West.

Shevtsova also took the opportunity to criticize the Obama administration’s recent change to a so-called "patient diplomacy" that emphasizes a hands off approach to Russia.

President Barack Obama’s claim of "leading from behind" is the "perfect definition of this administration," Shevtsova said.

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