MOSCOW — The U.S. Senate voted 92-4 Thursday to impose visa and banking bans on Russian officials suspected of involvement in human rights violations.
Immediately after the Senate approved the American bill, known as the "Magnitsky Act," Russia’s Foreign Ministry immediately blasted the legislation and the vote as “theater of the absurd.”
“The act approved by the Senate will have a negative impact on prospects of our bilateral relations," the Foreign Ministry statement warned. "We have to remind hyperactive adversaries of normal development of Russian-U.S. relations that their effort looks poor. Nevertheless the Russian side will have to respond."
But, obscured by the rhetoric, there is a quiet undercurrent of Russian public sympathy for the “Magnitsky Act.”
The bill is named after Sergei Magnitsky, a 37-year-old Russian lawyer who was jailed and died in prison after he denounced what he called a criminal ring of officials who stole $250 million in tax money.
Two weeks ago, the Levada Center asked 1,596 Russians nationwide about the bill. About half of those contacted did not want to give their opinion. Of the other half, three-quarters supported American visa bans and bank account freezes on corrupt Russian officials.
Putin vs. People
Vladimir Ryzhkov, an opposition leader, says Russian President Vladimir Putin is on the wrong side of public opinion on the Magnitsky Act.
"If you take opinion polls, majority of Russian support Magnitsky Act,” he said in an interview. “It’s interesting because in this case, Putin is going against public opinion."
Ryzhkov says Russians are highly aware that public officials who steal government money routinely park their loot overseas.
"All these guys have property outside Russia, money outside Russia, shares outside Russia, and children who are in American universities and British universities,” said Ryzhkov, a former member of Russia’s Duma, or parliament. “And for them, it’s very sensitive."
The visa ban bill was tied to legislation ending an American restriction on trade with Russia that dates back to the Soviet era.
Four decades ago, the U.S. Congress adopted that law to force the Soviet Union to allow Jews to emigrate. Today, there is visa-free tourism between Israel and Russia.
Now, the U.S. Congress is telling Russia: we don’t want to be a playground for your unpunished criminals.
"People who are guilty of these things ought to go to jail,” said Jim McGovern, a Massachusetts Democra who co-authored the bill in the U.S. House of Representatives. “But if they are not going to go to jail in Russia, they ought not to have the privilege to take their kids to Disneyworld in the United States. Or use U.S. banks to hide their money."
McGovern and other American congressmen believe similar bans will be passed by parliaments closer to Russia - in Western Europe. About a dozen European parliaments are considering similar legislation.
"I am still not convinced the killers of Sergei Magnitsky will ever be brought to justice,” he said. “But they ought to know they will be held accountable in other parts of the world."
U.S. President Barack Obama is expected to sign the bill later this month. Russian diplomats are vowing a “tough” response to the United States.
But President Putin may face a dilemma. In public opinion polls, Russians increasingly say corruption is their top complaint against the government.
In response, Mr. Putin is overseeing an anti-corruption drive that has featured the arrests of several officials and the firing of the defense minister.
Ryzhkov says that, despite a barrage of hostile coverage by Russian state television, many Russians support bank and visa bans for officials suspected of corruption.
"It’s a pro-Russian act -- it’s not anti-Russian,” Ryzhkov said of the U.S. legislation. “It’s an anti-Putin act, anti-regime act, anti-elite, corrupted elite. It’s pro-Russian act for millions of Russians."
With an eye to public opinion polls, the Kremlin may decide to let the new American legislation get lost in the hubbub of Russia's upcoming Christmas and New Year’s holiday season.