MOSCOW — Next week, the United States Senate is to take up the Magnitsky Act, a bill that would ban visas for, and freeze the bank accounts of, about 60 Russian officials believed to have been involved in the arrest and death of Sergei Magnitsky.
Reviled by Russian authorities, the legislation has become the touchstone in relations between the West and a newly nationalist Russia under Vladimir Putin.
Three years ago last week, Magnitsky, a 37-year-old Russian lawyer for an American investment fund, died in a Moscow jail cell. His defenders say he was jailed and killed for exposing the biggest tax fraud in modern Russian history. To this day, no one in Russia has been put on trial.
So last week, the US House of Representatives approved their version of the Magnitsky Act. The measure passed by 365 votes to 43, more than an 8-to-1 margin.
By the end of December, a version of the Magnitsky Act is expected to be signed by President Barack Obama.
Not so fast, say Russian officials.
“If this is supported by the executive branch, Russia will not leave it unanswered,” Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich told reporters in Moscow. “We will have to respond - and our response will be tough.”
The spokesman said that approval of this “anti-Russian law” would “inevitably have a negative impact on the entire range of Russian-US relations.”
The American legislation collides with new resistance from the Kremlin to pressure from the West.
Promoting nationalism, Vladimir Putin is getting rid of programs he associates with the 1990s, a time when Russia was weak after the collapse of the Soviet Union. In recent months, the Kremlin announced it was ending the activities of the U.S. Agency for International Development [USAID] and the United Nations Children's Fund [UNICEF] in Russia, as well as a joint nuclear cooperation program with the United States.
Boris Kalyagin, a professor at Moscow's Higher School of Economics, speaks for many Russians when he wonders why the U.S. Congress is singling out Russia. He said that many other countries - Saudi Arabia, for example - violate human rights.
“Why a special law which humiliates, which insults Russians?” asks Kalyagin, who worked in the late 1990s as a Russian TV reporter in Washington. “In the heads of many Russians, this can only be Cold War thinking.”
For the last year, Russia’s state-controlled television has repeated the theme again and again that the West wants to weaken Russia.
David Satter is a Russia specialist at the Washington-based Hudson Institute.
“It is certainly true that these appeals to patriotism and to national chauvinism tend to be successful in Russia,” he said during a visit to Moscow. “But people in Russia are well aware of the corruption of the bureaucracy, they are well aware of the corruption of officials.”
This values gap between Russia’s rulers and the West seems destined to grow wider.
Next year, about one dozen parliaments in the European Union plan to consider similar visa and asset bans against Russian officials involved in the Magnitsky case.
Satter said this makes Russia’s ruling class nervous.
“This really undermines their security,” he said of corrupt government officials. “They would like a situation in which they are free to acquire money illegally and corruptly, and can leave Russia, and can freely spend it and enjoy it in the West.”
Meanwhile, the battle lines are drawn up.
With passage of the Magnitsky Act, a virtual certainty next month, Americans in Moscow now are waiting for the second shoe to drop - the Kremlin’s reprisals.