Kasparov: How Obama Can Support Russia and Oppose Putin

Garry Kasparov (archive photo). Source: Kasparov.ruIn his latest op-ed for the Wall Street Journal, Russian opposition leader Garry Kasparov stresses the urgency of passing the Magnitsky Act – a US Senate bill that would block entry to the country and freeze the assets of 60 Russian officials involved with the cover-up and murder of lawyer Sergei Magnitsky. In a significant move towards its eventual passage, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved the bill on Wednesday.

How Obama Can Support Russia and Oppose Putin
By Garry Kasparov
June 27, 2012

President Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin met for two hours last week during the Group of 20 summit in Los Cabos, Mexico. The meeting was described in the press as “chilly,” which is no surprise. For Mr. Obama, seeing Mr. Putin across from him was a concrete reminder that his administration’s “reset” policy has been a bust, that all the time spent promoting the fantasy of former president Dmitry Medvedev as a liberal alternative to Mr. Putin had been a waste.

Immediately prior to the G-20 summit, top Russian officials announced that Mr. Putin’s highest priority in meeting Mr. Obama would be the Magnitsky Act, a piece of pending U.S. legislation that would apply travel and financial sanctions against Russian functionaries complicit in the 2009 torture and murder of anticorruption lawyer Sergei Magnitsky. Critically, the act can also be extended to those who commit similar crimes.

This was a startling admission for the Putin regime to make. I have long promoted the idea of going after the money and travel privileges of the Kremlin loyalists who keep Mr. Putin’s criminal regime operational. The surprise was his in effect confessing how afraid of the act he is. He clearly felt it necessary to publicly reassure his rank and file that he would fight to protect their ill-gotten wealth and lifestyles.

Meanwhile, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is focused on improving trade relations with Russia, emphasizing the need to repeal the 1974 Jackson-Vanik Amendment, which prevents the U.S. from granting most-favored-nation status to countries that restrict emigration. In doing so she has argued that even the Russian opposition is in favor of repealing Jackson-Vanik.

This is a half-truth. We of the opposition are hardly of like mind on everything, but nearly all of us agree that it is important to replace the obsolete Jackson-Vanik Amendment with the Magnitsky Act instead of simply repealing it. The objective of such a law is to deter further human-rights violations in Russia by altering the climate of impunity.

Mr. Putin’s May 7 inauguration was followed by crackdowns against the pro-democracy movement, including raids on the homes of opposition leaders and their families and a massive raise in the fines and jail sentences for participating in demonstrations. While more than a dozen protesters are already behind bars, the raids and arrests continue. As ever, the application of the law is focused on punishing opposition activities that are supposed to be protected by the Russian constitution. The police and judiciary understand that by protecting Mr. Putin’s power, they gain ultimate immunity.

The Magnitsky Act would shake the foundation of Mr. Putin’s power base. It is less clear why the Obama administration has worked so hard to bury it. Abroad, Mr. Putin’s Russia continues to sell arms to the Assad dictatorship in Syria and generally do everything possible to keep the Middle East at a boil—the better to keep oil prices high.

In March, President Obama was overheard telling Mr. Medvedev he would have “more flexibility” to address Russian interests after his re-election. Yet Mr. Obama looks all too flexible already. Negotiating on trade or missile defense is all well and good, but when you put moral values on the table with a dictatorship you lose every time.

America should be siding with the Russian people, not with Mr. Putin. Russia is not America’s foe. We have much in common—struggles with radical Islam, concerns about Chinese influence and expansionism, real shared strategic interests. Mr. Putin’s Russia, on the other hand, is concerned only with power and the oil and gas profits needed to maintain it. Yes, a free Russia will compete with the U.S., but it will not be an unwavering adversary.

Ronald Reagan understood history and its lesson that appeasing dictators never works for long. By passing the Magnitsky Act, which was unanimously approved Tuesday by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the United States will be supporting the Russian people, strengthening democracy and the rule of law, and protecting its own long-term interests. Being “flexible” on these issues will only prove the old saying that by standing for nothing, you will fall for anything.

Mr. Kasparov is the leader of the Russian pro-democracy group the United Civil Front and chairman of the New York-based Human Rights Foundation. He lives in Moscow.

A version of this article appeared June 27, 2012, on page A17 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: How Obama Can Support Russia and Oppose Putin.