BRUSSELS – Vladimir Putin’s return to the Kremlin as Russia’s president was always a foregone conclusion. But, when he is sworn in on May 7, he will retake formal charge of a country whose politics – even Putin’s own political future – has turned unpredictable.
Putin’s return to the presidency, following a period of de facto control as prime minister, was supposed to signify a reassuring continuation of “business as usual” – a strong, orderly state devoid of the potentially destabilizing effects of multiparty democracy and bickering politicians.
Instead, the Russian people have now challenged the status quo. Their reaction to Putin’s plan – from the announcement last September that President Dmitri Medvedev would stand aside for his mentor, to the deeply flawed parliamentary and presidential elections – and their accumulated resentment of Kremlin cronies’ massive enrichment, has placed pressure on Putin and the top-down system of government that he created.
How Putin, an astute politician, responds to that pressure will determine his political legacy. And the West’s response to Putin’s return to the presidency could have a marked effect on whether he presses for liberalizing reforms and survives, or follows his KGB-honed authoritarian instincts and stokes further protest.
Nothing illustrates Russia’s malaise under Putin better than the case of Sergei Magnitsky, a lawyer working for a British investment fund. He uncovered a massive tax fraud and alleged widespread collusion by the authorities. His reward for exposing this crime was to be imprisoned and mistreated until he died in mysterious circumstances. The Russian authorities are bizarrely continuing to prosecute him posthumously, as well as continuing to carry out the tax scams that he exposed.
The United States Congress is currently debating a law that would impose asset freezes and visa bans on the 60 people identified as having had some responsibility for Magnitsky's detention and death. Many of the law’s supporters want it to replace the so-called Jackson-Vanik amendment, a Cold War-era law that restricts US trade with Russia – and that the Obama administration is pushing to repeal. Such a change would be doubly beneficial: it would both enhance trade and hold to account people responsible for egregious human-rights abuses.
Meanwhile, in the United Kingdom, the House of Commons recently passed a resolution along the same lines as the proposed US legislation. London is a favorite destination for wealthy Russians, and the British government is now considering whether to support such an initiative, although there are indications that it will maintain an unofficial and unpublished list of the banned individuals in order to forestall legal challenges. In Ottawa, the Canadian parliament has called for similar measures, including asset freezes against those responsible for Magnitsky's death, as has the European Parliament, which has called for the European Union’s member states to take collective action.
Introducing such targeted sanctions would be an indisputable sign that the West will not compromise on its fundamental values – values that Putin’s Russia claims to share. It would also set a precedent that could be extended to all of those in Russia and other countries who regularly violate human rights, and not just those rights concerning physical inviolability.
For example, such measures could be extended to cover all of those who abuse the fundamental right of legal due process, such as the right to a fair trial. Doing so would highlight the famous case of former oil magnate Mikhail Khodorkovsky, whose political ambitions alone landed him in prison, and who has been declared, after a second trial, a prisoner of conscience by Amnesty International.
Such measures could also include the abuse of prisoners’ rights, such as the case of Khodorkovsky’s former legal counsel Vasily Alexanyan, who was denied treatment for HIV in jail, and was released only after the intervention of the European Court of Human Rights. Medvedev’s announcement one day after Putin’s election on March 5 that the Khodorkovsky case will be reviewed is a hopeful start.
Imposing travel sanctions on suspected human-rights abusers is a sensible and practical way forward. It would show that the West does not seek to punish Russia or Russians generally, but only those individuals about whose role in human-rights violations the West has good evidence. And it would remind Russia of its international legal obligations, specifically as a member of both the OSCE and the Council of Europe, which has 47 member states, including Russia and others who flout some its conventions.
In the past, Putin successfully marketed himself as a strongman, the epitome of stability, a guarantor against chaos. But now Putin’s style of government is Russia’s primary source of instability, as the country’s middle class takes to the streets in protest against the corruption and inefficiency of his rule. The West has an opportunity – and an obligation – to convince Putin that protecting his own interests requires profound and permanent democratic reform in Russia, starting with an unambiguous commitment to the rule of law. And Putin has a rare opportunity, as he begins his third term as President, to restore his deeply tarnished reputation.