On March 21, David J. Kramer, President of Freedom House, testified before the House Foreign Affairs Committee about human rights abuses in Russia. Below are excerpts from his testimony at the hearing. The full testimony can be read here.
Against that backdrop, it should not be surprising that Putin oversees a regime that shows utter disregard for the human rights of its own people or for those in other countries, as evidenced most recently by its continued arms sales to the murderous Assad regime in Syria. For more than a decade, starting with the late Yeltsin period and then picking up speed when Putin came to power, Freedom House has been documenting Russia’s steep and steady decline in democracy and human rights. Freedom House findings chronicle a grim record of across-the-board decline during the Putin era, including in the areas of judicial independence, media freedom, anticorruption, and the election process. In our Freedom in the World and Freedom of the Press surveys, Russia is ranked Not Free.
Nonetheless, it has been heartening to see so many Russians turn out to protest against the status quo last December and into this year. Russian civil society has been stimulated in the past few months like nothing we have seen since the break-up of the USSR and is now trying to find its rightful place under extremely difficult conditions. This doesn't mean that democratic accountability for Russia is imminent. It does suggest, however, that American policy makers need to rethink some of the basic assumptions about the future direction of Russia. This should entail a renewed commitment to defending the rights of the NGO community in Russia and a determination to target gross human rights abusers through sanctions. Without these steps, any sort of meaningful democratic reform in Russia is hard to envision.
The chemistry that developed between Obama and Medvedev will not be replicated with Putin, and with Obama focused on his own reelection, The U.S-Russian relationship is unlikely to deliver much this year. With disagreements over missile defense and Syria, and possibly Iran, it would be a mistake to downplay our differences over human rights out of a false sense of hope that doing so might win Russia over on Syria, for example. Instead, the United States should stand unequivocally for democratic processes, rule of law, and respect for human rights. A U.S. policy – publicly and privately – that is consistent with American values is one that simultaneously supports democratic accountability in Russia. When Russian officials behave in blatantly undemocratic ways, as they did on December 4 and March 4 and in the lead-ups to both elections, they should not get a pass from the White House because of fear that criticism of their actions might upset the reset.
Let me now turn to a very important step the U.S. Congress should take: pass the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act of 2011.
The Magnitsky case has become a cause célèbre in the U.S. Congress and among many European parliamentarians because it exemplifies what is rotten in Russia. Jailed unjustly after alleging officers of Russia's Interior Ministry took part in a $230 million tax fraud against his client, Hermitage Capital, Magnitsky was murdered in jail after being beaten and denied medical treatment despite repeated pleas for help. House and Senate versions of the “Justice for Sergei Magnitsky” bill would impose a visa ban and asset freeze against Russian officials suspected of involvement in Magnitsky’s murder; the Senate version, which enjoys strong bipartisan support, looks to extend such measures to other human rights abuse cases in Russia as well.
The Magnitsky legislation has been connected with the recent debate and discussion about graduating Russia from the Jackson-Vanik Amendment. I have supported graduating Russia from the 1974 Jackson-Vanik for years, both when I was in the U.S. government and today. It served its purpose very well in promoting the emigration of Soviet Jews at the time, but it is legislation that no longer addresses current-day problems in Russia. I understand and agree with the arguments made by those in the business community who argue that not lifting Jackson-Vanik would hurt our companies. But I am not prepared to support graduating Russia from Jackson-Vanik in the absence of passing the Magnitsky legislation. It would send a terrible signal to lift Jackson-Vanik and have nothing to take its place. It would be perceived by the Kremlin as weakness on our part, a symbolic award to a Russian government undeserving of any such measures, and would undermine the very people in Russia whom we want to support.