Sergei’s Law

A Congressional victory for trade and human rights in U.S. relations with Russia.
By The Wall Street Journal
November 18, 2012

Bravo, Congress. Seriously. The House has earned this praise after Friday’s legislative victory for trade and human rights.

Passed with a rare bipartisan majority of 365 to 43, H.R. 6165 “normalizes” trade ties with Russia by retiring Jackson-Vanik, a landmark 1974 law that pressed the Soviet Union to liberalize Jewish emigration during the Cold War. The bill will let American investors take advantage of lower tariffs and better protections for intellectual property from Russia’s accession to the World Trade Organization this summer.

But the law will be forever and justly associated with Sergei Magnitsky. The House voted on the third anniversary of the anticorruption activist’s death in a Moscow jail, after months of torture and neglect. Title IV of the trade measure bans Russian officials who commit such abuses from traveling or banking in the U.S. The “Magnitsky Act” is the most consequential piece of human-rights legislation since Jackson-Vanik, and a worthy successor.

The law grew out of the tireless lobbying of William Browder, an American investor who employed Magnitsky, and the persistence of Senator Ben Cardin, the Maryland Democrat who introduced the bill in 2010. It went nowhere at first, as the Obama Administration opposed sanctions in the name of protecting its “reset” in relations with Russia, and Foreign Relations Chairman John Kerry did his best to kill the Magnitsky provision despite bipartisan support.

Mr. Cardin and Republican John McCain also kept pressing, and this year they overcame Democratic opposition by pairing Magnitsky with the trade bill overturning Jackson-Vanik, which is an Administration priority.

Perhaps the most convincing endorsement of Sergei’s law is the Kremlin’s apoplexy that it might pass. The Russian deputy foreign minister on Friday issued the latest threat of unspecified “tough” responses to Magnitsky. Russian diplomats have floated reciprocal visa and banking bans for American officials, some of whom would have to forgo that holiday on the Crimea.

The bluster is typical of a corrupt and repressive regime. As part of an intensifying crackdown on dissent since Vladimir Putin regained Russia’s presidency in May, the Kremlin has thrown out the U.S. Agency for International Development, which tried to promote democracy in Russia, arrested opposition leaders and squeezed NGOs.

Friday’s passage was a true bipartisan achievement. Majority Leader Eric Cantor and Ways and Means Chairman Dave Camp worked closely with Democrats Sander Levin, Steny Hoyer and Jim McGovern.

Now if the Senate leadership moves to a vote the week after Thanksgiving, Magnitsky can be the law of the land by December. Some of its Senate champions such as Democrats Carl Levin, Mr. Cardin and Republican Jon Kyl prefer their version of the Magnitsky law that would apply to any country-not merely to Russian officials, as in the House bill. Their intentions and leadership on human rights in this case are indisputable. Yet any new delays would most please Mr. Putin. The Senate can do the most good by promptly passing the House measure.