A year after Sergei Magnitsky died in pre-trial detention, The Economist notes, the counsel for the multibillion dollar Hermitage fund has become a symbol of the country’s mind-boggling corruption and injustice, and the Kremlin’s failure to change it.
Some human rights activists believe Magnitsky’s death was a result of ineptitude rather than a calculated execution.
Lyudmila Alexeyeva, head of the Moscow Helsinki Group, nevertheless demanded that investigators reveal the truth in a new autopsy report.
“I don’t think they intended to kill him. They wanted him to retract his telling testimony,” she told journalists. “He uncovered the theft of 5.4 billion rubles from the federal budget.”
The Obama administration today called for the prosecution of those responsible for his death.
“While we welcome President (Dmitri) Medvedev’s statements of support of judicial reform and the rule of law, we note with regret that no one has been charged in connection with this case despite a justice ministry investigation,” said State Department spokesman Philip Crowley.
Don’t hold your breath.
Russia’s Interior Ministry marked the anniversary of Magnitsky’s death by accusing him of the very crimes he exposed.
“Sergei Magnitsky discovered the fraud, blew the whistle, testified against the officials, and as a result was arrested and tortured to death in prison,” said former Hermitage chief William Browder, once Russia’s largest portfolio investor. “For these same officials to now accuse Magnitsky of the fraud himself has to be the most Kafkaesque statement I’ve ever heard. They are spitting on his grave after killing him.”
The case has prompted U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), chairman of the U.S. Helsinki Commission, to propose targeted sanctions against 60 Russian officials responsible for Magnitsky’s detention, an approach supported by leading human rights activists.
Supporters of the Obama administration’s reset of US-Russia relations object that the proposed legislation will damage bilateral relations, notes Freedom House executive director David J. Kramer.
“But the Russian judicial system’s blatant inadequacies and the regime’s corrupt, criminal nature should outweigh their qualms,” he writes.
But other analysts suggest that the most serious threat to the reset comes from the likely resurgence of former president Vladimir Putin and from Russia’s failure to respect the quid pro quo by matching US concessions.
It appears increasingly likely that Putin will challenge President Dmitri Medvedev and his strategic agenda “contradicts both the spirit and the letter of Medvedev’s tentative modernization-cum-liberalization, including the ‘reset’ in U.S.-Russian relations,” writes Leon Aron.
That presents Medvedev with a dilemma familiar to a putative “liberalizing leader of an authoritarian regime” – to be a Khrushchev or a Gorbachev:
He can continue to engage in occasional dismissals and piecemeal reforms–which will be vigorously resisted and effectively frustrated by the reactionary and corrupt nomenklatura bureaucracy–without touching the essence of Putinism. This route would likely result in a display of impotence and perhaps even an ignominious “retirement” in 2012. ……
Or Russia’s president could try to merge liberalization “from above” with the pent-up call for change from below by reaching out to the prodemocracy opposition and Russia’s new middle-class protesters, who turn out to call for more economic and political freedom and demand Putin’s resignation.
Irrespective of who sits in the Kremlin, the reset is in serious jeopardy, writes Russia analyst Stephen Blank. He contends that the US has ceded the democratization agenda in Russia’s self-defined sphere of influence without securing commensurate concessions from Moscow.
“This disengagement not only strengthens Russia’s contempt for democracy and provides an alibi for countless other authoritarians seeking to undermine U.S. policies,” he writes, “but also degrades American standing abroad and discomfits our allies while winning us no strategic benefits.”
He cites an analysis of Russian policy towards its neighbors that identifies “several, interrelated short-term strategies focusing on exercising ever-increasing influence in the politics of the target states……[amounting to] a gradual but unswerving drive to eventually regain dominance over the social, economic, and political affairs of what are to become entirely dependent client states.”
Clearly, Russia has its own interpretation of pushing the reset button, Blank argues: “getting a free hand to pursue policies that are in many respects fundamentally driven by anti-Americanism and its own sense of Great Power entitlement.”