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Human Rights in Russian-U.S. Relations

New article of Dmitry Suslov is published on the site of Valdai Discussion Club

Dmitry Suslov is Deputy Director for Research at the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy, member of the Valdai Discussion Club.

Human Rights and U.S. Foreign Policy

Democracy and human rights have always been and will always remain high on the agenda of American foreign policy. Primarily, because of the specifics of the United States as a nation. It is not only a country, but also an idea. It is a nation committed to certain ideas and values that bring people together and form their identity. Especially so after America stopped being a white man’s country. U.S. foreign policy is unthinkable without ideology. The United States will never be a “normal” state in the eyes of adherents to realistic approaches in international relations. After all, the United States is the only clearly messianic state whose mission has remained unchanged since the late 18th century. This mission is about spreading freedom and democracy. Different tools have been used in carrying out this mission, but the mission has remained unchanged.

Just like any other messianic state focused on remaking the outside world to suit its vision, the United States accepts only one interpretation of democratic values and human rights – its own. A dialogue on this subject in bilateral relations with Washington invariably becomes a monologue, where the U.S. goes on to assess how democracy and human rights in a particular country stack up against the “model” ones available in the United States and what this particular country needs to do in order to get closer to the model parameters as quickly as possible. That’s a given and it will be there no matter what.

In this context, issues related to democracy and human rights will remain on the agenda of Russian-U.S. relations until Russia becomes a “full” democracy in the way America understands it, which we can safely assume will never happen.

It is important and necessary from the perspective of diplomatic prestige and self-respect to try to point out to the United States its own human rights failings and remind it that democracies come in different shapes. It is important to try to break this monologue and establish a dialogue, although it is very likely to be a conversation between the deaf and the mute. Countries that do not do that and readily agree with whatever the United States says cannot be considered independent. However, any attempts to change the way the United States thinks and acts are doomed to failure.

In this context, the inevitable argument with the United States regarding human values should be taken philosophically, as a ritual. If it is not in the best interests of both countries, then it should not be allowed to mar other aspects of the bilateral relations between them.

More often than not, the U.S. administration raises issues of human values in a dialogue with a particular country not because it really wants to improve things or believes that things can be turned around overnight by moral teachings, but because Congress requires it to do so. It is Congress that the administration reports to about its actions in the area of moral values, and most of its value-focused rhetoric is designed for domestic rather than international consumption.

As a rule, the rhetoric that comes in response from non-democratic (according to the U.S.) states follows along the same lines. A famous anecdotal Soviet cliché about racial discrimination directed against African Americans in the United States was part of the Soviet policy designed primarily for domestic consumption. And it is very similar to the current politicization of the abuse of adopted Russian children in the United States. Stories about Artyom Savelyev who was repatriated to Russia with a refusal note, the "Children's Ranch" in Montana, etc. became an integral (and very important) part of the overall anti-American rhetoric of the Russian authorities in late 2011-early 2012 and remain a significant part of Russia’s domestic information policy.

Since the human rights rhetoric on both sides focuses primarily on domestic policy, the sides can at any given moment decide, depending on their short-term interests, whether they should link it with other, more substantive aspects of their relations, or as is the case now, separate the ceremonial from reality.

Of course, the ideological basis of U.S. foreign policy does not mean that the United States is unable to assign a proper place or role to human rights issues, or choose the tone of discussion with a particular country depending on U.S. interests with regard to such a country at a particular point in time. The moral value component of U.S. foreign policy is intricately interwoven with American interests as they reinforce or occasionally weaken each other. Intertwined as they are with national interests, human rights issues are beginning to play an instrumental role in U.S. foreign policy and, by the same token, automatically become hostages to double standards.

To suit its interests, Washington may focus excessively or overstate problems in this area in unfriendly countries and, conversely, turn a blind eye to similar situations in countries it considers allies. The hushing up of human rights issues by the United States in the absolute monarchies of the Persian Gulf, which are much more backward in terms of supporting democratic values than the secular dictatorships in North Africa and the Middle East which were brought down by the Arab spring, is a clear case in point of these double standards. Especially given the active and unequivocal U.S. support for the rebels in hostile Arab countries affected by the revolutions, while it talks about freedom, progress and democracy. The complete silence by the U.S. government as it stood by and watched the Bahrain government ask Saudi Arabia to send in troops to suppress the Shiite uprising is a striking example. In this case, where “freedom, progress and democracy” would have made Bahrain an ally of Iran, the nemesis of the United States, interests instantly trumped any rhetoric about moral values.

Another example is when in the mid-2010s, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice spoke of the “growing authoritarianism” in Russia and praised Kazakhstan and its President-for-life Nazarbayev for being “a hope for  democracy in Central Asia.” It was a time when Washington sought to implement the strategy of Greater Central Asia, in which Astana was to play a key role.

By the same token, when its interests tell it to, the United States may turn up or bring down the level of rhetoric about human rights violations in a particular country. For example, in 2009, when the Obama administration was seeking to build a strategic partnership with China and to engage it as a co-ruler of the world as a responsible stakeholder (in fact, as an important, but still junior member of the American-style world order), it stopped criticizing China for human rights violations. When in late 2009 Beijing rejected Washington's advances, it came under a barrage of criticism on the subject. The Obama administration then went on to customize a new component of human rights specifically for China –  freedom of speech on the Internet, which has since become relevant not only for U.S.-China relations.

Finally, it is important to separate the interests of the administration from those of Congress in terms general U.S. human rights rhetoric. They do not always coincide. If the administration (in theory) is more guided by foreign policy interests, Congress decides on the importance of a particular country using three main criteria: the impact on the U.S. economy (voters’ job security), economic lobbying and ethnic lobbying. Therefore, any country at any point in time may become important to the administration (in its interpretation of American interests), and unimportant to Congress, which in this case may go all out in attacking the human rights situation in a particular country. That’s exactly how things stand in Russian-American relations right now.

The Reset and Human Rights

With all its domestic political liberalism and abundance of foreign policy liberals, the Obama administration is pursuing the most realistic and least ideology-driven foreign policy in U.S. history since the end of the Cold War. It was Washington's refusal to pursue an overly ideological foreign policy that has made the reset policy between the U.S. and Russia possible. Russian-U.S. relations were at their best in 2008-2011 since the early 1990s. The success of the reset policy was largely due to the significant tempering by the U.S. of its criticism of Russia on issues of democracy and human rights. Compared with George W. Bush’s presidency, especially his second term, criticism has virtually disappeared from the agenda, has stopped acting as an irritant and was maintained only as a ritual.

This does not mean, however, that the United States again, as it did in the first half of the 1990s, began to treat Russia as a “correctly democratizing” state. Although the Obama administration had hoped that President Dmitry Medvedev would give Russia a push in the right direction, it, just like the Bush administration, had no illusions about the nature of the Russian government. The difference is that the current administration, unlike the previous one, is building its policy (from the reset period onward) on the presumption that Russia is important to the U.S. It is important for promoting essential American interests, primarily in Afghanistan and Iran, on nuclear matters and in the Middle East. Cooperating with Russia in order to be able to pursue U.S. interests is more important than all-out criticism on human rights.

Congress is playing a totally different ball game. The Republicans started using the constructive policy pursued by the White House with regard to Russia as a chance to turn up the heat on the administration in an attempt to weaken the Democratic administration, accusing it of a betrayal of American interests and values and foreign policy weakness. Ignoring human rights violations in Russia by the administration was and still is one of the most frequent points of criticism. Democrats in Congress, with the exception of the administration’s closest allies, did not see any particular reason for avoiding criticizing Moscow on such a sensitive subject as human rights. In fact, the opposite was true. Russia is not that important for the American economy. In terms of elections, it makes more sense to put the boot into Russia in order to win the votes of immigrants from Eastern Europe.

It is not surprising therefore that Congress spearheaded the campaign on human rights issues in Russia during the reset policy. The main tool for this in the hands of Congress was the so-called Magnitsky bill, put forward by Democratic Senator Benjamin Cardin in 2010, which proposed introducing visa restrictions and economic sanctions against a group of Russian officials allegedly involved, as Mr.Cardin and his supporters believe, in the death of Hermitage Capital lawyer Sergei Magnitsky in a Moscow pretrial detention center in 2009. The adoption of the law could significantly dampen the political atmosphere of Russian-American relations, as it would be a pointed attack against Russia, delineate clear boundaries in the rapprochement with the United States and betray the persistent and strong anti-Russian sentiment on Capitol Hill.

In 2010 and especially in 2011, the Obama administration took several steps in order to stop the bill in its tracks. In addition to trying to talk senators and congressmen out of it, it went on to take some preemptive measures. In the summer of 2011, the State Department announced that it had drawn up its own list of Russian citizens allegedly involved in the case of Magnitsky, which mostly coincided with the one put together by Senator Cardin, and was introducing a visa ban against the people on this list. A few days later, the White House said that these measures were part of U.S. global policy to punish those involved in human rights violations around the world.

Although there was a predictable backlash from Moscow and there was talk about introducing a symmetrical response, the White House has in fact chosen the lesser of two evils. By announcing sanctions against the officials on the Magnitsky list, the administration stated that the passing of the Magnitsky bill by Congress would now be redundant and meaningless. This move was much less damaging for relations with Russia. First, the list compiled by the administration did not reveal any names. Secondly, it was declared part of a global policy rather than a targeted anti-Russian attack. As a result, the White House managed to put off the consideration of the Magnitsky bill in Congress by almost a year. It could not, however, remove it from the agenda altogether.

The issue resurfaced in 2012, when the Obama administration started promoting the abolition of the restrictive Jackson-Vanik amendment with regard to Russia as it was getting ready to join the WTO (by the way, the WTO accession was one of the main achievements of the reset policy in 2011). The White House sought to have this amendment repealed with no strings attached. However, this proved impossible. For the sake of settling political scores with the Democratic administration and accusing it of betraying American values and foreign policy weakness, the Republicans said that they would agree to it only if the outdated amendment of 1974 was replaced by new sanctions which had more relevance to the current human rights situation in Russia. The Magnitsky bill instantly became the number one contender for this role.

In the spring of 2012, those Republicans who believed that the Jackson-Vanik amendment could be repealed (some still oppose its repeal because they see it as a gift from the Obama administration to Russia) have formed a strong consensus that this can only occur in conjunction with the passing of the Magnitsky bill. Republicans do not  believe in establishing simple and straightforward trade relations with Russia. They have to be able to legally treat it as a country that grossly violates human rights and they want to have an appropriate sanctions facility, firstly because this will hurt the Obama administration and also because they believe that the White House is clearly overstating Moscow as a useful partner in promoting U.S. interests.

Democrats, with the exception of the White House's closest allies, have also become supporters of repealing the Jackson-Vanik amendment and the passing of the Magnitsky bill. Unlike the executive branch, they have nothing to lose by criticizing Russia and everything to gain. By May-June 2012, once the repealing of the Jackson-Vanik amendment had been tied in with the passing of the Magnitsky bill, a bipartisan consensus had formed in Congress. In fact, the Magnitsky bill has become the only issue in U.S. policy on Russia where Democrats and Republicans stand united.

Initially, the White House attempted to head this off by trying to convince  congressmen and senators that the unconditional abolition of an outdated amendment is beneficial primarily for the United States and is not a gift to Russia, whereas passing the Magnitsky bill is not necessary, since it only duplicates the measures already taken by the administration in 2011. However, this did not work out, and by the summer it became clear that the only way to repeal the Jackson-Vanik amendment was to do so in conjunction with the passing of the Magnitsky bill. As a result, the Obama administration, which remains uninterested in the excessive politicization of human rights issues in its dialogue with Moscow, attempted to minimize the fallout from the imminent passing of the Magnitsky bill by amending it through its friends in Congress.

It managed to achieve a great deal in dealing with this issue. First of all, it managed to agree on the drawing up of two lists with the names of the Russian citizens subject to visa and economic restrictions: one open and one classified. The right to take the names from the open list and put them on the classified one will belong to the administration, not Congress. As well as the right to exempt certain people from the effect of the law. In addition, the White House managed to reduce the anti-Russian orientation of this law by positioning it as the beginning of a global U.S. policy that reaches beyond Russia. In this form, the Magnitsky bill was passed by the relevant committees in the Senate and the House of Representatives.

In any case, despite the sincere desire of the White House to mitigate the politicization of human rights issues in its relations with Russia, the steady promotion of the Magnitsky bill in Congress (starting July, tied in a package with repealing the Jackson-Vanik amendment), restricts the political will in Moscow to build a partnership with Washington. It shows that the constructively minded and pragmatic Obama administration is at odds with the rest of the United States, and that the degree of anti-Russian sentiment in America and, in general, the level of indoctrination of its political elites, is very high. They will remain so for as long as Russia’s importance for America is recognized only by the executive branch, but not by Congress.

The period of the reset marked the first time ever that the United States and Russia adopted a relatively balanced approach to their discussions of human rights issues. Moscow has begun advancing corresponding claims to Washington, and not only for the sake of giving a symmetrical response. The Russian Foreign Ministry introduced a special post of human rights commissioner. However, whereas the criticism coming from the United States mainly focused on violations of the rights of Russians in Russia, Russia's criticism of America included claims regarding the violation of the rights of Russian people residing in America, in particular, of adopted children. These approaches are fundamentally different. Criticism on behalf of the United States was ideological in nature. The criticism coming from Moscow reflected Russia's desire to take care of its citizens, which is characteristic of a great power.

The main points of Russia’s criticism of the United States centered on the cases of Viktor Bout and Konstantin Yaroshenko, who were extradited to the United States in violation of international regulations and sentenced to 25 and 20 years in prison, respectively. In the case of Bout, the prosecution failed to present sufficient evidence of his guilt, and he was sentenced in violation of the presumption of innocence. The abuse of children from Russia adopted by American families has become another target for criticism.

The cases of Bout and Yaroshenko and the Magnitsky bill bring to light two systemic features of American policy that invariably annoy Moscow. This is in addition to America’s interfering in the internal affairs of other nations, which is so intrinsic to U.S. policy that it is not even worth mentioning. The first of these has to do with the extraterritorial application of U.S. domestic legislation.

The second relates to its irritating self-perception as the undisputed model nation and bearer of the ultimate truth, further aggravated by a complete disregard for legislative processes in other countries. The American jury and the New York federal court were entirely indifferent to the fact that there was no direct evidence against Viktor Bout. Senators and congressmen are completely unconcerned by the fact that the trial over the Magnitsky case is still going on in Russia, and that Sergei Magnitsky was arrested on completely legal grounds. The evidence was presented by members of the Federation Council to the American lawmakers in July. They simply ignored these facts. Visa and economic restrictions are being imposed against people whose guilt has not been proven, but who U.S. lawmakers believe are involved in corruption and in Magnitsky’s death.

Since it is important for American legislators to have a certain punitive instrument that they can use against Russia to convey their criticism of democracy and human rights in Russia without focusing too much on the way things really are in the country, as can be seen from the reaction of Congress to the visit of Russian senators in July, the likelihood of the Magnitsky bill not being passed is hovering somewhere around zero. Even more so since the process has gone too far and repealing the Jackson-Vanik amendment in a package together with passing the Magnitsky bill has already become law (the bill on repealing the amendment was adopted by the Senate Budget Committee and recommended for adoption by the House of Representatives precisely as a package). In the run-up to the November elections neither Congress nor for that matter the White House is going to walk away from the only thing that unites Democrats and Republicans in their policies toward Russia. The Magnitsky bill is likely to be passed in the fall in its milder revision which the White House managed to agree upon with Congress.

The fixation of the U.S. legislative and judicial systems on their own perspective and the long-standing tradition of the extraterritorial application of U.S. laws mean that the sentences handed out to Bout and Yaroshenko are unlikely to be mitigated, or their cases reconsidered. At the same time, it is likely that in order to keep the number of sticking points with Moscow to a minimum, the Obama administration will start trying to meet Russia halfway with regard to the Bout and Yaroshenko cases and, most likely, the parties will agree on their eventual extradition to Russia. Especially considering the fact that after the Magnitsky bill is passed, the White House will try to soften its relations with Russia on human rights issues.

The rights of adopted Russian children have a special place in Russian-American dialogue on human rights. Unlike in any other area of Russian-U.S. relations, this time the United States listened to Russia's demands and went on to sign a separate agreement laying down rules for adoption and providing the Russian government a means for tracking the fate of adopted children in the United States. This is a brilliant success of Russian diplomacy and an important milestone in resetting relations between the two countries. Russia has managed not only to impose its own interpretation of human rights issues on the U.S., which is in itself is a tremendous success, but also for the first time to use its domestic political agenda, which is sharply critical of the U.S., for achieving a positive success in its relations with the United States. Moreover, the agreement institutionalizes a balanced dialogue between Russia and the United States on human rights and sets a precedent for resolving other issues in a similar way. Admittedly, this will be a very tall order to actually implement.

Human Rights after the Reset: Realism continues

No fundamental changes in the Russian-American dialogue on human rights have occurred since Vladimir Putin returned to the presidential office in Russia. The White House is continually striving to reduce the politicization of human rights issues in its bilateral relations and to keep its criticism of Russia in this area to a minimum. Putin's comeback has not changed the dominant realistic approach to the foreign policy pursued by the Obama administration, which still seeks not to make relations with Russia dependent on its democratization. Illusions about Russia’s democratization in the foreseeable future have vanished altogether, and Russia is now perceived ideologically alien to everything that is American to an even greater degree than before. However, since Russia remains an extremely useful partner for the United States in Afghanistan, Iran, Syria and on some other matters (and will remain so during at least the next three years), it makes no sense for the United States to sharpen its focus on human rights in Russia if it wants to pursue a pragmatic policy.

Accordingly, the White House has stuck to its guns on issues such as the Magnitsky bill. Moreover, with the beginning of Vladimir Putin’s new presidential term, the White House has started showing even more restraint in this area. For example, its reaction to events that are so important in terms of Russia's political evolution and the human rights situation in the country, such as the adoption by Russia of the law on NGOs (foreign agents), the protest rallies and censorship on the Internet has been unprecedentedly mild. Especially so, if you compare it with the heated debates in Russia and the criticism coming from Russian human rights activists and opposition members. The U.S. response to the targeted measures recently taken by the Russian authorities against opposition leaders was similarly unassuming. The isolated and openly low-key statements being made by administration officials on this matter are nothing more than a nod to the election campaign and are mainly designed not to give the Republicans another opportunity of accusing the White House of betrayal.

In any case, the U.S. reaction to these laws and events bears no comparison to what was going on in the mid-2000s in response to the previous round of the tightening up of Russian legislation on NGOs and opposition parties and forces. The reaction might have been quite different this time round if a different administration was in the White House and if America was not so dependent on Russia in its dealings with Afghanistan.

Criticism by Congress of Russia on human rights issues will increase. This dependence is not very important for it (even the House Democrats almost unanimously supported the bill banning the acquisition of Russian helicopters by the Pentagon, although the White House is resolutely against the ban, which points to objective U.S. interests in such transactions). Congress and the Republicans in particular will invariably turn up the heat as the November elections draw closer. It is possible that Capitol Hill will decide to use other ways to support Russian NGOs in defiance of the newly-passed Russian law.

There are two scenarios under which all-out U.S. criticism of Russia on human rights, both from Congress and the administration, could intensify. First, if Mitt Romney wins the presidential elections America will return to a more ideology-based foreign policy, and cooperation with Moscow will lose its appeal in the eyes of the White House. The Republican presidential candidate has made it clear that he would bet on America's traditional allies, not on non-Western or undemocratic (from a Western perspective) countries, including Russia.

Secondly, even if Barack Obama wins the November elections, human rights issues may resurface on the agenda of Russian-American relations soon after 2014. By that time, the importance of Russia in promoting the interests of the United States will have significantly waned, and the White House will no longer have the same motivation not to endanger its cooperation with Moscow. By that time, the U.S. and NATO troops will have pulled out of Afghanistan (which is the main reason for the current U.S. dependence on Russia), and the problems of Iran, Syria and the Middle East will have been solved one way or another. Accordingly, the pragmatism, which today dictates that the White House avoid unnecessary politicization of human rights issues in its dialogue with Moscow, will push it to criticize Russia with a vengeance in 2015.

The article is published on the site of Valdai Discussion Club on August 24, 2012
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