Congress is avoiding decisive action on human rights policy in Russia because it’s darn awkward to be seen rewarding Russia when it so blatantly continues its assault on the basic human rights of its citizens. Even if Jackson-Vanik is replaced by the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act of 2012, Congress will have to wrestle with the question of what the U.S. can do to influence anything that goes on in Putin’s country. The recent crackdown against civil society groups and opposition forces in Russia is exemplified by this summer’s restrictive legislative efforts, the legal charges filed against the anticorruption blogger Aleksei Navalny, and the ongoing absurd trial of the anarchist punks from Pussy Riot.
Neither the United States nor its democratic allies will change Russia. Real change there must, and has always, come from within. Yet Russia’s domestic human rights policies should be a major concern for any government or business engaged there. We know from our Russian civil society partners that the more members of Congress, State Department officials, Human Rights First, Microsoft Corporation – or the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Madonna, for that matter -- speak out against draconian laws and practices, the better.

While House Republicans and President Obama are blamed for stalling the Magnitsky legislation, the most difficult questions about the proposed bill—whether it should apply to all human rights violators around the world and how one’s suitability for targeted economic sanctions and a visa ban is established—remain unanswered. If Congress is serious about passing a workable and useful bill, these issues must be worked out first. Members should take into account the multiple interests in PNTR, including the media’s demands or the threat of financial losses incurred by U.S. businesses due to the delay in granting Russia Permanent Normal Trade Relations. 

The Magnitsky Act’s strong bipartisan support indicates Congress’ willingness to promote accountability and confront impunity in Russia. This is valid and should be fully addressed. When passed, the Magnitsky Act alone will not suffice to improve Russia’s record on human rights and democracy. But the Act can be part of a broader strategy to engage the Kremlin in continuous dialogue.
The United States should employ a variety of tools in dealing with the Kremlin, and sanctions prescribed in the Magnitsky Act are but one important lever to press for accountability in cases of serious human rights violations. In addition to seeking ways to expand ties between U.S. and Russian civil society, business, and tech communities, the administration should promote and improve the work of the U.S.-Russia Bilateral Presidential Commission and its Working Group on Civil Society. This work has gone largely unnoticed by Congress, and it should be periodically evaluated by the members responsible for foreign policy matters. 

Congress should also act quickly to approve the Administration’s $50 million request to establish a Civil Society Fund for Russian NGOs, while ensuring that the Russian people know the truth about America’s extensive funding of economic, military, and nuclear projects in Russia to offset the stigmatization of NGOs by the new “foreign agents” act. The law has gone in effect, and it requires all of our partners and colleagues in Russia to register as “foreign agents” starting January 1. Congress can send a strong message by raising its financial support to the Russian NGOs while also publicly questioning President Putin’s insistence that his law is based on the 1938 Foreign Agents Registration Unit (FARA).

An isolated and adversarial Russia could have disastrous consequences for U.S. national interests. It’s time the U.S. get this right and use all available levers of influence to do something about it.
Grekov is a program associate in Human Right First’s Fighting Discrimination Program.