Congress must take action to counter corruption by Russia

Congress must take action to counter corruption by Russia
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As if by miracle, after President Vladimir Putin announced the date for the vote on changes to the Russian constitution for tomorrow, the number of coronavirus cases across the country has started declining. Moreover, the regional governments have also started easing lockdowns, declaring that social interactions, including voting, are now safe for the public.

It is, of course, impossible to obtain verifiable information about the true extent of the pandemic and the effectiveness of the Russian response to the crisis. Putin will not allow facts demonstrating any health and security risks to jettison his opportunity to obtain permission to sit for another two terms of six years again, effectively making him president for life.

The Russian response to the pandemic moved from denial to draconian measures then back at dizzying speeds. Meanwhile, three doctors have mysteriously fallen out of hospital windows, and a doctor critical of the government was arrested in trying to deliver masks and other medical supplies to a local hospital, supposedly violating quarantine rules.

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More disturbingly, Moscow residents have been subjected to new forms of surveillance. On top of a network of street cameras and facial recognition software, they must use a government tracking app and a quick response code, giving the authorities access to a trove of personal data without any oversight. In the United States, the reports of such crackdowns in Russia and elsewhere have barely registered except for perhaps Hong Kong.

In a different era, the administration would seek to hold governments around the world accountable for authoritarianism disguised as a fight against the coronavirus. That is not the case this time. Lacking a strong international outcry, more than 300 journalists and opposition figures have been arrested in over 40 countries, such as Iran, India, Egypt, and Venezuela, for supposedly spreading “fake news” on the pandemic.

Chinese authorities have used the coronavirus to perfect the intrusive surveillance systems. President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines has given police “shoot to kill” orders for any people who resist quarantine measures. In Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan, authorities have enforced the lockdowns by welding doors of apartments to keep people inside.

If the administration is silent, Congress must act. Encouragingly, in recent years, members on both sides of the aisle have taken meaningful action to preserve critical alliances, sanction authoritarians, and fight against global kleptocracy. Congress has also boosted its international diplomacy efforts with the establishment of the Senate North Atlantic Treaty Organization Observers Group as well as the important House Diplomacy Caucus.

Even in an election year and amid a time of domestic turmoil in the United States, it remains important the legislative branch does not relent in such efforts. Besides shaping the conversation, Congress can direct, structure, and fund those federal actions needed to combat autocratic power grabs and coordinate such efforts with other similarly minded nations.

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Many lawmakers on Capitol Hill are rising to the occasion. The bipartisan Protecting Human Rights During Pandemic Act, introduced in the Senate with a parallel version in the House, can get the United States back into the game of defending democracy, human rights, and the rule of law. If adopted, the bill would require the State Department and United States Agency for International Development to prepare an explicit strategy for democracy promotion and respond to the authoritarian practices and human rights abuses around the world that occur in the pandemic.

The administration would be required to monitor such developments and, after the pandemic ends, it would submit a report to Congress detailing problematic measures taken by countries around the world, as well as its responses, including sanctions. The legislation also authorizes the State Department to provide available funds to civil society to help respond to the authoritarian power grabs and rollbacks of individual freedoms.

Broad political support in the House has coalesced around legislation that would fight corruption of many autocratic governments. The Countering Russian and Other Overseas Kleptocracy Act, which is also known as the Crook Act, would establish a fund from the fines collected from American businesses engaged in corruption in other countries under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. The proceeds would be used for programs which support democracy, the rule of law, and efforts to fight corruption.

The Crook Act would also consolidate the structure of American efforts to promote the rule of law overseas by better coordinating interagency work and having a shared strategic outlook for the government. Together with the appropriations process over the next year, these bipartisan proposals provide the opening for placing the United States back into its leadership position as a defender of democratic institutions around the world. Here is to hoping that Congress does not squander this great opportunity.

Dalibor Rohac is a resident scholar with the American Enterprise Institute. Melissa Hooper is foreign policy advocacy director at Human Rights First.