When it comes to Russian diplomacy, tit-for-tat is a natural reflex. We’ve seen it repeatedly from the expulsion of diplomats, awards given to Cold War spies, and peculiar analogies. While it’s all sadly childish, the measures usually don’t amount to anything meaningful or lasting.
However, the latest attempt at “asymmetric response,” as the Foreign Ministry likes to call it, is altogether more troubling. After a presidential declaration from Barack Obama that would put visa sanctions against certain Russian officials who had committed human rights abuses (ie, involvement in the Magnitsky and Khodorkovsky cases), as well as Sen. Cardin’s Magnitsky Act and other bills (S.1039), Russia is reportedly drawing up its own retaliatory list of U.S. citizens that would be forbidden from entering Russia.
According to a much discussed article in Kommersant, the Ministry has already cast a list of names for a visa blacklist which included U.S. officials linked to the cases of an alleged Russian arms dealer, Viktor Bout, and an alleged Russian drug smuggler, Konstantin Yaroshenko. Supposedly, in the minds of these officials, Bout and Yaroshenko are victims of injustice perpetrated by U.S. officials, serving as crass parables for figures such as Magnitsky and Khodorkovsky.
While the Russian version of the list hasn’t been made public and might not really exist in practice, the mentality behind this move is disturbing. On the one hand, why should the Russian government be working so hard to stand shoulder to shoulder with crooks like Artem Kuznetsov and Pavel Karpov, two of the fellows who stole $230 million from the Russian taxpayers? Isn’t there a very important difference between responsible members of government and the people who got wrapped up in a blatantly criminal corruption scheme? For the vast majority of Russian citizens, these visa blacklists would never affect them … in fact, it resembles one small shred of hope that those who abuse their power may one day find it more difficult to scurry away their stolen funds for retirement in exile.
Nobody in Russia is even pretending that what happened to Magnitsky wasn’t an unpunished crime of the highest order. Even the president’s own Human Rights Council has determined that the lawyer’s death was caused by prison brutality, and yet no one has been held accountable for it. The retaliatory list is in this sense a “joke” for the Foreign Ministry, pulling out the ridiculous cases of people like Bout and Yakemenko … it’s the same sickness on display when they rushed to protect Andrei Lugovoi from extradition, the hapless but sexy spies, or the parades of congratulations for other convicted killers. It makes you wonder: if Anders Brevik were Russian, would be elected to Duma by now?
It’s not so much that Russian bureaucrats aren’t aware of the problems faced by certain state institutions – it’s rather the eagerness to dismiss them as fictional inventions of their enemies mixed with some classic nationalism leads reaches positively delusional levels.
It is easy to understand how deeply annoying and insulting it is when another country – especially one with such profound human rights issues of its own – begins lecturing you on how to handle certain cases. But the Russian government’s response puts them in a position of coddling some very bad people and a dysfunctional system, while also sending the message that it’s open season on the whistleblowers (ie – a posthumous criminal case against Magnitsky, perhaps just to break his mother’s heart a few more times).
If they wanted to really shut up those arrogant yankees, there’s another measure they could have taken: actually prosecuting somebody responsible for damaging Russia with their corruption instead of defending convenient mobsters. Instead Russia’s government is asking their citizens to pretend like those who commit fraud from their position in the Interior Ministry are heroes and patriots, and those who trafficked in guns and drugs are victims. It’s hard to know what’s more troubling – that we can’t take this government seriously, or that they no longer care.