Finally, there is good news for politically disenfranchised liberals in Russia and for U.S.-Russian relations in the long run.
And that's not because of Russia's long-coveted admission to the World Trade Organization next month or the expected scrapping of a Cold War-era law restricting Russian trade with the United States.
Under the boot of Russian President Vladimir Putin for most of the past 12 years, Russian liberals looked with hope to the U.S. Congress to approve a new human-rights bill that would replace the old.
A bill that ties up the scrapping of the old provision -- the Jackson-Vanik Amendment -- with the adoption of the new one -- the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act -- was approved in a 24-0 vote earlier this month by the Senate Finance Committee, which gives hope that it will sail through the full Congress.
The 1974 Jackson-Vanik Amendment that denies Russia normal trade relations has been routinely waived by U.S. presidents since 1992, following the downfall of the Soviet Union in 1991. The Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act would deny American visas to corrupt officials and human-rights violators and freeze their U.S. bank accounts. Prompted by a notorious quarter-billion-dollar corruption scandal in Russia, the Magnitsky bill would cover all foreign nations.
A lawyer for Hermitage Capital Management, once the largest foreign investor in Russia, Mr. Magnitsky died in police custody on false charges of tax avoidance after he was arrested for alleging a $230 million state-orchestrated fraud that he had uncovered.
It is critical that the bill is passed despite opposition from the Kremlin and the White House, which is interested in keeping up appearances in this election year.
U.S. business groups also have lobbied against the adoption of the Magnitsky bill, heeding the Kremlin's threats that it would hurt U.S. relations and trade between the two countries.
The Kremlin is up in arms because the bill is designed to target corrupt Russian officials at all levels and is bound to be enforced.
Since corruption is systemic in Russia, the liberals are hoping the bill will split up Mr. Putin's entourage, some of whom may feel that they are becoming hostages of his quasi-totalitarian rule that's rooted in corruption and is designed to perpetuate it.
The hope is that the European Union passes a similar measure, which would effectively deny those involved in gross human-rights violations access to most of the free-world countries where most of the Russian elite keep their assets and educate their offspring. A split-up in the Russian political elite of Putin loyalists who also control Russia's most lucrative fossil fuel exporting companies would trigger a liberal political reform that would finally end the spoil-sport role the Kremlin is playing internationally, mainly for domestic purposes, blaming all Russia's ills on the West so as to better justify the hard line.
Ironically, it is in the interest of the United States to lift the Jackson-Vanik Amendment because WTO rules prohibit member states from restricting trade with one another. Besides, it would deny U.S. businesses unrestricted access to Russian markets that are now open to the rest of WTO counties. While the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act does not restrict trade with Russia, it goes after concrete individuals, lists of whom will be continuously updated.
It is critical that Congress doesn't waiver despite signals from the Kremlin that it would hit U.S. interests in the most vulnerable spots if the bill is passed.
In a telling media campaign, the Kremlin has been fanning rumors that Russia may finally deliver long-range S-300 missiles to Iran to fulfill a contract that was scrapped following a U.N. Security Council resolution of 2010 that bans such deliveries to the rogue state that Israel -- the critical U.S. ally in the Middle East -- sees as an existential threat.
Whether the Kremlin is bluffing or not, the question is whether the Congress is going to make the U.S. long-term national interest the priority by passing the bill.
Mike Sigov, a former Russian journalist in Moscow, is a U.S. citizen and a staff writer for the Blade.
Contact him at: email@example.com or 419-724-6089.