In 2007, a Russian businessman named Oleg Derapaska applied for a multiple-entry visa to enter the United States. Derapaska certainly had some impressive credentials—he is one of the richest men in Russia, with a fortune of $10.7 billion as of 2010, which he made initially by cornering Russia’s aluminum market. He is well traveled, and is the owner of a £25 million home in the Belgravia neighborhood of London. The State Department nevertheless turned him down (though it did grant him a one-time entry visa in 2009). Derapaska’s visa troubles stemmed from allegations that he also has close ties to Russia’s mafia, according to the Wall Street Journal and other news outlets. Although he has been seeking the multiple-entry visa ever since—last year, the Russian foreign ministry even hired the Endeavor Group, the same lobbying firm that represents Angelina Jolie, to help secure him one—so far his efforts have been futile.
Other Russian oligarchs and prominent officials may soon find themselves in a similarly tricky situation. Last September, Senator Ben Cardin introduced a little-heralded piece of legislation that would ban the issuance of visas to Russian officials implicated in the torture and death of a Moscow tax lawyer named Sergei Magnitsky in 2009. Magnitsky had exposed a ring of corrupt officials from the powerful interior ministry, in what is considered the biggest case of tax fraud in modern Russian history. For his troubles, he was tortured and kept in isolation in a Russian prison for a year before dying in police custody. Derapaska’s visa controversy, along with Cardin’s bill, hints at a long overdue shift in U.S. policy towards human rights abuses in Russia. For decades, the United States’ greatest efforts on behalf of human rights in the country have focused on pressuring it to allow its citizens the freedom to travel and emigrate. Now, it seems, one of the most effective things the United States could do might be the reverse: restricting the freedom to travel of its top human rights abusers.
At present, the only official means the U.S. has at its disposal to pressure Russia on human rights is a rather antiquated one. In 1972, Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson and Representative Charles Vanik came up with a novel response to the USSR’s refusal to allow Jews to leave for Israel or the United States. The Jackson-Vanik amendment said non-market economies that restricted or overly taxed their citizens who wished to emigrate would not get favored trade status with the United States. The measure drove the Soviet Union bananas—as well as the Nixon administration, which refused to sign it because of fears that it would undermine the rapprochement with the Soviet Union that became known as “détente.” Gerald Ford eventually approved the bill in 1975 only after it passed both chambers of Congress unanimously.
After the cold war ended, so too did much of the original reasoning behind Jackson-Vanik. Every president since George H.W. Bush, as part of the executive branch’s desire to get Congress to butt out of meddling in foreign affairs with Russia, has tried to get Congress to repeal the legislation, but there are two reasons why Congress has not yet done so. The first reason is somewhat obscure. The orthodox Jewish Lebovich community opposes lifting Jackson-Vanik until a collection of Jewish books that belonged to the Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson—and is currently held in Russia’s national library—is shipped to Crown Heights, Brooklyn. The group considers the books to be hostages, like the Jewish refuseniks of an earlier generation. (One Senate staffer tells me the Lebovich make sure to bring a young boy with them when they raise the issue with members of Congress. The message, this staffer says, is unspoken but clear: “See that kid in the corner fidgeting? He is going to be around for 70 years, and he won't rest until we have the Rebbe's library where it belongs.”)
The second—and probably more important—reason is that Congress has been loathe to give up its prerogative of exerting leverage, however oblique at this point, over the Russian government when it comes to human rights. The way it works is that, even though Russians are now generally free to leave their country, Congress still exerts some sway through its custom of annually reviewing Russia’s policies towards its citizenry as part of what was initially a waiver process in the Jackson-Vanik amendment.
The Obama administration, as it turns out, has an additional motive for wanting an end to Jackson-Vanik: its push for a “reset” of the U.S.-Russia relationship that soured in George W. Bush’s second term. The first phase of the reset was the new START treaty, which was ratified by the United States in December; the second phase centers on getting Russia approved as a member of the World Trade Organization (WTO). The administration argues that, under WTO bylaws, U.S. businesses would be penalized if Jackson-Vanik remains law because states cannot impose de facto trade sanctions of this nature on other states in the WTO.
Congress, however, isn’t likely to get rid of the law without something to replace it. That’s where Cardin’s amendment comes in. “Logically the best solution to the problem would be to lift Jackson-Vanik while replacing it with a new legislative instrument that is more targeted and more relevant to Russia’s current situation,” says Tom Malinowski, the Washington director for Human Rights Watch.
Banning suspected human-rights abusers from traveling to America might seem like a mild form of punishment. But the visa bans have gotten the attention of the highest levels of the Russian government. At a press conference with Vice President Joe Biden earlier this year in Moscow, Vladimir Putin expressed his desire for visa-free travel between the United States and Russia. (Biden, at first, said it was a “good idea,” but then, upon realizing what he was agreeing to, backed off, noting this was not exactly his call.) The Russian press has run several stories about an alleged “Cardin List” of officials banned from traveling to the United States. Senator Cardin told me, “There is a list of people who are involved in the public corruption Magnitsky exposed and the problems of him being arrested and detained.”
Pavel Khodorkovsky, the son of Mikhail Khodorkovsky—a former Russian billionaire and rival of Vladimir Putin who was jailed in 2005 on what are seen as politicized charges—says the Cardin approach can create real leverage with the oligarchs of Russia. “The reason this is effective is because the guys who are responsible for these kinds of crimes like to spend their money in the west,” he said.
Inside the Obama administration, Cardin’s amendment has garnered a lukewarm reception. Michael McFaul, the senior director for Russia at the National Security Council, is widely seen by human rights hawks in Congress as their main ally in the cause. He acknowledges that despite tangible advances in the U.S.–Russian relationship on arms control, civil society in Russia has deteriorated. “We actually agree with those in Congress who are concerned about the erosion of democracy in Russia,” he said in an interview, adding, “It was bad when we got here, but it is bad today.”
In principle, McFaul supports the idea of developing a new way to pressure Russia on human rights and democracy. “Jackson-Vanik is an outdated mechanism,” he says. “Let’s have an updated mechanism that is more appropriate for 2011.” McFaul said he has been in touch with Cardin about not only the Magnitsky case but the broader issue of visas for Russian officials suspected of human rights violations. Cardin called these talks “constructive.” But he added, “I have not gotten a comfort level yet that they are taking action.” McFaul in his interview made sure to say: “It is the case that some people from Russia are denied visas already through the authorities the president has, and for the kinds of activities described in the bill.”
The kinds of people who have been denied visas at times include oligarchs like Derapaska. If Cardin gets his way, the corrupt officials responsible for the murder of Magnitsky will also be barred from entering the United States. It remains to be seen if Congress will allow an old law that encouraged Moscow to let their citizens travel expire in exchange for a new law that restricts the travel of Russia’s most corrupt top officials.
Eli Lake is a contributing editor for The New Republic and national security correspondent for The Washington Times.