The embezzlement case against Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny was so outlandish that even calling it a show trial was too generous. Navalny — anticorruption activist and candidate for mayor of Moscow — wasn’t allowed to present any witnesses. The judge, Sergei Blinov, has reportedly never found a defendant “not guilty” in his career. The abnormally harsh five-year sentence handed down Thursday came as a shock, and the judge’s decision to release Navalny on appeal after protests in several cities did not dispel that sentiment.
Navalny’s punishment for criticizing Putin follows another bizarre legal case: the recent posthumous conviction of Sergei L. Magnitsky, a lawyer who died in prison after exposing massive government tax fraud. For the Russian government, it wasn’t enough to arrest Magnitsky for blowing the whistle, or to engineer his death — as many suspect. Authorities took the extraordinary step of convicting him from the grave of the very crimes he sought to expose.
These cases, along with yet another investigation of financier-turned-Kremlin-critic Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who has already spent a decade in prison, signal the rapid deterioration of what freedom was left in Russia. They also highlight the need for a concerted effort by major democracies to raise pressure on Russia without fully alienating its leadership.
Now there is an effort underway to beef up the Magnitsky Act, passed last year in the wake of his death, which sanctions Russian officials believed to be linked to his case. Currently, 18 midlevel Russian bureaucrats have been barred from entering the United States. Any assets they have on US soil will be seized. US Representative James P. McGovern, the Worcester Democrat who championed the act, wants to expand the list of names to include higher-ranking Russian officials. “We know there are people close to Putin who are responsible for a lot of these abuses,” McGovern says. “The question is: Do human rights matter? If they do, we can’t be silent.”
But the Obama administration, which has been reluctant to add more names, has good reason to be hesitant. The Magnitsky Act so outraged Putin that he ended American adoptions of Russian children and slapped sanctions of his own on 18 former US officials involved in Guantanamo Bay.
The Obama administration, which has tried to “reset” relations with Russia, has been criticized for being too soft on Putin. But the United States needs Putin’s cooperation on many issues, including the attempt to stop Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon and the drawdown of US troops in Afghanistan, who rely on Russia’s Ulyanovsk air base. Even Magnitsky Act supporters acknowledge that it has harmed US-Russian relations without meaningfully improving human rights in Russia, at least so far.
The administration should proceed cautiously. Instead of operating alone to sanction Russian officials — a move reminiscent of the Cold War — the United States should focus on convincing European countries and Canada to pass “Magnitsky” sanctions of their own. That would give greater moral weight to the struggle to support people like Alexei Navalny. It would also be far more practical. Russian officials are more likely to travel to Europe and hold their assets there.