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Bill Could Complicate U.S.-Russia Relations


This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

Bipartisanship is rare on Capitol Hill these days but one bill is gaining support from both Republicans and Democrats. There's a problem, though, the Obama administration is leery of it.

As NPR's Michele Kelemen reports, the bill involves human rights abuses in Russia. And U.S. diplomats are worried it could complicate relations at a time when the U.S. needs Russia's backing on a range of issues.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Sergei Magnitsky was a lawyer who uncovered widespread corruption in Russia. And members of Congress, led by Maryland Democrat Ben Cardin, want Americans to know his story.

SENATOR BEN CARDIN: And what Sergei got for his efforts was an arrest, torture and death. It was outrageous.

KELEMEN: More outrageous, Senator Cardin says is the fact that Russian prosecutors have reopened a case against Sergei Magnitsky, who died three years ago in jail at the age of 37.

CARDIN: The people who were involved in his death were not prosecuted. Instead, some were promoted and given medals.

KELEMEN: Cardin told an audience at the Carnegie Endowment For International Peace this week that he's getting a lot of support for a bill named for Sergei Magnitsky; legislation that would punish human rights violators in Russia by naming and shaming them, denying them visas to come to the U.S. and freezing their assets.

Cardin brushed off criticism from Russia's foreign minister, who says the bill will hurt U.S./Russian relations.

CARDIN: I understand the strategic importance of Russia. But I also understand that if we're going to have the type of relationship with Russia, we have to stand up and point out the problems that they have today.

KELEMEN: Senator Cardin and many others on Capitol Hill see the bill as a good replacement for the Jackson-Vanik Amendment - Cold War legislation that linked U.S. trade to freedom of immigration for Soviet Jews. The Obama administration has been lobbying hard to get Congress to lift Jackson-Vanik so that U.S. companies can benefit from new trade opportunities in Russia.

AMBASSADOR MICHAEL MCFAUL: This is a no-brainer. The economic interests are obvious.

KELEMEN: That's the U.S. Ambassador to Russia, Michael McFaul, who spoke about the issue at the Peterson Institute last month. He sounded uneasy though about the Magnitsky bill, saying there are other ways to advocate for human rights in Russia.

MCFAUL: Gross human rights offenders should not have the opportunity to travel to the United States. We agree. And we agree so much that we've already taken those actions.

KELEMEN: At the urging of Congress, the administration did impose visa bans on Russians allegedly linked to the Magnitsky case. But privately, officials question how effective more expansive punitive measures will be.

Georgetown University Professor Angela Stent says there are legitimate questions to be discussed.

ANGELA STENT: Is public naming of people, is that more productive? Or is more behind the scenes and out of the public eye discussions about specific human rights cases, is that more productive?

KELEMEN: Lilia Shevtsova of the Carnegie Moscow Center has no doubts about this. In her view, the Obama administration's reset of relations with the Kremlin came at the Russian public's expense. And the Magnitsky bill is a chance to reset relations with Russian society.

DR. LILIA SHEVTSOVA: So, the United States have to choose which partner they will have and they would like to have good relations: the state in agony or the new Russia.

KELEMEN: The Senate Foreign Relations Committee is expected to take up the Sergei Magnitsky Accountability Act as early as next week.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.
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