How important is the vote in the Senate on Magnitsky Bill? Do you think that this is a significant step back in the relations between Russia and the US?
Well, Katya, obviously this is the development which comes as a major disappointment shortly after the reelection of President Obama who as you know set in motion the process of reset along with the then Russia’s President Dmitry Medvedev. In fact, past still matters in our relations and matters a lot. This is an unfortunate development but we can’t get rid of that reality. And I think that what we’ve seen last night when the Congress passed the Magnitsky Bill was another textbook example of how Cold War past can still not only loom over us, but determine today’s agenda.
Don’t you think that perhaps we are too preoccupied with the Cold War past? Don’t you think that perhaps there is some kind of more systemic negative approach from the West for Russia? Because, just let me explain, even before the socialist revolution here in this country we know that Russia has always been in a difficult relationship with most of the Western countries, though our monarchs were part of the pan-European monarch family.
Well, I don’t think that we are really preoccupied with the past. I don’t want just to speculate on Russia’s relations with the West because our discussion would be too general. I would prefer just mostly focus on Russian-American relations.
True! But perhaps that would offer us some kind of a more valid explanation of why would they need that.
Look, I will explain you how I see it. Actually, I’ve seen the reproduction of the same decision making process, the same logic, the same mentality which was implied in 1974 during the time of the Cold War when Congress passed the Jackson-Vanik amendment. So, what was the basic idea of that Jackson-Vanik amendment which really poisoned our relations for decades and decades, to be frank? The basic idea was just to punish Soviet Russia for not allowing Jews to immigrate to Israel by introducing certain restrictions on trade and economic relations with Russia.
But this is a long time story, I mean there is no such problem now.
Yes, this is a long time story but what I’m saying is that today the introduction of Magnitsky Bill, to me this is sort of a rebranding of the old Jackson-Vanik amendment idea.
But if at that time the Jackson-Vanik amendment could be comprehended at least, so, what is the issue now? Why would the US want to put pressure on Russia which does not present any kind of threat, neither to the US nor to the international community?
Well, I was struggling to understand the logic and I think that this is a more deep-seated problem. This is something which is related not only to Russian-American relations. These are the basic guidelines or the basic principles of the US policy towards its neighbours. And the key word here would be “lecturing”. Actually, this is the same logic and the mechanism which would be used in the relations with other countries which would be found by the US senators not sticking to the democratic rules and norms, not fully implementing rule of law and so on and so forth.
So, this is the case of lecturing and this is very sad. I started our discussion by referring to President Obama and the reset policy. I remember I was in the capacity of Kommersant staff-writer and I was interviewing President Obama’s advisor on Russia Mr. Michael McFaul before he was promoted Ambassador to Russia. And he told me that during Obama time we would not be in a position to lecture Russia. I have a recording with that. And I sighed with relief. Thank God, we will not see that war of words, we will not see that time when Congress… Do you remember how it was during George Bush time when the Congress was voicing the idea of expelling Russia from G8…
I don’t think it was actually a common voice of the whole Congress. Occasionally you get some kind of a congressman who would come up with the idea of that.
But anyway, I had a feeling that the time of lecturing has gone. So, today I woke up to discover that the time of lecturing has not gone and the textbook example is the Magnitsky Bill. You may ask me what is wrong with the senators voicing their concern over the investigation of Margnitsky case which was really a terrible thing. A decent lawyer died under unknown circumstances.
You may ask me - what is wrong with the Congress voicing their concern? And I will explain you. There is nothing wrong in explaining the concern. I think that by doing this the Congress has crossed a certain red line in a sense that one way you can just voice your concern in some legally nonbinding statements, you just make a political statement, this would be a political signal. And we are partners, so we expect those signals to come from Washington. But what we’ve seen? We’ve seen the Magnitsky act which is a law. So, it presumes that we are guilty, you see. There is no presumption of innocence.
It is funny, you know. Now, as you were talking, I suddenly remembered that the US exercised similar approach towards people like Muammar Gaddafi.
That’s what I’m saying. This is something more fundamental. This not only related to Russian-American relations.
That’s it! You are absolutely correct Sergey.
But for example, when your senators are saying that the investigation is not conducted in a proper manner – how do this know this? Did they make their own investigation? No, they were not eligible to do this. So, again, this is the product of suspicion, of mistrust - we don’t trust Russian judicial system, we don’t trust Russian authorities, we believe that they want to curtail truth, we believe that they are dragging feet in the investigation and so we will punish them, we will lecture them, we will teach them a lesson.
Sergey, do I get it right that Magnitsky did not hold a US citizenship, did he?
As I know he is a Russian citizen but this is not the matter of citizenship.
But Sergey, like you said, there are certain red lines no one can cross. Well, this is our family matter. We can be quite unhappy with some of the members of our family but nevertheless this is our family matter. No one is interfering into family matters, right?
That’s right. And if you trust your partner – you should trust your partner. And if you trust your partner, then you should not just suspect him of avoiding any prosecution and making people accountable.
But Sergey, if we look at the rational side of that. Well, politics are emotions and this is a murky side. But rationally, how does the US stands to gain from complicating its relationship with Russia?
Well, there are both good and bad news in this. I will start from the good news. The good news is that actually I see no way how this move really hampers the movement on other tracks of our relations. Let us be frank, this move affects just a group of people. It is not the sanctions on the country itself. It will not affect the life of millions of Russians, it will affect the standing of probably dozens of Russian officials. But the bad news is that this move sends very bad signal.
To those who are making their stake on the reset of our relations. Let me just remind you that the reset was a hotly debated issue, both in Moscow and in Washington. And while there groups of influence are really making a serious stake on the rapprochement of the relations, there are also hawks, there are hardliners, there are those so called patriots who are saying – oh, why should we just bow to the pressure of Moscow or to the pressure of Washington. And for them of course this is a golden chance to say – look, the reset didn’t work, we are coming to the times of the Cold War.
Why do we need the standoff? The world has changed. We have so many common challenges. Why do we need a standoff? What is it that makes the US so hostile towards any kind of Russia? A communist Russia, you could understand that, but this is not a communist Russia any longer.
Let us be very careful with our wording, when you say the US. I would prefer to say Congress.
Well, you can limit it to senators.
As I understand Obama Administration was not very happy with that Magnitsky Bill and Obama Administration was quietly trying to explain to senators that it won’t be instrumental. So, this is not the US but this is the sentiment which is dominating on the Capitol Hill. Why? Well, mentality is such a thing that changes quite slowly, it takes time.
We are not rivals, you know.
But you can’t change mentality overnight. It takes time.
How much time should it take?
Well, no one knows. The Soviet Union disintegrated 21 year ago, in 1991. So, two decades – probably this is not enough.
But Sergey, my point is that even during the times of tsarist Russia the US decision makers were rather negative towards Russia.
Over that I have sort of a theory pendulum swinging from one side to another, and we really had that love-hate relationship for really decades, for a century.
We could use this energy for more peaceful purposes, couldn’t we?
We had dark ages, we had bright moments, like land lease. We were allies during the World War II, let us not forget about that.
But that alliance was a little bit strange.
It was anti-Hitler coalition.
They entered the war back in 1943 or 1944.
So, the pendulum is swinging. Unfortunately, what we see today is that probably after the reset, after that thaw which we witnessed in the last years again we see that there in Washington they are getting more and more tough, they are adopting tough language.
Sergey, but you are meeting many Americans. Do you think that people at that level whom you are meeting – analysts, decision makers, political figures – do they really support the Magnitsky Bill?
Well, there are Americans and Americans.
Probably you will be disappointed, but I have a feeling that most of the Americans hardly have a notion of who Sergey Magnitsky is. As I understand it, Americans adopted such an approach to world affairs so that they are mostly preoccupied with their domestic agenda. They are not taking much interest in foreign news, news coming from abroad and what is happening somewhere abroad.
I remember several years back, when I was in the US with the group of journalist from the ex-Soviet republics, there was one guy from Moldova and we were somewhere in California in a bar. He asked a girl who was serving drinks – do you know about Moldova? You know what was her answer? Not really. Russia is bigger than Moldova and I don’t think that there is any American who doesn’t know that Russia exists. But I’m afraid that the knowledge is quite limited. Probably they will know – Russia, Kremlin, Putin, vodka, balalaika and probably that’s all, but no Magnitsky. That’s why this is the matter which is nourished, which is bubbled up mostly by political class.
Right! Using certain clichés and notions like democracy, human rights etc. And that does the trick. But it is interesting that Russian authorities have decided to retaliate by imposing a ban on the travel to Russia of those US people who have been accused of human rights violation.
I think we have also to comment on the Russian position which was voiced by Russia’s Foreign Ministry. Russian Foreign Ministry really made itself clear that Russia would adopt some symmetric answer in a sense that Russia would go to that extent to which American side has gone. And Russia would not use this as a sort of revenge just to punish the US business here or the US diplomats. No! There is completely no talk of that, this is completely out of question. But at the same time we may also raise the questions of secret CIA prisons or other issues.
There are lots of issues to be raised.
But I personally, I’m not happy with that.
Human rights violations in Iraq, in Afghanistan, in Libya.
Yes. But look, I’m very unhappy over that. I don’t like that pointing fingers, you see. You have this, you have that!
Well, that definitely draws considerable amounts of energy and time. That consumes efforts, time, money.
That’s what I’m saying. It can destruct us from spelling out and developing and nourishing positive bilateral agenda. And that can undermine all those, I would say,quite modest successes which we were able to achieve during the time of the reset policy. Those successes are there. The new key arms reduction treaty – this is a success. Our ability to cooperate on Iran – this is a success. The numbers of our trade which are growing – this is also the success. But it is still quite modest. There are a lot of issues on which we disagree. And still the situation is very fragile and vulnerable. We have not yet crossed the point of non-return, I would say, from the time of the Cold War, and cold peace by the way, not only Cold War but cold peace that we’ve seen during the time of George Bush. So, things like that Magnitsky Bill obviously bring us back and this is very sad.