‘Not Their Business To Bomb Voronezh’: Russian Lawmakers Gut Sanctions Bill Targeting U.S.
(Article ©2018 RFE/RL, Inc., Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty – rferl.org – Carl Schreck – May 11, 2018 – article also appeared at rferl.org/a/russia-sanctions-bill-gutted-bomb-voronezh/29221812.html)
The phrase “bomb Voronezh” has become a staple of the Russian political lexicon, a reference to what Kremlin critics call Russia’s penchant for responding to Western sanctions with punitive measures that end up harming its own citizens.
But after Russian lawmakers last month proposed banning numerous U.S. goods and services in response to fresh U.S. sanctions, even Russian state conglomerate Rostec invoked the figurative shelling of the stand-in for Anytown, Russia, 500 kilometers south of Moscow.
“You can’t respond to sanctions by bombing Voronezh. Retaliatory measures must be implemented very prudently so as not to harm the interests of Russian industry,” Rostec executive Viktor Kladov was quoted by the Russian newspaper RBK as saying.
After that and other criticism, Russian lawmakers have now stripped the bill almost entirely of proposed restrictions on specific goods and services, including U.S. pharmaceutical and agricultural products, alcohol and tobacco. They also removed a proposal to restrict the employment of U.S. citizens in Russia.
‘Unfriendly Foreign Governments’
On Facebook, Yekaterina Schulmann, a political scientist at the Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration, posted scans of the new draft she obtained at a discussion of the bill held on May 11 at the lower house of parliament, the State Duma.
The new version of the legislation states broadly that the government can decide which “goods and raw materials” from “unfriendly foreign governments” — or producers from those countries — to slap restrictions on.
It also would empower the government to restrict goods and raw materials taken out of the country by citizens and entities from “unfriendly foreign governments.”
The bill left in potential restrictions on the participation of citizens of “unfriendly foreign governments” — and entities in which companies from those nations have a more than 25-percent stake — in the privatization of state assets.
“The powers given to the government and the president should be more broad and be of a universal character rather than impact specific businesses or manufacturing” Duma speaker Vyacheslav Volodin, a key political ally of President Vladimir Putin, was quoted by the Duma’s press service as saying ahead of the May 11 discussion of the bill.
The original proposed bill came after Washington hit Russian officials and businessmen on April 6 with asset freezes and financial restrictions due to what the U.S. Treasury Department called Russia’s “malign activity around the globe.”
Russia denounced the sanctions as “unacceptable” and said it has the right to retaliate.
After Russian lawmakers drafted the original proposed countermeasures a week later, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Moscow’s response would not harm Russia’s interests.
Russia has previously responded to Western sanctions with a range of measures criticized by Kremlin opponents as damaging, including a ban on the adoption of Russian children by U.S. citizens and restrictions on U.S. and EU food imports.
The proposed restrictions on U.S. pharmaceutical products drew criticism from Putin’s top human-rights official, Tatyana Moskalkova, who urged all sides involved in the “sanctions standoff” to refrain from targeting “medical supplies, medications, and healthcare technology,” Russian media reported.
Aleksandr Kalinin, the head of a prominent Kremlin-loyal small business lobby group, told the Russian state-funded RT network that the product- and industry-specific references were removed so as to “not make investors nervous.”
The new version states that the changes were made “with the goal of excluding mentions of certain sectors, products, and services” and to “expand the powers of the Russian president and government in implementing sanctions.”
Schulmann said that Putin and the government could implement the type of proposed sanctions contained in the current version of the bill even without the legislation, which senior Duma lawmaker Aleksandr Zhukov said could be passed in its final version by the end of the month.
She said that, with its initial version of the bill targeting a range of U.S. products and industries, the Duma was attempting to “establish itself as a power body on the most popular front of Russian politics: the external policy.”
The lawmakers’ latest version of the bill “is so vague as to be practically harmless,” Schulmann told RFE/RL in a telephone interview from Moscow.
“They were told that it’s not their business to bomb Voronezh,” she added.