Blacklists Hang Over Future of U.S.-Russia Ties

File Photo of U.S. Capitol Dome

(RIA Novosti – Carl Schreck – WASHINGTON, April 15, 2013) ­ The United States and Russia struck a conciliatory chord Monday following tit-for-tat blacklists of alleged human rights violators, but the contentious US legislation that sparked the diplomatic dust-up appears set to become a permanent fixture in ties between Washington and Moscow.

“There is no sunset clause on the Magnitsky Act,” a senior staffer in the US Congress told RIA Novosti on Monday. “It exists on the book indefinitely. The Magnitsky Act is here for the long haul.”

The US Treasury Department on Friday released its inaugural list of 18 Russian citizens to be punished with visa and financial sanctions under the Magnitsky Act, prompting Moscow to issues its own blacklist of 18 US officials to be slapped with analogous penalties.

But the US law, named after whistleblowing Russian tax attorney Sergei Magnitsky, who died in disputed circumstances in a Moscow jail in 2009, allows for more Russians to be added to the blacklist as new information about purported human rights abuses in Russia come to light.

Senior US lawmakers have already said they expect more names to be added to the so-called Magnitsky List, a move that would almost certainly provoke retaliation from Moscow, said Andrew Kuchins, a senior fellow and director of the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington-based think tank.

“Looking at the history of the relationship for the last 10 to 20 years, the likelihood is that something will happen in this regard, and the issue of the Magnitsky List will come back,” Kuchins told RIA Novosti.

The Magnitsky Act, which US President Barack Obama signed into law in December, gives senior lawmakers on a range of congressional committees the right to submit names of alleged Russian rights violators to the Obama administration to consider for visa and asset punishment under the legislation.

The US government then has 120 days to respond to the lawmakers after receiving the request in writing. Additionally, the law requires the administration to report to Congress annually on Russian citizens who have been added to or removed from the list, as well as explain these decisions.

The administration must also provide an explanation “if few or no such persons have been added” to the Magntisky List, as well as detail its efforts to “encourage the governments of other countries to impose sanctions that are similar.”

“This is not a one-time only act,” a senior State Department official told reporters in a briefing call Friday. “The law makes clear that additional names should be added as new information becomes available.”

Sen. Benjamin Cardin and Rep. James McGovern, co-authors of the Magnitsky Act, both expressed confidence Friday that future additions would be made to the blacklist.

With the Magnitsky Act already on the books as part of landmark legislation normalizing trade relations with Russia, Congress will also be able to make minor adjustments in how the law allows for Russian officials to be blacklisted, the senior Congressional staffer told RIA Novosti.

“It’s a lot easier to tweak an existing law than it is to create one from scratch,” the source said.

Moscow has accused Washington of meddling in its internal affairs with the Magnitsky Act sanctions and has also said the law is at odds with the presumption of innocence and due process.

But both US and Russian officials appear to be trying to ratchet down tensions following the release of the Magnitsky List and the blacklist of US officials released by Moscow.

Obama’s national security advisor, Tom Donilon passed a letter from Obama to Russian President Vladimir Putin during his visit to Moscow, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney and National Security Spokeswoman Catilin Hayden confirmed Monday.

Neither Carney nor Hayden provided details about the substance of the letter, but Putin’s foreign policy adviser, Yury Ushakov, said Obama’s message contained a number of proposals to deepen bilateral dialogue and cooperation.

“On the one hand, the Obama administration wants to actively develop ties with us in many areas, and that is quite a positive thing,” Ushakov said. “But on the other, it does not want to fight for bilateral cooperation within the United States, and does not want to rein in some Russophobes who are putting spokes in the wheel of our cooperation.”

Carney told a news conference Monday that Washington and Moscow have “considerable differences on some issues, and we are clear about those and candid about those.”

“But we also have areas where we have and can make real progress ­ where our interests align,” Carney said. “And that’s why we engage with the Russian government on a range of issues.”

One way for the officials in Moscow to resolve the fallout over the Magnitsky Act is for the Russian government “to take action against ­ investigate into and take action on those individuals responsible for Mr. Magnitsky’s death,” Carney said.

A majority of the Russians included on the US blacklist were those accused of involvement in Magnitsky’s death and an alleged $230 million tax fraud he claimed to have uncovered.

“That’s the clear, right response to the international outcry over his death. Conduct a proper investigation and hold those responsible for his death accountable, rather than engage in tit-for-tat retaliation,” Carney said.