On July 12, as I stopped at the gate of the Russian Embassy compound in northwest Washington, the on-duty officer had some unexpected news. “I cannot let you in,” he said through an intercom. “You are forbidden to enter the embassy.” Being a Russian citizen and a credentialed Russian journalist, and having been to my country’s embassy on numerous occasions, I was naturally curious. Yevgeny Khorishko, the embassy’s press secretary, whom I called for an explanation, was brief: The directive to “strike” my name from the list of credentialed Russian journalists came from Ambassador Sergei Kislyak. No reason was given. In an interview later with Slon.ru, a Moscow news Web site, the press secretary explained that the decision reflected the fact that I am “no longer a journalist.”
The explanation would seem passable, except for one detail: The ambassador’s directive came before it was publicly announced that I had been dismissed as Washington bureau chief of RTVi, as Russian Television International is known, effective Sept. 1. How Kislyak could have known this in advance remains a mystery.
Around the same time, two trustworthy sources in Moscow informed me that my name has been placed on a “blacklist,” making me unemployable not only by RTVi but also by other, even privately owned, Russian media outlets. This was quickly verified, as one editor after another indicated that cooperation at this stage is impossible. From his own sources, opposition leader and former deputy prime minister Boris Nemtsov found out the name of the Kremlin official who has supposedly blacklisted me: Alexei Gromov, President Vladimir Putin’s first deputy chief of staff. As for the reason for the Berufsverbot, my interlocutors were unequivocal: It was my advocacy for the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act, currently being considered by the U.S. Congress.
This bill, a rare example of congressional bipartisanship, proposes to introduce a targeted visa ban and asset freeze for Russian officials “responsible for the detention, abuse, or death of Sergei Magnitsky” — an anti-corruption lawyer tortured to death in a Moscow prison in 2009 — as well as for any “extrajudicial killings, torture, or other gross violations of internationally recognized human rights” (among them, “the freedoms of religion, expression, association, and assembly, and the rights to a fair trial and democratic elections”). The Magnitsky Act would bring a much-needed measure of accountability to corrupt Russian officials and human rights violators who prefer to rule in the manner of Zimbabwe or Belarus but opt for such destinations as the United States or Britain when it comes to storing and spending their ill-gotten gains.
Along with many other representatives of Russia’s civil society, political opposition and independent media, I have been a vocal supporter of the legislation, urging its passage in public speeches and in private meetings with Washington policymakers. In authoritarian systems that maintain their power by stifling free initiative and free speech, the line between journalism and civic activism is not — and cannot be — as rigid as it is in democratic societies. Colleagues have long warned that my support for the bill would, sooner or later, catch the Kremlin’s attention. The timing is not surprising, as the bill is nearing passage.
My case is just one in a series of “retaliatory” measures Putin’s regime has taken against Russian supporters of the Magnitsky legislation. Other examples include the recent early-morning raids on the homes of opposition leaders and a series of new repressive laws directed against Russia’s already-besieged civil society, including the 150-fold increase in fines for “violations” at public rallies and the requirement that Russian nongovernmental organizations that receive funding from abroad be tagged as “foreign agents.” That the targets of retaliation are Russian is hardly surprising: A “reciprocal” visa ban for U.S. sponsors of the Magnitsky Act would have drawn only laughter. Officials in Moscow had long promised that the response to the bill would be “asymmetrical.”
The Kremlin’s blackmail must not be allowed to succeed. The hysterical reaction from Putin’s regime shows beyond doubt that the legislation hits precisely where it hurts. The prospect of losing access to the West and its financial systems (initiatives similar to the U.S. bill are already being considered in European Union parliaments and in Canada) may well be, for now, the only serious disincentive to corruption and human rights violations by Russian officials. Symbolically, the adoption of the Magnitsky Act has been tied to the repeal of the antiquated Jackson-Vanik Amendment, thus replacing trade sanctions against a nation with personal sanctions against specific criminals. Perhaps the most pro-Russian piece of legislation ever put before the U.S. Congress, the Magnitsky Act offers Washington an opportunity to speak with a unified voice and with unquestioned moral clarity. I hope that it will be signed into law before the end of the year.
Vladimir Kara-Murza has been the Washington bureau chief of Russian Television International (RTVi) since 2004.