The Cable

Congress goes after Russian officials for human rights violations

President Barack Obama is set to meet with Russian President Dmitri Medvdev on May 26 in France on the sidelines of the G-8 meetings. In advance of that meeting, Congress has unveiled a new bill to force the administration to sanction Russian officials for human rights violations.

"One of the core foreign policy objectives when we came into office was the Russia reset," Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes told reporters on a conference call on Friday. "It has been one of the most productive relationships for the United States in terms of the signing and ratification of the New START treaty, cooperation on nuclear security, cooperation with regard to Iran sanctions and nonproliferation generally, the northern distribution network into Afghanistan that supports our effort there, and our discussions with Russia about expanding trade ties and their interest in joining the WTO, as well as Russia's increased cooperation with NATO that was manifested by the NATO-Russia meetings in Lisbon."

But Rhodes didn't mention what most in Congress see as Russia's backsliding on issues of democracy, freedom of the press, and human rights. A large group of senators introduced a bill on Thursday afternoon that they hope will force the administration to address this issue. Called the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act of 2011, it is named after the anti-corruption lawyer who was tortured and died in a Russian prison in 2009. The bill targets his captors as well as any other Russian officials "responsible for extrajudicial killings, torture, or other gross violations of human rights."

"Despite occasional rhetoric from the Kremlin, the Russian leadership has failed to follow through with any meaningful action to stem rampant corruption or bring the perpetrators of numerous and high-profile human rights abuses to justice," Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD) said in a Thursday floor statement announcing the bill.

"My legislation simply says that if you are commit gross violations of human rights, don't expect to visit Disneyland, Aspen, or South Beach and expect your accounts to be frozen if you bank with us."

The bill requires the secretary of State to compile a list of names of human rights abusers in Russia, deny them visas, and requires the secretary of Treasury to do the same and freeze their bank accounts. The legislation would also bar their wives, sons, daughters, and other immediate family members from coming to the United States. The hope is that this legislation would spur similar action from the European Union.

The bill also outlines abuses by Russian officials in the treatment of several other Russian political prisoners, including Russian oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, whose appeal to his 14-year jail sentence was postponed this week by a Moscow court.

Other co-sponsors of the bill include Sens. John McCain (R-AZ), Kelly Ayotte (R-NH), Mark Begich (D-AK), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Bob Casey (D-PA), Richard Durbin (D-IL), Mike Johanns (R-NE), Mark Kirk (R-IL), Jon Kyl (R-AZ), Joseph Lieberman (I-CT), Marco Rubio (R-FL), Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH), Tom Udall (D-NM), Roger Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), and Roger Wicker (R-MS).

Last month, Congressman Jim McGovern (D-MA) reintroduced the House version of The Magnitsky Act, which "imposes visa and economic sanctions on Russian state officials who are responsible for human rights abuses, torture and the death in custody of Sergei Magnitsky in November 2009."

The Obama administration hasn't commented publicly on the bill, but The New Republic reported that NSC Senior Director for Russia Mike McFaul is supportive. "We actually agree with those in Congress who are concerned about the erosion of democracy in Russia," he told TNR, adding, "It was bad when we got here, but it is bad today."

The bill could also be a substitute for the Jackson-Vanik amendment, which was put in place in the 1970s to punish Russia for its treatment of Jewish would-be emigrants, but now stands in the way of Russia's accession to the WTO.

Kirk told The Cable in a Friday interview that this bill was one part of a larger effort in Congress to reassert itself on the issues of democracy and human rights in Russia.

"It's needed because Russia has slowly devolved into a one party state with a very strong ruler, and that leads to arrogance and a very aggressive anti-U.S. foreign policy, which is becoming increasing difficult to deal with," he said. And who was he referring to? "The real ruler of Russia: Putin."

The Cable

Will Obama fulfill his promise to Poland?

When President Barack Obama stops in Poland on May 27 during his visit to Europe next week, the Poles and their friends in Congress will be watching closely to see if the president will fulfill his pledge to make progress on their most valued issue -- Poland's drive to join the State Department's Visa Waiver Program.

Poland, which is the only member of the 25-country "Schengen area" whose citizens are not able to travel to the United States without obtaining a visa in advance, has been petitioning the administration to let it in the program for a long time. After neighboring countries such as the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Estonia, and Latvia entered the program, the Poles finally got a pledge from the Obama administration that it would work with Congress to make it happen.

"I am going to make this a priority," Obama said on Dec. 8, sitting alongside Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski. "And I want to solve this issue before very long. My expectation is, is that this problem will be solved during my presidency."

But now, more than five months later, Poland's advocates on Capitol Hill say they've seen no movement from the administration on the issue and are calling on Obama to announce his plan to get it done when he arrives in Poland.

"It's a campaign promise, it's the number one issue right now in U.S.-Polish relations. The president should come through on his campaign commitment to Polish-Americans that he was going to do this," Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL) said in a Friday interview with The Cable.

"This would also help repair damaged relations with Poland, especially after the disastrous missile defense decision announced on the anniversary of the Russian invasion of Poland [in 2009]," Kirk said. That was when the administration decided to alter plans to station interceptors in Poland and the Czech Republic in favor of a different approach.

Kirk took over Senate leadership on this issue following the retirement of Sen. George Voinovich (R-OH), who actually offered to trade his vote on the New START treaty with Russia for the Polish visa waiver program entry last year. Kirk hails from Illinois, which has the largest Polish population outside of Poland, he brags.

On April 26, Kirk sent a letter to Obama to announce his support for the congressional legislation that would pave the way for Poland to enter the program. Other lawmakers who signed the letter were the bill's spokesperson Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), Mike Quigley (D - IL), Daniel Lipinski (D-IL), Jan Schakowsky (D -IL), and Brian Higgins (D -NY).

On a conference call Friday morning, The Cable asked Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes what progress the president would announce on this issue when he gets to Poland.

"We believe we've made some progress and we'll have more to say, I think, about this when we're in Poland. The president will be able to specifically outline the steps that we've taken and the roadmap that we see. We're following through on our commitment to be responsive to Polish concerns," said Rhodes.

We pressed Rhodes on Obama's promise to get it done "during my presidency," which could mean 2012 or 2016, depending on which side of the aisle you talk to. But Rhodes didn't have any specifics.

"[The president's] working to follow through on that precise commitment that you referenced, and we'll be discussing this in Warsaw and have more to say there," he said.

"It's a tremendous opportunity for the president on the 27th. And if he flubs it, then he flubs it," said Kirk. "We'll see."