Russia’s WTO Entry a Chance to Push Human Rights
It is difficult not to be excited by the ongoing protest movement in Russia, which has seen the largest public demonstrations since the collapse of the Soviet Union—a serious challenge Vladimir Putin’s legitimacy and credibility. But what can the international community provide, apart from rhetorical support, to embrace and further the cause of Russia’s democratic reform?
“The best way the rest of the world can help us is by fighting corruption,” said Ilya Ponomarev, a prominent left-wing opposition politician, when I spoke to him in London last week.
Corruption is one of the Russian Federation’s most endemic problems. Russia is currently rated 143 out of 182 countries in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index, and anti-corruption reforms promised by the Putin-Medvedev tandem have done little to challenge the culture of corruption and impunity that emanates from the top down.
After the Kremlin tortured and murdered one of his lawyers for investigating government corruption, Bill Browder began a global campaign to bring justice to Sergei Magnitsky’s killers.
Growing public frustration with the status quo heavily informed the context of the explosion of anger at December’s blatantly fixed Duma elections. It’s no accident that one of the foremost opposition leaders and mobilizers of the street protests has been the anti-corruption blogger Alexey Navalny.
It is commonly assumed that the international community can do little to substantively support democratic opposition movements. Yet in the case of Russia, the confluence of the current protest movement and Russia’s impending accession to the World Trade Organization presents the US in particular with a powerful opportunity to bolster the pro-democracy opposition by challenging the Kremlin on its two greatest weaknesses: human rights and corruption.
The Obama administration is pushing Congress to lower trade barriers with Russia prior to Russia’s entry into the WTO later this year. This entails repealing the Soviet-era Jackson-Vanik amendment, which had tied “most favored nation” trading status (now known in the US as “permanent normal trade relations”) to a country’s observance of free emigration. Congress should instead replace Jackson-Vanik with legislation that ties “most favored nation” trading status to specific concessions on political rights and corruption: for instance, the release of political prisoners like Mikhail Khodorkovsky and independent audits of state-run companies like Gazprom.
Such a measure can aid the opposition in two important ways: first, by securing substantive concessions on political liberties, and second, by helping to chip away at the mortar that binds mid-level functionaries and elites to the state. As Mr. Ponomarev told me, “If you can remove the incentives for the middle-tier people to remain within the power structure, it will all begin to unravel.”