Vladimir Putin’s return to the Kremlin as Russia’s president was always a foregone conclusion, but when he is sworn in on May 7, he will retake formal charge of a country whose politics — even Putin’s own political future — has turned unpredictable.
Putin’s return to the presidency, following a period of de facto control as prime minister, was supposed to signify a reassuring continuation of “business as usual” — a strong, orderly state devoid of the potentially destabilizing effects of multiparty democracy and bickering politicians.
Instead, the Russian people have now challenged the status quo. Their reaction to Putin’s plan — from the announcement in September last year that Russian President Dmitri Medvedev would stand aside for his mentor, to the deeply flawed parliamentary and presidential elections — and their accumulated resentment of Kremlin cronies’ massive enrichment, has placed pressure on Putin and the top-down system of government that he created.
How Putin, an astute politician, responds to that pressure will determine his political legacy and the West’s response to Putin’s return to the presidency could have a marked effect on whether he presses for liberalizing reforms and survives, or follows his KGB-honed authoritarian instincts and stokes further protest.
Nothing illustrates Russia’s malaise under Putin better than the case of Sergei Magnitsky, a lawyer working for a British investment fund. He uncovered a massive tax fraud and alleged widespread collusion by the authorities. His reward for exposing this crime was to be imprisoned and mistreated until he died in mysterious circumstances. The Russian authorities are bizarrely continuing to prosecute him posthumously, as well as continuing to carry out the tax scams that he exposed.
The US Congress is currently debating a law that would impose asset freezes and visa bans on the 60 people identified as having had some responsibility for Magnitsky’s detention and death. Many of the law’s supporters want it to replace the so-called Jackson-Vanik amendment, a Cold War-era law that restricts US trade with Russia — and which the administration of US President Barack Obama is pushing to repeal. Such a change would be doubly beneficial — it would both enhance trade and hold to account people responsible for egregious human-rights abuses.
Meanwhile, in the UK, the House of Commons recently passed a resolution along the same lines as the proposed US legislation. London is a favorite destination for wealthy Russians and the British government is now considering whether to support such an initiative, although there are indications that it will maintain an unofficial and unpublished list of the banned individuals in order to forestall legal challenges.
In Ottawa, the Canadian parliament has called for similar measures, including asset freezes against those responsible for Magnitsky’s death, as has the European parliament, which has called for EU member states to take collective action.
Introducing such targeted sanctions would be an indisputable sign that the West will not compromise on its fundamental values — values that Putin’s Russia claims to share. It would also set a precedent that could be extended to all of those in Russia and other countries who regularly violate human rights, not just those rights concerning physical inviolability.