‘This is like the Cold War,’ a Russian foreign ministry spokesman said in December after President Obama signed the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act. ‘We will retaliate.’ The act allows for the public naming of Russian officials involved in ‘extrajudicial killings, torture or other gross violations of internationally recognised human rights’. It also allows for their US assets to be suspended and for them to be barred entry into the States.
Sergei Magnitsky was a Russian corporate lawyer who was tortured and died in Butyrka Prison in Moscow in 2009 after accusing various Russian bureaucrats of perpetrating a $230 million tax fraud. The law named after him is targeted at the many corrupt Russian officials who act with impunity at home and then spend their ill-gotten gains in the West. But of course the US isn’t the favoured destination of rich Russians. Most prefer to keep their property, wives, mistresses, football teams, newspapers and children in the UK. What would really hurt corrupt Russian officials is a Magnitsky Act here. But will it happen?
A cross-party motion calling on the government to institute a UK version of the Magnistky Act was approved by the Commons last March. Sponsored by the Tory MP Dominic Raab, who calls Magntisky ‘the new Solzhenitsyn’, the British act would apply not just to Russians but internationally: it would allow for the naming, shaming and banning of corrupt officials from any country. The government responded by saying that a devotion to human rights was ‘at the heart of our DNA’, then argued that it already had a mechanism for excluding undesirables by denying them visas. It would not, however, commit to listing publicly the names of those excluded.
Denis MacShane, a former minister for Europe and one of the key promoters of the UK bill, thinks this argument is specious. ‘We make the names of those under visa bans public when we want to,’ he told me. ‘Martha Stewart and Pablo Neruda are just two examples.’ If corrupt officials aren’t named publicly, he says, the exercise is pointless: it sends no message to potential wrongdoers and we have no way of knowing whether the government is actually taking any action at all. ‘We’re desperate for Russian and other foreign money to come here,’ he says, ‘and we’re scared to frighten it off in any way. Human rights legislation could effect estate agents, private schools, lawyers – all those dependent on Russian money and prepared to ignore where it came from.’
Over the last few years it has become increasingly easy for the foreign rich to get visas: special ‘Tier 1’ visas are available to those who invest at least £1 million in UK property, shares and bonds. Last year Russians got 24 per cent of such ‘investor’ visas, Chinese 23 per cent. ‘Moscow’s rich buy £1 million entry into UK,’ ran the headline in the FT. And then there’s the big prize: those who invest at least £10 million have to wait just two years before being granted indefinite leave to remain. All a rich Russian needs to do is buy a big London house.
In Europe, Britain’s position vis-à-vis the Magnitsky affair is particularly murky. The Conservative Party’s euroscepticism means that it is part of an alliance with United Russia in the Council of Europe. In October a vote calling for further investigation of a report on human rights abuses in Russia (including the Magnitsky case) was narrowly defeated in the council’s Parliamentary Assembly. Russia was backed by Serbia, Azerbeijahn, Armenia, communists from Cyprus and the Czech Republic, five Tory MPs, two Tory peers and a Lib Dem. In his speech to the Assembly, Robert Walter MP said the human rights report in question should not be used to ‘humiliate a superpower’.
Vladimir Putin, unhumiliated, has responded to the US Magnitsky Act by signing the Dima Yakovlev Law, which bans the adoption of Russian orphans by American foster parents. And he has shown he gives as good as he gets by granting Gérard Depardieu a Russian passport so that he can avoid France’s new 75 per cent tax rate. Russia, a grateful Depardieu said, is ‘a great democracy’.