“It is only our task to bring democratic change to Russia,” says Russian opposition politician Vladimir Kara-Murza. “It’s for the democratic opposition. We don’t want or need outside actors to come in and do anything.”
But, says Kara-Murza, there is much that Western democracies such as Canada can do to help Russian democracy by passing legislation in their own countries.
Russia’s political elite routinely plunders the country of billions of dollars. They operate like organized criminals: protecting their own and murderously silencing those who expose them. They rule in the style of Zimbabwe or Belarus, says Kara-Murza, but prefer the West as a safe place to store their money, buy second homes, and send their children to school. And it is in the West where they are most vulnerable.
Kara-Murza was in Ottawa this week to urge Canada to pass a private member’s bill introduced by Liberal member of Parliament Irwin Cotler. The proposed legislation would render inadmissible to Canada Russians who played a role in a particularly egregious example of Russian state pillage and brutality.
Sergei Magnitsky, a Russian lawyer, uncovered a $230 million tax fraud while working for Bill Browder, the American-born co-founder of Hermitage Capital Management. For the crime of exposing this theft and the Russian officials involved, Magnitsky was arrested, beaten, denied medical treatment, and died in police custody without ever facing trial. A Russian prison doctor was charged with negligence. But no senior officials have been punished. Russia isn’t ignoring the matter, though. It’s putting Magnitsky on trial posthumously.
Cotler’s bill would ban from Canada Russian officials involved in Magnitsky’s mistreatment and in the tax fraud he uncovered.
Bill Browder, Magnitsky’s former client, has been pushing for the passage of similar legislation in Europe and the United States. He’s had success in America, where Congress recently passed a bill that would deny visas to Russian officials involved in the Magnitsky affair, and other rights violations. It would also seize their American assets.
Russian President Vladimir Putin responded with fury. This week he promised to retaliate by barring American rights abusers. The Russian foreign ministry warned the bill would have a “very negative impact on the prospects of bilateral cooperation.”
But Kara-Murza describes the measure as pro-Russian. The fraud Magnitsky revealed was directed against Russian taxpayers, not Hermitage Capital Management. Punishing those involved through foreign legislation “provides the only mechanism possible today that defends regular law-abiding Russian citizens from these crooks and abusers.”
Kara-Murza also hopes it might force powerful Russians to change their behaviour.
“If a police official has a choice between dispersing a peaceful demonstration and losing access to his Western bank account, maybe he will think twice.
“If these people begin to understand that even Putin, with all his oil money, with all his patronage, with all his billions, will no longer be able to protect them when they commit crimes, and he will no longer be able to protect their access to the fruits of their crimes — they’ve all got money in Western bank accounts — that’s going to strike at the heart of the system. And that’s why we think it’s a very pro-Russian law.”
Cotler’s bill has been introduced into the House but not yet debated. Private members’ bills infrequently receive Royal Assent.