November 27th, 2011
09:00 PM ET

Zakaria: Why Russia is blacklisting Americans

By Fareed Zakaria, CNN

Something in the papers the other day struck me as odd.  Russia has placed a number of U.S. officials on a blacklist. They are banned from traveling to Russia because of what the Kremlin is calling "humanitarian crimes." What's going on? Isn't the Cold War over?

Well, it turns out that this is a tit-for-tat reaction to a similar blacklist issued by Washington this year.  So why are we blacklisting the Russians?

To explain, let me tell you  - or remind you - of a tragic tale. The protagonist is not alive anymore, but his story highlights the amazing impact one person can have on international politics at the highest level.

On the 16th of November, 2009, a Russian lawyer died in a Moscow detention center. His name was Sergei Magnitsky. Magnitsky's death fuelled outrage on the streets of Moscow. His only crime was to uncover the largest tax fraud in Russian history: $230 million in rebates, falsely claimed by corrupt government officials who in effect stole the money from the Russian state. The price Magnitsky paid for exposing this fraud was to be kept in a dungeon for months.

Despite intense pressure, he refused to withdraw his testimony. He was denied clean water or medical care for his ailments. Within less than a year, he died. Sergei Magnitsky could have remained a statistic - one of 4,000 who die in Russia's often-brutal prisons every year.

Instead, his story has become the basis for the so-called Magnitsky List - Washington's list of Russian officials who were involved in the tax fraud and in Magnitsky's detention. Thanks to lobbying by Magnitsky's supporters in the West, the European parliament, Canada and the Netherlands are all also considering their own visa bans for a list of 60 Russians.

U.S. action over the Magnitsky case has exposed a raw nerve among Moscow's elite.  You can see it in the Kremlin's response. It retaliated by blacklisting U.S. officials, but it also indicated it was targeting Americans involved in the prosecutions of two Russian criminals - the arms dealer Viktor Bout and a convicted cocaine smuggler.

So Moscow is comparing the prosecution of notorious arms and drug smugglers with the prosecution and murder of an honest lawyer, in a case that even President Medvedev has said required investigation.

The underlying issue here is that for all the glitter of having being named a BRIC - one of the hot emerging markets - Russia remains a country where corruption is rampant. It ranks 154th in the world on Transparency International's index - and powerful officials can commit crimes with impunity.

In fact, the most disturbing aspect of the Magnitsky case is that it appears that the entire Russian state is in some sense involved in corruption and crime.

For real change to take place in Russia, it has to come from within.  That doesn't seem likely anytime soon.  The current Russian regime seems to have a firm lock on power. But there are some signs of restlessness.  Last week Prime Minister Vladimir Putin was booed by a crowd at a martial arts fight in Moscow.

It was on live national television. According to some reports, it was later edited down by state media to only show cheers from the crowd. But the unedited video continues to circulate on YouTube.

Mr. Putin probably doesn't need to worry about winning back the post of president next year - but that victory might not be seen as wholly legitimate if this discontent grows.

"KermlinRussia," an anonymous joke Twitter feed, said it best:

"The crowd at a 'no rules fighting' match booed the champion of 'no rules elections.'"

For more of my thoughts throughout the week, I invite you to follow me on Facebook and Twitter and to visit the Global Public Square every day. Also, for more What in the World? pieces, click here.

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soundoff (525 Responses)
  1. Frank M

    Fareed Zakaria, I like your article very much, but where did you come up with the idea of an Honest Lawyer? Lol Jk, but not really.

    November 29, 2011 at 7:10 am | Reply
  2. Sam Rupani

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    November 29, 2011 at 8:25 am | Reply
  3. Bumboclot

    Come on, Russia has been a cesspool of corruption for centuries, and they are content to stay that way. Ironically, the way the current Russian rulers kill anyone who dares to speak out is actually a much clearer statement about their Government than anything those people had to say before they were killed!

    November 29, 2011 at 11:04 am | Reply
  4. Peter

    It's too bad that Russians got rid of one monster to live with another. Whats a waste of so many liives and efforts to free themselves from communism ...

    November 29, 2011 at 1:55 pm | Reply
  5. Jenna NYC

    We have our own corruptions in certain places in the is shameful. But we cannot compare to Russia. Look at the young oil magnate who Putin had tried on phony charges, then when he was due to get out of jail, Putin came up with more charges. The guy just laughed, but it is sad to see this young entrepreneur wasting his life away in a Russian prison...because he dared to challenge Putin. It is also sad for Russians who would benefit from a capitalist society.

    November 29, 2011 at 4:21 pm | Reply
  6. Karolina

    for those of you who can read Russian, here is 100 page comrehensive report on how it was done and who was responsible.

    November 29, 2011 at 5:26 pm | Reply
  7. HereWegoAgain

    Another anti-Russian article from the King of anti China/Russian propaganda. Zakaria, why don't you focus on India instead!

    November 29, 2011 at 11:32 pm | Reply
  8. cnposter

    Zakaria, above: " of 4,000 who die in Russia's often-brutal prisons every year."

    Baltimore Sun, Dec 6, 2006: "Each year, approximately 7,000 Americans die in U.S. prisons and jails. Some of these deaths are from natural causes, but many more result from mental disorders left undiagnosed and diseases left untreated."

    November 30, 2011 at 2:16 am | Reply
  9. Justice

    May Americans expect Russia to be an Ally of terrorist USA. How can there be alliance between a nation that stand for justice and a terrorist nation like USA.Thank God that we have Countries like Russia and China that always cub excesses of this worst terrorist nation.

    November 30, 2011 at 3:39 am | Reply
  10. gabriel

    With all our resources we still cannot find other life forms in our own little solar system, who knows maybe we are lucky to have life in this far part of the galaxy. 5 million species or more on earth, including ourselves and yet we want to destroy it all. We are all living inside this huge, complex life support system called earth. We should be more focused on finding ways to create meat from cells,faster growing crops, less toxic gases and radiation, and as we are the top of the food chain on this little midget planet, i can assume that in 100 million galaxies uncluding ours there is a greater threat to us all. We need all the world powers to start focusing on space exploration, once we see the truth, we will get rid of religion , rid of these rich elite old hags who, invested fortunes in anti aging drugs, and since they know they gona die-–THEY wana see the world end .. like rokafeller and queen of england who have enough money to feed half of the planet for a decade.

    November 30, 2011 at 7:06 am | Reply
  11. Johnny Ho

    So long as Putin is in charge of Russia, nobody should expect Russia to be 'nice' or cooperative with US. Because Putin was once an important KGB key member. Putin cannot be trusted, simply put. Historically, has no interest in any foreign policies unless it is financially beneficial to his 'gang'.

    November 30, 2011 at 8:45 pm | Reply
  12. Jean Gemmell

    This sounds a lot like the gerrymandering that goes on in the US. except for the killing .The politicians of most so called democracies will do almost anything to keep their job they can make so much money on the side. Term limits for all of them and no lobbing for twenty years after they complete their term.

    November 30, 2011 at 11:51 pm | Reply
  13. Cheeda

    Whats not common between Russia and Pakistan?

    Mr Magnitsky died in November 2009 at the age of 37 after being kept in appalling conditions without essential medical treatment in pre-trial detention for almost a year. His crime? He had uncovered a $230m corruption by the Russian officials. The US administration is slapping travel ban and freeze on the assets of 60 officials involved in the case. A rightful reaction you would say to prevent persecution of those endeavering to expose public corruption. Think again. Pakistan has been saddled with a civilian administration since 2008 the leaders of which were already well known for their massive corruption. It is an established fact the heads of current Pakistan ruling party were brought in president Musharraf via a US brokered device the NRO (National Reconciliation Ordinace) that gave amnesty to Mr Zardari and the likes with world renowned corruptions scandals against them.

    December 1, 2011 at 12:34 am | Reply
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    November 2, 2012 at 4:00 am | Reply
  16. amigo

    knowing well Russians.... why should they be a US friend ?! Since the fall of communism, Americans have done all to they could to ruin, isolate and break up their country. You are the worst and most immoral enemy Russians ever had. I only wonder why they do use your tactics... they could do a lot of things

    December 10, 2012 at 9:24 am | Reply
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