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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