WASHINGTON -- A bipartisan group of U.S. senators say they will push the Obama administration to highlight concerns about the worsening rights situation in Russia ahead of the president's upcoming meetings with Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin.
"What I'm going to work [on] with Senator [Ron] Johnson, Senator [Chris] Murphy, and Senator [Rand] Paul is a bipartisan letter that we can send to the administration saying that we are very concerned and perhaps sending them a summary of this hearing -- and we'll send that to [Secretary of State] John Kerry, as well," U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer (Democrat-California) said at a subcommittee hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on June 13.
"I think that would be a good way to show bipartisan support for putting this on the agenda and not letting it be swept under the rug."
The hearing, titled, "A Dangerous Slide Backwards: Russia's Deteriorating Human Rights Situation," comes days before Obama and Putin are due to meet on the sidelines of the summit of the Group of Eight (G8) leading industrialized nations in Northern Ireland on June 17-18.
Putin will also host Obama in the Russian capital in September.
U.S. Ambassador to Moscow Michael McFaul was quoted in the Russian press this week as saying that counterterrorism cooperation would be the focus of the leaders' G8 meeting.
Russia's continuing support for the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is also expected to be a prominent, if thorny, topic of conversation.
Russian opposition leader and former Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov,
who testified at the hearing, described the apparent absence of human rights on the agenda for the meeting as a danger sign.
"Attempts by some in the West, including in the United States, to adopt a realpolitik approach and to conduct business as usual with the Putin regime contradict the most basic values of democracy, human rights, and the rule of law," he said. "Such [a] policy is also counterproductive, since the Kremlin considers it as a sign of weakness and, therefore, as an invitation to behave even more aggressively, both at home and abroad."
Call To Support Select Activities
As senators and witnesses alike recounted a laundry list of Russian rights concerns -- from a law branding foreign-funded NGOs as "foreign agents" to a crackdown on gay rights and harsh sentences against protesters -- they also entertained ideas on how Washington might work to fight the trend.
Stephen Sestanovich, who formerly served as U.S. ambassador at large for the former Soviet Union, said, "Resources are just as important as letters."
He suggested Washington take the money it formerly spent on U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) programs in Russia and focus on supporting a few select activities in the country's civil society.
Russia expelled USAID from the country last autumn. The agency said it had provided "more than $2.6 billion toward Russia's social and economic development" since 1992.
"I'd focus on a couple that I think are particularly at the interface between civil society and politics, and I'll give you two kinds of activities," Sestanovich said. "One involves polling and public opinion and the other involves election monitoring."
Election monitor Golos,
which has gathered evidence of electoral fraud, and the Levada Center polling organization
, which has tracked Putin's declining popularity, are both resisting state pressure to register as "foreign agents."
U.S. Senator John McCain (Republican-Arizona) was among several lawmakers who spoke in favor of expanding the Magnitsky list, a set of sanctions imposed by Washington this year on 18 alleged rights violators in Russia.
Moscow responded by issuing its own blacklist of U.S. officials and banning U.S. adoptions of Russian children.