WASHINGTON -- The latest session of a high-ranking U.S.-Russia dialogue on human rights included frank exchanges on press freedom and corruption, according to a senior U.S. official who participated in the talks.
Michael McFaul, senior director of Russian and Eurasian affairs on the U.S. president's National Security Council, described the talks in an interview with RFE/RL.
The U.S.-Russia Bilateral Presidential Commission's Civil Society Working Group, established two years ago as part of the "reset" in U.S.-Russia relations, brings together officials and representatives of nongovernmental organizations from both countries. McFaul, who will reportedly be nominated by President Barack Obama to be America's next ambassador to Russia, holds the chair for the U.S. side. His Russian counterpart, Vladislav Surkov, is first deputy chairman in the administration of Russian President Dmitry Medvedev.
The meeting, held in Washington on June 6-7, summed up the results of a series of lower-level discussions on topics ranging from immigration policy to protecting the rights of children.
But it was during a session on prison reform that participants began discussing the case of Sergei Magnitsky, a Russian corporate lawyer who died in prison after being denied medical assistance in 2009. Magnitsky was employed by Hermitage Capital Management, a global investment company that accuses Russian police and tax officials of colluding to steal its assets.
Magnitsky's story has become a test case of sorts for the Russian government's commitment to the rule of law.
"We had a very long discussion of the Magnitsky case with civil-society representatives at the meeting, in particular, asking the toughest questions of all to Mr. Surkov and other representatives of the Russian government," said McFaul.
While concurring that Magnitsky's death was a "tragedy," said McFaul, Russian official representatives responded by explaining new laws put in place to prevent a recurrence of the events surrounding his death.
That, said McFaul, was not enough for some participants.
"I think that others pushed back on that to say, 'Well, it's one thing to have new laws and all that, but the people who were responsible for this crime have not been prosecuted,'" said McFaul. "There was a pretty healthy exchange about that and a pretty healthy disagreement about the facts of that particular case."
The Engagement Question
McFaul's remarks come at a moment when Congress has tabled draft legislation that would impose sanctions on 60 Russian officials implicated in involvement in the Magnitsky case.
The Obama administration has made better relations with Russia -- sometimes known as "the reset" -- one of its foreign policy priorities, and the broad slate of bilateral talks now conducted by the two governments on a variety of topics, from education to national security, are often cited as one fruit of that rapprochement.
The administration's supporters say that closer ties have paid off in the form of greater Russian diplomatic cooperation on several fronts, including military intervention in Libya, measures to isolate Iran over its nuclear program, and logistical assistance for the war in Afghanistan.
"Part of the reset is to engage with the Russian government on issues of national security and it's also to engage with the Russian government on issues of democracy and human rights," said McFaul. "In all kinds of different ways that's what we've tried to do, including in our interaction with the Russian government in this particular working group."
Opponents criticize administration policies for being too accommodating toward Moscow. Republican Senator John McCain (Arizona) frequently assails White House policy on Russia for its "lack of realism." Just a few days ago, his former running mate and potential presidential candidate Sarah Palin belittled White House efforts to cooperate with Russia on European missile defense.
For his part, McFaul, while intent on citing instances of constructive engagement between the two sides, made sure to touch upon some notable differences of opinion.
"[W]e also had a pretty candid discussion...about the role that civil society can and should play to fight corruption and the role that media must play to fight corruption -- and that a healthy media and an independent media is a necessary and maybe one of the most effective tools for reducing corruption, for exposing corruption within the government," said McFaul.
He added: "There obviously are many things a Russian government could do if they were serious about this, and that was put to them very bluntly at this meeting last week."
Corruption, by virtually all accounts, remains deeply entrenched in Russia. And freedom of the press has diminished steadily over the years, according to most independent media watchdog organizations. Russia remains one of the most dangerous countries in the world to be a journalist.
Despite the scale of the problems, however, McFaul insisted that the talks could still play a role in helping the governments devise better public policy. He added, though, that the discussion forum represented only one part of a much broader effort by the Americans to advance human rights within Russia.
Asked how he would measure the impact of the talks, he said that "the judges of that have to be the leaders of civil society in Russia."
"That's not for me to judge, frankly," he added. "I know their criticism, I listen to their criticism, I respect their criticism. We've tried to react to it, and our attitude is that we can engage in dialogue and disagreement."