Trendwatcher: Russia and United States Wage War of the Lists

© RIA NovostiNatalia Antonova
Natalia Antonova - Sputnik International
The so-called Magnitsky List, containing the names of Russian officials now banned from the United States, was supposed to have been a big deal.

The so-called Magnitsky List, containing the names of Russian officials now banned from the United States, was supposed to have been a big deal.

© RIA NovostiNatalia Antonova
Natalia Antonova  - Sputnik International
Natalia Antonova

There were rumors that the influential head of the Moscow City Court, Olga Yegorova, would wind up on it. There was discussion that Alexander Bastrykin, the powerful chief of Russia’s Investigative Committee, would be on it as well.

People even said that Vladimir Churov, who has nothing to do with law enforcement and is the head of the Elections Committee, would surely make it. When rumors of Churov’s possible inclusion emerged late in 2011, the man himself said he would be “honored.”

Perhaps Churov is bitterly disappointed at the moment, because the 18 names revealed are those of comparatively low-level officials, 16 of whom have been directly accused of some level of involvement in the death of lawyer Sergei Magnitsky.

Of course, the list may yet be expanded, but for now, there is nothing to freak out about quite as much.

And the list released by the Russian Foreign ministry in response, naming US officials who are now banned from Russia, is not exactly a cause célèbre, either. John Yoo is on it, for one thing. He is the author of the so-called “Torture Memos,” which are linked to the CIA’s controversial “enhanced interrogation techniques,” which is actually a code phrase for fun stuff like water-boarding. I haven’t seen many people up in arms on Yoo’s behalf.

Other people on the list have been accused by the Russian government of violating the rights of Russians in the United States – these include officials involved in prosecuting Russian citizens. I doubt many of them were dying to do a package tour of Russia’s Golden Ring.

So far, the real spectacle is not the names on these dueling lists. Rather, it’s this peculiar chapter in international diplomacy as a whole.

Both of the governments involved appear to be engaged in a delicate dance. Look tough, but not too tough. Make a move, but not one that’s too intense.

Russia did issue a drastic and off-the-wall response when the Magnitsky Act was initially passed, when it in turn passed the Dima Yakovlev Law and banned Americans from adopting Russian orphans. Vladimir Putin, at the time, called it an “adequate response” – leading to concerns that when the United States actually published the list of officials it was banning, Russia would just go ahead and ban Barack Obama, or something.

And then nothing much happened, leading me to wonder if the officials who pushed the Dima Yakovlev Law may just regret it a little bit (I certainly hope that at least some of them regret it). Now, it seems, there is an impasse, at least when it comes to the business of diplomacy at the very top.

What makes the latest “war of the lists” peculiar is that when it comes to trade, the United States and Russia are busy strengthening their relationship. This progress doesn’t warrant long press releases from the Foreign Ministry, but it is going on nonetheless.

Russia joined the WTO last year, and although the adaption process on that front will stretch over several years, trade is set to only increase. The Jackson-Vanik Amendment, intended to limit the United States’ trade relations with the likes of Russia, was repealed at the same time the Magnitsky Act was signed.

Indeed, the diplomatic spat over the Magnitsky List has served as a useful distraction in Russia, where officials are constantly dealing with criticism and mistrust of the WTO. A lot of Russians, farmers in particular, are worried about their country’s ascension to the trade organization. Talking tough to America, in this light, makes perfect sense.

Russian officials, after all, must always have their home audience in mind, even when engaging in direct dialogue with their American counterparts. And this new age of “symmetrical responses” therefore may suit these officials rather well.

Trendwatching in Russia is an extreme sport: if you’re not dodging champagne corks at weddings, you’re busy avoiding getting trampled by spike heels on public transportation. Thankfully, due to an amazing combination of masochism and bravado, I will do it for you while you read all about it from the safety of your living room.

Natalia Antonova is the acting editor-in-chief of The Moscow News. She also works as a playwright – her work has been featured at the Lyubimovka Festival in Moscow and Gogolfest in Kiev, Ukraine. She was born in Ukraine, but spent most of her life in the United States. She graduated from Duke University, where she majored in English and Slavic Literature. Before coming to Moscow, she worked in Dubai, UAE and Amman, Jordan. Her writing has been featured in The Guardian, Foreign Policy, Russia Profile, AlterNet, et al.

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