US lawmakers decry Russia vote, warn of blacklist
US lawmakers rebuked Moscow's leadership Wednesday for "engineering" recent elections, and urged legislation to blacklist any Russian believed responsible for rights violations from traveling to the United States.
At a US Senate hearing focused on corruption and rule of law in Russia, days after tens of thousands of demonstrators marched charging electoral fraud, State Department officials said they recognized a "national awakening" among Russian citizens calling for accountability of their government.
Protesters allege the majority won by United Russia in the parliamentary elections early this month were the result of ballot-stuffing amid reports of irregularities by Russian and international observers.
Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has accused the United States of provoking the post-vote protests -- a surprise challenge to his decade-long era of domination -- though the White House has praised President Dmitry Medvedev's move to have the Central Election Commission investigate fraud charges.
Senator Ben Cardin on Wednesday stressed the ongoing human rights issues within Russia concerning mass arrests, arbitrary detentions, and mistreatment of prisoners.
"Unless we put a spotlight on this, it will just continue," he said, calling for support for legislation he introduced that seeks to restrict US visas for accused rights abusers and possibly bring in asset freezes for those violators.
The bill, the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act named after a Russian lawyer who died in detention after seeking to expose government corruption, is pending before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
"The absence of an adequate rule of law doesn't just mean that the judicial system is weak. It also... scares off foreign investment," warned Senator Jeanne Shaheen, who chairs the subcommittee on European Affairs.
State Department officials urged the committee to back stronger ties -- a key tool for influence and highlighting accountability, they said.
The United States must aim "to deepen engagement.... In particular we want to expand economic ties" with Russia, said Phil Gordon, assistant secretary of state for the region.
He told the hearing that US business would benefit from Russia's pending membership in the World Trade Organization, a move he said could help tie Moscow to WTO rules.
Russia's membership in the global body, expected to be formalized at a December 15-17 WTO summit in Geneva, has been hailed by President Barack Obama as a landmark move for US-Russia relations.
Gordon emphasized that Washington remained realistic about the impact of Russia's membership and was "not pretending this is a magic wand."
Lawmakers noted that China, a WTO member, is regularly denounced in the US Congress for its lack of transparency.
© 2011 AFP