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Opinion

Russian elections: Putin 4.0 at a crossroads

After Russian elections on Sunday, expect what amounts to a fourth term for Putin. But Putin 4.0 faces a tough choice. His KGB officer instincts call for tightening the grip. But Russia's future – and thousands of protesters – demand greater freedom and reforms.

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International business pays a high price for the Kremlin’s heavy-handedness. When Russia joins the World Trade Organization accession, US corporations may gain access to the organization’s dispute resolution mechanisms, provided the US Congress lifts the obsolete 1974 Jackson-Vanick Amendment that ties trade to emigration. Yet given the sorry state of the rule of law in Russia, members of Congress are unlikely to remove the Jackson-Vanick roadblock without gaining a legislative tool to address Russian corruption and human rights violations.

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One such bill is the bipartisan Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law and Accountability Act, proposed by Senators John McCain (R) of Arizona and Benjamin Cardin (D) of Maryland.  It is named after a lawyer who exposed a $230 corruption scheme and died in detention, apparently as a result of torture, beatings, and denial of medical care.

The Magnitsky Act would ban most notoriously corrupt foreign officials from entering the US and allow their ill-gotten property to be seized and confiscated by US courts. Similar legislation is being debated in Canada and some European countries.

Western leaders also should demand the release of Mikhail Khodorkovsky and other political prisoners. As was the release of Andrey Sakharov by Mikhail Gorbachev, this would be a symbolic gesture, signaling a new beginning.

Putin 4.0 faces a tough call. His KGB officer instincts and his personal reading of Russian history call for tightening the grip. But Russia’s future, its survival, and prosperity are calling for greater freedom and far reaching reforms. Without them, Russian history teaches us that repression can last only so long.

If that’s the case, Putin’s next term in office and his country’s prosperity are likely to end up in an intractable crisis, if not in a violent revolt. That would be, as the Russians say, “senseless and pitiless.”

Ariel Cohen is senior research fellow for Russian and Eurasian studies at The Heritage Foundation.

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