FPI Bulletin: Vladimir Kara-Murza and Russia’s Future
The news that Vladimir Kara-Murza, a democratic opposition leader in Russia, has again fallen gravely ill in Moscow is a horrible shock, yet not a surprise. In May 2015, Kara-Murza experienced a similar crisis. Doctors then could not explain his sudden collapse and kidney failure; a toxicology test showed high levels of metal in his system. Of the most recent incident, Kara-Murza’s lawyer suspects poisoning.
The odds of such an event happening twice seem astronomically high. That it should happen just as Russian-backed separatists escalated their attacks in eastern Ukraine has raised concerns that these are deliberately timed challenges to a new American administration that looks weaker on Russian aggression abroad and repression at home than its predecessor.
Mr. Kara-Murza is a politician and journalist, well known and highly respected in Washington and European capitals. His powerful public speaking and writing have challenged both Putin’s authoritarianism and the weak response from the democracies. About the former, he is brave and uncompromising. Regarding the latter, he is polite, yet devastating. He says that it is up to Russians to bring about democracy but that it is vital for Americans and Europeans to stay true to their principles. Anything else undermines him and his colleagues.
Kara-Murza gently corrects us if we assign the crimes of the Putin regime to “Russia.” Writing in the Washington Post in 2014, Kara-Murza explained that Russia’s democratic opposition leaders opposed the war in Ukraine, understanding that it was intended to distract Russians from Putin’s domestic failures and to prevent a successful model of democracy from taking root next door. “Consider the irony,” he wrote, “that, while Putin’s officials justified the invasion by citing the need to ‘protect Russians in Ukraine,’ Putin’s police forces were arresting and beating Russians on the streets of Moscow and St. Petersburg for protesting against war.”
Like his friend the murdered opposition leader Boris Nemtsov, Kara-Murza helped bring about the passage of landmark human rights legislation in 2012, the so-called Magnitsky sanctions, named for Sergei Magnitsky, the tax lawyer who died from abuse in jail, where he was put for resisting official corruption. Kara-Murza insists that the visa bans and financial sanctions established by the Magnitsky Act are pro-Russian, and appreciated by most Russian citizens even if they fear saying so publicly given the current high level of repression.
After Nemtsov was assassinated in February 2015, Kara-Murza pressed Congress to adapt the sanctions to include Russian propagandists who incited violence against Nemtsov by calling him an enemy of the state. He continued working in Russia after Nemtsov’s death. Astonishingly, after recovering from near death in 2015, he returned to Russia again.
Last year, he participated in the democratic opposition coalition’s campaign for the September 2016 Duma elections. The ticket performed very badly after a season of dirty tricks and election rigging by the government. Kara-Murza resigned from the party at the end of the year over the inclusion of an anti-Semitic nationalist on the ticket. Recently Kara-Murza toured Russia with a documentary he made about Nemtsov, and was preparing for a march marking the second anniversary of Nemtsov’s assassination at the end of this month.
The circumstances of Kara-Murza’s illness are unclear, and may remain so. Nevertheless, this is a test of President Trump, who entered office too credulous of Vladimir Putin. This is also an opportunity for the administration to demonstrate its understanding of American interests and values by expressing concern for Kara-Murza and American support for democratic freedoms in Russia. The first step will be to offer help to Kara-Murza’s wife and children, longtime U.S. residents.
At his confirmation hearing, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson responded to a question about the long record of deadly attacks on Russia’s democrats, journalists and human rights activists by saying he lacked “sufficient information” and prefers to “deal with the facts.” To get the facts, you must want to have them.
Vladimir Kara-Murza recovered after his last unexplained health crisis. We hope and believe he will again. Perhaps when he does, he can brief Mr. Tillerson on the facts of the threat Russia’s democratic opposition politicians deal with every day.
The Foreign Policy Initiative seeks to promote an active U.S. foreign policy committed to robust support for democratic allies, human rights, a strong American military equipped to meet the challenges of the 21st century, and strengthening America’s global economic competitiveness.