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How to fight a kleptocracy and win

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Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump exchange notes during a bilateral meeting on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Hamburg, Germany. (Mikhail Klimentyev/Russian Presidential Press and Information Office/TASS/Abaca Press/TNS)
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Have we found Vladimir Putin’s Achilles’ heel?

The Russian president likes to look like he’s in charge. From his smirks, nods and chuckles to his bare-chested rides on horseback, Putin knows how to project the look of a suave dude who has it all handled. So when he gets riled up about something, you have to stop and wonder — maybe even check it out a little.

Lately, Putin seems to have lost his cool over the prospect of children in Russian orphanages losing out on a chance at adoption by American families.

Riiight.

Who would believe that a man leading a regime in which the disappearance of reporters and political dissidents is just another day at the Kremlin has a squishy spot for small children?

Nobody, that’s who. Except gullible people, or those who need a cover story for why they are working to undermine the Magnitsky Act.

You may have heard about the Magnitsky Act — also known as the Russia and Moldova Jackson-Vanik Repeal and Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act of 2012 — which passed with bipartisan support and was signed by President Barack Obama.

It helped promote trade between the United States and Russia (and Moldova) after they joined the World Trade Organization that year. Although Russia and Moldova may have opened their markets after leaving behind a system in which the government owned and managed their economic assets (like gas, oil and minerals), the countries weren’t exactly transitioning to an oppen-market system with some semblance of rules and transparency.

Instead, Putin sold off what were formerly state assets to well-connected friends and loyalists, and made sure that he got some future dividends in the form of a piece of the skims.

But when lawyer Sergei Magnitsky blew the whistle on the skimming of $230 million in tax revenue by oligarchs, he was subsequently arrested, tortured and died in custody.

So, American lawmakers agreed to normalize trade with Russia— the caveat being anyone involved in the persecution of Magnitsky would face personal sanctions in the form of denied entry into the U.S. and, perhaps even more significantly, denied banking privileges in U.S. banks. Because what good is all the money in the world if you can’t spend it?

So far, the sanctions have touched dozens of people implicated in Magnitsky’s persecution.

Putin’s ban on the adoption of Russian children by Americans was ostensibly instituted in retaliation to this injustice perpetrated by the U.S. But why would you punish the most vulnerable in your society — orphans — by denying them parents, especially when these potential parents can adopt from other places? It doesn’t pass the smell test.

Putin needs a cover story that avoids discussion of what the Magnitsky Act is really about, because it makes him look bad every time it’s mentioned. The bill refers to specific human rights abuses perpetrated by his regime. It “names and shames.” So, he creates an absurd cover story about it, meant to direct the discussion toward innocent orphans instead of corrupt oligarchs and kleptocrats.

(You can see why Putin hates it so much. He sent an envoy to meet with Team Trump last year to see if they’d play ball, easing enforcement in return for “kompromat” on Hillary Clinton.)

William Browder testified at a Senate judiciary hearing last week. He’s an American who used to run a hedge fund in Russia until he and his lawyer, Magnitsky, uncovered and attempted to expose corruption.

You may have seen reports of some of Browder’s testimony on the news, or even an interview or two on TV. That is, until another former hedge fund manager did a walk-on in the Trump Media Circus, playing a hapless, f-bombing communications hack for a week or so — and knocked the Magnitsky story off the headlines.

Funny how that worked out.

The next time a Team Trump fiasco goes straight to a shooting geyser of professional and personal drama instead of bubbling up into a steady spurt, switch the channel over to C-SPAN. Because there might be something going on over there that people making money off massive, systemic corruption that is covered up by human rights abuses really, really don’t want you to know about. And that might give other nations some ideas.

Because if all the money in the world can’t get your kid an Ivy League education, shopping sprees or vacations in the Hamptons or the French Riviera, what’s the point?

Maureen Erwin is a Bay Area political consultant. Most recently she led Sonoma County’s Measure M, which will create the largest GMO-free growing zone in the U.S.

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