Russian President Vladimir Putin sometimes converses in Swedish with his chief of staff, Sergei Ivanov, Ivanov told the Moscow Times in an odd revelation published on October 2.
But President Putin may have had reason to brush up on his Swedish. On September 23, Stockholm refused to clearly guarantee Kremlin critic Bill Browder protection from a Russian arrest warrant while briefing Sweden's parliament on the case of Sergei Magnitsky. As a result, Browder canceled his trip to Stockholm.
Magnitsky was a tax lawyer who died from abuse in a Russian jail cell nearly four years ago. Russian authorities had detained him in retaliation for exposing a massive tax fraud against the Russian public. In addition to jailing Magnitsky in appalling conditions that led to his death, the Russian government also posthumously convicted him, and Browder in absentia, of tax evasion, and is pursuing other cases against Browder as well.
In a letter to Browder's attorneys, Martin Valfridsson, an official in Sweden's Justice Ministry, said Stockholm could not act on a request from Russia that had not been made.
Left to stand, Sweden's at best ambiguous position on Browder reflects a disturbing deference to Moscow on a legal matter that even Interpol has refused to respect, labeling it "predominantly political."
Furthermore, Stockholm's action is a back door way to thwart progress toward adoption of legislation that would put Sweden, its banks and desirable real estate off limits to Russians connected to Magnitsky's death or other abuses of power. And it is damaging to the Russian democratic opposition which has enthusiastically endorsed the Magnitsky sanctions effort as "pro-Russian."
Browder's compelling arguments and personal testimony contributed substantially to the U.S. Congress's adoption of such sanctions in the face of the Obama administration's opposition. Once the law was enacted, however, the Obama administration issued a visa ban list of 18 names – 16 of which were associated with the Magnitsky case. A separate, classified list includes other officials, including the Kremlin ally and known rights abuser, the president of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov, according to the New York Times. Dozens of other officials connected to the Magnitsky case or to other abuses and corruption cases could be put on the list due from the State Department by the next Congressionally-imposed deadline of December 14.
In order to be maximally effective, the Magnitsky sanctions must be adopted in Europe, where many Russian officials travel, educate their children and own property. Fortunately, some European countries – Germany and the Netherlands – have firmly and explicitly rejected Russian pressure, enabling Browder to bring the Magnitsky case and the case for sanctions to their parliaments and publics. Letters of safe passage issued in advance of Browder's visit clearly rejected Russian efforts, and Great Britain, where Browder lives and is a citizen, has done the same.
Sweden should reverse its decision on Browder, make it absolutely clear he faces no danger from Russia's specious lawsuits on Swedish soil and invite him back to brief the parliament. The message should be convened directly and clearly to President Putin. Delivering it in Swedish would be a nice touch.
Ellen Bork is Director of Democracy and Human Rights at the Foreign Policy Initiative in Washington, D.C.