In Washington, the question about whether Donald Trump Jr.'s meeting with a Russian lawyer signalled a willingness to collude with Moscow is dominating U.S. politics. But in Canada, it is worth taking note of the issue that was discussed at that meeting, because it is an issue here, too.
Not the dirt on Hillary Clinton that was dangled to make Mr. Trump Jr. eager to meet with a woman he was told was a Russian government lawyer, but the thing they actually talked about: the so-called Magnitsky act, which authorizes sanctions against officials involved in human-rights transgressions.
Setting aside questions of collusion, this tale provides another glimpse of the Russian desire to fight Magnitsky laws. And as it happens, one is before the Canadian Parliament right now.
And oh, how the Russians hate it.
Natalia Veselnitskaya, the Russian lawyer at the meeting with the U.S. President's son, said she did not go there to dish dirt about Ms. Clinton. According to her interviews with U.S. TV networks, and to Mr. Trump Jr., she went to talk about the Magnitsky law and adoptions.
The "adoptions" issue, in case you are wondering, is about the Magnitsky law, too. Back in 2012, when the United States passed the act, the Russian government responded by outlawing the adoption of Russian children by Americans.
It is a bizarre kind of tit-for-tat. But Ms. Veselnitskaya knows it well. She represents Denys Katsyv – the son of Petr Katsyv, the vice-president of state-owned Russian Railways and a former deputy governor of Moscow region – who owns Prevezon Holdings, a real estate firm that had $14-million in assets frozen under the Magnitsky act. Ms. Veselnitskaya has been an active campaigner against Magnitsky laws, and represented an organization called the Human Rights Accountability Global Initiative Foundation, dedicated to overturning the Russian adoption ban. And the way to overturn the adoption ban is to overturn the Magnitsky law.
Ms. Veselnitskaya insisted she is not working for the Russian government, and never provided damaging material on Ms. Clinton. So it's just that the junior Trump went to a meeting where he thought he would get dirt on Ms. Clinton from a Russian government lawyer and wound up hearing about something Russia desperately wants the United States to change. It doesn't sound good for Mr. Trump Jr. But it's clear what Ms. Veselnitskaya wanted: a repeal of the Magnitsky law.
The law is named after Sergei Magnitsky, the lawyer for U.S.-born investor Bill Browder and his Hermitage Capital, who investigated a $230-million tax-fraud scheme that implicated Russian officials, and was sent to jail, where he died. Mr. Browder campaigned for the United States to pass a law allowing it to sanction officials involved in rights abuses. Now there are broader versions, so-called Global Magnitsky laws, that can be used to impose sanctions such as asset freezes on officials from any country. Britain passed one this spring. Canadian MPs are expected to pass one this fall.
It's no longer aimed solely at Russia, but Russia still hates it. Mr. Browder has argued that Russian President Vladimir Putin fears it will loosen his authority over officials and oligarchs by raising the prospect they will be sanctioned for corruption. The Russian foreign ministry warned Canada that passing such a law would be a "blatantly unfriendly" step.
Ms. Veselnitskaya does not like it. She posted a Facebook message last year saying so, particularly attacking Marcus Kolga, a pro-Magnitsky-law activist who runs Liefa Communications and is a senior fellow with the MacDonald-Laurier Institute. After that, Mr. Kolga said, a member of Russia's Civic Chamber called for Russian prosecutors to investigate his anti-Russian activities. Mr. Kolga sees Ms. Veselnitskaya as working for Mr. Putin, against Magnitsky laws.
Apart from the Russian embassy, there has not been a great deal of lobbying against the Canadian Magnitsky bill. Conservative MP James Bezan, a strong supporter, said he has not seen a private lobbying campaign against it other than "trolls" on social media. There's probably no point: all three major parties support the Magnitsky law. But he said he fears there will be a Russian-backed effort to discredit politicians who pushed it, such as himself, or Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland. He noted that a story about Ms. Freeland's grandfather editing a Nazi newspaper during the occupation of Poland was widely promoted earlier this year by pro-Russian media who claimed it raised questions about her integrity. It's not clear if there will be more, of course, but when it comes to Magnitsky laws, it's clear what Russia wants.