Kremlin Shoots Itself in the Foot

By denying Kenneth Roth, the head of Human Rights Watch, a visa, the Kremlin did succeed in preventing him from presenting a critical report in Moscow. The report, titled "Choking on Bureaucracy: State Curbs on Independent Civil Society Activism," criticizes the authorities for intentionally shackling nongovernmental organizations with burdensome restrictions.

On Thursday, the Foreign Ministry offered an explanation for the denial. Ministry spokesman Mikhail Kamynin said the business visa applications filed by Roth and two colleagues identified them as "managers" for McKinsey & Company who were invited to visit Russia by the Agriculture Ministry. The real purpose of their visit, the ministry said, was to meet activists at Russian nongovernmental organizations and journalists.

If true, this is a fair pretext for denying Roth a visa. But the actual reason that Roth was unwelcome was probably linked to Human Rights Watch's years-long criticism of President Vladimir Putin.

Roth's visa denial did little to stanch his group's criticism. Its staff went ahead with the presentation on Wednesday anyway.

By refusing Roth entry, the Foreign Ministry actually shot itself in the foot. Articles about Roth's report, which was far from sensational, would have likely been buried deep inside newspapers. The visa refusal made the story more interesting, moving it to the front page of Kommersant and The Moscow Times.

If the Kremlin wants any of the millions of dollars it gives to Western PR agencies to improve the country's image to have any effect, it will have to abandon its heavy-handed approach to independent NGOs that criticize its conduct.

The authorities also must realize that, as the latest incident makes clear, the denial of a visa to one NGO activist -- even the head of an organization -- will not diminish the criticism. There are other employees, Russians included, ready to fill the void.

Roth says this is the first time someone from Human Rights Watch has been denied a visa to Russia and only the second time -- after Nigeria -- that he has been barred from visiting any country.

But Roth is not the first to have been locked out; dozens of human rights activists and journalists have been told they are not welcome in Russia.

The government would do best to choose one of two options. First, it should learn to tolerate foreign and domestic criticism, because pretending to be a democracy while moving toward autocracy can't escape watchful eyes, inside or outside the country.

Alternatively, if it isn't ready to tolerate criticism voiced inside the country, it should abandon the pretenses of democracy, shut down all independent NGOs and critical media and pull the Iron Curtain down again.