Paul Greenberg

How about that? Not just Barack Obama can "reset" American policy toward Russia, or give it more "flexibility," to quote his not-so-confidential promise to that country's newest czar. (Our president didn't realize he was talking into an open mike at the time.) It turns out that, in this remarkably well-designed government of divided powers, Est. 1787, Congress can do a little resetting itself.

Now that co-equal branch of government has reset the terms of trade with Russia, formerly the Soviet Union of unlamented memory, sic semper tryannis. Congress even got the president to sign on to the effort.

This latest outbreak of courage and principle on Congress' part is called the Magnitsky Bill -- in honor of Sergei Magnitsky, a crusading Russian lawyer who exposed a fraudulent tax scheme on the part of Vladimir Putin's oh-so-new-and-different regime. Counselor Magnitsky's reward? He died in a Soviet -- excuse me, Russian -- prison after being tortured.

In exchange for relaxing trade restrictions on Russia, the Magnitsky Bill denies visas to any Russian officials involved in Sergei Magnitsky's torture or any other abuses of human rights -- and also prevents them from transferring their considerable assets via the American banking system.

Yikes, that must hurt Russia's new oligarchs. No wonder they're fuming and threatening dire repercussions. Like what? Like our no longer being able to buy a nifty Russian car like a Lada in this country? Also known as a Lada Junk, it came with heated rear windows -- so your hands woudn't get cold pushing it. (When he made a well-publicized appearance to advertise the latest model Lada, it took Vladimir Putin only five times or so to start the thing.)

This isn't the first time Congress has taken a stand for freedom behind the Iron Curtain. Back in another era, it was called the Jackson-Vanik Amendment. The sainted Scoop Jackson, one of the last of the Cold Warriors, was the driving spirit behind that law. Its terms were simple: No free trade for the Soviets without free emigration for its people, including its long-oppressed Jews.

By 1987, there was a "new" Russia, and its leader -- Mikhail Gorbachev -- was preparing to honor us with a state visit. Remember him? He was going to open up and completely reform Soviet Communism, as if a criminal conspiracy from its very origins and down to its very roots could be reformed by repeating magic words --Glasnost! Perestroika!

Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.