House Republican: Stop the Concessions to Putin's Russia

By Patrick Goodenough | March 22, 2012 | 4:44 AM EDT

A tearful Vladimir Putin attends a rally of supporters in Moscow after claiming victory in Russia’s presidential election on Sunday, March 4, 2012. Putin served as president from 2000-2008 and as prime minister from 2008-2012. He takes office as president again on May 7. (AP Photo)

( – Accusing the Obama administration of handing Vladimir Putin’s Russia “one concession after another and getting virtually nothing in return,” a senior House Republican said Wednesday trade restrictions should not be lifted until the Kremlin is held “accountable for actions that run contrary to U.S. national security interests.”

Addressing a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing on Russia, Chairman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) called Washington’s approval in December of Russia’s accession to the World Trade Organization (WTO) “the most recent gift.”

The administration now wants to grant Russia permanent normal trade relations (PNTR) – formerly known as most-favored nation status – a move encumbered by the continued application of the 1974 Jackson-Vanik amendment to Russia.

The Cold War-era provision in U.S. law linked trade with Moscow to free emigration for Jews and other religious minorities. Putin has called it “anachronistic,” and the Obama administration and many others concur that it is outdated.

“That amendment has long been a symbol of U.S. commitment to human rights and democracy in Russia,” Ros-Lehtinen said. “Removing Russia from its provisions would be interpreted in Moscow and elsewhere as a seal of approval from the U.S. Congress, even as the human rights situation in Russia continues to deteriorate.”

She voiced the hope that “Congress will not grant one more concession to Russia without first holding Moscow accountable for actions that run contrary to U.S. national security interests and to such foreign policy priorities as the promotion of human rights and democracy.”

The administration argues that Jackson-Vanik will harm U.S. exporters once Russia is in the WTO, since in the event of a dispute with Russian companies, they would not be able to use WTO dispute-resolution mechanisms.

“As part of the process of Russia acceding to the WTO, President Obama has now asked Congress to repeal Jackson-Vanik to ensure that our own exporters – American exporters – benefit from Russia’s accession to the WTO,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told a briefing last week.

“Because if we have this kind of non-WTO compliant legislation on the books against any country,” she continued, “then once that country accedes, our own companies cannot take full advantage of the WTO mechanisms.”

Nuland questioned the provision’s relevance: “It’s also a piece of legislation, as you know, that was designed to encourage the Soviet Union to allow free emigration,” she said. “Now we have Russia; we don’t have those kinds of emigration problems, so we think it’s time for repeal.”

During Wednesday’s Foreign Affairs Committee hearing, Ros-Lehtinen pointed to a number of Russian domestic and foreign policies, citing corruption, the monopolization of power, harassment of human rights activists and political opponents, Putin’s “anti-American rhetoric,” failure to cooperate at the U.N. regarding Iran’s nuclear program and Syrian atrocities, threats to aim missiles at NATO countries over the missile defense dispute, weapons sales to Venezuela’s Chavez regime, and the 2008 invasion of Georgia and continued occupation of parts of that country.

“I don’t know of anyone who expects Russia’s policy toward the U.S. to change for the better,” she said. “So what should the U.S. do? The most important step must be to stop giving Moscow one concession after another and getting virtually nothing in return.”

Testifying at the hearing, Steven Pifer, director of the Brookings Institution’s Arms Control Initiative argued in favor of lifting Jackson-Vanik and granting Russia PNTR status.

“That will increase U.S.-Russian trade; one estimate suggests that American exports to Russia could double,” he said in written testimony. “If, on the other hand, the amendment is still in place when Russia accedes to the World Trade Organization this summer, American companies that wish to export to Russia will be disadvantaged.”

Pifer said the Jackson-Vanik amendment had achieved its aims with regard to Russia, which had met its requirements in the mid-1990s.

David Kramer, president of the democracy watchdog Freedom House, said in his testimony he has long supporting lifting the Jackson-Vanik provisions’ application to Russia, but argued against doing so without putting an appropriate alternative in its place.

Sergei Magnitsky’s mother, Natalia Magnitskaya, holds a portrait of her son, who died in custody in Moscow in November 2009. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko)

Specifically, he urged Congress to pass legislation dubbed the “Justice for Sergei Magnitsky” bill, which would impose a visa ban and asset freeze against Russian officials suspected of involvement in the 2009 death of attorney Sergei Magnitsky, who died in custody after alleging wide scale official tax fraud.

The Senate version of the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act of 2011 extends the provisions beyond the Magnitsky case, to cover officials “responsible for extrajudicial killings, torture, or other gross violations” against human rights advocates and individuals seeking to expose illegal government activity in Russia.

“I am not prepared to support graduating Russia from Jackson-Vanik in the absence of passing the Magnitsky legislation,” Kramer told the panel. “It would send a terrible signal to lift Jackson-Vanik and have nothing to take its place. It would be perceived by the Kremlin as weakness on our part, a symbolic award to a Russian government undeserving of any such measures, and would undermine the very people in Russia whom we want to support.”

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow