Russia Sends New Warning on U.S. Human Rights ‘Interference’ As It Prepares to Join WTO

July 23, 2012 - 11:57 PM

President Obama and Vladimir Putin at G20

President Obama meets with Russian President Vladimir Putin on the sidelines of a G20 Summit in Los Cabos, Mexico on Monday, June 18, 2012. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

(CNSNews.com) – As Russia’s 18-year quest to join the World Trade Organization nears its goal, the Kremlin is stepping up its opposition to a congressional plan to attach a human rights component to legislation designed to enable American companies to benefit from the WTO accession.

Lawmakers hope to pass the bill and send it to the president’s desk for signing before the August recess begins at the end of next week.

The move’s urgency was underscored Monday when Moscow formally notified the WTO that it had ratified its membership agreement and was therefore set to join on August 22.

If Washington fails to grant Russia permanent normal trade relations (PNTR), U.S. firms will be left out in the cold while foreign competitors begin profiting immediately from the WTO accession of the world’s ninth-largest market.

The House Ways and Means Committee is due this week to mark up a bill authorizing President Obama to establish PNTR and removing Russia from the 1974 Jackson-Vanik amendment, a Cold War-era provision that linked trade to free emigration for Jews and other religious minorities.

But, to Moscow’s fury and against the advice of the Obama administration, lawmakers seek to attach to it a bill that would sanction officials from Russia and other countries who are accused of violations against human rights advocates and anti-corruption activists.

Named for Sergei Magnitsky, a Russian whistleblower who died in custody in 2009, the legislation would establish a public list of rights violators who would be denied U.S. visas and have their U.S.-based assets frozen. The House Foreign Affairs and Senate Foreign Relations committees both approved versions of the Magnitsky bill last month.

The Senate Finance Committee last Wednesday unanimously passed bipartisan PNTR legislation combined with the Magnitsky measure.

Introducing PNTR legislation in the House the following day, House Ways and Means Committee chairman Dave Camp (R-Mich.) and ranking member Sander Levin (D-Mich.) both voiced support for attaching the Magnitsky legislation to the PNTR bill before it is considered by the House.

Moscow has been lobbying energetically against the Magnitsky bill, and Russian lawmakers have threatened retaliation should it become law.

On Monday, Russian ambassador to the U.S. Sergey Kislyak weighed in again, warning in a column for The Hillpublicized by the Russian foreign ministry – that it would “create new irritants” in the bilateral relationship.

“No interference in our internal affairs is going to be allowed (imagine someone trying to do the same to the American legal system),” he wrote. “As a result of the Magnitsky proposal, relations between Russia and the United States might be burdened with additional difficulties. And it looks like the whole history of adopting PNTR might end on a sad note.”

During the Senate Finance Committee markup, Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) offered an amendment that would have delayed the PNTR bill taking effect until the president had certified that Russia had stopped transferring weapons to the Syrian government. It was not taken up.

Cornyn earlier introduced a bipartisan resolution condemning Moscow for providing weapons to the Assad regime.

Critics of the Kremlin’s policies have voiced reluctance to lift Jackson-Vanik without putting in place alternative human rights provisions.

“The extension of Permanent Normal Trade Relations status and the repeal of the Jackson-Vanik amendment for Russia must be accompanied by passage of the Magnitsky Act,” Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said last month.

“As we take steps to liberalize U.S. trade with Russia, as we should, we must also maintain our long-standing support for human rights and the fight against corruption in Russia.”

In the House, House Foreign Affairs Committee chairman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) earlier this year accused the administration of handling Russian President Vladimir Putin “one concession after another and getting virtually nothing in return.”

She expressed 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.”

Freedom House president David Kramer told Ros-Lehtinen’s committee during a hearing in March that lifting Jackson-Vanik while having nothing to put in its place “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.”

The Obama administration has consistently favored PNTR legislation clean of human rights provisions, noting that the State Department had issued visa bans for Russian officials linked to the Magnitsky case in mid-2011.