Free trade vs. democratic reforms in Russia

Invitation to join WTO sparks debate on U.S. human rights bill

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Russia’s expected invitation to join the World Trade Organization this month has ignited debate in Congress on a bill that targets Russian human rights abuse and a trade law that could hurt U.S. businesses.

The debate about punishing Russian human-rights abusers and voiding a Cold War-era trade law poses a test for the Obama administration’s “reset” in relations with the former Soviet republic.

As a WTO member, Russia would enjoy regulated access to U.S. markets, even as Moscow has backslid on democratic reforms by cracking down on dissenters, limiting opposition and restricting the press.

Russia has threatened to end cooperation with the U.S. on Iran sanctions and Afghan transit if the U.S. implements the proposed Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act.

The bipartisan bill would deny U.S. visas to Russian officials implicated in human rights abuses and freeze assets they hold in the United States.

Named for a whistleblowing Russian lawyer who was arrested and tortured to death in 2009, the Magnitsky Act also would require the State Department to make its blacklist public and respond to congressional inquiries about names not on the list.

Russia has threatened to retaliate with its own blacklist, targeting U.S. officials involved in the prosecution of Russian citizens such as arms dealer Viktor Bout and drug smuggler Konstantin Yaroshenko.

President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton have made no public statements on the Magnitsky Act, but senior administration officials privately have warned bill supporters that Moscow’s reaction to its passage could have negative consequences.

An aide to a Democratic senator who backs the bill said administration officials have opposed it “in as quiet a way as possible because … all our legislative push is doing is saying, ‘If you’re a gross violator of human rights, you shouldn’t have the privilege of an American visa, and if you’re parking your ill-gotten gains in our banking system, we will freeze them.’

“We know Russia’s Interior Ministry is strongly against this - we expect that - but to my mind, our only opponents really are corrupt Russian officials and those whom they succeed in scaring, which could be certain people at the State Department,” the aide said.

The bill, spearheaded by Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin, Maryland Democrat, has 26 Senate co-sponsors -14 Republicans, 11 Democrats and one independent.

Sen. John F. Kerry, Massachusetts Democrat and chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has not set a date for the committee to consider the bill.

But Mr. Kerry said he was heartened by the administration’s July announcement that it would deny visas to Russian officials involved in the Magnitsky case.

“Respect for human rights is a cornerstone of our foreign policy,” Mr. Kerry said. “The committee is deeply concerned about what happened to Sergei Magnitsky, and I strongly support the administration’s decision to use its authority to bar human-rights abusers from coming to the U.S.”

The push for new protections of Russian human rights comes as the administration seeks to retire an old one: the 1974 Jackson-Vanik Amendment, which bars normal trade relations with countries that restrict free emigration.

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About the Author

Ben Birnbaum

Ben Birnbaum is a reporter covering foreign affairs for The Washington Times. Prior to joining The Times, Birnbaum worked as a reporter-researcher at the New Republic. A Boston-area native, he graduated magna cum laude from Cornell University with a degree in government and psychology. He won multiple collegiate journalism awards for his articles and columns in the Cornell Daily Sun.

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