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Free trade vs. democratic reforms in Russia
Invitation to join WTO sparks debate on U.S. human rights bill
Question of the Day
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.
Administration officials have warned that failing to end Jackson-Vanik's applicability to Russia would keep U.S. businesses from reaping the full benefits of its WTO membership. Russia's $2.2 trillion-a-year economy is the world's seventh largest.
Given the collapse of Russian democracy, though, some administration officials - including Michael McFaul, ambassador-designate to Russia - have conceded the need for a human rights replacement to Jackson-Vanik.
"Let's have another act," Mr. McFaul said in April. "Call it the Jackson-Vanik Act of 2011."
But asked about the comment for the record by Sen. Richard G. Lugar, Indiana Republican, Mr. McFaul retreated to administration talking points, saying that Jackson-Vanik had "served its historic purpose by helping thousands of Jews emigrate from the Soviet Union" and vowing that the U.S. would continue funding Russian civil-society groups and raising human-rights concerns with Russian officials.
Pavel Khodorkovksy - son of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the oil magnate who bankrolled the Russian opposition before being jailed in 2003 - told The Times that he supports gradually releasing Russia from Jackson-Vanik, but only if the Magnitsky Act is passed.
He said the Russian opposition is closely monitoring the bill's fate.
"It's viewed probably as one of the only things right now that can push the country in the right direction from the outside because there are very few real levers that could be used by foreign governments to impact what's happening in Russia today," Mr. Khodorkovksy said, lamenting that "human-rights considerations have been pushed aside" since the reset.
Maneuvering over Jackson-Vanik and Magnitsky comes amid Russia's ongoing conflict with neighboring Georgia about the latter's breakaway provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
Georgia ended its hold on Russia's accession Nov. 10, after the sides agreed to a Swiss-mediated pact providing for international monitors to track the flow of goods between Russia and the two regions.
Georgian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergi Kapanadze, who led Georgia in the negotiations, told The Times that he believes Russia's WTO membership could serve Georgia's interests.
"We're happy we got this agreement because [international monitoring] is something we have been pressing for," he said. "It's important that Russia join the WTO because all trade disputes and trade-related issues we have can now be addressed in the WTO dispute-resolution mechanism."
Russia will be invited to become the WTO's 154th member at the body's ministerial meeting that begins in Geneva on Dec. 15. Russia's membership will become official 30 days after ratification by its parliament, which is likely to come early next year.
© Copyright 2014 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.
About the Author
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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