- Associated Press - Thursday, December 6, 2012

A Russian free-trade and human rights bill cleared Congress and headed for President Obama’s signature Thursday, opening new export opportunities for American businesses but antagonizing relations with Russia over its treatment of dissidents.

The Moscow government, while welcoming better trade relations, threatened retaliation over a section of the bill that would punish Russian officials who allegedly commit human rights violations. A Russian parliament official suggested sanctions could be imposed on U.S. officials accused of rights violations in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere, while the Foreign Ministry said the legislation “will have a negative impact on bilateral cooperation” and responsibility for that will “completely lie with the United States.”

Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican and a main sponsor of the human rights measure with Democratic Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin of Maryland, contended it would help the Russian people by “sending a signal to [President] Vladimir Putin and the Russian plutocracy that these kinds of abuses of human rights will not be tolerated.”

The 92-4 vote Thursday by the Senate to establish permanent normal trade relations with Russia followed an equally convincing vote in the House last month. The bill eliminates a long-obsolete 1974 provision, called the Jackson-Vanik Amendment, that tied trade relations with the former Soviet Union to the emigration of Jews and other Soviet minorities.

Although Mr. Obama and past presidents during the past two decades annually have waived the Jackson-Vanik restrictions, the provision lingered on the books because of congressional antipathy toward Russia’s human rights record and anti-American policies. This year the issues have included Russian support of the Bashar Assad government in Syria.

But acting to eliminate the 1974 provision and making normal relations permanent became a necessity when Russia on Aug. 22 entered the World Trade Organization, which forced the nation to lower tariffs, ease import restrictions, protect intellectual property and participate in the WTO dispute-resolution system.

Until the United States normalized trade, U.S. traders would have been virtually alone among the members of the 157-nation WTO unable to use the increased market access.

The administration and economists estimate that U.S. exports of goods and services, now about $11 billion a year, could double over the next five years under normalized trade relations with Russia — and its 140 million consumers and expanding middle class.

The Coalition for U.S.-Russia Trade, which represents manufacturing, service and agriculture interests, said the United States now commands only about 4 percent of Russia’s import market of $400 billion a year, compared with 40 percent for Europe and 16 percent for China.

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