During a speech today in Russia, Congressman Tom Lantos surprised some by calling for the repeal of the Jackson-Vanik Amendment, a draconian piece of legislation dating from 1974 Trade Act which denies Russia and other countries normal trade relations with the United States based on their policies of emigration. Rep. Tom Lantos The AP reports:
“It’s time to put behind us this relic of the Cold War,” Rep. Tom Lantos, D-Calif., said at a news conference. “I will spare no effort to bring this about and I have every expectation that I will be successful.” Moscow has long urged the United States to abolish the Jackson-Vanik amendment tying Russia’s trade status to whether it freely allows Jewish emigration. President Vladimir Putin and other Russian officials and lawmakers long have criticized Washington for failing to repeal the legislation, saying the refusal to do so undermined trust between the two nations.
Originally designed as a non-military policy innovation to fight communism without directly punishing its victims, Jackson-Vanik helped bring close to 500,000 Russian emigrees to settle in the United States. Today, and largely since the end of the Cold War, Jackson-Vanik remains in place serving an entirely different function: a protectionist shield benefiting certain industries with bi-partisan blocs in both the House and Senate. I wholeheartedly applaud Rep. Tom Lantos’s decision to pick up the ball on Jackson-Vanik, however I do not view it as a conciliatory gesture – just common sense for mutual benefit. As I have said numerous times in the past, those of us who want Russia to enter the international fold, to observe and be bound by international law, should not only urge the United States government to repeal this discriminatory legislation, we should furthermore support Russia’s entry into the World Trade Organization. Such policy decisions are not rewards for President Vladimir Putin’s stewardship of Russia, they are not endorsements for the Kremlin’s backslide into authoritarianism, but rather they represent important incentives for the government to make improvements, and an opportunity to deepen business and political ties. Normalizing trade relations with Russia will ensnare the government in a much more effective and comprehensive legal environment, importing an important series of rules and processes that can help protect all individuals from state impunity. Numerous people have also commented that there are contending visions in Washington in regards to Jackson-Vanik, but a failure to repeal it may have the effect of emboldening the most lawless elements within the Kremlin:
Most religious and political freedom groups agree that Russia no longer violates the terms of the original amendment, but that hasn’t stopped some congressional leaders from creating new, ad hoc reasons for keeping Russia bound by it. In April, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist said that Jackson-Vanik graduation would hinge on Russian cooperation with the United States on the Iranian nuclear crisis. And while Frist will be out of office next month, he is being replaced by a host of other congressmen, including California Representative Tom Lantos, who would link graduation to a broader assessment of Russian human rights. What’s more, accompanying Frist out the door will be Pennsylvania Representative Curt Weldon, one of the most vocal advocates of graduation on the Hill. As Elizabeth Stewart, a foreign policy adviser to Oregon Senator Gordon Smith, predicted at an American Enterprise Institute panel in October, “I think it is unlikely the administration will be given a free pass on Russia the next two years.” But it’s the next few months that really matter. Congress will be under pressure to bring Russia’s standing under Jackson-Vanik to a vote early in the next session, because Russia’s WTO accession talks will begin early this year and its graduation is an informal requirement for them to succeed. If Congress votes no, or just tables the issue, the trade organization is unlikely to override what is essentially a U.S. veto and allow Russia into its fold. … The fear among Russia watchers, then, is that a WTO failure would delegitimize the liberals and hurt Putin while elevating the anti-Western siloviki. If they gain power, then Russian intransigence could turn into Russian antipathy, or even aggression: As Bremmer and Charap note, the siloviki see NATO and the United States as active threats, talk of revanchist plans for the former Soviet republics, harbor anti-Semitic and xenophobic views, and are openly derogatory of democracy and free markets. Nor is that the worst-case scenario–a disorderly realignment could empower the extremists, who, unlike the siloviki, have no pretense of abiding by the rule of law or international agreements. In an ironic twist, then, a failure to lift the Jackson-Vanik restrictions could end up reviving the very specters it was enacted to combat.
It is also interesting to note that Rep. Lantos did bring up his opinion on Mikhail Khodorkovsky during this visit:
“I consider him a political prisoner,” Lantos said. He added that the Khodorkovsky case had cast a “severe shadow” on Russia’s reputation.