Russia Trade Bill Deja Vu
Should US Tie Trade To Russian Conduct? Can It?

The echoes of the fight over the Jackson-Vanik amendment are heard forty years later in the attempt to normalize US trade with Russia.

Tags: Russia-US
Amiel Ungar ,

Boris Nemtsov
Boris Nemtsov

History is sometimes cyclical.

In 1974, Congress was debating the Jackson-Vanik amendment that would restrict most-favored-nation treatment to the Soviet Union and tie trade relaxation to Soviet willingness to allow Jewish emigration to Israel. The leader of this fight was the late Senator Henry Martin Jackson of Washington, a paragon of friendship to Israel and the Jewish people.

Secretary of State Henry Kissinger led the fight against the amendment, claiming that the Soviet Union would view it as intervention into its internal affairs and that as a proud superpower, it would only stiffen its position on Jewish emigration; therefore, quiet diplomacy was the preferred tactic.

In the congressional hearings, American businesses and particularly the Business Roundtable, lobbied strongly against the amendment. It was 1973 and the US economy was reeling due to the aftereffects of a costly Vietnam War and the hike in oil prices following the Yom Kippur war.

It was important for American business to trade with the Soviet Union at a time that the Soviet Union and Eastern European countries were massively buying Western goods and technology in the hope of jumpstarting their economies. The Jackson-Vanik amendment would effectively close the door to American business and make sure that the Europeans would have the Russian market to themselves.

Jackson prevailed and in 1975, the trade law with the Jackson-Vanek amendment was signed into law.

Jews enjoy free emigration from Russia today, but the Jackson-Vanik amendment is still on the books, even though it is annually waived.

Now that Russia has entered the World Trade Organization, Montana Senator Max Baucus is trying to repeal the Jackson amendment as a "relic of the Cold War." He wants permanent normalized trade relations (PN TR) The major opponent of this policy is Senator John Kyl of Arizona.

While Baucus is a Democrat and Kyle is a Republican, the debate crosses party lines and Senate majority whip Dick Durbin, a Democrat from President Obama's State of Illinois, is closer to Kyl on this issue.

Old faces are back, including the Business Roundtable that views passing PNTR as a "top  legislative priority," David Thomas, vice president of public policy for the lobby, told The Hill

"The legislation is needed for U.S. companies and workers to compete selling their goods and services to Russia," he said. "Failure to pass a bill would "make it much more difficult for U.S. companies to compete with Russia against foreign competition." Baucus brought in beef farmers from his state of Montana, who told the legislators that beef exports to Russia would skyrocket once trade relations were regularized.

Russia has not exactly earned itself popularity in Congress by backing the Assad regime in Syria, including arms sales to Damascus not by its applying the brakes to measures against Iran. Most recently, the Vladimir Putin reelection campaign was heavily laced with anti-Americanism.

The legislators are also upset by the corruption and human rights abuses in Russia, and in 2011, the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act was introduced, named after a Russian lawyer who accused Russian bureaucrats of tax corruption - only to have them accuse him of tax crimes.

Magnitsky died in police custody, apparently as a result of beatings. Russia's response to outside pressures to investigate the case has been the recent announcement to posthumously investigate Magnitsky's crimes.

As in the fight over Jackson-Vanik, Russian dissidents are currently involved as well. Nobel Prize winning physicist Andrei Sakharov supported Jackson-Vanik. Today, opposition figures Boris Nemtsov, former chess champion Gary Kasparov and the blogger Alexei Navanly, hero of the Russian opposition, want international pressure on Vladimir Putin, calling such legislation in the Wall Street Journal "pro-Russian rather than anti-Russian.".

"We do, however" they added, "ask that the U.S. and other leading nations of the Free World cease to provide democratic credentials to Mr. Putin. This is why symbols matter, and why Jackson-Vanik still matters."