WASHINGTON -- The U.S. House of Representatives has voted in favor of extending permanent normal trade relations to Russia and Moldova, but only alongside legislation to sanction Russian officials implicated in the death of lawyer Sergei Magnitsky and in other perceived rights violations.
By a vote of 365-to-43, lawmakers supported exemption for Moscow and Chisinau from the Cold War-era Jackson-Vanik Amendment, which imposed trade barriers on the Soviet Union for restricting the emigration of Jews.
The U.S. Senate is also expected to approve the measure.
Although the law's provisions have been waived by every U.S. president since 1994, it has stayed on the books, frustrating Moscow as a symbol of Washington's opposition to Russia's human rights record.
U.S. President Barack Obama's administration had pushed for permanent exemption for Russia, which would allow the United States to take advantage of new economic opportunities afforded by Moscow’s August entry into the World Trade Organization (WTO).
Economists have estimated that U.S. exports to Russia, currently valued at $11 billion, could double in five years under a normalized trade regime.
Death In Custody
At the insistance of lawmakers from both the Democratic and Republican parties, lifting the trade restrictions was linked to a measure that would sanction Russian officials involved in the 2009 death of lawyer Magnitsky.
Before the vote, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (Republican-Florida), the chairwoman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, said she would have opposed granting Russia normalized trade if not for the Magnitsky provisions.
"This legislation will make clear that the U.S. remains fully committed to advancing democracy and human rights in that country," Ros-Lehtinen said. "These are more than just symbolic steps. The proof comes from the threats by the Kremlin of retaliation if the Congress dares to act, because the regime fears its senior officials will be publicly implicated."
The gravesite in Moscow of lawyer Sergei Magnitsky
Magnitsky, 37, died in a Moscow prison exactly three years ago after implicating top Russian officials in a scheme to defraud the government of $230 million. He was repeatedly denied medical care and allegedly tortured during nearly a year in pretrial detention on what supporters say were trumped-up charges.
Russia has prosecuted only one low-level prison official, while promoting others implicated in the case. The incident prompted an international outcry, and Magnitsky has become a symbol of Russia’s troubling rights record and rule-of-law shortcomings.
'Name And Shame'
The sanctions, which need Senate approval, would require the U.S. president to deny visas to and freeze the assets of dozens of officials the United States has implicated in Magnitsky’s prosecution and death, as well as officials implicated in other gross violations in Russia who have acted with impunity.
Supporters of the bill say its power is in “naming and shaming,” although Obama can choose to keep the identities of some of the individuals in a classified annex in the interest of national security.
The Russian Foreign Ministry called the House vote a "provocative attack" and has vowed to respond "toughly" if the "anti-Russian" measure becomes law.
Russia's political opposition has generally supported the sanctions.
Matthew Rojansky, a Russia expert at Washington’s Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, predicted that Moscow would rely in part on a “tit-for-tat” response, but also ramp up its targeting of U.S.-supported civil-society initiatives in the country.
"This is a kind of defense by insulation or isolation," Rojansky said. "It's the idea that we may not be able to control everything that Russians read and hear and know -- although increasingly it seems that some officials in Russia do want to do that -- but we can at least prevent Americans from giving money to people on the ground who are going to go out and actually meddle in our domestic political life."
Rojansky suggested that Russian civil society was "very likely to be the dimension that suffers most and, ironically, if you think about it -- if that's what comes to pass -- that will not be a reaction in kind, per se, to Magnitsky."
The European Parliament overwhelmingly approved a recommendation
in October that EU member states impose bans and freezes on Russians implicated in Magnitsky's death.
Leonid Slutsky, a State Duma deputy and the deputy head of the Russian delegation to the European Parliament, called the EU proposal a "gross interference in Russia's internal affairs."
Supporters hope that U.S. passage of the sanctions will spur countries considering similar measures, including Canada, Great Britain, the Netherlands, Poland, and Sweden, to follow suit.
The Carnegie Endowment's Rojansky also said exempting tiny Moldova from Jackson-Vanik restrictions would be "hugely significant" for that country.
"It it going to revolutionize the economic relationship [between Moldova and the United States]? Of course not. Still, the symbolism is extremely important."