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U.S.: Bush May Normalize Trade Ties With Eight Ex-Soviet States

The United States may seek to normalize trade relations with eight former Soviet republics in return for their cooperation in the war on terrorism. But as RFE/RL correspondent Jeffrey Donovan reports from Washington, the issue is raising concern among experts and activists who believe countries such as Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan need to clean up their acts on human rights before they can become worthy partners of the U.S.

Washington, 8 January 2002 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. President George W. Bush, already preparing for normal trade relations with Russia, is reportedly set to seek similar status for eight other former Soviet republics, despite intense criticism over their human rights records.

A law exempting Russia from Cold War-era trade restrictions is expected to pass through Congress this spring. But according to a report in Sunday's (6 January) "The Washington Post" newspaper, Bush is also hoping to lift the restrictions -- imposed by the 1974 Jackson-Vanik Trade Act, which links a country's trade status with its human rights record -- for Armenia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Moldova, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Ukraine, and Uzbekistan.

The paper, quoting anonymous White House sources, says these eight former Soviet states have all contributed to Washington's war on terrorism and should be given normal trade status as a gesture of gratitude. The sources added, however, that such a move would not signal dwindling White House concern over human rights issues.

Jackson-Vanik, which technically prohibits normal U.S. trade relations with countries lacking open emigration policies, was passed in 1974 to target the Soviet Union for its restriction on Jewish emigration. However, it later became a key means for Congress to annually examine human rights in countries like China and Russia, which could suffer higher duties if they failed to be found acceptable. Last year, Kyrgyzstan and Georgia became the first former Soviet republics to graduate from the restrictions. Last month, Bush suspended Jackson-Vanik with China, as well.

Now, his plan to lift the restrictions for the eight CIS nations is raising concern among human rights activists, as well as regional experts. They say Jackson-Vanik, though outdated, has been a vital policy tool and that to revoke it now for all eight nations would send the wrong message to the region. They also say that not all eight countries are equals in terms of human rights and democracy, and point to Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan as particularly glaring exceptions.

Michael McFaul, a politics professor at California's Stanford University and a research fellow on Russia and the former Soviet Union at Stanford's Hoover Institution think tank, made this observation: "I find it very disturbing that all eight countries are being lobbed together in one group to 'graduate' them, because it sends a very bad message to the region that we don't care about human rights. And I think that one could maybe make the case for Russia -- although I'm not even sure with Russia -- but most certainly not some of these others. It's just awful to group Turkmenistan and Russia in the same category."

Others have pointed out an inconsistency regarding Belarus. Analysts say it has been excluded from the group of eight not because of its poor rights record, but because its leader, Alyaksandr Lukashenka, has not assisted the war on terrorism. Other autocratic governments, such as Uzbekistan, have given Washington the use of key air bases. Turkmenistan has allowed humanitarian and medical aid and relief staff to cross into Afghanistan from Turkmen territory.

But the chairman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom singled out Turkmenistan as particularly unworthy of regular trade relations. Michael Young said Ashgabat has a notorious human rights record and has in fact contributed little to the U.S.-led war on terrorism. Turkmenistan's president-for-life, Saparmurat Niyazov, yesterday cited his country's neutrality in denying a German request to use Turkmen air bases for a peacekeeping operation in Afghanistan.

Young said that of the eight additional CIS countries that stand to graduate from Jackson-Vanik, Turkmenistan tops the group in terms of human rights abuses. Next in line, he said, would be Uzbekistan and possibly Ukraine.

"I'm troubled by doing it real large with respect to these other countries, particularly without any demonstration that there has been real progress on the human rights front. I mean, if you take Turkmenistan, for example. [That's] a country with a very repressive government, very little to commend itself in terms of virtually any of the different ways in which it treats people. It is an old-fashioned, deeply repressive dictatorship."

It is still unclear whether the eight countries will graduate together or individually from Jackson-Vanik. State Department sources quoted by "The Washington Post" say all eight may be covered together in legislation that could be passed within nine months. But the sources stressed that no final decision has been made, and that the countries may ultimately be put in separate categories with different timetables for achieving normal trade ties.

Russia's fate is more certain. Tom Lantos, the top Democrat on the International Relations Committee of the House of Representatives, said last week that he expects no problems in Congress in passing a bill this March to graduate Russia from the trade restrictions.

Young of the International Religious Freedom Commission said that while Jackson-Vanik rarely had a serious impact on trade ties with individual countries, that should not be the main issue. He said the importance of the 1974 law is that it provides regular opportunities for public debate about human rights issues in many countries -- debates not likely to take place at the Pentagon or in business circles.

"This is what they are trying to eliminate: the debate. And that's the wrong thing to be eliminated, and this is clearly the wrong time to eliminate it. It doesn't reduce our engagement."

But Celeste Wallander, the head of the Russia and Eurasia program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, disagrees. She says there are many more venues for debating human rights besides the U.S. Congress.

"There is the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe of the U.S. Congress. There is itself the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the OSCE. There's the Council of Europe. There are many fora and important places to discuss the issue of human rights in not just Russia, but in many countries all over the world. And so those issues need not be ignored just because Jackson-Vanik may no longer be in place."

Still, McFaul of Stanford University sees the issue as one of image and perception as much as of substance. He suggests that although the U.S. may be leading an apparently successful military campaign in Afghanistan, it may be losing a public relations battle among people in Central Asia -- a potential hotbed of Islamic extremism.

"I think in the new, post-11 September era, there is already a strong sense in the region that the United States does not care about democracy and human rights -- it just cares about loyal allies. And to do this now will send that message even stronger."

To convey a different message, McFaul suggested that if Jackson-Vanik is revoked, the U.S. Congress should pass a bill that would replace the 1974 law and threaten sanctions against governments that abuse human rights. McFaul also would like to see a bill to boost funding for democratization programs in the former Soviet Union.

There is currently a bill in the House of Representatives -- sponsored by Democratic Congressman Lantos -- which would give $50 million for democratization efforts in the former Soviet Union. However, its fate at the moment appears uncertain at best.