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U.S. Senate Lifts Russia, Moldova Trade Barriers; Passes Magnitsky Sanctions


Russian lawyer Sergei Magnitsky died in custody in 2009.
Russian lawyer Sergei Magnitsky died in custody in 2009.
WASHINGTON -- The U.S. Senate has voted to permanently lift Cold War-era barriers to trade with Russia, a move long sought by Moscow that could increase commerce between the countries by billions of dollars.

In the same vote on December 6, senators also backed sanctions against Russian officials implicated in the death of anticorruption lawyer Sergei Magnitsky and in other perceived gross rights violations in Russia.

Moscow has railed against that move, which has overshadowed the trade benefits to come.

The Senate's 92-4 vote follows the passing of the bill in the U.S. House of Representatives in November. In a statement, U.S. President Barack Obama said "I look forward to receiving and signing this legislation."

When he does, Moscow will be exempted from the 1974 Jackson-Vanik Amendment, which imposed trade restrictions on the Soviet Union for its policy of limiting Jewish emigration. The restrictions have been waived for nearly two decades but remained on the books as a symbol of U.S. objections to Russia's human rights record.

Citing the weak U.S. economy, the White House had pushed Congress to lift the restrictions and grant Permanent Normal Trade Relations (PNTR) status to Russia, the world's seventh-largest economy.

The move allows the United States to take full advantage of Moscow’s August entry into the World Trade Organization, which has already benefited China and Europe.

Over White House objections, lawmakers from both parties said they would only agree to lift the restrictions if the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act were passed concurrently.

The legislation requires Obama to deny visas to, and freeze the U.S.-based assets of, Russian officials whom 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.

In determining who will be sanctioned, the president is expected to work from a list of more than 60 Russian officials compiled by lawmakers who introduced the legislation.

Obama can decide to keep the identities of some of the sanctioned officials classified for national security reasons.

'A New Chapter On Human Rights'

Senator Benjamin Cardin (Democrat-Maryland), the earliest and most passionate advocate of sanctions in Congress, told reporters after the vote that it signaled "a new [U.S.] chapter on human rights."

Senator John McCain (Republican-Arizona) said, "Sergei Magnitsky was an ordinary man, but he became an extraordinary champion of justice, fairness, and the rule of law in Russia, where those principles have lost nearly all meaning."

"I think we are sending a signal to Vladimir Putin and the Russian kleptocracy that these kinds of abuses of human rights will not be tolerated without us responding in some appropriate fashion," McCain said.

U.S. rights NGOs also hailed the passage of the measures.

The 37-year-old Magnitsky died in a Moscow prison three years ago after implicating top 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 financial-crime charges.

Russia has prosecuted only one low-level prison official linked to his death, while promoting a number others implicated in the case.

Moscow Slams 'Vengeful' Move

The incident prompted an international outcry and several Western countries are considering enacting Magnitsky-related sanctions.

Moscow's reaction to the U.S. move was swift. In a statement, the Russian Foreign Ministry called the vote "vengeful" and a "performance in the theater of the absurd" that would "negatively affect prospects for cooperation."

Aleksei Pushkov, the chairman of the State Duma, said Moscow could pass similar legislation against U.S. nationals "who have been involved in mass violations of human rights in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and some other countries" and could also respond "asymmetrically."

Later, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Russia will deny visas to U.S. officials who, as he put it, violate human rights.

Quoted by Russian media, Lavrov said he had informed U.S. Secretary Hillary Clinton of Moscow's planned action during a meeting in Dublin on December 6.

In a telephone interview with Russian television on December 7, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said the move will have "a very negative effect on our future bilateral cooperation."

"Washington must have forgotten what year it is and continues to think that the Cold War still goes on," Zakharova said, "or the senators are too involved in their personal public relations and they ignore the obvious: each side can already deny entry to its territory to anyone it finds necessary; there is no need for any special legislative act."

Other Russian lawmakers called the U.S. move "hostile," "cynical," and "anti-Russian."

U.S. analysts have suggested that Moscow could also target U.S.-supported civil society initiatives in the country.

David Satter, a senior fellow at Washington's Hudson Institute, suggests that Moscow might respond to the U.S. move by "taking out their anger in unrelated cases" or increasing its anti-American rhetoric. But he maintains that the Russian authorities may be reluctant to mention the sanctions directly.

"I'm not certain that, in terms of their public posture, Russian officials are going to want to call the attention of the Russian population to this piece of legislation," Satter says, "because that also calls the attention of people to [the government's] own abuses."

The U.S. Senate also joined the House of Representatives in voting to grant Moldova normalized trade status, a victory for Europe's poorest country.

In a statement, Chisinau's embassy to Washington told RFE/RL it "strongly welcomed" the vote, which it called "a clear sign of the support for the country."

It called the Jackson-Vanik exemption a "well-deserved and somehow-delayed response to the political changes in Moldova."

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

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