WASHINGTON -- U.S. State Department officials have urged Congress to repeal the Cold War-era Jackson-Vanik Amendment, trade legislation that has long been used to pressure Russia on human rights issues, arguing that the law is hurting the U.S. economy and that Washington can make its views known in other ways.
In doing so, the officials tiptoed around a proposal that has gained favor in the Senate to punish Russian officials directly for rights abuses and as such, serve as a trade for Congressional repeal of Jackson-Vanik.
The bill, however, which would target officials connected to the death of Russian anticorruption lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, has been met with hesitation by the administration, as it threatens to damage relations between Washington and Moscow if it becomes law.
The December 14 hearing in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, titled "The State of Human Rights and the Rule of Law in Russia: U.S. Policy Options," provided one of the clearest public pictures to date of this complex nexus of issues.
'Not A Gift To Russia'
Assistant Secretary of State for Europe and Eurasia Philip Gordon told senators that repealing the Jackson-Vanik Amendment as it applies to Russia -- something Moscow has pushed hard for and President Barack Obama has described as one of his "top foreign policy priorities" -- would benefit the United States.
"[Jackson-Vanik] has been on the books for 40 years, its specific aims have been achieved, and it is standing in the way of what we think are some really important benefits we would get from Russia's World Trade Organization membership -- and I stress that we would get [them]," said Gordon.
"This is not a gift to Russia. It is in the interests of U.S. exporters, businesses, and the United States in general."
Signed into law in 1975, Jackson-Vanik denied "most favored nation" trade status to countries with nonmarket economies that restricted emigration -- particularly, the Soviet Union. The law eventually pressured the Kremlin to give more than 1 million Soviet Jews exit visas. It remains in place, serving primarily as a symbolic warning to Moscow on its rights record.
But unless the provision is revoked, Russia, which is expected to to be approved for entry into the World Trade Organization on December 16, would be entitled under the body's rules to discriminate against U.S. companies.
Gordon said the White House wants "to work together with Congress to address our shared concerns about human rights and democracy in Russia" but that keeping Jackson-Vanik on the books would be "cutting off our nose to spite our face."
The Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law and Accountability Act has emerged in the Senate as a possible bargaining chip for the repeal of Jackson-Vanik.
The legislation would deny visas to and freeze the U.S. assets of more than 60 Russian officials connected to the prosecution and prison death of Magnitsky, a Russian anticorruption lawyer. Moreover, it creates the possibility of similar restrictions against Russian individuals connected to other egregious rights violations.
The proposed legislation, which is supported so far by 25 out of 100 U.S. senators, has provoked a furious response from Moscow.
While the Obama administration has not publicly voiced opposition to the bill, observers say it is looking to avoid the damage to relations with Moscow that could come with the bill's passage.
At the December 14 hearing, Thomas Melia, the U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, said the administration appreciated the Senate's "tenacity" on the issue. But he emphasized other methods being used to promote to support human rights in Russia.
"Change in Russia will be driven by the people of Russia and we will continue to look for opportunities to support Russian citizens seeking reform," he said. "Since 2009, the U.S. government has provided approximately $160 million to Russian groups working to advance democracy and the rule of law, [and] in October, the Obama administration submitted a Congressional notification on the creation of a new $50 million fund that would support Russian civil society."
Melia also pointed to the U.S.-Russia Bilateral Presidential Commission's Civil Society Working Group, public statements critical of Russia's rights record, and U.S. meetings with Russian journalists and activists as evidence of Washington's work in support of Russian reform.
He underlined the Obama administration's decision in July to impose visa bans
on Russian officials connected to Magnitsky's imprisonment and death.
Some analysts described that move as the White House's attempt to acknowledge the mood in Congress on the issue while heading off the tougher bill.
The Magnitsky Act's original sponsor, Senator Benjamin Cardin (Democrat, Maryland), maintained before the State Department officials that lawmakers would continue to push for legally binding action.
"Action by one administration can be forgotten by a second administration, so how do we institutionalize the standards for human rights [in Russia]? Taking a look at this opportunity, as we move towards Russia's integration into the WTO, it gives us a chance to advance institutional changes for human rights. We look forward to seeing how we can advance legislation to achieve that," he said.
The Magnitsky Act is currently awaiting consideration in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Committee Chairman John Kerry (Democrat, Massachusetts), who maintains close relations with the administration, has not yet scheduled a vote.