WASHINGTON – As the Obama administration tries to remove Russia from US
legislation restricting trade between the two countries, it has allies from an
unlikely corner: those who originally lobbied for the restriction on behalf of
The US wants to remove Russia from a list of former Soviet
countries penalized economically under the Jackson-Vanick amendment, since the
restriction could hurt American businesses once Russia joins the World Trade
Organization as anticipated in the coming months.
The amendment hurts
Russia’s trade status unless the US certifies each year that Russia is allowing
its citizens to emigrate freely, a waiver the US began issuing after Russia let
its Jewish population leave en masse for Israel and other countries in the
1990s. Because the waiver must be renewed annually, however, it prevents the US
and Russia from having permanent normal trade relations.
Since WTO rules
require that countries not have any trade barriers against member states, US
companies doing business in Russia would be subject to penalties once Russia
finishes the process of joining the organization.
The amendment was
passed in 1974 as a means of pressuring Russia to let its Jewish citizens leave,
which was seen as a key policy for both allowing Jews to live freely as well as
putting a chink in the armor of the Iron Curtain.
“We believe that Russia
has satisfied the central requirement of the amendment,” said Mark Levin,
executive director of the National Conference on Soviet Jewry (NCSJ), which
originally pushed for the legislation.
“Its purpose was to allow people
to have freedom and to choose where they live.”
In addition to allowing
Jews to emigrate, Levin noted that they also can practice their religion freely
if they choose to stay, and that Russia and Israel enjoy strong bilateral
relations that include a visa waiver program. Russians comprise the
second-largest group of tourist to Israel each year after Americans, according
But while the NCSJ and other Jewish organizations are pleased
with Russia’s performance and want to see it removed from the Jackson-Vanick
restrictions, not everyone on Capitol Hill agrees.
Some members who are
concerned about Russia’s larger human rights and democracy issues have expressed
reservations about the message it would send to reward Russia at this
Still, Jewish groups like the NCSJ think it’s wrong not to
recognize Russia’s strides on the issues specifically staked out by the
“Russia has met all the requirements of Jackson-Vanick.
Jackson-Vanick shouldn’t be a catch-all,” Levin said. “It’s important for the
United States to address human rights, and we should come up with new
William Daroff, the head of the Washington office of the Jewish
Federations of North America, said that it was important that Russia was
recognized for its achievements in how it has treated its Jewish minority even
if other issues remain.
“We should be thanking the Russian Federation on
their hard work on behalf of the Jewish [community] and not jeopardizing that
positive feeling as it relates to Jewish life by broadening Jackson-Vanick to
deal with concerns outside Jewish life,” he said.
A bipartisan group of
senators that includes Democrat Ben Cardin and Republican John McCain, suggested earlier this year that any graduation of Russia from Jackson-Vanick be
accompanied by the passage of new legislation.
The “Magnitsky Bill,”
named after Sergei Magnitsky, a whistle-blowing lawyer who died after being
beaten while in the custody of Russian authorities, would sanction Russian
officials accused of human rights abuses.
The concerns that some US
lawmakers have about letting Russia off the hook have only intensified by the
election-year optics, which could open up members voting for gestures toward
Russia to political attacks. As such, the administration knows it has a tough
fight ahead of it.
Levin’s organization has been working on Capitol Hill
to help the Jackson-Vanick change go forward, and he assessed that action would
be difficult but possible in the coming months.
“If there’s enough of a
commitment from both the administration and Congress to push this forward, then
I believe it can be done before the August recess,” he said. “But it requires a
lot of work by both.”