Soviet Jewry group supports easing US-Russia trade

Election-year considerations and Moscow’s human rights record make passing proposal an uphill battle.

business loan_311 (photo credit: Thinkstock/Imagebank)
business loan_311
(photo credit: Thinkstock/Imagebank)
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 Russian Jewry.
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 to Levin.
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 time.
Still, Jewish groups like the NCSJ think it’s wrong not to recognize Russia’s strides on the issues specifically staked out by the legislation.
“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 levers.”
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.”