WASHINGTON (AP) — A Russian trade and human rights bill cleared Congress and headed for President Barack Obama's signature Thursday, opening up new export opportunities for American businesses but antagonizing relations with Russia over its treatment of dissidents.
The Moscow government, while welcoming better trade relations, has threatened retaliation over a section of the bill that would punish Russian officials who allegedly commit human rights violations.
The 92-4 vote by the Senate to establish permanent normal trade relations with Russia followed an equally convincing vote in the House last month. The bill eliminates a long-obsolete 1974 provision, called the Jackson-Vanik Amendment, that tied trade relations with the former Soviet Union to the emigration of Jews and other Soviet minorities.
The White House says it strongly supports the bill, which also extends permanent normal trade relations to the former Soviet state of Moldova.
Although Obama and past presidents over the past two decades annually have waived the Jackson-Vanik restrictions, it has lingered on the books because of congressional antipathy toward Russia's human rights record and anti-American policies. This year the issues have included Russian support of the Assad government in Syria.
But acting to eliminate the 1974 provision and making normal relations permanent became a necessity when Russia on Aug. 22 entered the World Trade Organization, forcing it to lower tariffs, ease import restrictions, protect intellectual property and participate in the WTO dispute resolution system.
Until the United States normalizes trade, U.S. traders will be alone among the members of the 157-nation WTO unable to enjoy the increased market access.
The administration and economists estimate that U.S. exports of goods and services, now about $11 billion a year, could double over the next five years if trade is normalized. But if Congress fails to act, U.S. exporters stand to fall further behind other countries in the race to gain market share among Russia's 140 million consumers.
The Coalition for U.S.-Russia Trade, which represents manufacturing, service and agriculture interests, says the United States now commands only about 4 percent of Russia's import market of $400 billion a year, compared to 40 percent for Europe and 16 percent for China.
It says that over the next 20 years Russian carriers will need about 900 passenger aircraft valued at about $100 billion, that Russia relies on imports for about 50 percent of its $150 billion chemical market and that Russian demands for information technology, agriculture goods, energy technology and medical equipment are growing rapidly.
Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, stressed that the legislation can only be a plus. "We change no U.S. tariffs and no U.S. trade laws. This is a one-sided deal in favor of American exporters."
But it could have ramifications on overall U.S.-Russian relations because of the addition of what is called the Magnitsky act to sanction Russian human rights violators by withholding visas and freezing financial assets. That measure, named for Russian lawyer and whistleblower Sergei Magnitsky who died in a Russian prison three years ago after allegedly being tortured, became part of the trade bill as lawmakers balked at normalizing trade without holding Russia accountable for its poor human rights record.
"Jackson-Vanik served its purpose with respect to Russia and should be revoked, but in its place we should respond to Russia's continued corruption and human rights violations," said Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah, the top Republican on Baucus' committee.
But Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev warned last week that approval of the Magnitsky provision would trigger both a "symmetrical and asymmetrical reaction" from his country. "We absolutely dislike" its link to the trade bill, he said. "It's inadmissible when one country tries to dictate its will to another."
Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., who voted against the bill, said he did so because the Magnitsky sanctions, as written by the House, apply only to Russian human rights violators. The original Senate proposal would have made those sanctions applicable worldwide. "Why would we deny visas only to Russian human rights violators?" he asked in a statement. "Why diminish the universality of the values the Magnitsky bill seeks to uphold?"