After almost two decades of on-again, off-again negotiations, Russia has concluded an agreement to join the World Trade Organization. This raises a major challenge for Congress.
If the Jackson-Vanik amendment, which prohibits permanent normal trading relations, remains in force against Russia, U.S. businesses will lose out on the benefits of rules-based free trade, including much cheaper and more stable access to Russia’s market — the world’s 11th largest.
Yet the recent election campaign and dramatic wave of public protests have been a reminder that Russia is no ordinary trading partner. The Kremlin’s record on human rights remains troubling, and both businesses and ordinary people suffer under the crushing weight of corruption and lawlessness, often at the hands of the very government officials who are charged with protecting them. Americans cannot ignore conduct that runs so dramatically counter to our own cherished values, not to mention the principles enshrined in documents such as the Helsinki Final Act, to which both countries are signatories.
Thus, when Congress takes up the question of “graduating” Russia from Jackson-Vanik, Members will naturally wish to be reassured that the United States still has effective tools to address concerns about human rights and the rule of law in Russia.
There have already been proposals to sanction individuals believed to be responsible for the death of lawyer Sergei Magnitsky and other abuses, as well as statements criticizing the Kremlin’s conduct around the recent elections. These steps are very likely to get Russian officials’ attention, but by themselves, they are not likely to deliver the hoped-for changes in behavior from Moscow.
In addition to registering its disapproval of abuses in Russia, Congress should signal that positive change in Russia and in U.S.-Russia relations are long-term U.S. interests and take steps that are likely to bring about such change while strengthening the relationship. In this, Congress should follow the lessons of a half-century of relations with Moscow: First, progress comes when we approach sensitive matters bilaterally, not unilaterally, and second, Congress itself must play an active role in the relationship.
During the Reagan administration, a bilateral dialogue chaired by Secretary of State George Shultz and Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze, in which Members of Congress participated, yielded major progress on security, economic and human rights issues, including expanded freedom of emigration.
In the 1990s, the bilateral relationship included not only an executive branch commission, but a permanent Congress-Duma study group that ensured regular contact between lawmakers and allowed debate and exchange over sensitive issues such as corruption and Russia’s conduct of the war in Chechnya.
Today, Congress can play a critical role in pushing the relationship in the right direction by supporting the work of the Bilateral Presidential Commission, especially those working groups that address issues related to the rule of law and human rights.
With representation from key government agencies on both sides, these groups are in a position to do what unilateral U.S. programs cannot: overcome hostility, skepticism or sheer indifference from Russian officials who feel that they are the targets of a U.S.-backed “regime change” strategy or “color revolution” for Russia.
Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., right, hugs Harold Schaitberger, General President of the International Association of Fire Fighters, after the Congressman spoke at the IAFF's Legislative Conference General Session at the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill, March 9, 2015. The day featured addresses by members of Congress and Vice President Joe Biden.