The Spectacle Blog

Obama’s “Flexibility” With Russia Begins?

By on 12.6.12 | 8:16PM

Today the Senate passed a landmark update to US law on Russia:

The U.S. Senate on Thursday repealed a trade sanction imposed 38 years ago to force the Soviet Union to allow Jews and other religious minorities to emigrate, replacing it with a modern-day punishment for human rights abuse that has enraged Russian officials.

The old law, one of the last vestiges of the Cold War, was called the Jackson-Vanik Amendment, named after a U.S. senator and a representative. The new law, passed 92 to 4, grants Russia and Moldova permanent normal trade relations, but it is coupled with the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act, which honors a dead Russian. The law blacklists Russians connected to the death of Magnitsky in police custody and to other gross human rights violations, prohibiting entrance to the United States and use of its banking system.

This was the end of a long battle that the White House lost. With Russia's admission to the World Trade Organization this year, American exporters began to be punished for the trade restrictions ostensibly required by Jackson-Vanik, even though the restrictions had in practice been routinely waived since the fall of the Soviet Union. The Obama administration sought a clean repeal of Jackson-Vanik uncoupled from the Magnitsky Act, but a bipartisan alliance in Congress rightly objected to the symbolism of normalizing trade relations with Russia without any acknowledgement of Moscow's current authoritarian orientation. With its direct sanctions on human rights violators, the Magnitsky Act is a welcome move toward raising the cost of that authoritarianism.

Here's how the State Department responded to the bill's passage:

The United States welcomes the passage by the Senate today of H.R. 6156, which terminates the application of the Jackson-Vanik Amendment to Russia and Moldova and authorizes the President to extend Permanent Normal Trade Relations (PNTR) to both countries. The passage of this bill will allow American businesses to reap the same economic opportunities in Russia’s markets that other World Trade Organization members receive, resulting in greater access for American workers, companies, farmers, ranchers, and service providers and the creation of more American jobs.

We share Congress’ goals of promoting respect for human rights in Russia, and consider democracy, human rights, and civil society to be important components of our relationship with the Russian government and the Russian people. We also support Moldova’s ongoing reform efforts and its aspirations for further integration into European institutions.

The emphasis is hard to miss. Foggy Bottom hails the benefits of Jackson-Vanik repeal, and refers only vaguely to the equally-important sanctions on Putin's thugs. The administration may claim to "share Congress' goal of promoting respect for human rights in Russia," but they can't bring themselves to endorse Congress' policy apporach to that goal, or even mention the word "Magnitsky" in their press release.

Recalling Obama's vow to Dmitry Medvedev that he'd have more "flexibility" on missile defense negotiations after re-election, it's hard not to worry that the administration's obsequious posture toward Russia may soon manifest itself beyond press releases.

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