The US Congress could move this month to upgrade trade relations with Moscow, US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said yesterday, but Russia made clear after talks that big differences remained on Syria and Iran.
Clinton, in Russia for the APEC summit, said the US government was working closely with the US Congress on lifting the 1974 Jackson-Vanik amendment, Cold War-era legislation that has blocked normal trade privileges for Russia.
Changing the legislation is an important part of US President Barack Obama’s efforts to bolster ties with Russia.
“To make sure our companies get to compete here in Russia, we are working closely with the United States Congress to terminate the application to Jackson-Vanik to Russia and grant Russia permanent normalized trade relations,” Clinton told business leaders in Vladivostok. “We hope that the Congress will act on this important piece of legislation this month.”
Congress is under pressure to approve the permanent normal trade relations (PNTR) bill because of Russia’s entry into the WTO, a move that the US backed.
However, with concerns in Congress about Moscow’s support for Iran and Syria, as well as its broader human rights record, the timing of a vote remains unclear.
Congress could add further conditions to any PNTR legislation, including a measure known as the “Magnitsky bill” to punish Russian officials for alleged human rights violations.
Republican US presidential candidate Mitt Romney, who has called Russia the US’ “No. 1 geopolitical foe,” has said he will back PNTR for Russia only if it is accompanied by a measure to target human rights violations.
US officials said Clinton had raised the broad question of human rights at a one-hour meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, but Lavrov denied the issue came up specifically.
“We did not discuss this issue because the US side knows perfectly well that attempts to replace anti-Soviet legislation with anti-Russian legislation are unacceptable. They know it will inflict real damage to our relations,” Lavrov said.
He also told reporters the sides remained divided on foreign policy issues, such as the Syrian conflict and Iran’s nuclear program.
“Our US partners prefer measures like threats, increased pressure and new sanctions against both Syria and Iran. We do not agree with this in principle,” Lavrov said.
US officials say Clinton’s trip is partially aimed at assessing Russia’s push to expand engagement in Asia, which parallels Washington’s “pivot” to the Asia-Pacific region.
Clinton intended to tell Russian President Vladimir Putin in talks later yesterday that the US welcomed a bigger Russian role in the region and was seeking to build more cooperation, the officials also said.
On Syria, Washington has accused Moscow and Beijing of blocking efforts at the UN Security Council to approve tough measures against Damascus as it battles an armed rebellion.
The US has angered Russia by going outside the UN to work with allies to support the Syrian opposition, but Clinton told Lavrov it was possible to return to the UN if Moscow and Beijing were ready to forego their vetoes and back stronger measures.
A US official said Clinton, who also visited China this week, made the same comments to Chinese leaders.
Lavrov said Russia expected the Security Council later this month to formally endorse an agreement brokered by former UN Syria envoy Kofi Annan that envisages a transitional governing authority for Syria.