Russia has harshly criticized US legislation calling for sanctions against Russian officials accused of human rights violations and warned that it will respond in kind.
The bill, designed to end Cold War-era trade restrictions, was hailed by US businesses worried about falling behind in the race to win shares of Russia’s more open market, but its human rights part has enraged the Kremlin. The so-called Magnitsky act is named after Russian lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, who was arrested by officials he accused of a multimillion-dollar tax fraud. He was severely beaten and died in jail in 2009.
Russia’s foreign ministry responded to the US Senate vote late on Thursday by calling it a “show in the theater of the absurd” and warning Moscow will respond to the legislation in a similar fashion.
The bill cleared Congress and headed for US President Barack Obama’s signature, but a Russian parliament official suggested sanctions could be imposed on US officials accused of rights violations in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere while the foreign ministry said the legislation “will have a negative impact on bilateral cooperation” and responsibility for that will “completely lie with the United States.”
Senator John McCain, a main sponsor of the human rights measure with Senator Ben Cardin, contended it would help the Russian people by “sending a signal to Vladimir Putin and the Russian plutocracy that these kinds of abuses of human rights will not be tolerated.”
The 92-4 vote on Thursday 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.
Although Obama and past presidents over the past two decades annually have waived the Jackson-Vanik restrictions, it lingered on the books because of congressional antipathy toward Russia’s human rights record and anti-US policies. This year the issues have included Russian support of the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad government.
Acting to eliminate the 1974 provision and making normal relations permanent became a necessity when Russia on Aug. 22 entered the WTO, forcing it to lower tariffs, ease import restrictions, protect intellectual property and participate in the WTO dispute resolution system.
Until the US normalizes trade, US traders will be alone among the members of the 157-nation WTO unable to enjoy the increased market access.
Obama issued a statement saying the legislation, which also extends permanent normal trade relations to the former Soviet state of Moldova, “will ensure that American businesses and workers are able to take full advantage of the WTO rules and market access commitments that the United States worked so hard to negotiate.”
The administration and economists estimate that US exports of goods and services, now about US$11 billion a year, could double over the next five years under normalized trade relations with Russia — and its 140 million consumers.