Bringing Russia in from the cold

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Relations with Russia remain central to U.S. strategic interests. Moscow plays a pivotal role – positively and negatively – in our policy toward Iran, Afghanistan, North Korea, China, terrorism, energy security and other pressing national security issues. Indeed, as demonstrated by its continued support for the regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria, Russia not only retains the ability to frustrate U.S. objectives abroad, but has few qualms about doing so. Improved bilateral ties could help advanced U.S. interests, but have proven elusive.

Russia’s intransigence abroad has been matched by increasingly authoritarian tendencies at home. During recent elections, which returned Vladimir Putin to the presidency, millions of Russians demanded a freer political process. The government’s reaction was to blame the United States for any protests and initiate a widespread crackdown against independent media, opposition groups and non-governmental organizations, expelling the U.S. Agency for International Development and jailing irreverent punk rockers.

Policymakers have thus been faced with a recurrent dilemma: whether to ignore Russia’s treatment of its own citizens and focus on building better ties with the government; or to promote freedom and human rights and risk alienating Russia’s rulers. Russia’s recent accession to the World Trade Organization (WTO) has provided an opportunity to pursue both America’s values and interests – as recommended by our Bipartisan Policy Center task force on Russia – while creating more jobs at home.

One connection between Russia’s domestic and foreign policies lies in its heavy economic dependence on natural resources. This has incentivized Russia’s leadership to meddle abroad to ensure high energy prices, while ignoring the country’s human resources. Additionally, graft, state capitalism and the legacy of Soviet-era planning have inhibited productivity, foreign investment, entrepreneurship and the diversification of exports, promoting a culture of lawlessness.

Entrance into the WTO, a 153-member organization designed to promote and manage international trade, whose members represent the vast majority of the global population and 97 percent of global trade, is crucial to ushering Russia’s economy into the 21st century.

The regulations imposed by WTO membership will open Russian markets to foreign imports, spur greater exports, and encourage foreign direct investment. And, by integrating Russia into the international order, membership can also promote financial transparency, economic liberalization, and, with time, much-needed political modernization.

Russian accession to WTO will benefit the United States economically too. Despite the size of Russia’s economy, it was only the 23rd-largest U.S. trade partner in 2010, ranking behind Belgium. As a resource exporter that imports large quantities of manufactured goods and agricultural commodities, Russia is an ideal trading partner for the United States. Experts estimate that Russian WTO accession could double U.S. exports to Russia in five years – to $20 billion – creating jobs here at home.

A significant obstacle, however, has stood in the way of the United States reaping these economic benefits, until now. The Jackson-Vanik amendment to the Trade Act of 1974 denied permanent normal trade relations (PNTR) status, which permanently grants low tariffs, to countries that restricted emigration, like the Soviet Union.

Russia no longer blocks its citizens from leaving and has been certified compliant with Jackson-Vanik since 1994. Yet the law has remained, largely because it is one of the few tools Congress has had to address Russia’s other human rights failings. Now, however, Jackson-Vanik conflicts with WTO requirements that members grant each other PNTR, giving Moscow a legal basis to discriminate against U.S. companies and products.

The measure now made law graduates Russia from Jackson-Vanik’s requirements, extending PNTR to Russia and ensuring favorable market access for U.S. businesses. But it also enacts new human rights provisions – named after Sergei Magnitsky, a lawyer killed in Russian prison for exposing government corruption – that target individual officials responsible for human rights offenses by denying them U.S. visas and freezing their bank accounts.

Graduating Russia from Jackson-Vanik and granting it PNTR status will cement its position in the WTO and enhance U.S. strategic interests by creating a stronger and more prosperous partner, more confident in its standing in the world. Continuing to hold Russia accountable for human rights abuses will help battle corruption and advance American values. Taken together, these measures should contribute to a stronger, more vibrant, and increasingly open Russia. This balanced approach demonstrates that it is still possible for Congress to forge bipartisan consensus on measures to further America’s interests.

Robb, a former Democratic senator from Virginia and Evans, a former Commerce Secretary in the George W. Bush Administration, are co-chairmen of the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Russia Project.