Don’t let Cold War thinking chill progress on trade

Russia is about to formally enter the World Trade Organization. The State Duma and the Federation Council have both approved ratification documents, which were signed by the president of the Russian Federation on July 21, 2012. In August our country will become a full-fledged member of the WTO.

It took Russia 18 long years of intensive negotiations to settle all issues with the members of this global trade bloc. Accession to the organization is important for Russia, as the largest economy outside the framework of the WTO. It is also potentially important for bilateral trade and economic cooperation with the United States.

To fully enjoy the benefits of Russia’s accession to the WTO, the United States will have to repeal the Jackson-Vanik amendment — a Cold War relic that used to bind bilateral trade to emigration restrictions in the former USSR. Failure to remove this obstacle will pose a problem for both Russian and American businesses. And, most probably, American companies will suffer more than ours.

But should we really have to measure who will suffer the most damage? Wouldn’t it be better to seek truly normal relations? While our countries are slowly moving in the right direction with regard to trade, political relations are still fragile and vulnerable to what I would call an extension of Cold War-era thinking.

The U.S. Congress is in the process of considering Permanent Normal Trade Relations, or PNTR, with Russia. This is something that should be welcomed, especially after so many years of absence of normalcy in our bilateral trade. In the meantime, the draft laws to achieve normalcy are bundled on Capitol Hill with legislation that has nothing to do with trade and would in fact deny normalcy in the relations between our countries. The so-called Magnitsky bill seems to be part of that bundle.

This legislation is based on the distorted story of the death of a person in pretrial detention who was in fact under investigation in connection with a complex tax evasion scheme. Any loss of life is utterly deplorable. And this case is no exception.

Sergei Magnitsky’s death has been investigated since by Russian authorities. Recently, Russian lawmakers shared the facts about the case on Capitol Hill with those who wanted to listen. It is disappointing that few were interested, especially among the main proponents of the bill. That most likely reflects a low interest in learning the facts, at least as they are seen in Russia. As such, the draft legislation is a very disappointing sign of the quality of relations between our two countries 20 years after the end of the Cold War.

That unwillingness to show respect, to hear arguments, to work on building normal relations — as if someone is missing another irritant in our relations — is of course frustrating. Our two countries deserve better. The Magnitsky bill, if approved, will certainly create new irritants. The authors of the legislation are trying to take upon themselves the burden of “punishing” Russian citizens for things they have no right to judge.

All this amounts to an attempt to bring pressure upon an investigation in another sovereign state. It is not acceptable, and it is not going to be accepted. It will cause a strong reaction in Russia. No interference in our internal affairs is going to be allowed (imagine someone trying to do the same to the American legal system). As a result of the Magnitsky proposal, relations between Russia and the United States might be burdened with additional difficulties. And it looks like the whole history of adopting PNTR might end on a sad note.

The backdrop to these developments is the absence of systemic dialogue between our two legislative branches, which probably would have been a proper means of discussion of all issues of concern. Contacts between the State Duma’s foreign relations committees and the U.S. House of Representatives have been lost, and the stream of collaboration between the Senate and the Federation Council is also drying out.

Yet the most regrettable conclusion is that American legislators may prove to be not yet ready to build normalcy in our relations even as they vote for Permanent Normal Trade status.

The United States and Russia are two great nations capable of achieving a lot together. But that requires a willingness to work with mutual respect and to build partnerships, not irritants. I am still hopeful that when it comes to the final decision, our partners will approach the issue with foresight, focusing on the benefits of successful bilateral cooperation — on good trade rather than on bad politics that spoil the chance for normalcy. Normalcy, which is still in short supply.

Sergey Kislyak has been the Russian ambassador to the United States since 2008.