Brookings fellow Steven Pifer: Burying the Magnitsky bill’s message

Congress appears ready to take long-overdue action to graduate Russia from the provisions of the Jackson-Vanik amendment. At the same time, both the Senate and House seem intent on coupling that with passage of the Magnitsky human-rights bill, which would sanction Russian officials involved in the 2009 death of Sergei Magnitsky in a Moscow prison. 

Unfortunately, by linking these measures, Congress will obscure the message that it seeks to send the Russian government. The two measures should be decoupled.

Congress passed the Jackson-Vanik amendment in 1974, denying permanent normal trade relations status to the Soviet Union and other countries that restricted emigration of religious minorities. Congress adopted the legislation primarily to press the Soviet government to allow Soviet Jews the freedom to emigrate, something that the Moscow authorities routinely denied.

This changed after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Russia opened the gates in the early 1990s, and Moscow allowed virtually any Russian Jew to depart. Hundreds of thousands did, mainly for Israel and the United States. While Russia has slid badly backwards on democracy issues since Vladimir Putin first became president in 2000, emigration remains unrestricted.

The Clinton administration found Russia to be in compliance with the Jackson-Vanik amendment in 1994. By the end of the 1990s, Russia merited full graduation. The George W. Bush administration made half-hearted efforts to push Congress to adopt the appropriate legislation in 2002 and 2003, but an ill-timed Russian ban on chicken imports and White House reluctance to engage the president directly with the congressional leadership undercut those attempts.

Congress now has little choice but to act. When Russia enters the World Trade Organization this summer, continued application of Jackson-Vanik would mean that the United States is not according permanent normal trade relations status to Russia. As a result, U.S. companies exporting to Russia would not be able to benefit from World Trade Organization tariffs or dispute-resolution mechanisms. Essentially, Jackson-Vanik would then become a sanction on American business.

Congress should now finally pass the legislation needed to graduate Russia from Jackson-Vanik. However, many in both houses propose to do this only in conjunction with passage of the Magnitsky bill.

Magnitsky, a Russian lawyer, disclosed evidence that Russian officials embezzled some $230 million. Incredibly, those same officials were allowed to investigate and arrest Magnitsky. He spent nearly a year in pre-trial detention before dying in prison when his jailers denied him needed medical treatment.

The Magnitsky bill will sanction Russian officials connected with Magnitsky’s imprisonment and death, and other officials in similar corruption cases. It would deny them visas to the United States and freeze any financial assets that they might have in U.S. banks.

Magnitsky’s treatment was abhorrent. The Russian government has protested vociferously against the bill, which demeans the Russian government. The U.S. government has a sovereign right to decide who it will and will not allow to enter into the United States, and who can and cannot do business in American financial institutions.

But linking Russia’s graduation from Jackson-Vanik to passage of the Magnitsky bill is a mistake.

First, linkage will ensure that Washington gets no political credit for finally doing the right thing on Jackson-Vanik. To be sure, the credit would be modest, given Russian frustration that they have remained under Jackson-Vanik’s sanction for more than a decade after they did what it asked them to do. But better late than never.

Second, linking the Magnitsky bill to Jackson-Vanik graduation will wholly obscure Congress’s message to the Russian government. The Russians will not see the Magnitsky bill as an expression of outrage over how the Russian legal system was shabbily and corruptly manipulated to kill one of its fellow citizens. They will instead see the bill as reflecting what they believe to be a deep-seated anti-Russia sentiment on the Hill: the Americans had to give up Jackson-Vanik, so they came up with another piece of legislation to beat Russia with.

Congress is right to act on the Magnitsky bill. But it should not couple that with Jackson-Vanik graduation for Russia. Linkage only buries the message that Congress seeks to send.

Pifer, a retired Foreign Service officer, is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.


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