President Barack Obama's administration will not support any human rights or democracy legislation in exchange for Congress repealing the 1974 Jackson-Vanik law, which is preventing Russia from getting top trade status with the United States, the U.S. envoy to Moscow said today.
U.S. Ambassador to Russia Mike McFaul, the former NSC senior director for Russia and a key architect of the administration's "reset" policy with Russia, was in Washington today --along with all other U.S. ambassadors -- in advance of a huge conference at the State Department Tuesday. He made clear, in two separate speaking events, that the administration's top trade priority in 2012 is to repeal the Jackson-Vanik law, which has blocked Russia from getting Permanent Normal Trade Status (PNTR). However, the administration doesn't support any replacement for the law, such as the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act of 2011 -- legislation meant to promote human rights in Russia that is named for the anti-corruption lawyer who died in a Russian prison, after allegedly being tortured, two years ago.
Many lawmakers on Capitol Hill want to link the passage of the Magnitsky bill to the repeal of the Jackson-Vanik amendment, which was put in place in the 1970s to punish Russia for its treatment of Jewish would-be emigrants but now stands in the way of lifting U.S.-Russian trade restrictions. Last year, the State Department did quietly issue visa bans for the Russian officials linked to the case, and McFaul said that's enough.
"We believe that we can ban people from coming to this country that do grossly abusive things regarding human rights. And it was strengthened by a human rights executive order last August that we took to give additional authorities. So from our point of view this legislation is redundant to what we're already doing," McFaul said at a Tuesday morning event on Capitol Hill organized by the Foreign Policy Initiative (FPI), a conservative policy organization. "We took this situation very seriously and we took action."
McFaul got into an impromptu debate at the FPI event about the Magnitsky Act with leading human rights advocates, and one of Magnitsky's original clients, Bill Browder. McFaul reiterated that the administration does not support financial sanctions on Russian human rights violators that go beyond the visa bans, and he said it's not helpful to name the names of the officials who are banned.
The Senate Finance Committee will take up the issue of Russia's PNTR status and the Jackson-Vanik law on Thursday. Committee chairman Sen. Max Baucus (D-MT) visited Russia last month and met with several senior Russian officials on the issue, including lame duck President Dmitry Medvedev.
"Jackson-Vanik from our position is a total no brainer. There's no upside to holding onto Jackson-Vanik right now. Zero. And viewed in human rights terms, there's no upside," McFaul said. "Jackson-Vanik should be terminated because there's no advantage in terms of the debate about democracy. There's no advantage in terms of human rights."
David Kramer, the president of Freedom House, talked at the event about the coordinated campaign by the Russian government to clamp down on democratization and human rights progress in Russia and to blame the current anti-government protests in Russia on the United States.
"Politically, in light of the environment in Russia, which has been deteriorating in Russia, to simply lift Jackson-Vanik without some replacement would be viewed in Moscow and Russian leadership as a sign of weakness on the part of the United States -- again, that we need this relationship more than they do," Kramer said. "And if we don't replace it, then we would, in their minds, be rewarding them despite their bad behavior by not going after them. To me, this has to be a package deal."
At a separate event this afternoon at the Petersen Institute for International Economics, McFaul again said that the administration would not support any human rights bill in exchange for repealing Jackson-Vanik, and made the case that Jackson-Vanik only hurts U.S. businesses.
"We're not going to have an argument about the diagnostics with anybody on Capitol Hill. We're not going to claim Russia's more democratic than you think. We're not going to get into that kind of argument. We'll just agree Russia has problems with these issues. But we disagree on the prescription," he said. "We don't believe that holding on to Jackson-Vanik in any way, shape, or form, advances the cause of democracy, human rights, or rule of law in Russia... there's no causal relationship."
McFaul is pushing for a new civil society fund, which would provide about $50 million in new money support NGOs there. The White House sent the plan to Capitol Hill last October, and McFaul says it is "stuck in Congress." We're told the request for funding is being held up by the office of Senate Foreign Relations Committee ranking Republican Richard Lugar (R-IN).
"If you want to do something constructive, that's an area where we should be focusing on our attention, not on this weird linkage, like somehow holding Jackson-Vanik is going to make Russia more democratic or is going to help us with Syria," McFaul said. "I dare somebody to stand up today and tell me how not lifting [Jackson-Vanik] helps the cause of promoting rule of law, democracy, and human rights. We just don't see it that way."
McFaul also mentioned in both events the blog post published today by several Russian opposition leaders, including Alexey Navalny and Boris Nemtsov, calling for the repeal of Jackson-Vanik.
"At the end of the day, those who defend the argument that Jackson-Vanik's provisions should still apply to Russia in order to punish Putin's anti-democratic regime only darken Russia's political future, hamper its economic development, and frustrate its democratic aspirations," the opposition leaders wrote. "Jackson-Vanik is also a very useful tool for Mr Putin's anti-American propaganda machine: it helps him to depict the United States as hostile to Russia, using outdated cold-war tools to undermine Russia's international competitiveness."
FPI's Ellen Bork pointed out at the event that Navalny and Nemtsov both support passage of the Magnitsky act, although they didn't mention that in their blog post.
In response to a question from The Cable, McFaul declined to call the recent election of President-elect Vladimir Putin "free and fair," referring to State Department's statements on the election. He also denied accusations that the United States is financially supporting the protest movement, which he characterized as a healthy example of increasing Russian popular political participation.
"I wouldn't call it civil unrest; I would call it civil society renewal. This is not a movement that is seeking the violent overthrow of the current regime. They seek to engage in peaceful actions to reform the current system. That's different from other places around the world," McFaul said. "There are real politics in Russia again. The society is taking their constitutional rights more seriously and the state is responding to that."
Leading human rights activists see the government response to the protests in a harsher light.
"In the past few years, Russia has moved backwards not forwards... The trappings of democracy exist, elections happen," Tom Malinowski, Washington director of Human Rights Watch, said at the FPI event. "But beyond those surface trappings, over the last few years, the Russian government has tried to weaken or dismantle every institution that might check the power of its officials or increase the power of its people."
Astrid Riecken/Getty Images
John Hudson reports on national security and foreign policy from the Pentagon to Foggy Bottom, the White House to Embassy Row, for The Cable.