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Human Rights, Russia, and the WTO

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

It would be a mistake to assume that simply bringing Russia into the international trade system will create incentives for it to reform politically and care about its people.

Russia is now closer than it has ever been to World Trade Organization (WTO) membership. The WTO is expected to approve Russia’s bid for entry during its conference December 15-17.

The last major obstacle to Russia’s membership—Georgia’s veto—was removed in November. The World Trade Organization Working Group then granted Russia preliminary approval for WTO entry, ending 18 years of negotiations.

That same day, President Obama declared he would seek to overturn the Jackson-Vanik Amendment, which, since 1975, has required freedom of emigration in Russia in order for the United States to offer Russia “most favored nation status,” or equal treatment in trade.

“I now look forward to working with Congress to end the application of the Jackson-Vanik Amendment to Russia,” Obama said. He reaffirmed his commitment to lifting the Amendment at the APEC summit four days later, when he met Russian President Dmitry Medvedev.

Congress should indeed repeal the Jackson-Vanik Amendment. But the United States should still embrace the spirit of the amendment, and Congress should exert pressure on Russia to address its human rights shortcomings through other mechanisms.

Legislation might sanction Russian officials responsible for human rights abuses by freezing their U.S. assets.

The United States can only benefit from Russia’s WTO accession if it grants Russia normal trade relations status, which requires repeal of Jackson-Vanik. WTO members are generally required to treat each others’ imports equally, thus Jackson-Vanik would violate WTO rules.

It is possible for Russia to join the WTO without Congress repealing Jackson-Vanik—the Amendment still applies to some former communist countries who are now WTO members. But doing so would allow Russia, under WTO rules, to deny the United States most-favored status and enable it to discriminate against U.S. companies—something Russia will not hesitate to do. Should Russia join the WTO without any American repeal of Jackson-Vanik, U.S. businesses will be at a competitive disadvantage to their international competitors seeking trade with Russia. The Jackson-Vanik Amendment’s cancellation would also deprive Russia of its ability to accuse the United States of not shedding its Cold War mentality.

All U.S. presidents since Bill Clinton have supported repealing the Jackson-Vanik Amendment. Indeed, after the Cold War and change in Russia’s emigration policies, the White House has regularly granted Russia a waiver from its provisions after an annual review certifies that Russia meets minimal emigration standards.

Passage of the Jackson-Vanik Amendment was among the most effective congressional actions of the Cold War. Its passage was hard-fought and controversial; it became a formative battle between foreign policy realists, who did not want to impede détente regardless of how the Soviet Union treated its citizenry, and neoconservatives, who argued that human rights advocacy would advance core American interests. The Jackson-Vanik Amendment has remained an important symbol ever since, even if its bite largely ended with the Cold War. As Russia’s rulers once against embrace their Soviet legacy, they are irritated by the continued existence of such an important and effective anti-Soviet symbol.

WTO membership will require Russia to treat other countries with more respect by adhering to international trade standards rather than treating countries arbitrarily.

During the Cold War, the Amendment sent a message not only to the Kremlin, but also to Soviet citizens—my family among them—that the United States cared about human rights and was willing to stand up for them. Its passage gave the oppressed minorities in the Soviet Union hope and strengthened their courage to demand their rights, and the Kremlin found it harder to ignore the message.

Today, the Russians feel that the Americans are hypocritical to continue with Jackson-Vanik—Washington preaches about the need for Russia to dispense with its Cold War mentality, yet it does not do the same.

Russia is a very different place in 2011 than it was under communist dictatorship in 1975, and Russia’s membership in the WTO will benefit both Russia and the United States. WTO membership will require Russia to follow international trade standards, make Russia subject to international trade dispute procedures, and help reduce corruption in the country. These changes will require Russia to treat other countries with more respect by adhering to international trade standards rather than treating countries arbitrarily. Membership could increase annual economic growth in Russia significantly.

The Soviet Union has been in the rubbish bin of history for almost two decades, and Russia no longer restricts the emigration of its citizens the way it did in the Soviet era. However, human rights are still poor in Russia. The State Department’s annual human rights report criticizes the Russian government for severe corruption, torture, and lack of rule of law and due process. Reporters without Borders ranks Russia among the world’s worst offenders of press freedom.

Western silence will convince Moscow that it can dictate the rules and the human rights situation in Russia will only continue to deteriorate.

It would be a mistake to assume that simply bringing Russia into the international trade system will create incentives for it to reform politically and begin to care about its people. This has not worked in either China or Saudi Arabia, both WTO members, whose governments embrace the material wealth they acquired from their entry and access to the West, but not Western values. The WTO takes a purist approach to trade and does not seek to leverage the trade relationship to make countries respect individual liberty or become better global citizens.

Therefore, there is an opening for Congress to pressure the Kremlin. Legislation might sanction Russian officials responsible for human rights abuses by freezing their U.S. assets. Or the Senate might tie foreign assistance to press freedom. Similar measures have been effective elsewhere. The United States has given several billion dollars in aid to Russia since 1992, and even though Russia has rebounded since that period, annual American aid remains tens of millions of dollars.

A Jackson-Vanik 2.0 would not only benefit Russia’s citizens, it would also further U.S. interests. While Georgia’s threatened veto was the last impediment to Russia’s WTO membership, the reason Russia’s accession process has taken so long is because the Kremlin has repeatedly refused to make the reforms necessary for accession. While Russian officials often pay lip service to the importance and prestige of membership, they have refused to abandon protectionist practices, hampered resolutions of myriad institutional issues, and simply refused to let go of their old world view. Moscow demands preferential treatment and will be reluctant to accept its equality to other member states under WTO rules.

While the industrialized world would welcome inclusion of the last major economy currently outside the WTO structure, Russian membership must be matched with real reform. Western silence will convince Moscow that it can dictate the rules, and the human rights situation in Russia will only continue to deteriorate. Perhaps the Jackson-Vanik Amendment is finished, but Congress needs its 21st-century equivalent if U.S. relations with Russia will be truly reset.

Anna Borshchevskaya is the assistant director of the Dinu Patriciu Eurasia Center at Atlantic Council.

FURTHER READING: Philip I. Levy writes “Who’s Stalling Whom on Trade?” and “Free Trade’s Rude Awakening.” Daniel Vajdic says “South Ossetia Elections Show Russia’s Clout Waning.” Nicholas Eberstadt asks “Are We Ready to Deal With a *Weaker* Russia?” and describes “The Dying Bear: Russia's Demographic Disaster.”

Image by Darren Wamboldt | Bergman Group

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