The Obama administration wants Congress to remove Soviet-era trade restrictions that have been a sore point in U.S.-Russia relations for decades. But the conditions lawmakers are demanding to make the change may only worsen America's increasingly shaky relations with Moscow.
Republicans and Democrats are trying to tie the easing of the so-called Jackson-Vanik restrictions to a measure imposing sanctions against Russian officials linked to human rights abuses. That would infuriate Russia and would be the latest hitch in what administration officials consider a major foreign policy success: improved relations with Russia after a sharp downturn during the Bush administration. They call it the "reset."
Obama administration officials are trying to keep the rights and trade measures apart. They are concerned about retaliation and do not want to aggravate relations further. Tensions have been growing over issues like missile defense and the international response to uprisings in Libya and Syria. But the U.S. still hopes for a degree of cooperation with Russia on other matters, such as stopping Iran's nuclear program.
"We want to deal with trade issues in one sphere and democracy issues and human rights in another sphere," said Michael McFaul, the U.S. ambassador to Russia.
The administration first wants to deal with trade. It has powerful allies in the U.S. business community supporting the repeal of Jackson-Vanik, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which calls the repeal its top trade priority this year. Russia soon will get more opportunities for international trade when it joins the World Trade Organization. If the U.S. doesn't repeal Jackson-Vanik, American companies could be at a competitive disadvantage.
But it's a delicate matter in an election year. Republicans are reluctant to offer Obama any perceived victory by unconditionally repealing the restrictions. And President Barack Obama doesn't want to appear too critical of the rights measure, which has support from both parties. His likely Republican opponent, Mitt Romney, has attacked Obama for signing a major nuclear arms treaty with Russia.
Obama's handling of relations with Russia became a bigger political issue Monday after he told outgoing Russian President Dmitry Medvedev that he would have more flexibility to deal with the contentious issue of missile defense after the November election. Obama apparently did not realize he was being recorded.
Republicans seized on the remarks, demanding an explanation. And on Tuesday, Obama denied having a hidden agenda. "I want to reduce our nuclear stockpiles. And one of the barriers to doing that is building trust and cooperation around missile defense issues," he said.
Jackson-Vanik has long been a thorn in US-Russian relations. It was introduced in 1974 to pressure the Soviet Union to allow Jews to emigrate. Named after its congressional sponsors, Jackson-Vanik denies normal trading relations with communist countries that restrict emigration or punish those trying to leave the country.
Russia calls it anachronistic, even though the legislation has had little practical effect since 1994, when the United States began waiving its application. Still, previous calls to repeal it have found little traction among lawmakers critical of Russia's human rights record.
Those rights concerns prompted two Democrats, Rep. James McGovern of Massachusetts and Sen. Ben Cardin of Maryland, to propose the Magnitsky bill, which would make it difficult for Russians suspected of abuses from doing business, including using credit cards, outside their country. It also calls for publicly identifying Russians tied to abuses, a significant escalation that the administration worries could rile relations. The measure also is backed by prominent Republicans, including Sen. John McCain.
The bill was named for lawyer Sergey Magnitsky, who died in a Russian jail in 2009, when the pancreatitis he developed was left untreated. Proponents of the bill say the death and allegations of torture highlight corruption in Russia's judicial system.
Prospects were uncertain for getting the measure passed as a stand-alone bill. But with the administration and business groups pushing hard to get Jackson-Vanik repealed, senators saw an opportunity to boost its prospects by tying together the two measures, underscoring the link between trade with Russia and human rights.
The administration tried to defuse the issue last year by issuing travel bans on 60 unnamed Russian officials believed to be responsible for Magnitsky's imprisonment, torture and death. Russia later responded by saying it had banned unnamed U.S. officials it claims were involved in abuses related to U.S. counterterror policies.
If Congress insists on linking the two bills, the administration wants to drop the provision calling for the naming of rights abusers. They argue that such disclosure would be inconsistent with State Department practice and counterproductive, because it would remove the uncertainty that human rights violators already face about whether they are on a U.S. blacklist.
Human rights advocates, though, fear the administration may go too far to avoid upsetting Moscow.
"If the Russian leadership is going to throw U.S.-Russian relations over the side because we are going after Russian officials who engage in gross human rights abuses, then the reset isn't very solid to begin with," says David Kramer, president of the human rights advocacy group Freedom House.
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