WASHINGTON (JTA)—At the behest of leading U.S. Jewish groups, Congress is set to free Russia from the Jackson-Vanik restrictions, the Soviet-era law aimed at exerting pressure on Russia to loosen its emigration restrictions.
But that doesn’t mean the Putin administration is off the hook for human rights abuses. Jewish groups are championing a new measure that imposes sanctions on Russians suspected of involvement with extrajudicial killings and torture.
The U.S. House of Representatives is set to vote Friday to graduate Russia from the 1974 law named for the late Sen. Henry Jackson (D-Wash.) and Rep. Charlie Vanik (D-Ohio), which conditioned trade on freedom of emigration. The bill also includes new provisions that restrict travel and freeze the assets of Russians suspected of human rights abuses.
A letter to Congress in June from eight Jewish groups was seen as key to advancing the legislation, which is likely to be considered by the Senate after Thanksgiving. The bill has bipartisan support and is expected to pass and be signed by President Obama.
“Our argument was and is that the amendment was intended to gain the freedom of Soviet Jews and it’s accomplished that 10 times over,” said Mark Levin, the executive director of NCSJ: Advocates on behalf of Jews in Russia, Ukraine, the Baltic States & Eurasia, which originally lobbied for Jackson-Vanik and has led the Jewish organizational push for its removal.
“Yes, it became a broad human rights symbol, but it was passed to get Soviet Jews out. It succeeded, and now we should find out new ways to deal with new problems,” he said.
The timing of the new law is awkward as repressions under President Vladimir Putin’s leadership reportedly have intensified in recent years. Concerns that Putin not be given a free ride led congressional lawmakers to incorporate sanctions into the bill named for Sergei Magnitsky, a whistleblower who was imprisoned after exposing massive fraud by government officials in 2008. He died in custody in 2009.
The Magnitsky piece has irked Russian authorities, with the government-run Voice of Russia on Tuesday calling the sanctions “superfluous” and predicting they may invite retaliatory measures.
Levin said that Jewish organizations in Russia oppose including the Magnitsky sanctions in the proposed legislation. U.S. Jewish groups support their inclusion as a way to make Russia accountable for human rights abuses.
“By graduating Russia, we demonstrate to the Russians we can recognize progress when it occurs,” Levin said. “Recognizing that progress doesn’t alleviate our concerns about other issues.”
Signing the June letter in addition to NCSJ (formerly known as the National Council on Soviet Jewry) were the American Israel Public Affairs Committee; the Anti-Defamation League; the American Jewish Committee; the Anti-Defamation League; the Jewish Federations of North America; B’nai B’rith International; the Jewish Council for Public Affairs; and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.
“Our support for Russia’s graduation from Jackson-Vanik does not vitiate our continuing concern with the progress of human rights in Russia,” their letter said. “We believe that the United States has the appropriate means to deal with these concerns.”
The ADL’s national director, Abraham Foxman, said leaving Jackson-Vanik in place would redound on the Jews.
“I’m not saying there shouldn’t be efforts for human rights, but don’t use this vehicle because it will forever be tied to Jewish advocacy,” he told JTA.
The main force to graduate Russia from Jackson-Vanik has been the business community. Levin said he has worked closely with the Coalition for U.S.-Russia Trade. Removing Russia from Jackson-Vanik became urgent in August, when the country was accepted into the World Trade Organization, enabling it to take legal steps to retaliate against the United States for trade restrictions mandated by Jackson-Vanik.
“The key legal issue here is that Russia has joined WTO, and if we do not repeal Jackson-Vanik, then U.S. businesses are vulnerable to retaliation,” said Leon Aron, the director of Russian studies at the American Enterprise Institute.
The Obama administration has long argued for graduating Russia out of Jackson-Vanik, part of its bid to “reset” relations with the country and cajole it into cooperation, for instance in isolating Iran. On Wednesday, the office of Management and Budget said it “strongly supported” the proposed legislation while adding that it “intends to continue working with the Congress to support those seeking a free and democratic future for Russia.”
Jackson-Vanik, though tailored to facilitate the emigration of Jews from the Soviet Union, was written in such broad strokes that it was eventually applied to other countries. Among those still subject to its restrictions are North Korea and Cuba. China and Vietnam also have been its targets in the past.
The Magnitsky sanctions in the House version of the proposed bill are narrowly tailored to target Russian abuses. The Senate version is broader and would apply the same sanctions to abusers in other countries.
A broader application would be welcome, said Ilan Berman, the vice president of the conservative American Foreign Policy Council.
“The Senate version talks about individuals, but it also is a jumping-off spot,” he said. ”It’s a tool box that you can use in other situations.”