20 years under Putin: a timeline

On July 26, 2012 the U.S. House Ways and Means Committee approved the repeal of the Jackson-Vanik Amendment, which had been passed in 1974. Last month, key Congressional committees had unanimously passed the Magnistky Act, a law imposing severe sanctions on those who have violated human rights in Russia and elsewhere. Vladimir V. Kara-Murza, a leading Russian journalist, activist, and, until recently, the RTVi Washington Bureau Chief, reports on the repeal of the historic amendment and the passage of the Magnitsky Act. As he explained to IMR, Kara-Murza was forced out of his position at RTVi because of his participation in the preparation and advocacy for the expansion of the Magnitsky Act.



It took the U.S. House Ways and Means Committee only forty minutes on Thursday, July 26th, to mark up the repeal of the famed Jackson-Vanik Amendment. For forty years, the latter has been an irritant in the relations between the White House and the Kremlin, and had come to symbolize a rare victory of a principled approach over realpolitik. The amendment to the 1974 Trade Act, proposed by Democrats Senator Henry Jackson and Congressman Charles Vanik, restricted U.S. trade with Moscow in protest of the restriction to the freedom to emigrate from the USSR. Вoth the Nixon-Ford-Kissinger administration and Brezhnev’s Politburo opposed the amendment. It took Andrei Sakharov’s open letter, in which he urged Congress to “rise above the transitory group interests of profit and prestige” to convince hesitant lawmakers. “Abandoning a principled policy would constitute a betrayal of the thousands of Jews and non-Jews who want to emigrate, of the hundreds in camps and mental hospitals, of the victims of the Berlin Wall,” wrote Sakharov. “It would amount to a total surrender of democratic principles in the face of blackmail and violence.”

For two decades now there has been talk of repealing the amendment, which had long since fulfilled its historical mission. Presidents Boris Yeltsin and Bill Clinton announced an agreement to that end at their very first meeting in April 1993. A repeal in the early 1990s would have been most logical, especially since, in addition to the freedom of emigration, post-Communist Russia has attained many other democratic freedoms, including freedom of the press and free elections. At first, it was the U.S. Congress that could never quite get around to repealing the amendment; later, events in Russia (the Chechen wars, Vladimir Putin’s rise to power, the takeover of NTV, the Yukos case) were not conducive to inspiring a grand gesture from Washington. In any case, the status quo had no effect on trade, since the application of the Jackson-Vanik Amendment toward Moscow has been waived since 1989.

In the best traditions of realpolitik, a repeal of the amendment was necessitated by U.S. economic interests. After Russia was officially invited into the World Trade Organization at the December 2011 Geneva ministerial conference, American businesses (large and small) and the agricultural lobby dramatically increased pressure on Congress to repeal the act. The retention of formal restrictions on trade with Russia would have prevented U.S. exporters from reaping the benefits of Russia’s WTO membership (including lower tariffs and conflict-resolution mechanisms), thus giving a competitive advantage to Moscow’s trading partners from the European Union and China. Economists predict that as a result of Russia’s WTO accession and the establishment of permanent normal trade relations (PNTR) with the U.S., American exports to Russia will double (from the current $9 billion a year) in the next five years. In Congress, Democrats and Republicans alike declared their support for repealing the amendment. The Obama Administration marked this issue as one of its priorities.


"We fully expect that there will be some reactions that are going to try to show [Russian] machoness rather than dealing with [human rights]," senator Cardin said on April 19 at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a Washington think tank.


The conclusion of Russia’s drawn-out WTO accession process sealed the fate of the Jackson-Vanik Amendment, but the principal question remained: would the amendment be simply repealed, or would it be replaced by a more relevant human rights provision? Just as four decades ago, the White House and Kremlin (together with many American business lobbyists) came out against any linkage between trade and human rights. The U.S. Administration wanted lawmakers to provide a “clean” bill that would only repeal the Jackson-Vanik Amendment and extend PNTR to Russia. The Russian opposition and the human rights community considered this prospect unacceptable. A “clean” repeal of a legislative instrument that had placed human rights on the agenda for U.S.-Russian relations would have been a propaganda victory for the Kremlin. If the Jackson-Vanik Amendment was not repealed for Yeltsin’s democratic Russia, it could surely not be repealed for Putin’s authoritarian Russia, with its political prisoners, state-controlled media, and manipulated elections.

Then came the idea of a new linkage: replacing the outdated Jackson-Vanik Amendment with the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act, which provides for targeted personal sanctions against Russian human rights violators. The bill, named after a Moscow lawyer who had uncovered a large fraud scheme and died in prison in 2009 after being beaten and denied medical care, proposes to introduce a U.S. visa ban and asset freeze for Russian officials “responsible for the detention, abuse, or death of Sergei Magnitsky”, as well as for those “responsible for extrajudicial killings, torture, or other gross violations of human rights” (among them, as listed in Article 4, are the “freedoms of religion, expression, association, and assembly and the rights to a fair trial and democratic elections”). In other words, instead of sanctioning an entire country, the Magnitsky Act establishes personal responsibility for the specific officials who violate Russia’s international commitments on the rule of law and human rights while opting to keep their money and spend their vacations in the West. The Magnitsky Act has been supported not only by the leaders of Russia’s democratic opposition (including Boris Nemtsov, Mikhail Kasyanov and Garry Kasparov), but also by leading cultural figures and representatives of civil society who have urged Congress to pass the bill without delay. In Congress itself, the Magnitsky Act stands out as a rare example of bipartisanship, having been cosponsored by 39 Senators (including both party whips) and by 66 Members of the House of Representatives. Lawmakers from both parties have argued that the repeal of the Jackson-Vanik Amendment must happen only on the condition of the passage of the Magnitsky Act.


Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov holds a portrait of Sergei Magnitsky as he protests against police lawlessness in front of the Interior Ministry in Moscow in March.


The same connection was discussed on Thursday during the markup in the House Ways and Means Committee, which officially has no jurisdiction over the Magnitsky Act (the bill falls under the authority of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, which approved it unanimously on June 7). The leaders of the Ways and Means Committee, Chairman Dave Camp (R) and Ranking Member Sander Levin (D), indicated that H.R. 6156, “The Russia and Moldova Jackson-Vanik Repeal Act of 2012”, will be joined together with the Magnitsky Act on the House floor (the linkage will be formalized by the House Rules Committee). Congressman Jim McDermott (D) called the Magnitsky Act a “serious policy upgrade” for the United States, emphasizing that an amendment which concerns the emigration problem in the Soviet Union (both of which no longer exist) is being replaced by a law which addresses the real and grave human rights violations in modern-day Russia. Once it was made clear that it would be linked with the passage of the Magnitsky Act, the Ways and Means Committee overwhelmingly backed the repeal of the Jackson-Vanik Amendment by a voice vote. It should be noted that the Jackson-Vanik Repeal Act itself also establishes new control mechanisms requiring the U.S. Administration to annually report to Congress on Russia’s compliance with WTO obligations, and to advocate for U.S. investors and promote the rule of law and the fight against corruption in Russia. In addition, the bill specifically tasks the Administration with “promoting the claims of United States investors in the Yukos Oil Company,” which has been de facto nationalized by the Russian government.


Paragraph 13, Chapter 2 of the Magnitsky Act, which cites the Khodorkovsky case as evidence of a politically-manipulated judiciary in Russia. The full text of the law is available here.


Lawmakers expect that the “Russian package” (the repeal of the Jackson-Vanik Amendment, the extension of PNTR, and the passage of the Magnitsky Act) will be voted on by both houses and sent to President Obama’s desk before the August recess. Business leaders are also looking for the earliest possible vote. Russia will become a full member of the World Trade Organization on August 22.