The Right Way to Repeal Jackson-Vanik

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July 3 (Bloomberg) -- By the end of this month, Russia will become the 154th member of the World Trade Organization. The ratification vote in the State Duma will conclude 19 years of arduous negotiations and enshrine promises by Moscow to open its markets, lower tariffs, enforce transparent laws and resolve trade disputes according to global rules of commerce.

The U.S. Congress should encourage the opening of the world’s seventh-largest economy by upgrading Russia to the status of Permanent Normal Trade Relations. That requires the repeal of the Jackson-Vanik amendment, a set of trade restrictions adopted in 1974 that was designed to compel the Soviet Union to allow emigration of its Jewish population, a goal that has long ceased to be appropriate or useful. Since the early 1990s, successive U.S. administrations have granted annual waivers of its terms. Now, keeping the law on the books would put the U.S. in violation of WTO rules and allow Russia to penalize American companies.

Some U.S. lawmakers want to combine the repeal of Jackson-Vanik with a punitive measure aimed at pressuring Russia for human-rights violations. The Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act, which was approved June 26 by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, would name and sanction Russian officials thought to be responsible for the 2009 death in a Moscow prison of Sergei Magnitsky, a lawyer who disclosed evidence that government officials had embezzled $230 million. The scope of the act has been broadened from its initial focus on Russia and now requires the U.S. to seize the assets of and deny visas to any official deemed to be involved in any human-rights violations.

The Magnitsky case is just one of many reasons for grave concern over the Russian government’s repeated repression of democratic freedoms and human-rights violations. Yet combining the two pieces of legislation would do more harm than good.

WTO membership will further bind Russia and President Vladimir Putin to a global regime of rules and laws and also open opportunities for U.S. companies. Those are important goals in their own right. Failure to repeal Jackson-Vanik would just give Russia free rein to punish U.S. companies.

Congress can, and should, shine a strong spotlight on Russia’s deplorable human-rights record by putting the Magnitsky Act before President Barack Obama as a separate piece of legislation. Yet for all the act’s good intentions, we think its desire to sanction not just people linked to the Magnitsky case is overbroad. In addition, its positive effects don’t outweigh the costs of censuring a country whose help the U.S. and the world needs to curb Iran’s nuclear program and to unseat the murderous regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria.

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