Lara Iglitzin, executive director of the Henry M. Jackson Foundation, and John Hempelmann, president of the foundation, writing in the Seattle Times:
When Washington state’s U.S. Sen. Henry M. “Scoop” Jackson introduced what became the historic Jackson-Vanik Amendment in 1975, he was aiming squarely at a repressive Soviet Union that denied its citizens the right to free emigration, one of the fundamental human rights the senator greatly valued.
By denying Most Favored Nation trade status to nonmarket economies that restrict emigration, Jackson-Vanik was intended to motivate Soviet leaders to take action and open their borders. And it worked — well more than 1 million people left the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics thanks to the amendment in the 1970s and 1980s.
While the Soviet Union no longer exists, the amendment remains on the books. And Russian President Medvedev and Prime Minister Putin don’t like it. Their message to the U.S. is to prove that the Cold War is over, and repeal what some call a Cold War relic. So why not repeal it?
Lyudmila Alexeyeva, the indomitable Russian human-rights leader and activist for the past 40 years, didn’t mince words when discussing the amendment’s current relevance.
“Don’t give Putin something for nothing … free emigration is the one right we have left,” she said at a February conference in Washington, D.C. The conference on “The Legacy and Consequences of Jackson-Vanik” was held jointly by the Kennan Institute and the Henry M. Jackson Foundation.
The amendment no longer applies to Russia and has no practical bearing on U.S.-Russian trade relations. Russia has a market economy. Jackson-Vanik only targeted emigration, which Russia today allows. Yet the amendment’s symbolic importance to U.S.-Russian political relations as a crucial piece of human-rights legislation remains key. Given the slide of human rights in the past 10 years, to hand Putin a no-strings-attached gift by repealing Jackson-Vanik sends the wrong message to Moscow.
The Kremlin may be benefiting from the reset of relations with the Obama administration, but to date human rights has yet to improve. On the contrary. Journalists and human-rights activists are killed, beaten and intimidated with impunity and most murders remain unsolved. Self-censorship and press controls muzzle criticism of Putin, especially in influential national media outlets.
Furthermore, corruption permeates every branch of government, most notably in the police and judiciary: 50 percent of citizens consider bribing an official the most effective way to get something done in Russian society, according to a recent poll from the Moscow-based Levada Center. Worst of all: abuses continue in the North Caucasus, where a rogue government of the mountainous Chechen Republic acts without the apparent control of any federal authorities and where criminal attacks are left unsolved and uninvestigated. Overall, the rule of law remains under attack. The result: Russian cases comprise 28 percent of the pending cases before the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.
At a briefing related to the February conference, a standing room crowd of congressional staffers — most too young to remember the chill of U.S.-Soviet relations — nevertheless immediately got the symbolism inherent in a repeal of Jackson-Vanik during a time of great and growing concern about the status and trends of human rights in Russia. “Whether or not Jackson-Vanik technically relates to Russia today will be lost on my boss and on many other members,” one young staffer predicted. “All he understands is that in Putin’s Russia, human rights are under attack, so why give him something for nothing?”
Repeal of Jackson-Vanik deprives America of a symbolic and essential human-rights tool in foreign policy. Permanently graduating Russia from Jackson-Vanik, on the other hand — while keeping the law on the books — may be inevitable, if Russia is to be granted entry into the World Trade Organization. At the same time, the Obama administration must couple graduation with new resources for Russia’s democratic activists and a forceful statement supporting the human-rights community.
In the tradition of Scoop Jackson’s willingness to take a stand, the final act of the Jackson-Vanik Amendment in U.S.-Russian relations should be to press Russia for meaningful action on its deplorable human-rights record.