U.S. and Russia negotiate to lift trade restrictions
Commerce Secretary Gary Locke urged Russia on Wednesday to lift bans on poultry and pork imports from the United States as a "significant first step" toward persuading Congress to repeal the Jackson-Vanik amendment, a long-standing irritant in U.S.-Russia relations.
He also reported that Russia had expressed a desire to continue negotiations to join the World Trade Organization, despite Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's surprise decision last month to abandon the effort in favor of a new bid to enter as a regional bloc with Belarus and Kazakhstan.
Locke's remarks came after two days of talks with Russian officials during President Obama's trip to Moscow. He was the only Cabinet secretary to accompany Obama on the visit.
Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told state television Tuesday that Obama had promised to make a priority of repealing the 1974 Jackson-Vanik amendment, which was originally designed to impose limits on trade with communist countries that restricted emigration but which remains a sore point between Washington and Moscow.
"President Obama acknowledged that it is, in fact, now a problem on the American side," Lavrov said.
Locke, though, put it differently, saying that the president had told Russian leaders he could not repeal the law without Congress and that he needed their help to win lawmakers over.
"For members of Congress to remove Jackson-Vanik," Locke said, Russia needs to show "some movement on some of the issues of concern to U.S. companies," including the bans on U.S. poultry and pork imports.
Cuba and North Korea are the only countries denied normal trade relations under Jackson-Vanik. Russia and seven other former Soviet republics are also covered under the law, preventing them from joining the WTO. But in recent years, the president has granted them trade benefits after annual reviews.
Tom Malinowski, Washington advocacy director for Human Rights Watch, said many in Congress see Jackson-Vanik as a tool for expressing disapproval of human rights abuses in Russia. So the administration is wrong if it thinks trade concessions alone will persuade lawmakers to write Russia out of the law, he said.
"Action on Jackson-Vanik is only possible if the feeling in Congress is that the human rights situation in Russia is getting better and not steadily worse," Malinowski said, noting that both the Bush and Clinton administrations tried to repeal it without success.
Putin's decision to abandon the WTO talks appeared to surprise even his own government. Only a week earlier, top Russian ministers had joined U.S. and European officials in saying a deal on accession would be completed by year's end. U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk traveled to St. Petersburg to make a pre-summit push for progress and reported no hint of trouble.
Locke said the Obama administration remains "mystified" by the reversal that followed, adding that Russia's new bid to join the WTO in a customs union with Belarus and Kazakhstan is "just unworkable, unprecedented and would only delay matters."
But he said Economy Minister Elvira Nabiullina has proposed continuing the old, nearly completed talks in "parallel" with the new bid. She suggested that Belarus and Kazakhstan could then be offered the option of accepting the terms negotiated by Russia, Locke said.
The administration is asking the Kremlin to clarify its position and is planning to discuss the issue with Belarus and Kazakhstan, Locke said.
By Philip P. Pan, Washington Post Foreign Service, Thursday, July 9, 2009
Source: the Washington Post
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