Senate Passes Russian Trade Bill, With Conditions

New York Times

The Senate voted on Thursday to finally eliminate cold war-era trade restrictions on Russia, but at the same time it condemned Moscow for human rights abuses, threatening to further strain an already fraught relationship with the Kremlin.

The Senate bill, which passed the House of Representatives last month, now goes to President Obama, who has opposed turning a trade bill into a statement on the Russian government’s treatment of its people.

But with such overwhelming support in Congress – the measure passed the Senate 92 to 4 and the House 365 to 43 – the White House has had little leverage to press its case.

And President Obama has shown little desire to pick a fight in which he would appear to be siding with the Russians on such a delicate issue.

Speaking to reporters shortly after the Senate vote, Jay Carney, the White House press secretary, said the president was committed to signing the bill.

The most immediate effect of the bill will be to formally normalize trade relations with Russia after nearly 40 years. Since the 1970s, commerce between Russia and the United States has been subject to restrictions that were designed to punish Communist nations that refused to allow their citizens to leave freely.

While presidents have waived the restrictions since the cold war ended — allowing them to remain on the books as a symbolic sore point with the Russians — the issue took on new urgency this summer after Russia joined the World Trade Organization. American businesses can take advantage of lower trade tariffs only with nations that enjoy normalized trade status

By some estimates, trade with Russia is expected to double after the limits are lifted.

But another effect of the bill – and one that has Russian officials furious with Washington – will be to require that the federal government freeze the assets of Russians implicated in human rights abuses and to deny them visas.

Lawmakers on Capitol Hill were inspired to attach those provisions to the trade legislation because of the case of Sergei L. Magnitsky, a Russian lawyer who was tortured and died in prison in 2009 after he exposed a government tax fraud scheme.

During the Senate debate, it was Mr. Magnitsky’s case, and not Russia’s trade status, that occupied most of the time.

One by one, Democratic and Republican senators alike rose to denounce Russian officials for their disregard for basic freedoms.

“This culture of impunity in Russia has been growing worse and worse,” said Senator John McCain, an Arizona Republican. “There are still many people who look at the Magnitsky Act as anti-Russia. I disagree,” he added. “Ultimately passing this legislation will place the United States squarely on the side of the Russian people and the right side of Russian history, which appears to be approaching a crossroads.”

Russian officials denounced the Senate vote.

“This initiative is intended to restrict the rights of Russian citizens, which we consider completely unjust and baseless,” said Konstantin Dolgov, the Russian foreign ministry’s human rights envoy, in comments to the Interfax news agency in Brussels. “This is an attempt to interfere in our internal affairs, in the authority of Russia’s investigative and judicial organs, which continue to investigate the Magnitsky case.”

Initially there was pressure on the Senate to pass a bill that punished human rights violators from all nations, not just those who are Russian. But the House bill applied only to Russia. And the Senate followed suit, as supporters of the bill wanted something that could pass quickly and not require a complicated back-and-forth with the House.

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