U.S.-Russian Relations: The Legacy of Jackson-Vanik

Cover story, Centerpoint, March 2010

Mar 02, 2010

"Jackson-Vanik was evidence that legislative power in the United States was not just ruled by profit, but also by the struggle of freedom for individuals," said Ludmila Alexeeva, co-founder and chair of the Moscow Helsinki Group, the oldest existing human rights organization in Russia. At this February 4 Kennan Institute event, co-sponsored by the Henry M. Jackson Foundation , panelists celebrated and debated this historic piece of legislation that President Gerald Ford signed into law 35 years ago.

In 1974, Senator Henry "Scoop" Jackson and Representative Charles Vanik co-sponsored an amendment to the U.S. Trade Act that linked emigration with trade relations. The legislation denies permanent normal trade relations (then called most-favored-nation status) to non-market economies that deny their citizens the right to emigrate.

While some Central and East European countries "graduated" from the amendment in recent years, Russia remains subject to an annual compliance waiver, which has complicated U.S.-Russian trade relations. Those who defend Jackson-Vanik argue it remains an important symbol of freedom and democracy.

This conference featured human rights activists from Russia, scholars, lawyers, and practitioners who debated the importance and relevancy of Jackson-Vanik in today's world. Participants included those who helped shape the legislation, others who believe the amendment has outlasted its effectiveness, as well as those whose lives were affected by it.

The Symbolic Value of Jackson-Vanik
Richard Perle, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, called Jackson-Vanik "arguably the most important piece of legislation in [the 20th] century," a milestone in which an overwhelming majority in both houses of Congress supported it. "It had a galvanizing effect on millions of Soviet citizens—Jews and non-Jews—who understood that people in the West…were willing to stand with people seeking freedom."

Perle, one of the amendment's drafters along with panelist Mark Talisman, said the amendment does not affect Russia anymore—an assertion refuted by other panelists later that day—because Russia is no longer a non-market economy and allows for unlimited emigration.

Perle opposes any effort to repeal the amendment, saying a presidential determination that Russia is in compliance would quell the debate while leaving the amendment on the books. "To repeal it, with all of the human rights concerns in Russia, would repeal iconic legislation that is not a burden to anyone but those non-market economies that deny emigration," he said.

"To lose it is to never have it again," said Talisman, founder of the Project Judaica Foundation and former chief of staff to Rep. Vanik. He argued if the legislation got repealed, it would be an arduous, if not impossible, process to pass such legislation again if needed.

Following decades of failing to act on facilitating freedom of emigration abroad, said Talisman, a hard-fought battle culminated in this amendment. "When Jackson-Vanik came along, it was a mighty machine that reversed the history," Talisman said. "Vanik believed this was an arrow in his quiver…that it would be forever."

The amendment was inspired by the Soviet Jewry movement but ultimately affected many others as well. "By the 1960s, an increasing number of Jews applied to emigrate [from the Soviet Union], and an increasing number were refused," said longtime human rights activist Ludmila Alexeeva. "Impossible conditions for long years forced desperate actions and demonstrations." Inspired by the Soviet Jewry movement, the human rights -movement emerged in the 1960s, where religious and national -movements began stirring in the Soviet republics.

The Moscow Helsinki Group, founded in 1976, helped mobilize all of the different human rights movements, while pressing for the ultimate right of emigration. "Emigration affects all civic and economic rights," she said. And, while so many other rights are denied today, "The only right we still have is emigration," she said. "I can come here to make this report because of this right."

Rethinking Jackson-Vanik
Other panelists debated how to honor the historical legacy and universal importance of Jackson-Vanik while moving to advance U.S.-Russian relations.

Over the years, some have tried to broaden the legislation's scope because Congress has few tools for leverage on human rights, but this distorts Jackson-Vanik's original intent, said Blake Marshall, senior vice president and managing director of the PBN Company. "Jackson-Vanik has fulfilled its intent," he argued. "Its continuing application is anachronistic."

Russia remains a primary market for U.S. exporters, yet Jackson-Vanik continues to strain the bilateral trade relationship, said Marshall. The real harm would occur after Russia potentially accedes to the World Trade Organization, he said, when not having unconditional normal trade relations would prevent the United States from taking advantage of reduced import duties and tariff rates. Marshall said the legislation's repeal for Russia would be a good-faith, confidence-building measure.

Sam Kliger, director of Russian Affairs at the American Jewish Committee who was a refusenik, denied permission to emigrate from the Soviet Union for many years, and himself a beneficiary of Jackson-Vanik, acknowledged the amendment as a human rights victory but agreed it's time to graduate Russia. State-sponsored anti-Semitism no longer exists, he said, and freedom to emigrate is unimpeded in Russia. "We need to acknowledge Russia as a new state and a new player," and differentiate it from the Soviet Union, he said.

Sarah Mendelson, director of the human rights and security initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, agreed that Jackson-Vanik no longer provides leverage to deal with Russia's current human rights problems. She cited several potentially useful tools: increasing awareness of human rights abuses, such as holding more U.S. congressional hearings; monitoring abuses through public opinion surveys and impugn those abusers; and increasing coordination with allies, including targeted sanctions.

"Congress must work with our allies to speak with one voice on impunity," she said. Increasing U.S. compliance on human rights issues, she said, serves as a model. "For the United States to be non-compliant affects its ability to effect democracy and human rights elsewhere."

New Approaches to Human Rights
There is a long history of tension between human rights groups and the government, which tends to view independent NGOs as instruments of the West. Alexander Verkhovsky, director of the SOVA Center for Information and Analysis in Moscow said, "We do the best we can so we're not marginalized."

Some Russians, such as Arseny Roginsky, co-founder of the Historical, Educational, and Human Rights Society "Memorial" and a former political prisoner, contend that today's human rights movement resembles that of the Soviet era, when dissidents reverted to protests, letter-writing campaigns, and appeals to the West.

But Russians today have mechanisms available to fight human rights abuses that did not exist decades ago, such as bringing their complaints to the European Court of Human Rights. Such cases have soared in recent years, attested Karinna Moskalenko, a renowned Russian human rights lawyer.

Maria Chertok, director of Charities Aid Foundation-Russia, discussed Russia's growing public interest in the human rights agenda. She said targeted campaigns could effectively mobilize funding for the cause from individuals and groups. Such support would help supplement the international funding that has largely financed human rights movements in Russia.

But many Russians do not trust human rights, viewing it as a foreign Western concept, said Ivan Ninenko, deputy director of Transparency International in Russia, who is active in the youth human rights movement. Young people understand human rights better, he said, when a right gets revoked that personally affects them, such as blocked Internet access, and then they will take to the streets to protest in droves.

Opportunities do arise for civil society to influence transparency. For instance, Russia's parliament recently passed landmark Freedom of Information legislation, a bill bolstered by the lobbying efforts the Institute for Information Freedom Development. Its founder and chairman, Ivan Pavlov, said, "Information makes people free and makes government more responsible."

As for Jackson-Vanik, the day's panelists all celebrated its landmark achievement, but some argued Russia should be found in permanent compliance and removed from the legislation while others argued its repeal would be a stamp of approval for Russia's uneven human rights situation. Several panelists called for new mechanisms to address human rights concerns in Russia. Talisman said, "More needs to be done broadly in concert with Jackson-Vanik."
 

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