By Carroll Colley
While Russia will enter the WTO in late August, U.S. industry will be left on the sidelines until Congress removes the Cold War-era impediment to greater trade between the former foes. But it's a safe bet that Congress won't graduate Russia from the Jackson-Vanik amendment, which is necessary to grant permanent normal trade relations to Russia and take advantage of its accession to the WTO, before the November election. The reason? Russia is perpetually steeped in controversy, and U.S.-Russia relations have become a campaign issue in the race between Republican Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama. U.S. industry likely won't be able to take advantage of greater market access in Russia until the lame-duck session at the end of the year, and possibly later.
The White House is much more focused on November 6 (Election Day) than August 23 (the approximate date of Russia's WTO entry). Only after repeated requests from Republican lawmakers for senior level officials to testify on the Hill -- widely viewed as a Republican maneuver to force the administration to speak on the record about its Russian policy -- did the administration relent by sending the duo of Deputy Secretary of State William Burns and U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk to testify before the House Ways and Means Committee and the Senate Finance Committee. The White House calculates that a "yes" vote on graduating Russia from Jackson-Vanik (a 1974 provision that ties trade relations to freedom of emigration and other human rights considerations) would have little electoral upside, and might even harm Obama before the election.
Obama's meeting on June 18 with President Vladimir Putin on the margins of the G20 in Los Cabos seemingly failed to produce a breakthrough on Syrian policy. Headlines about ongoing arms shipments bound for Syria and the potential for continued Russian intransigence at the U.N. Security Council also represent potential political liabilities during the election home stretch, not to mention a host of domestic political issues. Romney, meanwhile, has called Russia the U.S.'s greatest political "enemy" -- and later changing that description to "foe" -- because he senses a potential weakness in an Obama foreign policy that has otherwise produced several notable successes.
It would be much simpler, politically, if supporters of graduating Russia from Jackson-Vanik could cast it as a vote for American business, as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton did in a recent opinion piece. But they can't. Passage is complicated by the Magnitsky bill, human rights legislation that targets government officials involved in the case of Sergei Magnitsky, a Russian lawyer who died in police custody in 2009. Largely viewed as a replacement for Jackson-Vanik, the stated aim of the bill is to deny visas to corrupt officials, freeze any U.S. accounts they have, and publish their names. The reality is that the Obama administration last summer instituted its own visa ban and any potential offenders have long ago transferred any funds from the U.S.. The net effect of the bill, therefore, is the "naming of names," which would represent a significant embarrassment to the Putin regime. The bill enjoys broad bipartisan support, with a number of lawmakers stating publicly that passage of the Magnitsky bill is a prerequisite for their vote on Jackson-Vanik.
The Obama administration has sent contradictory messages about its support for the Magnitsky bill. While originally opposing the bill, the administration seems to have accepted the inevitable and has been working with its primary author, Democratic Sen. Ben Cardin of Maryland. One recent Senate version provides for the public list as well as a confidential annex, which would largely allow the administration to circumvent the thrust of the bill by invoking national security exemptions. This is strongly opposed by a number of senior lawmakers, including Sen. John McCain, who was a co-sponsor of the effort to repeal Jackson-Vanik on the caveat of corresponding passage of the Magnitsky bill.
As the August recess rapidly approaches, the window for graduating Russia from Jackson-Vanik prior to its WTO accession closes. Obama appears to have little room to maneuver in expending political capital on the matter without raising the risk of elevating Russia-and its collateral baggage including Syria, Georgia, Iran, and domestic protests-to a legitimate campaign issue. Unless Congress moves forward on its own prerogative-which appears unlikely-the repeal of Jackson-Vanik won't get passed before November, or later, leaving the world's largest economy unable to take advantage of the accession of the WTO's newest member.
Carroll Colley is the director of Eurasia Group’s Eurasia practice.