The Problem With the Magnitsky Bill
Russia’s accession to the World Trade Organization has created a quandary for Congress. On the one hand, members want to respect WTO rules and allow free trade with Russia, thereby further integrating that country into the world economy. On the other hand, many in the policymaking community have concerns over the Russian government’s human-rights record and do not want, in effect, to reward an undeserving Moscow with unfettered access to American markets. For this reason, Congress has yet to repeal the 1975 Jackson-Vanik amendment, which stipulates that the United States cannot grant Permanent Normal Trade Relations to non-market economies that restrict emigration, a practice the Soviet Union once engaged in. The Soviet Union disappeared in 1991, and Russia long ago removed all impediments to citizens who wish to leave the country, but Congress has kept Jackson-Vanik in place, hoping to use it as leverage with the Russian government. As a result, the United States cannot engage in unrestricted trade with Russia, and Russia, of course, is responding in kind by limiting American access to its markets.
Congress, though, seems to have found a way out of this impasse by swapping one piece of human-rights legislation for another: Several leading members of Congress have said they would vote to repeal Jackson-Vanik if the so-called Magnitsky Bill is passed. This bill seeks to bar from the United States, and freeze the assets of, Russian officials responsible for the November 2010 death of lawyer Sergey Magnitsky and for “other gross violations of human rights.” Magnitsky was investigating tax fraud by Russian officials, who in turn apparently sought to silence him by charging him with fraud, locking him up in pre-trial detention and denying him medical attention that likely would have saved his life. Magnitsky’s death sparked international outrage, and the Magnistky Bill is Congress’s attempt to hold the guilty parties responsible. By substituting the Magnitsky Act for Jackson-Vanik, the United States would seem to accomplish both its goals: getting free trade with Russia and keeping up the pressure on the Kremlin to respect human rights.