Washington — The goal the statute sought to achieve is long accomplished. In fact, the country at which it was aimed doesn’t even exist anymore.
But as successor government to the Soviet Union, Russia is still being sanctioned by the Jackson-Vanik amendment, a 1974 piece of legislation imposing trade penalties against communist countries that restricted free immigration.
Now, after years of trying to convince Congress to grant Russia exemption from the Jackson-Vanik list, activists — including a former Soviet dissident — have turned to American courts in hopes of winning a legal ruling that would facilitate Russia’s removal from the sanctions list.
“Jackson-Vanik helped me in my struggle, and I thanked Jackson and Vanik personally for that,” said the former Soviet dissident, Edward Lozansky, in a telephone interview. “But now I think it is wrong to keep it in the books.” Lozansky now heads the American University in Moscow.
Both the legislation’s critics, who see it as a Cold War relic, and Jewish activists, who view it as a milestone in the fight to free Soviet Jews, agree that it is time to re-examine the amendment and revise the list of countries the law sanctions. But behind the scenes, myriad political and business interests have complicated that discussion. While everyone involved agrees that today’s Russia has nothing to do with the Soviet Union’s policy of preventing free Jewish immigration, many in Congress wish to use the law to pressure Russia on other issues relating to its human rights record and its foreign and economic policies.
“When it comes to making concessions to Russia, whether it be Jackson-Vanik or anything else, we should trust but verify,” said California Democrat Brad Sherman in an April 2010 Congressional hearing devoted to the issue. Sherman suggested at the hearing that Washington should condition removing Russia from the Jackson-Vanik list on receiving something from Russia in return.
“Jackson-Vanik has turned into a catch-all for anyone who has any kind of concern about Russia,” said Mark Levin, executive director of the NCSJ, a group advocating on behalf of Jews from the former Soviet Union. The organization supports the exemption of Russia but is not part of the latest legal process.
The Jackson-Vanik amendment, which carries the names of its two authors — Washington Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson and Ohio Rep. Charles Vanik — prohibits the United States from granting trade advantages to countries that do not have a market economy and that restrict the free immigration of their citizens. When it was proposed, the amendment was strongly opposed by the Nixon administration, with then-Secretary of State Henry Kissinger in the lead. Kissinger considered it a threat to his policy of American-Soviet detente.
The amendment’s actual impact on Soviet emigration policies remains a matter of heated debate. Jewish emigration from the Soviet Union plummeted after its passage and stayed low for several years thereafter. It rose briefly during the Carter administration, dropped again under anticommunist champion Ronald Reagan, and then rose for good when Soviet leader and liberalizer Mikhail Gorbachev came to power.
Eventually, nearly 1 million Jews moved to Israel and several hundred thousand more built new homes in the United States. The ongoing debate notwithstanding, many old-time Soviet Jewry activists give Jackson-Vanik a big share of the credit for moving events in the direction they took.
The amendment allows the president and State Department to issue annual waivers exempting countries from the law. It also offers a way out altogether, called graduation, for nations no longer deemed problematic. In the past decade, four countries were removed under this process: Georgia, Kyrgyzstan, Armenia and Ukraine.
“Jackson-Vanik has a life of its own now,” said Mark Talisman, a former aide to Vanik and one of the key players in formulating the amendment. Talisman believes that although Russia should be graduated from the restrictions imposed by the amendment, Jackson-Vanik should not be repealed, since it may come in useful for dealing with other countries in the future.
The past three American administrations promised Russia to push for its graduation from Jackson-Vanik, but to no avail. Vice President Joe Biden recently repeated, in an April 26 phone conversation with Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, the American administration’s wish to bring about Russian exemption.
Fed up with the congressional balking that has left these promises unfulfilled, a group of plaintiffs backing American-Russian trade have asked the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia to require President Obama to remove Russia from the Jackson-Vanik list. In their suit, filed April 18, the plaintiffs argue that a careful reading of the amendment shows that the president can remove a country from the list on his own authority, without Congress.
“The chances the court will actually force the president to graduate Russia out of Jackson-Vanik are small,” admitted James Jatras, a lobbyist who is involved in the lawsuit. Still, the plaintiffs hope the court will make clear that the president has the authority to do so, “and then the president won’t be coming to Congress hat in hand,” Jatras added.
Lozansky lends the legal effort significant moral weight. He was separated for six years from his wife and daughter when Soviet authorities blocked his emigration. The family was finally re-united in America in 1982. Lozansky said he turned to the court because he was frustrated that 20 years of work to exempt Russia had led to no results. “So I am trying now an innovative approach,” he said.
Jewish groups are not part of the current legal effort. But they have long supported Russia’s graduation, holding that the Soviet Union’s fall and Russia’s open-emigration policy mean that the restrictions should no longer apply.
But in Congress, which is, according to the current interpretation of the law, the body authorized to exempt nations from Jackson-Vanik, action has been stymied by a mixture of anti-Russian sentiments, concerns regarding the country’s struggling democracy and business interests opposed to opening up American markets to Russia.
Several key lawmakers, among them Senator John McCain, an Arizona Republican, have been discussing the possibility of transforming Jackson-Vanik into a broader vehicle for punishing Russia for its actions against internal democratic opposition and for the limits the government has imposed on civil society groups.
The business community is split. One faction would like to see restrictions on Russia lifted to open new markets, especially if Russia joins the World Trade Organization. Other sectors, such as the poultry industry, seek to limit Russia’s access to American markets and therefore oppose a change.
But most see Russia’s infringements on democratic life under the government of President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Putin as the key factor.
“If they want to graduate from Jackson-Vanik, they need to act like a graduate,” Talisman said, referring to the policies of the current Russian leadership. “Even a rudimentary graduate would be enough.”
Contact Nathan Guttman at firstname.lastname@example.org