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Clinton in the WSJ Strays on Russia Relations

David Satter

In her op-ed in the June 20 Wall Street Journal, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton calls for the rescinding of the Jackson-Vanik Amendment that excludes Russia from permanent normal trading relations with the U.S., and argues that this will encourage a more open and prosperous Russia. At the same time, she indirectly argues against the proposed Magnitsky law (H.R. 4405) that would bar Russians involved in the murder of Sergei Magnitsky, a lawyer who investigated high level corruption, from entering the U.S.

In fact, rescinding Jackson-Vanik without passing the Magnitsky Law would be tantamount to abandoning any serious attempt to influence the internal situation in Russia and would not lead to a more “open and prosperous Russia.”

In her op-ed, Clinton refers to the “tragic death” of Magnitsky as if he died in a traffic accident. In fact, Magnitsky was deliberately tortured and murdered with the full participation of high-ranking Russian officials. She also states that the State Department has already imposed a visa ban on those implicated in Magnitsky’s death, without mentioning that the supposedly banned officials have never been named and, in the absence of a law, their ability to enter the U.S. could be restored at any time. There are also strong indications in statements from the Russian side that instead of the 60 officials that members of Congress believe are involved in the case, the State Department is prepared to ban only eleven.

The Jackson-Vanik amendment was one of the most successful pieces of human-rights legislation in history. By tying trade privileges to the right of Jews and others to emigrate, it gave the Soviet government an incentive to behave decently that it would never have had on its own.

The argument for its repeal is that it is anachronistic because the issue of free emigration has been solved, so its residual effect is to limit American trade. If so, it may be rescinded, but insofar as the underlying need to give the Russian government an incentive to behave decently is as real today as it was when Jackson-Vanik was passed, it needs to be replaced. This is why Clinton’s venture into op-ed writing is a limited success. She claims that extending normal trading relations to Russia will give the U.S. tools to hold the country accountable for meeting its obligations. But those tools are of dubious value in a state whose officials are engaged in murdering anyone who investigates their corruption. If the goal is to encourage lawful behavior, it is far more effective for those tempted to commit crimes to know that there will be negative consequences in advance and that they will have no role in investigating their own transgressions.

The great tragedy of the “reset” policy is that it operates in a vacuum of knowledge about the real nature of Russian society. Russia is run by a kleptocratic “elite” that is lawless and potentially dangerous. We need to have relations with the present regime for the sake of the Russian people. But in dealing with Russian officials, the rules should be set not by them, but by us.

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