Bush administration officials say the United States and Russia are close to resolving a long-running dispute over U.S. poultry sales to that country. The issue, which erupted last March with a Russian ban on frozen chicken imports from the United States, has been a major irritant in relations. The idea of the two nuclear powers arguing over chicken parts has provided material for stand-up comedians. But it has been no laughing matter for the trade experts and diplomats, who have been working for months on a settlement to avoid a wider trade conflict between Washington and Moscow.
The so-called "chicken war" began in March when the Russian Agriculture Ministry imposed a ban on frozen U.S. chicken parts the number-one American export to Russia because of alleged faults in sanitary conditions at U.S. farms and processing plants and the use of antibiotics as feed additives.
The Russian action followed a decision by the Bush administration to raise tariffs on steel imports and was widely viewed as retaliation, even though both sides denied any connection.
After U.S. complaints, Russia lifted the chicken ban in April. The two sides have since been in intense negotiations over Russian health certification for U.S. poultry products with a Russian threat to re-impose the import ban August 1 hanging over the talks.
At a briefing here, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said the two sides "may be close" to a resolution of the issue, which was among subjects covered in a telephone talk Wednesday between Secretary of State Colin Powell and Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov.
The spokesman said in its contacts with Moscow, the administration has cited the "facts and reality" of the political impact the dispute has had in the U.S. Congress, where he said it has impeded White House efforts to fully normalize bilateral trade relations by excusing Russia from the 1974 Jackson-Vanik amendment.
"We had proposed to take Russia out from the Jackson-Vanik amendment," Mr. Boucher said. "This is something that's important to us and important to the President. He discussed it with President Putin in Moscow. But we've also had to tell the Russians that politically and factually, that our ability to push for that was hampered by the fact that the American poultry exporters were no longer able to export poultry to Russia."
The Jackson-Vanik amendment denied normal trade relations to the then-Soviet Union and other communist countries that restricted immigration rights for Jews and others.
Since 1994, Russia has been deemed in compliance with U.S. freedom-of-emigration requirements, but Presidents have had to certify this to Congress every six months to avoid trade penalties. The congressional action sought by the Bush administration would excuse Russia from the semi-annual certifications.
U.S. chicken exports to Russia are valued at more than $600 million a year and members of Congress from key poultry-producing states have been closely monitoring the latest round of negotiations on the dispute, being held in Moscow.
With the August deadline looming, the U.S. side has given Russian officials proposals on a new veterinary certificate tightening health controls on shipments to Russia. Spokesman Boucher said Moscow's response should be known "within a few days."