CAPITOL HILL — The U.S. Senate on Thursday overwhelmingly passed a bill that establishes permanent, normal trade relations between the United States and Russia. The vote was 92 to 4. The bill also contains a provision that would punish Russian human rights violators, which Moscow strongly rejects.
Republican Senator Rob Portman of Ohio, who served as U.S. Trade Representative under former President George W. Bush, said normalizing trade relations between the United States and Russia has been a long time in the making, and he called it a proud day for U.S. businesses.
Portman said that since Russia joined the World Trade Organization in August, the United States has been missing out on tremendous export opportunities.
“Russia is now the 9th largest economy. Unfortunately, we are underperforming in the Russian market. The United States, the world’s greatest exporter, now only accounts for five percent of Russia’s imports. Our competitors in Europe have a 40 percent share of the Russian market. China holds a 16 percent share of that market," he said.
Several lawmakers from both major political parties stressed that political changes in Russia should be recognized, saying that today's Russia is not yesterday's Soviet Union.
The measure combines two bills -- the Russia and Moldova Jackson-Vanik Repeal and Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act. One part repeals a Cold War-era provision known as the Jackson-Vanik amendment, that linked favorable U.S. tariffs on Russian goods to the rights of Jews in the Soviet Union to emigrate.
Democratic Senator Max Baucus of Montana explained the second part of the legislation, known as the Magnitsky Act.
“The bill would punish those responsible for the death of anti-corruption lawyer Sergei Magnitsky and others who commit human rights violations in Russia. It would do so by restricting their U.S. visas and freezing their U.S. assets," he said.
Reacting to the bill's passage, Republican Senator John McCain paid tribute to Magnitsky.
"I think we are sending a signal to [Russian President] Vladimir Putin, and to the Russian kleptocracy that these kinds of abuses of human rights will not be tolerated without us responding in some appropriate fashion," he said.
Russian Foreign Ministry officials have been very critical of the Magnitsky provision. Before the vote, they said that if the measure passed, Moscow would respond in what they called an “appropriate manner."
Russia expert Robert Legvold of Columbia University in New York sees at least one way Russian lawmakers might retaliate.
“The Duma will pass comparable legislation. And they will apply sanctions both on assets and travel visas to Americans that are accused of being complicit in what they see as a violation of law. And the expectation is that it probably will be tied to people associated with [the U.S. detention facility at] Guantanamo Bay[, Cuba]," he said.
Analyst Andrew Kuchins at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies says Moscow's warnings might be more severe than any action taken.
"I don't think that the Russian response will be all that great to the Magnitsky legislation when they look at things operationally. I think this might be a case where 'the bark was greater than the bite' [i.e., the rhetoric is more severe than the actual response]," he said.
The U.S. House of Representatives passed the combined bill on Russian trade and human rights last month, so the measure now goes to President Barack Obama who is expected to sign it into law quickly.