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US House Leaders Prepare Gift to Putin?

Two days before leaving for the August recess, the leaders of the US House of Representatives announced that the two interconnected Russia bills—the extension of permanent normal trade relations (PNTR) and the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act, which proposes to sanction Russian human rights violators by denying them US visas and freezing their US assets—will not be considered on the floor until September and, most likely, until the lame-duck session after the November election. One of the key reasons, according to several sources on the Hill, is the unwillingness of some Republican lawmakers to extend PNTR, which they consider “a gift to Vladimir Putin.” Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, suggested that PNTR would constitute “yet another concession to a regime that abuses the human rights of its citizens,” urging her colleagues to pass the Magnitsky Act on its own.

The reality is that the Magnitsky Act, opposed by the White House (in unison with the Kremlin) from the very beginning, can only become law if connected with PNTR. The choice, in this case, is both or neither. PNTR would not represent any kind of “gift” or “concession” to Putin. Russia is set to join the World Trade Organization on August 22nd regardless of what the US Congress does. After that date, the only ones who would be hurt by the lack of PNTR with Russia are US exporters. Furthermore, the retention of the 1974 Jackson-Vanik amendement, which deals with the (non-existent) emigration restrictions in the (non-existent) Soviet Union, does not in the least bother the Kremlin leaders. In fact, it allows them to portray the US as “anti-Russian” for maintaining sanctions that are no longer relevant.

What would be a gift to Vladimir Putin is the failure to pass the Magnitsky Act—a bill that directly addresses the very real (and very grave) problems with the rule of law in today’s Russia, and which establishes much-needed personal accountability for Kremlin officials complicit in corruption and human rights violations. The nervous reaction from Moscow shows beyond doubt how afraid the Putin regime is of this bill becoming law. In fact, Yuri Ushakov, Putin’s foreign policy adviser, has publicly stated that, given this choice, the Kremlin would prefer to keep Jackson-Vanik. Conversely, the leaders of Russia’s democratic opposition (including Boris Nemtsov, Mikhail Kasyanov, and Garry Kasparov) have publicly advocated replacing the 1974 amendment with the Magnitsky Act. As Nemtsov and Kasparov argued in a recent article, “replacing Jackson-Vanik with [Magnitsky] would promote better relations between the people of the US and Russia while refusing to provide aid and comfort to a tyrant and his regime.”

The time is running out. Delaying consideration of the PNTR/Magnitsky package increases the likelihood not only of a lack of place on the legislative schedule, but also of a post-election White House veto. It would be ironic if those who do not want to provide any “concessions” to Putin would hand him the greatest victory of all.

Newsflash Update. On Thursday evening, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) issued the following statement:

Upon our return from the August constituent work period, the House is prepared to take up under suspension of the rules a bill to extend Permanent Normal Trade Relations (PNTR) to Russia, combined with the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act, should the Senate and President commit to support passage before the end of September.

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