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Ariel Cohen: It is not time to normalize trade relations with Russia

By Ariel Cohen

Published: Sunday, May 20 2012 12:00 a.m. MDT

Russian President Vladimir Putin reacts during a meeting in the Kremlin in Moscow.

Associated Press

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WASHINGTON — The Obama administration should "go slow" on normalizing trade relations with Russia until Moscow shows it's serious about curbing human rights abuses.

A key part of "normalization" is extending Permanent Normal Trade Relations (PNTR) status to Russia. This has been denied since 1974, when passage of the Jackson-Vanik Amendment barred the U.S. from granting that status to any country that restricts emigration.

Designed primarily to free Soviet Jews and other minorities from state repression, the amendment is largely non-responsive to conditions in post-Soviet Russia.

That's why every American president, with the exception of Ronald Reagan, has routinely granted Moscow a waiver from the amendment since the collapse of the Soviet empire.

But that's not to say that today's Russia boasts a stellar human rights record. Indeed, basic rights, including the right to own property, are attacked persistently and systematically.

And Russia remains the only G-8 country with political prisoners.

For starters, it should embrace legislation such as the Senate's bipartisan Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law and Accountability Act. The act is named after Russian whistleblower Sergei Magnitsky, whose death symbolizes the systemic and often violent corruption in post-communist Russia.

A 37-year-old attorney, Magnitsky uncovered and exposed a $230 million embezzlement scheme involving law enforcement and tax officials. Swiftly arrested on trumped-up tax charges, he died in prison.

Subsequent investigation by the Russian Presidential Council on Human Rights confirmed that Magnitsky had been beaten mercilessly by the prison guards and denied medical care.

Yet none of those involved have been punished. State prosecutors waited until the statue of limitations expired, then dropped charges of negligence against the chief doctor at the prison.

As chairman and CEO of the Yukos oil company, Khodorkovsky was Russia's wealthiest man. But after a falling out with power-brokers, he was arrested on charges of tax fraud.

In 2005 he was sentenced to nine years in prison for publicly criticizing Putin and allegedly plotting a political challenge. With Khodorkovsky on ice, Yukos was sold at a rock bottom price to Rosneft, Russia's state run oil company, in 2006.

The government effectively expropriated the assets, giving Yukos shareholders pennies on the dollar.

And just in case any other oligarch might be tempted to disobey the Kremlin, Moscow convened a second show trial four years later, extending Khodorkovsky's sentence to 14 years.

Emigration is no longer an issue for freedom-loving Russians. But Washington needs to fight still-rampant outrages such as human rights violations, corruption and organized crime.

More effective are targeted sanctions against specific officials involved in human rights abuse, like those named in the Maryland Democratic Sen. Benjamin Cardin's list in the Sergey Magnitsky case.

Yet, fearful of undermining its signature "reset" policy, which provides concessions to Russia in exchange for expectations of cooperation, the Obama Administration is pressuring the Senate to postpone consideration of the Magnitsky Act. It's a measure that should be linked to Russia's PNTR status before Moscow officially joins the WTO.

Ariel Cohen is senior research fellow for Russian and Eurasian studies at The Heritage Foundation.

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