Foreign Policy Blogs

Is Russia's Graduation Day Coming Soon?

On April 27, a little-noticed hearing took place on Capitol Hill regarding an important and controversial issue that has been a sore spot in U.S.-Russian relations for some time: the status of the historic Jackson-Vanik Amendment.  Not only is this issue worth examining for its effect on the Obama Administration’s “Russian Reset” agenda, it is also an interesting demonstration of how different executive and legislative branch agendas can fragment U.S. diplomatic policy.

The Jackson-Vanik Amendment was an attachment to the Trade Act of 1974 that denied Most Favored Nation trade status to countries that restricted emigration and were not deemed to be “market economies”.  The principal object of this amendment was the Soviet Union, which had begun preventing many of its citizens, especially Soviet Jews, from leaving the USSR for freer countries.  However, when the Soviet Union collapsed, the successor Russian state inherited the violator status of the Soviet Union because Congress never ended the amendment’s application (known as “graduation”) to Russia.

Courtesy: Google Images and CUNY-Brooklyn

Courtesy: Google Images and CUNY-Brooklyn

The Clinton, Bush, and Obama Administrations have all found Russia to be in compliance with Jackson-Vanik.  Unfortunately for them, this policy has to be undone by the legislative branch, not the executive branch.  All administration officials can do is lobby Congress to graduate Russia from the amendment, and this has not happened due to congressional concerns about Russian policy on a variety of issues, including market access for American chicken exporters and intellectual property rights enforcement.  Some in Congress want these issues addressed first before the relationship is normalized.

In his testimony at the hearing, U.S.-Russia Business Council President Ed Verona noted that by continuing to hold Jackson-Vanik over Russia’s head in the hopes of gaining further concessions in other areas, Congress is giving Russia the impression of “shifting goalposts” – that is to say, a perception that nothing they do will ever be enough to graduate from the amendment; new hurdles will simply be put up.

It’s not hard to understand the threat that such a perception poses to the “Reset” agenda.  Moreover, former Soviet republic Ukraine has already been graduated from Jackson-Vanik, and China – the world’s leading intellectual property rights offender and a country whose government is still (at least nominally) communist – was granted Permanent Normalized Trade Relations (PNTR) status back in 2000.  The appearance is that Russia is being singled out for rough treatment.

This is unfortunate because it is not a completely fair appraisal of the situation; it isn’t personal, it’s institutional.  The U.S. has not graduated Russia from Jackson-Vanik because its policy apparatus is fragmented on this issue along the fault between the executive and legislative branches of government.  Both branches have a role in U.S. foreign policy, and they are just not on the same page about how to execute Russia’s graduation.  Foreign governments do not always appreciate that this can happen, and they often do not trust it because there is no way to determine if a given administration is sincere when it expresses its frustration with an uncooperative legislature.  This fragmentation can lead to a good deal of confusion, and it is a challenge the Obama administration, like its predecessors, will have to tackle as it pursues its Russian agenda.



Ryan Haddad

Ryan Haddad is the Senior Blogger for U.S. Foreign Policy at FPA. A foreign affairs and national security analyst based in Washington, D.C., he worked in European and Eurasian affairs at the U.S. Department of Commerce during the Bush Administration and is a graduate of the London School of Economics and Providence College. He can be followed on Twitter at @RIHaddad.