15 December 2012, 17:34

Russia-US: Normalization fraught with conflict

Russia-US: Normalization fraught with conflict
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At the end of this week, on December 14th, US President Barack Obama signed a package to abolish the Jackson-Vanik amendment, which hampered trade with Russia, and enact the Magnitsky Bill, which imposes US entry restrictions on Russian officials whom the US considers implicated in the death of Hermitage Capital lawyer Sergei Magnitsky.

Normalization of trade relations between the US and Russia is thus accompanied by the worsening of political ties. The Voice of Russia’s Andrei Fedyashin and Vitaly Radnayev report.

The Russian parliament responded to the US Magnitsky List by approving the ‘black list’ of American officials to be banned from entering Russia. Given that the Russian Magnitsky List has been endorsed by all parliamentary factions, the bill will undoubtedly be passed into law by January 1st . Under the Russian bill, all US officials involved in breaching the rights of Russian nationals will become personae non grata. President Putin said earlier this week that the Russian response to the Magnitsky Act would be ‘appropriate, not disproportionate’.

Putin described the Magnitsky Act as inconsistent with the country’s foreign policy.

"Washington’s motives are unclear. While talking about the ‘reset’ in relations with Russia, it is making things worse. Russia did nothing to prompt such a behavior. The Guantanamo base, which was established 8 years ago, is still functioning. Guantanamo inmates are kept in shackles and chains, like in the Middle Ages. Those who open secret jails have legitimized torture and are now pointing out our faults. Of course, we aren’t flawless, but it’s our business to deal with our shortcomings. The inquiry into Magnitsky’s death is not completed yet. The culprits are not known yet. The approval of the Magnitsky Bill is a hostile act from the US."

Barack Obama couldn’t but sign it. Even though his administration was against it, he knew he couldn’t afford to strain relations with Congress, particularly now that the US is on the verge of a ‘fiscal cliff’ and lawmakers’ support is crucial for pushing through painful economic recovery measures. Given that the Republicans have a majority in Congress, going against their will would be suicidal for Obama. Fully aware of that, the US lawmakers replaced the Jackson-Vanik amendment with a new instrument to exert pressure on the White House – the Magnitsky Act. Such is a regular pattern in relations between the White House and Congress.

It looks like relations with Russia have become hostage to a political tug of war within the US. Dmitry Suslov of the Russian Council on Foreign and Defense Policy says such laws stand in the way of political cooperation.

"There’s no reason for suggesting the onset of a new Cold War. This time, the situation is different. We might fall into a farcical Cold War amid the current cooling of bilateral relations. This has to be avoided. The wording of the Magnitsky Act completely disavowed the positive effect of the abolition of the Jackson-Vanik amendment."

Russian experts say the Magnitsky Act is unlikely to affect Russian-US relations. Boris Mezhuyev, co-editor of the portal Terra America, comments.

"Hopefully, the two countries understand the importance of improving bilateral relations, particularly following the abolition of the Jackson-Vanik. Apparently, the US government, like the Russian government, is set on cooperation, not confrontation."

Given that the Jackson-Vanik amendment has not been used for nearly 20 years, it abolition was akin to the amputation of dead tissue. It benefited the US, first of all, as Russia’s ascension to the WTO put US manufacturers at disadvantage. The newly approved package promotes bilateral trade, on the one hand, and provokes a political conflict, on the other.

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