Interests vs. Values Is the Wrong Prism for Viewing the Reset with Russia

07/25/2012 09:57 am ET | Updated Sep 24, 2012

With their chilly meeting in sunny Los Cabos during the G20 summit fading into memory, the fate of the "reset" in U.S.-Russian relations is for the moment out of the hands of Presidents Putin and Obama. The future of the relationship is being fought on Capitol Hill over whether to extend Permanent Normal Trade Relations (PNTR) to Russia. Doing so would require removing the application of Cold War-era legislation called Jackson-Vanik from Russia, a law that was crafted to pressure the Soviet Union by linking free trade to the freedom of emigration.

Jackson-Vanik has been an irritant for Russia for two decades, but the issue is pressing our Congress now because with Putin signing Russia's WTO ratification protocols on July 21, the clock is ticking down to Russia's entry to the WTO in August. Without PNTR in place before Congress goes into recess, American businesses will lose out on the various trade concessions fought for over the years by U.S. negotiators, giving our competitors an inside track to the world's 9th largest economy. PNTR for Russia was once perceived by Congress as a "gift" to Russians; now it is a necessity for American business and workers.

At the same time, the issue of human rights has not disappeared as an area of serious concern for Russia, or as a core American value. Many in Congress want to replace Jackson-Vanik with the "Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law and Accountability Act," which targets Russian officials implicated in the death in pretrial detention of a Russian lawyer and whistleblower. The House and Senate have different versions that have cleared committee--the House bill focuses on Russian officials, whereas the Senate bill would apply to violators from any country. As negotiators hammer out the differences in the two bills, they should keep in mind that the Jackson-Vanik legislation addressed a human rights principle and did not once mention the Soviet Union.

The Obama administration prefers a clean extension of PNTR to Russia, arguing they have already taken steps against the Russian officials in question. The Russian government is threatening reprisals if the Magnitsky Act should come into force. But the overall impact of the Magnitsky Act, either in terms of provoking or constraining the Russians, is overestimated.

The greatest constraint on Russian violations of human rights, and the greatest pressure towards liberalizing Russian society, has ultimately come from the Russians themselves as they seek to engage in regional and global institutions. Such accessions and agreements clearly have not prevented multiple Russian abuses and outrages against the human rights of its own people; but they have set Russian society on a path towards adopting certain core values on its own terms.

In 1975, the year Jackson-Vanik went into force, Moscow signed the Helsinki Accords. Leaders in the Kremlin celebrated the cementing of post-war borders; but also committed the Soviet Union to certain human rights guarantees. It led to the formation of the Moscow Helsinki Group, which remains influential to this day, and, according to Cold War historian John Lewis Gaddis, gradually became a manifesto of the dissident and liberal movement. The contradictions between Soviet practice and the human rights values they pledged to protect played a key role in the erosion of the Soviet government's legitimacy with its own people.

In the 1990s, a newly independent Russia pursued and gained entry into the Council of Europe. Russia wanted acceptance on the world stage as a European power. As a condition for membership, Russia also ratified the European Convention on Human Rights in 1998, subjecting itself to the jurisdiction of the European Court of Human Rights. Today, Russia holds the dubious distinction as the origin of over 35 thousand cases (about 24 percent) now pending before the Court - by far the most. Its track record with the court is mixed. Russian government lawyers dutifully participate in contesting the various cases, and Russia reliably pays the (usually nominal) judgments rendered against it. Critics rightly point out that the government rarely implements the underlying principles of the judgments, especially with regards to abuses in Chechnya. However, in other regions, a growing number of district courts are accepting the provisions of the Convention as a part of Russian law.

In December 2011, Russia finally secured an invitation to join the WTO after 18 years of on-again, off-again negotiations. While industries and businesses around the world will welcome the various reductions in tariffs that accession will bring this summer, it is Russia's agreement to be bound by the stringent rules and dispute resolution mechanisms that will be the real game-changer over time. Corruption and the prevalence of political insiders at the helm of Russia's leading state enterprises will not end anytime soon, but international (and, with the passage of PNTR, American) companies will have unprecedented rights and remedies at their disposal. More importantly, in terms of Russia's development, new Russian companies and sectors, headed by Russia's emerging professional class, will greatly benefit from the expanding culture of commercial law and greater access to world markets.

Russia is not the Soviet Union. Nor is it the liberal democracy many hoped to see emerge during the 1990s. It is a nation still in search of its own identity, wrestling with the historical legacy of Soviet power/terror and the more recent pain of devastating economic collapse in the 1990s. It is also a nation looking to engage with the global political and economic institutions of the world in order to help set the rules as well as follow them. Yet the more Russia opens itself this way, the less satisfied the Russian people become with the closed system of the power vertical.

The United States has long taken an interest in how Russia conducts its internal affairs -- an interest that is not matched towards other nations, it must be noted. Today's debate over PNTR and the Magnitsky Act are simply the latest manifestation of that concern. But the community of policymakers, legislators, activists, and businesses who are interested in the fate of Russia's people should keep one idea in mind: No matter what gets signed in Washington, it is what Moscow signs on to that will ultimately shape the future for Russia and its people.

F. Joseph Dresen is a program associate at the Woodrow Wilson Center's Kennan Institute, where he is responsible for public programs, conferences, and corporate outreach. He has edited and co-edited Institute publications on issues ranging from Russian energy, human rights, and rule of law issues.