US Senate set to approve Russia trade, rights bill

Thu Dec 6, 2012 12:00am EST

* Russia would get normal trade relations with U.S.

* House approved bill in November, Obama expected to sign it

* Names of Russian human rights violators to be publicized

By Doug Palmer

WASHINGTON, Dec 6 (Reuters) - The U.S. Senate was poised on Thursday to approve legislation to punish Russian human rights violators as part of a broader bill to expand U.S. trade with the former Cold War enemy.

The vote would send the package to President Barack Obama, who is expected to sign it into law despite Moscow's warning that the human rights provisions will damage relations.

The House voted 365-43 last month to approve the bill, which grants "permanent normal trade relations" (PNTR) to Russia by lifting a Cold War-era restriction on trade.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said the Senate would vote on the bill on Thursday after wrapping up five hours of debate earlier in the week.

"Russia is a fast-growing market. For the United States to share in that growth, we must first pass PNTR. And if we do, American exports to Russia are projected to double in five years," Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, a Montana Democrat, said on Wednesday on the Senate floor.

Business groups have been pushing Congress for months to approve the bill, which would ensure that U.S. companies get all the benefits of Russia's entry into the World Trade Organization. Russia joined the WTO on Aug. 22.

Without it, the groups fear they will be left at a disadvantage to companies around the world that already have full WTO relations with Russia.

The United States also cannot use the WTO dispute-settlement system to challenge any Russian actions that unfairly restrict U.S. imports until PNTR is approved.

But many U.S. lawmakers refused to take the step, which requires lifting a 1974 human rights measure known as the Jackson-Vanik amendment, without new human rights legislation.

Jackson-Vanik tied the most favorable U.S. tariff rates to the rights of Jews in the former Soviet Union to emigrate freely. While it is broadly considered a success, it is a relic of the Cold War and at odds with WTO rules.

DEATH OF ANTI-CORRUPTION LAWYER

The PNTR bill, in a provision that infuriates Moscow, directs Obama to publish the names of Russians allegedly involved in the abuse and death of Sergei Magnitsky, a Russian anti-corruption lawyer who died in a Russian jail in 2009.

It also would require the United States to deny visas and freeze the assets of any individual on the list, as well as other human rights violators in Russia on an ongoing basis.

Moscow has warned that the human rights provision would hurt relations and has promised to retaliate if it becomes law.

"The allegations that this legislation infringes on Russian sovereignty is nonsense ... It can not force human rights abusers in Russia to stop what they're doing," Senator John McCain, an Arizona Republican, said.

"But if they continue, what this legislation does is to tell those individuals that they can not bank their money in the United States, they are not welcome in this country and they can not visit this country and they will have no access to the U.S. financial system," McCain said.

Senator Ben Cardin, a Maryland Democrat who helped craft the Magnitsky provision, said he would continue pushing to make it universal in scope so it could be used to punish other human rights violators around the world.

The PNTR bill also contains measures that put pressure on the White House to make sure that Russia abides by WTO rules.

"If there are areas where Russia is not in compliance with its obligations, the administration is required to develop an action plan to address them," said Senator Orrin Hatch, the top Republican on the Senate Finance Committee.

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