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Law that opened Soviet gates on last legs

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WASHINGTON, Nov. 5 (JTA) — A historic law that helped ensure the emigration of tens of thousands of Soviet Jews may become a casualty of the war on terrorism.

In the 1970s and 1980s, the Jackson-Vanik Amendment helped pry open the gates of the former Soviet Union for thousands of Soviet Jews by tying U.S.-Russian trade to free emigration.

With America trying to shore up Russian support for its war in Afghanistan, however, it appears that the law soon may become a thing of the past.

Once instrumental in lobbying for the legislation, U.S. Jewish groups have been consulted by the White House on the potential change, and say they understand the reason for adjusting the landmark law.

But they also want assurances that the Russian government will help Jewish communities in the former Soviet Union.

In dong so, the American Jewish groups are parting company with their Russian Jewish counterparts, who are asking the United States to consider lifting the trade regulations without any strings.

The amendment’s goal — free Jewish emigration from Russia — has been achieved, the Russian Jewish groups say.

Bush appears likely to offer a permanent change when he meets with Russian President Vladimir Putin in the United States on Nov. 13 and 14.

White House reasons for repealing the amendment are twofold. Washington wants to hold together its fragile international coalition against the Taliban and Osama bin Laden’s Al Qaida terrorist network, and is looking for something to offer Putin for his support. The White House also wants to entice Russia to support Bush’s missile defense program.

Enter the Jackson-Vanik Amendment.

Adopted in 1974, the amendment made it a goal of U.S. foreign policy to get the Soviet Union to relax its emigration restrictions.

Sponsored by Sen. Henry Jackson (D-Wash.) and Rep. Charles Vanik (D-Ohio), the amendment prohibited the extension of U.S. government credits and most-favored-nation trade status to any country with a “nonmarket economy” that didn’t allow its citizens to emigrate freely.

The amendment was prompted by congressional concern over the Soviet Union’s treatment of its Jews.

The White House says it is receiving a “generally positive reaction” to the repeal idea, but some concern is still palpable on Capitol Hill.

Rep. Benjamin Gilman (R-N.Y.) wrote a letter to Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage expressing concern that anti-Semitism is still prevalent in Russia and that it is too early to change Jackson-Vanik.

Sen. Gordon Smith (R-Ore.) is wary of any changes to the amendment and plans some sort of legislation to address the issue — depending on the changes actually made to Jackson-Vanik.

Smith recently led the campaign for an amendment that would prevent Russia from receiving foreign aid if it passes a law discriminating against religious freedom.

If changes are made to Jackson-Vanik, there still has to be “some accountability of the Russian government, and the U.S. will review how Russia treats its Jewish population,” said Smith’s press secretary, Joe Sheffo.

The United States is looking to allow Russia and six other former Soviet republics a graduated way out of the restrictions, a Bush administration spokesman said Monday.

In addition, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said that “broader considerations apply” beyond emigration policies.

Jackson-Vanik no longer applies to Georgia and Kyrgyzstan. Belarus, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan are unlikely to be considered for the step because of continued restrictions on emigration, some say.

Besides Russia, countries being considered include Armenia, Azerbaijan, Kazakstan, Moldova, Tajikistan, and Ukraine.

The three Baltic nations were graduated out of Jackson-Vanik after the fall of communism in 1991.

Since the collapse of the USSR, Russia has been granted normal trade relations every year through annual presidential waivers.

According to Jackson-Vanik, in order for Russia to receive such a waiver, its emigration policies must pass an annual review. The waivers allowed Russian trade with the United States to continue unhindered over the past decade, but Russia resents the review process and wants normal trade relations to be permanent.

The Russia government, which calls the Jackson-Vanik amendment “notorious,” would like to get rid of the Cold War relic entirely.

“The Jackson-Vanik Amendment has blocked the granting to Russia of most favored nation status in trade with the USA on a permanent and unconditional basis over many years, inflicting harm upon the spirit of constructive and equal cooperation between our countries. It is rightly considered one of the last anachronisms of the era of confrontation and distrust,” the Russian Foreign Ministry said in an Oct. 29 statement.

The Bush administration recently approached Jewish groups to gauge their reaction if the United States rescinded the amendment for Russia and the other former Soviet republics.

A consensus to back the Bush initiative is emerging among Jewish groups, but pressure still will be needed to ensure that Russia adheres to human rights standards, said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.

The sense from Jewish organizations is that Russia may have followed the letter of the law, but not its spirit.

“We want to know for sure that the government is committed to getting out of the way and allowing the Jewish communities to re-emerge,” said Harold Luks, chairman of NCSJ: Advocates on behalf of Jews in Russia, Ukraine, the Baltic States and Eurasia.

Luks wants assurances that Jewish communities, particularly in Russia and Ukraine, have the right to organize without state interference and to maintain contact with other Jewish communities around the world.

Also important are restitution of communal property and preservation of cemeteries and Holocaust sites, he said.

His group also will voice its concern over the Russian transfer of technology that could allow Iran to develop weapons of mass destruction, Luks said.

The change to Jackson-Vanik is inevitable, according to Micah Naftalin, national director of the Union of Councils for Jews in the Former Soviet Union.

Already in the 1970s, Naftalin was discussing with Leningrad and Moscow refuseniks the idea of linking trade normalization to free emigration from Communist countries. He supports maintaining some quid pro quo arrangement in which trade with Russia is linked to concrete steps to combat anti-Semitism and reform civil society.

Not everyone agrees with Naftalin, however.

The amendment long ceased to be necessary for Russia, according to Richard Perle, a legislative aide to Jackson who helped draft the legislation. To add other things to the amendment “corrupts the intention of the law,” he said.

In contrast to their U.S. counterparts, the two main umbrella groups representing Russian Jewry said last week that they support the change.

The Russian Jewish Congress, which only a year ago was highly critical of Putin’s policies, now has adopted a pro-Putin stance, appealing to the U.S. Congress and to major U.S. Jewish organizations to encourage the Bush administration to seek a complete legislative repeal of the amendment.

“The time has come to repeal this law. There is no state-sponsored anti-Semitism in Russia and there is free emigration,” Alexander Osovtsov, RJC s executive vice president, told JTA.

Berel Lazar, one of Russia’s chief rabbis, sent a letter to Bush on Oct. 31, urging him to consider granting Russia normal trade status.

According to Lazar, under Putin anti-Semitism in Russia has declined dramatically, all restrictions on emigration have been removed and the quality of life for Jews in Russia has vastly improved.

Alexander Axelrod, director of the Moscow office of the Anti-Defamation League, is less optimistic and has strong reservations about how human rights are observed in Russia. Yet he too told JTA that Jackson-Vanik should be abolished because times have changed.

Political pressure, not trade sanctions, should be used to enhance democracy in Russia, he said.

On the Russian street, Jews have mixed feelings about the proposed step, primarily for psychological reasons.

For many of them, the Jackson-Vanik Amendment symbolized the U.S. commitment to improving the quality of life in the former Soviet Union.

“It was comforting to know that if something is not OK, the U.S. has got an effective instrument to force the Russian government to alter it,” said Tanya Liberman, a 44-year-old Moscow-based programmer. “Now the emigration is really free, but I am not really sure that everything is OK — and going to be OK.”

(JTA correspondent Lev Gorodetsky in Moscow contributed to this report.)

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