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Amendment on Soviet Emigration Won’t Go Away — Blame the Birds

September 8, 2003
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Legislation that once tied trade with Russia to its willingness to let its Jews out has outlasted the Cold War — in part because of U.S. farmers who want to get their chickens in.

Tough Russian restrictions on U.S. poultry exporters have hampered the lifting of the 1974 Jackson-Vanik amendment, the legislation credited with forcing the Soviet Union to let Jews out by tying trade policy to human rights.

Many Jewish leaders want Russia to graduate from the restrictions, as an acknowledgment of its progress on extradition rights.

Russian President Vladimir Putin is likely to ask President Bush to help end Jackson-Vanik when they meet at Camp David later this month, but the talk could soon turn to turkey and chickens.

Russia and its supporters here had wanted the amendment lifted by the summit, tentatively set for Sept. 26-27, but they now concede that is unlikely, and hope it will be gone by year’s end.

“We’re working with the administration and various members of Congress to move this thing forward,” said Mark Levin, executive director of NCSJ: Advocates on Behalf of Jews in Russia, Ukraine, the Baltic States and Eurasia, among the groups supporting removing Jackson-Vanik.

“Poultry is a dollars-and-cents issue,” Levin said. “This impacted farmers and processors in 37 out of 50 states.”

That was a disappointment, DeFlaviis said. “We don’t have to dangle Jackson-Vanik over their heads because of poultry issues.”

Poultry farmers and their advocates in Washington seized on the legislation to press their case against Russian regulations introduced last year that restricted U.S. imports, ostensibly for health reasons. U.S. poultry farmers said the standards Russia sought were much tougher than those it opposes on its own farmers and were a pretext for restricting trade.

Russia lifted the restrictions earlier this year, but the farmers say they are still encountering problems in exporting the birds to Russia.

Successive U.S. administrations have annually waived the Jackson-Vanik requirements since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Jews are now free to travel and lifting the amendment would be a largely symbolic victory for the Russians, who see it more as a validation of post-Soviet Russia.

It’s not just the chicken farmers who are keeping Jackson-Vanik alive; there’s residual anger at Russia for its refusal to back the U.S.-led action against Iraq.

“If it wasn’t the administration saying ‘Why should we move forward now,’ it was many members of Congress,” Levin said.

Those sentiments have contributed to the drop in administration enthusiasm for lifting Jackson-Vanik. There are also concerns about protecting intellectual property rights of U.S. companies that do business with Russia, the terms of Russia’s entry into the World Trade Organization, and Russia’s relationship to Iran’s nuclear program.

Some Jewish groups are concerned that lifting the legislation could paper over Russian attitudes to Jews that remain troubling. UCSJ: Union of Councils for Jews in the Former Soviet Union is concerned that human rights issues, including xenophobia and the rise of extremist groups in Russia, will not be monitored as closely if the Jackson-Vanik issues are not evaluated each year.

“We feel there has to be some sort of mechanism to replace it,” said Nikolai Butkevich, UCSJ’s research director. “We really don’t know what they’ll do in the years after they repeal it.”

Jewish leaders who have supported lifting Jackson Vanik want any new legislation to call on Russia to take measures to ensure human rights. Similar language has been in bills graduating Georgia and other formerly Soviet countries from the Jackson-Vanik provisions.

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