Monday, 6 of April of 2020

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Jackson-Vanik Amendment: No Business Sense, No Reason, but Still in Effect and Hurts

Russian business has been trying to invest in the U.S. Severstal has been a trailblazer investing billions into the ailing U.S. steel industry. Russians have long been worried about discriminatory provisions in American law, specifically the Jackson-Vanik amendment. Washington insists that if Russia joins the WTO, that amendment will automatically cease to apply. Russia’s accession to the WTO would lead to a more active American presence on the Russian market as well, and U.S. business leaders have a genuine interest in lobbying for that process.

According to the 1974 Trade Act of the United States, the Jackson-Vanik amendment, named for its major co-sponsors, Sen. Henry “Scoop” Jackson (D-WA) and Rep. Charles Vanik (D-OH), denied most favored nation to certain countries with non-market economies that restricted emigration rights. Permanent normal trade relations would be extended to a country subject to the law only if the President determined that it complies with the freedom of emigration requirements of the amendment. However, the President had the authority to grant a yearly waiver to the provisions of Jackson-Vanik, and these waivers were granted to the People’s Republic of China starting in the late 1970s and later to Vietnam.

President Gerald Ford signed the amendment into law on January 3, 1975, after both houses of the United States Congress unanimously voted for its adoption.

In 1972 as the Cold War and the ongoing Arab-Israeli conflict were intensifying, the Soviet regime of Leonid Brezhnev imposed the so-called “diploma tax” on would-be emigrants who received a higher education in the USSR. While the professed justification for this tax was to repay state expenses for public education, this measure was designed to combat the brain drain caused by the growing emigration of Soviet Jews and other members of the intelligentsia to the West. In some cases, the fee was as high as 20 times the emigrant’s annual salary.

This development caused international protests. Twenty-one United States Nobel Laureates issued a public statement condemning it as a “massive violation of human rights.” The Kremlin soon revoked the tax but imposed additional limitations, effectively choking off emigration, even for family reunification. A case could languish for years in the OVIR department of the MVD. An often-cited but rarely explained official ground for the refusal to issue an emigration visa were “national security reasons.”

At first the Jackson-Vanik amendment did little to help Soviet Jewry. The number of exit visas declined after the passing of the amendment, as the USSR felt the external pressure was harming its credibility. However, in the late-1980s Mikhail Gorbachev agreed to comply with the protocols of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

Since 1975 more than 500,000 refugees, many of whom were Jews, evangelical Christians, and Catholics from the former Soviet Union, have been resettled in the United States. An estimated one million Soviet Jews have immigrated to Israel in that time.

Jackson-Vanik also led to great changes within the Soviet Union. Other ethnic groups subsequently demanded the right to emigrate, and the ruling Communist Party had to face the fact that there was widespread dissatisfaction with its governance.

Former Soviet dissident Natan Sharansky wrote in his 2004 book The Case for Democracy:

“…Kissinger saw Jackson’s amendment as an attempt to undermine plans to smoothly carve up the geopolitical pie between the superpowers. It was. Jackson believed that the Soviets had to be confronted, not appeased. Andrei Sakharov was another vociferous opponent of détente. He thought it swept the Soviet’s human rights record under the rug in the name of improved superpower relations…. One message he would consistently convey to these foreigners (the press) was that human rights must never be considered a humanitarian issue alone. For him, it was also a matter of international security. As he succinctly put it: “A country that does not respect the rights of its own people will not respect the rights of its neighbors.”

Jackson-Vanik is still in force and applies to Russia, among other countries. Critics of the amendment argue that with the end of the Cold War, Jackson-Vanik is a now merely counterproductive trade discrimination, but some still see it as instrumental in helping democracy take hold in Eastern Europe.

On December 6, 2005 the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) urged the United States House of Representatives to delay approval of Ukraine’s graduation from the amendment. ADL National Director Abraham Foxman wrote: “We expect more from democratic states than we do from totalitarian ones. This year alone has seen a steep increase in acts of violence and vandalism against Jews across Ukraine. There have been attempts to ban everything from Jewish organizations to Jewish holy texts. ”

The very reason for the Jackson-Vanik amendment no longer exists. Neither does the country, which it was originally targeted at.  Russian businesses are annoyed by numerous failed attempts to abolish the ludicrous law, which prevents competitive import of Russian merchandise into the U.S. The standing Russian joke on the subject is “American laws are written by feathers but can’t be carved out with ax or money”.

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