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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Bush Seeks More Business in CIS

WASHINGTON -- U.S. President George W. Bush's administration, already seeking normal trade status for Russia, wants Congress to allow eight former Soviet republics -- including two Central Asian countries with poor human rights records -- to graduate this year from trade restrictions imposed during communist times.

A central motivation in the cases of Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, according to officials familiar with the effort, is to reward countries helpful in the war on terrorism. Supporters in the administration believe the 1974 law tying trade status to government behavior on human rights is neither effective nor relevant to current conditions.

But critics, particularly in human rights organizations, worry that the administration is surrendering a valuable weapon against repressive regimes and also is being inconsistent in deciding which countries to detach from the trade rules. They describe Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, recent allies in the assault on al-Qaida terrorists in nearby Afghanistan, as unworthy of normal trade relations.

Such countries "see graduation as a sign that they have made it as full-fledged partners of the United States, and, from the American point of view, it seems to make sense because the law appears to be a relic of the Soviet era. Unfortunately, some of these countries are also relics of the Soviet era," said Tom Malinowski of Human Rights Watch.

Given that trade measures sometimes fall prey to a perennial Capitol Hill debate between promoters of unfettered trade and their opponents, the administration's quest to lift restrictions could be an early test of ways the anti-terrorism war influences the equation. The Bush effort also raises a question about the fate of certain traditional foreign policy goals and values at a time when the war against violent extremism is the guiding force of foreign policy.

"We have soft-pedaled a number of our traditional concerns on human rights. That's part of coalition-building. You do it for a larger good, which is the defeat of terrorism," said Lee Hamilton, former Democratic chairman of the House International Affairs Committee. "You can't go into Pakistan and give sermons on human rights. You can't go into Riyadh."

Two months ago, as Bush administration officials made plans to end trade restrictions on a number of former Soviet republics, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan were excluded because of their dismal human rights performance and related worries. But since Sept. 11, their cooperation in the war on terrorism has made a difference.

"The timing is not a coincidence," said a State Department official who asked to remain anonymous. Although department staffers have alerted Congress that the administration would like Russia to graduate within three months and the eight others within nine months, several U.S. foreign-policy officials said no formal strategy decisions have been made.

A favored possibility is to group all countries but Russia in a package requiring a single piece of legislation. Another is to divide them into groups and launch them on different timetables. In either case, the administration intends to seek written pledges on political and economic issues from each government. Officials are consulting with Congress and interest groups on how to proceed.

"We haven't ... developed the list yet. There are still some judgments to be made," said a top adviser who described graduation from the restrictions as a way of "putting behind us the Cold War and creating new partners for trade."

Bush advisers reject the idea that removing countries from rules created by the Jackson-Vanik Amendment signals a diminished U.S. concern for human rights in the region. Rather, several officials said, the effort reflects a view that other forms of diplomatic engagement may work better.

"I've never accepted that Jackson-Vanik is a useful stick. It simply isn't. The notion that you're giving up leverage is simply not true," said an official involved in the debate. A high-ranking foreign-policy official added, "Jackson-Vanik was an important lever, but it was for a specific purpose for a different time."

Jackson-Vanik, a 1974 Trade Act amendment named for its sponsors, prohibits countries without market economies from enjoying normal U.S. trade relations if they do not have open emigration policies. Its original target was the Soviet Union.

After the Soviet collapse in 1991, the Jackson-Vanik restrictions were applied to Russia and other successor states. Initially focused on emigration, the provisions became a vehicle for appraising progress toward free markets and human rights, including democracy, free speech and freedom of worship.

Two former Soviet republics, Kyrgyzstan and Georgia, graduated from Jackson-Vanik in 2000. Congress declared that Georgia had complied with freedom-of-emigration requirements and had "made progress toward democratic rule and creating a free-market economic system."

Russia is next on the White House list. Amid warming relations with the Kremlin, Bush said in November that he supports Russia's ambition to graduate from Jackson-Vanik. On the issues of emigration and the protection of religious and ethnic minorities, Bush called Russia "a fundamentally different place than it was during the Soviet era."

The Russians have never been denied regular trade status since the Soviet breakup and have been found in formal compliance with the emigration provisions since 1994. They view the annual congressional review of their performance to be a demeaning irritant to relations with the United States.

To press the point, President Vladimir Putin met with Jewish leaders to assure them that Russia would respect religious rights. Harold Luks, chairman of NCSJ, formerly known as the National Conference on Soviet Jewry, said the organization supports Russia's graduation and favors similar treatment for other former Soviet republics. He noted that Jackson-Vanik contemplates a broad human rights agenda.

"We want to see both a recognition of the progress that has occurred and a very clear commitment by Congress that graduation from Jackson-Vanik does not diminish the commitment of Congress and the administration to continue to address this issue," Luks said.

The eight former Soviet republics the administration wants Congress to exempt are Armenia, Azerbaijan, Ukraine, Moldova, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. The only country left off the list is autocratic Belarus, which has a miserable human rights record and has offered no assistance to the anti-terrorism coalition, administration officials said.

There is a significant inconsistency in the decision to exclude Belarus while favoring the autocratic states of Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan -- the countries omitted from the original administration list -- said Human Rights Watch's Malinowski. The inclusion of Turkmenistan is a "clear sign that this process is being driven by coalition policy," he said.

"Turkmenistan is the North Korea of Central Asia," Malinowski said. "This is a country that has banned everything from the teaching of foreign languages to the performance of opera. There are no free elections, no political parties, no nongovernmental organizations, no independent media. Only two religions are permitted."

Michael Young, chairman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, said, "To graduate Turkmenistan would be a travesty. This is a terrible, terrible government.