US Congress votes to normalize trade ties with Russia

The US Congress voted Thursday to end Cold War-era trade restrictions on Russia after it joined the WTO, but provoked Moscow's ire by attaching a measure targeting human rights abusers.

Following approval by the House of Representatives last month, the Senate voted 92-4 in favor of establishing permanent normal trade relations, or PNTR, with Russia by abolishing a 1974 law that required granting normal trade ties with Moscow only on an annual basis.

The legislation, which also grants PNTR to Moldova, now goes to the White House for President Barack Obama's signature.

The repeal of the archaic legislation reflects Russia's ascension to the World Trade Organization, and US lawmakers noted that US businesses stands to gain if Washington grants PNTR to its former Cold War rival.

"This legislation marks a pivotal step forward in our relations with Russia and Moldova," Republican Senator Orrin Hatch said in a statement immediately after the vote.

"Strengthening our bilateral trade relations with these nations will provide access to new markets for American businesses, farmers and ranchers, expand our economy here at home, and create much-needed jobs," he added.

"At the same time, this measure includes strong enforcement tools to ensure Russia lives up to its international trade obligations, and provisions to help advance human rights and the rule of law in Russia."

Lawmakers attached riders to the law that have provoked a furious reaction from Moscow, which threatened to retaliate against what it has called a "brazenly unfriendly and provocative attack."

The new legislation would compel the US government to freeze the assets of and deny entry to anyone tied to the 2009 death in prison of the Russian anti-corruption lawyer Sergei Magnitsky.

Konstantin Dolgov, the human rights representative at the Russian Foreign Ministry, repeated the warnings on Wednesday, saying sanctions against Russian officials would mark a "hostile and unilateral measure."

Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev last week described the move as a "mistake," and Moscow has threatened to take retaliatory measures.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov sought "clarification" about the legislation from US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton during a bilateral meeting Thursday in Dublin, according to a senior State Department official.

Congress voted to end the so-called Jackson-Vanik amendment, which since 1974 has required the president to certify to Congress that Russia meets human rights standards when it comes to permitting Jewish emigration.

Long a thorn in relations, the law came into question when Russia joined the WTO in August. This put Jackson-Vanik in conflict with WTO mandates that any advantage granted by one WTO member must be extended to all.

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