The U.S. has rightly denounced the Pussy Riot sentences in Russia, but it is also rightly pressing Congress to approve normal trade relations with Moscow.
Although dramatically less oppressive than the old Soviet Union, post-communist Russia is far from a model of civil rights. That reality was underlined most recently by the shocking two-year prison sentences imposed on three performance artists who offered a "punk prayer" critical of Russian President Vladimir Putin in a Moscow cathedral.
The Obama administration rightly has denounced the disproportionate punishment meted out to three members of the feminist band Pussy Riot and has urged Russian authorities to review the case. But the administration is also, appropriately, pressing Congress to approve permanent normal trade relations with Russia. With Russia's admission to the World Trade Organization, such relations would mean increased exports for U.S. manufacturers and more jobs for American workers.
We see no contradiction here. The Pussy Riot sentences — and other examples of Russian intolerance, such as a ban in Moscow on gay pride parades — are troubling. But normal trade relations shouldn't be conditioned on a requirement that a trading partner replicate the political system of the United States. That doesn't mean the United States can't address violations of human rights in Russia in other ways.
The obstacle to permanent normal trade relations with Russia is the Jackson-Vanik amendment, enacted in 1974 to pressure the Soviet Union into allowing Jews to emigrate to Israel. Whatever the wisdom of Jackson-Vanik at the time, it was designed to address a problem and an adversary that no longer exist. Committees in both the House and Senate have acknowledged as much by approving repeal.
But both chambers also are moving toward enacting legislation to sanction officials in Russia — and, in the case of the Senate bill, in other countries — who violate human rights. The Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act is named after a Russian lawyer who died in custody after accusing a group of officials of a $230-million tax-return fraud. The bill would deny visas to officials who engaged in human rights abuses and freeze their financial assets in the United States — actions the Obama administration says it already has taken on its own.
The Pussy Riot sentences are likely to increase support in Congress for the Magnitsky bill. But they shouldn't derail approval of normal trade relations with Russia. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton makes another point: "By extending those trading relations, we can create new markets for our people and support the political and economic changes that Russia's people are demanding." A policy of trade and engagement — coupled with criticism when necessary — made sense in the Cold War. It still does.