President Bush and President Putin at the G-8 Summit in St. Petersburg
The U.S. and Russia finally seem to have reached an agreement on Russia's entry into the World Trade Organization. Next week President Bush and President Putin will meet face to face at the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Vietnam, where they will make the agreement official.
The last time the U.S. and Russia were this close to a deal was before Russia's July 2006 showcase G-8 Economic Summit in St. Petersburg. Iran spoiled the party by ordering Hezbollah to rain rockets on Israel. At the summit, both Tony Blair and George Bush were visibly distracted by the Mideast conflict, and were unable to address a comprehensive agenda for engaging Russia. On the Russian side, the money the Kremlin spent to hire the Washington-based Ketchum PR firm to promote Russia's image for the summit appeared to be wasted. Both during and after the G-8 summit, the U.S. media was flooded with stories depicting Putin as a tyrant cracking down on economic and civil liberties at home and arming America's enemies abroad. When Israeli newspapers reported that several Israeli Defense Forces tank crews were killed using Russian anti-armor missiles supplied to Hezbollah by Syria, the anti-Russian mood in Washington reached a boil.
President Putin meeting with Iranian envoy Ali Larijani last week in Moscow
This time around Russia seems determined not to let Iran come between it and full membership into the WTO. In recent weeks the Kremlin has walked a fine line on Iran, joining with China at the United Nations to oppose stiff sanctions against Teheran favored by the U.S. and European Union, but also sending signals that it would be open to allowing some sanctions if the Iranians continue to enrich uranium.
During a question and answer session with American journalists in the Moscow suburbs last September, Putin declared that "Iran should abandon plans for enrichment on its soil." Putin emphasized that Iran constituted "a special case...located in a very dangerous area," and that other countries with nuclear capability such as South Africa or Brazil, "do not establish in their constitutions the goal of destroying another state" as the Islamic Republic of Iran does with Israel.
Putin meeting Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in Moscow on October 19, 2006
Ironically, just as the relationship between Washington and Moscow was deteriorating this summer, Jerusalem continued to reach out to the Kremlin. In August, several well-respected Israeli lawyers opened an investigation into whether fugitive oligarch Leonid Nevzlin fraudulently obtained Israeli citizenship after he fled charges of tax evasion and murder in Russia. Israeli companies were also reportedly negotiating with Russia's state-owned gas monopoly Gazprom to supply Israel via an undersea pipeline from Turkey.
Perhaps it is easier for Israel to adopt a pragmatic approach towards Russia because it has one million citizens of Russian or Ukrainian descent. Or maybe Jerusalem feels that it has no choice but to work with the Kremlin in order to maintain a non-Arab intermediary for negotiating with Iran. Either way, it seems odd that Israel, the country most threatened by Iran's nuclear ambitions, would be more prepared to work with Moscow than the U.S. is right now. In the wake of last week's electoral debacle, the Bush Administration appears to have a newfound sense of urgency to cut a deal with Russia on WTO membership.
The Kremlin has long been wary of Congressional influence over trade and diplomatic relations between the two countries. The Jackson-Vanik amendments, originally passed in 1975 to pressure the USSR into permitting Jewish refuseniks to emigrate, remain on the books, nearly fifteen years after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Madame Speaker - Nancy Pelosi (D-CA)
In comparison, the requirement that the People's Republic of China abide by all the provisions of the Jackson-Vanik law was waived by American Presidents until China joined the WTO in 1999. After the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, Most Favored Nation trade status for China became an annual political football in Congress. The decade-long debate over MFN for China seldom followed strict party lines and often produced strange bedfellows. In 2000, the conservative Weekly Standard magazine hailed Democratic Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi for her stand against MFN to punish China for its human rights abuses, while pro-business Republicans and Democrats fought for China's inclusion in the WTO. Advocates for free trade with Russia may have to run a similar gauntlet in the new Congress.
Even after the Jackson-Vanik provisions are gone for good, this Congress is likely to be more protectionist than the Republican-led majority that scuttled China National Overseas Petroleum Company's (CNOC) bid to buy Unocal in April 2005. The previous Congress also joined in bipartisan opposition to the proposal by United Arab Emirates-based Dubai Ports World to operate several U.S. ports in February 2006. If state-owned Russian companies such as Gazprom or Rosneft attempt to buy significant assets in the U.S., such as liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminals or oil refineries on the Gulf of Mexico, they can probably expect a similarly hostile reception on Capitol Hill.