21.02.2007

U.S. Foreign Affairs Committee head calls for end to Soviet-era trade restrictions

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A senior U.S. congressman said Wednesday he would call for the removal of Russia from the 1974 Jackson-Vanik amendment, which has restricted bilateral trade and remained a key irritant in U.S.-Russian relations.

"It's time to put behind us this relic of the Cold War," said U.S. Rep. Tom Lantos, the Democratic chairman of the U.S. House of Representatives' Foreign Affairs Committee.

"I will spare no effort to bring this about and I have every expectation that I will be successful," Lantos said at a news conference.

Russia has long urged the United States to abolish the Jackson-Vanik amendment tying Russia 's trade status to whether it freely allows Jewish emigration. President Vladimir Putin and other Russian officials and lawmakers long have criticized Washington for failing to repeal the legislation, saying the refusal to do so undermined trust between the two nations.

The abolition of the amendment is necessary for the United States to trade freely with Russia once it finalizes its bid to join the World Trade Organization.

"It's an extremely positive statement from the chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee. Its a major step forward in U.S.-Russia relations and will put an end to this anachronistic piece of legislation," Somers told The Associated Press.

Russia 's chief rabbi Berel Lazar said during a meeting with Lantos Tuesday that "the preservation of the (Jackson-Vanik) amendments now, when Russia 's Jews have fully equal rights, looks like a clear anachronism," Lazar's office said in a statement.

The newly elected U.S. Congress is controlled by Democrats, who are less receptive to free-trade agreements and seen as more critical of Russia 's record on human rights and press freedoms than Republicans.

The statement from Lantos, a harsh critic of Russia 's democracy record and human rights situation, comes at a time when U.S.-Russian ties have hit a new low with Putin's speech at a security conference in Munich earlier this month harshly criticizing U.S. global policy.

In what appeared to be an attempt to strike a conciliatory note, Lantos said Putin's statement was a "fully understandable" attempt to demonstrate that his country, a former superpower, was resurgent after years of post-Soviet demise and stressed that Putin's criticism should not stand in the way of the two countries' cooperation.

"The United States and Russia have far too many common interests and long-term goals," Lantos said, referring to global health, poverty reduction and international peace and security. "We certainly will not allow ... the speech to stand in the way of our very positive attitude towards Russia and our future cooperation."

Some analysts said that the Kremlin would likely see Lantos' statement as proof that Putin's new tough tone in relations with Washington had been the right strategy to force the United States to make concessions.

"I think it will be seen here that the message of Putin's now famous speech in Munich has been taken on board that the West has recognized its mistake ... and a harsh, direct approach is the most effective way," said Andrei Ryabov, a Moscow-based political analyst.

At the same time, Lantos criticized Russia for prosecuting former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who is serving an eight-year prison sentence after being convicted of fraud and tax evasion in a politically charged trial widely seen as a Kremlin-driven punishment for challenging Putin.

Khodorkovsky was recently slapped with new charges in what his lawyers say is new effort to keep him behind bars beyond next year's presidential elections.

Lantos called Khodorkovsky a "political prisoner," and said he wished to visit him in prison and said his prosecution cast a "shadow over the reputation of Russia ."

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