WASHINGTON — U.S. and Russian Jewish groups are pleased as a law that helped ensure the emigration of tens of thousands of Soviet Jews appears to be approaching its end.
Hosting Russian President Vladimir Putin last week, President Bush announced his intention to work with Congress to adjust the Jackson-Vanik Amendment, ending trade restrictions on Russia.
Russia has made "important strides on emigration and the protection of religious and ethnic minorities, including Russia's Jewish community," Bush said at a press conference Tuesday.
Adopted in 1974, the amendment made it a goal of U.S. foreign policy to persuade the Soviet Union to relax its restrictions on emigration.
Sponsored by Sen. Henry Jackson (D-Wash.) and Rep. Charles Vanik (D-Ohio), the amendment prohibited the extension of U.S. government credits and most-favored-nation trade status to any country with a "non-market economy" that didn't allow its citizens to emigrate freely.
The reasons for removing the restrictions now are twofold. Washington wants to hold together its fragile international coalition against the Taliban and Osama bin Laden's Al Qaida terrorist network, and is looking for something to offer Putin for his support. In addition, the White House wants to entice Russia to support Bush's missile defense program.
U.S. Jewish groups say they understand the reasoning, but want assurances that the Russian government will help its Jewish communities.
Russian Jewish groups take a slightly different line, urging the United States to lift the trade restrictions unconditionally.
Visiting the United States also last week, one of Russia's chief rabbis said he is convinced that Putin is serious about fighting anti-Semitism at home, and intends to "eradicate it completely."
Rabbi Berel Lazar was one of a half-dozen Russian and American Jews who met with Putin Nov. 13 at the Russian Embassy in Washington.
They reportedly were impressed by Putin's warmth and his resolve to help the Jewish community in Russia. Putin also spoke about his personal experience growing up near a Jewish family.
Before Rosh Hashanah this year, Putin sent a letter to the Jewish community promising to stamp out anti-Semitism in Russia. This week's meeting proved Putin's commitment to the well-being of Russian Jewry, fighting anti-Semitism and letting Russian Jews travel freely and retain their dual Russian-Israeli citizenship, Lazar said.
It is important to lift Jackson-Vanik so Russia can see that American attitudes also have changed, Lazar said in an interview.
It also helps their relations with the surrounding society that Russian Jews are seen to support the change, Lazar said.
Since the collapse of the USSR, Russia has been granted normal trade relations every year through annual presidential waivers.
Under Jackson-Vanik, to receive such a waiver Russia's emigration policies must pass an annual review. The waivers have allowed Russian-American trade to continue unhindered over the past decade, but Russia resents the review process and wants normal trade relations to be permanent.
Since Jackson-Vanik is an amendment to trade legislation, a bill to change the legislation would have to originate in the House of Representatives' Ways and Means Committee, which has jurisdiction over trade agreements and revenue measures.
Rep. Tom Lantos (D-San Mateo) met with the U.S. national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, and plans to introduce legislation this year, spokesman Matt Gobush said, but Lantos doesn't believe it will acted upon until next year.
Lantos already has support from the committee chairman, its ranking member and other leading lawmakers, Gobush said.
"We've yet to see any resistance to the idea," he said.
Lantos has insisted on certain commitments, which could be included as "findings" in the legislation. They address the continuation of free Jewish emigration, enforcement of hate crimes legislation and restitution of Jewish communal property seized by the Soviets in the 1920s and 1930s.
Some members of Congress do not agree that Putin should be rewarded for the steps he has made to date. Rep. Benjamin Gilman (R-N.Y.) wrote a letter to the U.S. deputy secretary of state, Richard Armitage, expressing concern that anti-Semitism is still prevalent in Russia and that it is too early to change Jackson-Vanik.
Russia is providing assurances that it will not revert to its former repression, according to Harold Luks, chairman of NCSJ: Advocates on Behalf of Jews in Russia, Ukraine, the Baltic States and Eurasia.
A recent exchange of letters between U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell and Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov, on the importance of human rights and religious freedom, is a very positive step, Luks said.
Though he noted the different approaches of the American and Russian Jewish communities, Luks said the United States must be involved in ensuring the future of Jewish life in Russia.
"The Russian Jewish community is looking at 2001, and the American Jewish community is looking at 2001 and beyond," Luks said. "That's the reason for the assurances."
Others at the meeting with Putin were not pressing for such commitments.
"We don't need more assurances than the last two years," said Rabbi Levi Shemtov, director of the Washington office of American Friends of Lubavitch. He would be comfortable lifting Jackson-Vanik, Shemtov said, because of reports from Russia about how vastly the situation for Jews has improved.
"If someone's making a gesture and commitment, it should be answered with trust," Shemtov said.
Jackson-Vanik no longer applies to Georgia and Kyrgyzstan. Belarus, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan are unlikely to be considered for the step because of continued restrictions on emigration, some say.
Other former Soviet republics that might be freed from trade restrictions include Armenia, Azerbaijan, Kazakstan, Moldova, Tajikistan and Ukraine.
The three Baltic nations were released from the Jackson-Vanik restrictions after the fall of communism in 1991.