AJC Briefing: The Jackson-Vanik Amendment and U.S.-Russian Relations

The Jackson-Vanik Amendment and U.S.-Russian Relations

Sam Kliger

AJC Director of Russian Jewish Affairs

Presentation to Capitol Hill Briefing

organized by Woodrow Wilson Center

February 3, 2010

The chain of historic events leading to the J-V amendment is well-known.  When, in 1972, the Soviet regime imposed a heavy “tax on education” on those individuals wishing to emigrate, protests from the free world immediately followed.  By the end of 1972, it became clear to the Kremlin that it would not get any favorable trade deals as long as the “education tax” was in force.  The Politburo met for a special session on March 20, 1973, where Brezhnev spoke furiously about the “education tax” that led to “a campaign around the Jackson Amendment and around the bill on granting us Most-Favored-Nation trade status.”  The battle over the proposed amendment between Nixon administration and the U.S. Congress continued and resulted in approval by both houses. It was signed into law by President Ford on January 3, 1975.

The provisions of the amendment can be summarized as prohibiting favorable commercial relations with a non-market country that forbids or severely restricts free emigration of its citizens by denying them the right or opportunity to emigrate, imposing more than a nominal tax on emigration, or punishing them for their desire to emigrate.

Like many other Jews considering emigration from the Soviet Union, I was enthusiastic about the amendment, hoping that now the emigration process would be simplified.  But the Kremlin reacted strongly and even suspended repayment of the Soviet Lend-Lease debt to the U.S.  And though the “education tax” was not re-implemented, Jewish emigration fell dramatically from 35,000 in 1973 to 20,000 in 1974 and to only 13,000 in 1975.    

Many Jews, myself included, were afraid to apply for exit visas out of fear of denial and the negative consequences one would encounter by daring to apply for emigration, including losing one’s job and social and professional ostracism.  While hope improved again when, after the adoption of the 35-nation Helsinki Accords of 1975, emigration numbers went up a little, tens of thousands of Soviet Jews became “refuseniks.”   Among many others, I applied for an exit visa in earlier1980 with hope that the window of opportunity would be open in preparation for the Moscow Olympics and with fear that it would be closed afterwards. The worst scenario was realized, and the door was almost completely shut in 1980.  I, along with thousands of other Soviet Jews, became a “refusenik” – in my case, for ten years -- with all the miserable consequences and stigmas related to that status.

The amendment played a positive role as an important and specific tool pressing the Soviet Union to allow people, and especially Jews, to emigrate freely, and was instrumental in the more general goal of improving the human rights conditions of the Russian people.  Though in the short run, the JVA led to more restrictions on emigration and reduced the flow of emigration of Jews from the Soviet Union, in the long run, it was a powerful tool in the struggle for freedom and basic rights for the Soviet people, and thus contributed to the end of Communist rule and the eventual collapse of the USSR.  Dobrynin, former USSR ambassador to the U.S., writes in his book that “our biggest mistake was to stand on pride and not let as many Jews go as wanted to leave… Instead, our leadership turned it into a test of wills that we eventually lost.”[1]

Now, 35 years since the Jackson-Vanik amendment was signed into law and 20 years since I immigrated to the U.S., I would argue that the JVA should be repealed.  Here are some of the arguments.

1)       Some Communist countries, including China and Hungary, were granted the Most-Favored-Nation status by the Congress as early as 1979, and attempts were made in the late 1970s to exempt the Soviet Union from the JVA restrictions as emigration from the USSR increased to 31,000 in 1978 and even higher in 1979.  The first six-month waiver was granted to the Soviets in December of 1990, when emigration reached the rate of 12,000 per month.  After the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Russia and other successor states of the FSU were granted the Most-Favored-Nation Status on an annual basis.  In 1994, President Clinton formally recognized Russia’s “full compliance” with the JVA provisions, and in 2002, President George W. Bush asked Congress to legislate the exemption of Russia from the JVA.          

Thus, for almost 30 years, the JVA was interpreted and widely recognized by the U.S. government, NGOs, and Jewish groups as directly related to the right of emigration from the Soviet Union.  Since the early 1990s, it has become obvious that free emigration from Russia and the republics of the Former Soviet Union is an established fact and that the JVA is irrelevant as a tool created to ensure the basic right of emigration.  

2)       During the late 1990s and throughout the last decade, a new concept emerged that connected the JVA to a broader spectrum of political, economic, and human rights issues.  More and more new demands to the JVA provisions were arbitrarily added.  Some journalists, scholars, NGOs, and governmental agencies connected JVA repeal for Russia with a) democratization of the political regime in Russia; b) human rights violations, especially in Chechnya and the North Caucasus region; and c) a free market economy.   In other words, in order to get rid of the Cold War relic amendment that speaks primarily of the right of emigration, Russia now must demonstrate its democratic nature, becoming a full-fledged market economy and a shining example for human rights. Such demands are unfair and unjust, especially given the fact that no specific measurable criteria have been suggested.   To many Russians, these unspecified expectations simply indicate that no matter how well they comply with U.S. demands, new restrictions will inevitably be imposed to keep Russia on the hook forever.  This perception is widespread among the Russian political and intellectual elite.  During a number of AJC meetings with Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov that I attended in recent years, he complained about the JVA and was specifically irritated – not to say a bit amused -- by the attempts (in the early 2000s) to go so far as to connect the JVA repeal with Russia’s purchasing of American poultry.  Moreover, Russia uses the JVA as a case study to communicate the notion that the U.S. will never be satisfied by those who comply with their demands, and that U.S. demands will never stop.  All this not only causes harm to U.S.Russia relations, but also to American relations with other countries, undermining, for example, U.S. efforts to apply sanctions. 

3)        In addition, some countries of the FSU – including Georgia, Kyrgyzstan, and Ukraine –  where democracy, free market, and human rights are still in formation, have “graduated” from the amendment in recent years.  AJC advocated strongly before the U.S. Congress in 2005 to repeal the JVA for Ukraine with the hope that Ukraine, after the Orange Revolution, would firmly stay on a democratic path, despite the reported facts of serious corruption and multiple anti-Semitic incidents (one of the major state-licensed private universities, MAUP, has been involved in widespread distribution of anti-Semitic publications and propaganda).   Many in Russia and outside see this as applying double standards and a discriminatory approach by “graduating” some FSU counties with no free-market economy and human rights violations from the JVA, while keeping Russia on the hook.    

4)       Most major Jewish organizations in Russia, such as the Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia (FEOR), Russian Jewish Congress, Congress of Jewish Religious Organizations and Communities (KEROOR), and Council of Jewish Organizations (VAAD), are in favor of JVA repeal for Russia.  In my recent conversations with their leaders, they expressed the notion that “graduating” Russia from the JVA would be to the benefit of U.S.Russia relations.

5)       Some human rights groups and NGOs in Russia like the Moscow Bureau for Human Rights and the Civic Chamber of the Russian Federation also express the need for eliminating the JVA and suggest that such repeal would contribute to the improvement of U.S.Russia relations and would enhance the development of civil society in Russia.  To ensure continuing emigration freedom and improve the human rights situation in Russia, the JVA could be replaced by cooperation between American and Russian NGOs that would place the amendment’s provisions under civil society control.  A move to abolish the amendment would be considered a serious step toward the new approach of “re-setting” relations between the U.S. and Russia, and would contribute to the efforts of the newly established Obama-Medvedev Commission, and particularly to its Civil Society Working Group led by Dr. Michael McFaul and Vladislav Surkov, which first met here in Washington last week.  This Working Group, for instance, could take control of the amendment’s provisions.

AJC, established in 1906 out of concern for Jewish pogroms in Russia, has been involved in U.S.Russia relations for a century.[2]  During 1906-1911, it campaigned successfully for ending of the 1832 Russia-American Commercial Treaty, responding to Russian government discrimination of American Jews by denying to them entry visa simply because they were Jewish.[3]   In the 1950s, AJC sponsored comprehensive studies on the effect of Soviet rule on the life of Jewish communities.  Since 1964, AJC has been deeply involved in the Soviet Jewry movement and, in the early 1970s, we advocated for Congressional passage of the JVA.

Now, for a number of years, AJC has been advocating for “graduating” Russia from the JVA and, in addition to the arguments above, looks at the issue from a broader geopolitical perspective.  The U.S. needs Russian cooperation in many important areas, most urgently in managing the Iranian uranium enrichment program and the broader issue of nuclear nonproliferation and energy security.  There is a need to cooperate in the global fight against terrorism, from which Russia suffers along with the U.S.   The U.S. needs Russia’s assistance in its efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq.  The list goes on.  The JVA is seen by the Russians as a constant irritant, and as a Cold War relic that undermines Russia’s prestige as permanent member of the UN Security Council and in the international arena.  It would be in the U.S.’s best interest to “graduate” Russia now from the Jackson-Vanik Amendment.

[1] Anatoly Dobrynin, In Confidence (University of Washington Press, Seattle, 1995, p. 159.

[2] See: David A. Harris. A Century of Involvement.  AJC and Russian Jewry.  American Jewish Year Book 2007, Vol. 107 (New York: American Jewish Committee, December 2007).

[3] Ibid, pp. 3-4

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