June 19, 2011

THE NEXT stage of President Obama’s “reset” with Russia will include trade favors, if the administration has its way. The president has promised the regime of Vladimir Putin that he will support Russia’s long-delayed accession to the World Trade Organization this year. For that to happen, Georgia, a U.S. ally subjected to a Russian invasion in 2008, must still sign off. Also, Congress must grant Russia fully normalized trade relations to avoid a conflict under WTO rules once Moscow is admitted. That means exempting Russia from a 1974 law conditioning trade on Russia’s emigration policies.

The law, known as Jackson-Vanik, is outdated; it was passed to try to force the Soviet Union to allow Jews to emigrate. But granting Russia trade privileges now rightly seems to many in Congress to be an unwarranted concession to a regime that, under Mr. Putin and partner Dmitry Medvedev, continues to engage in massive human rights violations — not to mention epic corruption.

Not infrequently the two go together. In the best-known case, a 37-year-old Russian lawyer named Sergei Magnitsky died in prison in 2009 after he uncovered a $230 million fraud involving Russian tax and interior ministry officials. Those same officials had him imprisoned and subjected to mistreatment that caused his death. Though the government later acknowledged the fraud and Mr. Medvedev promised justice, the officials were cleared, and some were even promoted.

The case captured the attention of Sen. Benjamin Cardin (D-Md.), who twice introduced legislation that would mandate a U.S. visa ban and financial sanctions against Russian officials responsible for Mr. Magnitsky’s persecution. The bill would also apply in other cases of gross human rights violations. Its latest version has an impressive bipartisan list of sponsors, including both the Democratic and Republican Senate whips.

The Cardin bill provides a way for Congress to allow Russia the benefits of WTO membership while putting in place an important new check on the regime’s lawlessness. It would also provide some balance to U.S. policy, which under Mr. Obama has tilted heavily toward striking deals with the Kremlin while mostly overlooking its domestic abuses.

The administration might take its own action; officials have said they are examining the Magnitsky case and already have the authority to impose a visa ban on those involved. The State and Treasury departments are meanwhile objecting to Mr. Cardin’s bill, in part because of an aggressive provision that would allow any member of Congress to propose a Russian official for sanctions, and require State to respond within 30 days.

Congress nevertheless should pass the legislation before granting Russia full trade rights. Despite many promises, Mr. Putin and Mr. Medvedev have done nothing to rein in the endemic lawlessness of their regime. As was the case when Congress passed Jackson-Vanik, outside pressure is needed. As Mr. Cardin has noted, this is not an interference in Russia’s domestic affairs. It is, rather, an attempt “to create consequences” for members of an autocratic regime “who are currently getting away with murder.”