WASHINGTON -- Is Russia a friend, foe or frenemy? That question hangs over Congress as lawmakers ponder whether to grant a former adversary normalized trade relations.
Since the end of the Soviet Union in 1991, the U.S.-Russia relationship has seen ups and downs, lately more of the latter. Russia has stymied U.S. efforts to thwart Iran’s nuclear ambitions and hascomplicated efforts to isolate Syria.
In the coming weeks, Congress will be presented with a tough choice: Should it stand up against human rights abuses in Russia or should it support greater access for U.S. companies to Russia’s more than 142 million consumers?
It’s a choice lawmakers must make because Russia is readying to join the World Trade Organization, the Geneva-based body that sets rules for and polices international trade. Russia’s legislative body, the Duma, will take up the ratification of its WTO accession on July 4. The date appears to be Russia’s way of sending an Independence Day message to its former adversary.
Since the 1970s and the Cold War, Russia has had limited access to the world’s largest economy. Russia is largely a commodity exporter, a global seller of crude oil, natural gas and minerals such as uranium. Those products are not sensitive to protectionism and other unfair trade practices. However, Russia offers exporters across the globe a big market for finished goods and services, and if it joins the WTO it will be subject to the same rules as the other 155 members.
“We have a very complicated relationship with Russia, there’s no question about that,” said Christopher Wenk, senior director for international policy at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which is lobbying for what’s known as permanent normal trade relations with Russia, or PNTR.
“It’s tough in terms of the foreign policy piece of our relationship … but the point we’re making is that PNTR is not about Russia, it is about the United States. This is really an issue about giving U.S. companies a level playing field in that market.”
The problem for some U.S. lawmakers is that granting Russia normalized trade relations rewards its authoritarian leader, Vladimir Putin. The Obama administration has tried to reset relations with Russia, but Putin’s return to power, anti-American rhetoric and treatment of dissidents has upset human rights advocates.
“Putin clearly has complicated things, and … human rights are not fully respected. That is quite evident, and of course Russia is not a democracy. It’s a relatively mild authoritarian state,” said Anders Aslund, a senior researcher and Russia expert at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington.
Russia is one of the four pillars in what economists call the BRIC nations – large developing economies that increasingly account for a greater share of the global economy. The other BRIC nations are Brazil, India and China.
While two-way trade with China and Brazil continues to grow, U.S. trade with Russia – which ranks between 10th and 12th globally in economic size – is surprisingly minuscule. Russia is not in the top 30 markets for U.S. exports, and last year it was the United States’ 14th biggest source of imports, behind India and ahead of Brazil.
This suggests there’s more at stake for U.S. businesses in the fight.