Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-MT) said, following the conclusion of a March 15th committee hearing on permanent normal trade relations (PNTR) for Russia, that the committee will probably not act on PNTR legislation until closer to the time Russia officially joins the World Trade Organization (WTO). Russia is expected to officially join the WTO sometime this summer.

May would be the earliest for a Senate vote with action more likely before the August recess,  according to some political analysts.  The United States must grant PNTR to Russia to allow U.S. companies to fully take advantage of the trade liberalization measures Russia will implement as part of its WTO accession. Senator Baucus said Russia will “lower its tariffs and open its market to U.S. exports” and the United States will “get new tools … to hold Russia accountable to its obligations,” including “binding legal enforcement and transparency measures.” Without PNTR, “all of Russia’s trading partners except the United States will immediately benefit when Russia joins the WTO.” This situation would “not hurt Russia one whit,” Baucus said, but would hurt the United States “dramatically.”

Others believe the United States should address human rights and other concerns with Moscow before granting PNTR. Two senators wrote to Senator Baucus March 16 vowing to “strongly oppose” PNTR unless it is accompanied by the passage of a bill (S. 1039) that would impose targeted sanctions in response to “the contemporary human rights problems facing the people of Russia.”  These “widespread and severe” problems include politically motivated killings by government agents, arbitrary detention and politically motivated imprisonments, and harsh prison conditions, the Senators said.

Others have accused Russia of supplying the government of Syria with weapons that have been used in a violent ongoing crackdown against public dissent. At the March 15 hearing Senator John Kyl, (R-AZ), asserted that “human rights cannot be divorced from the discussion of our economic relationship with Russia, particularly since some of the most egregious cases of abuse involve citizens exercising their economic and commercial rights.” Kyl also said more information is needed to “determine whether America is getting a good deal through Russia’s WTO accession and whether more should be done to protect our interests” given Russia’s “troubling pattern of intimidation, disregard for rule of law, fraudulent elections, human rights abuses, and government-sanctioned anti-Americanism.”

Supporters say, however, that PNTR legislation should advance on its own merits and that human rights issues are more properly addressed through other channels. U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul said the Obama administration believes the two issues “are not related” and has already taken a number of actions to try to improve the human rights situation in Russia.