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The Impact of Russian Laws on US-Russia Economic Relations

The following is a guest post by Peter Roudik, Director of Legal Research at the Law Library of Congress.  In addition to his administrative duties, Peter provides jurisdictional coverage for Russia and other former Soviet republics and explains legal developments in these countries to the Law Library’s patrons. 

Hon. William Sulzer, chairman of the Committee on Foreign Affairs of the House of Representatives, dated 1911 or 1912 (Source: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, LC-DIG-ds-02129)

Russia is currently the subject of discussion by Congress and others due to its accession to the World Trade Organization.  As a result of this development, there are increasing efforts to repeal the Jackson-Vanik amendment.  This amendment to the U.S. Trade Act of 1974 (19 USC 12) prohibited countries with non-market economies from receiving non-discriminatory treatment if they did not guarantee the right of people to leave the country freely (§ 2432) or if they introduced special restrictions for those who wanted to be reunited with their very close relatives in the United States (§ 2439).

The amendment was passed in response to changes in Soviet emigration laws and special restrictions imposed on Soviet Jews who wanted to relocate to Israel, making it almost impossible for them to leave the Soviet Union.  The Soviet Union ceased to exist more than 20 years ago, and freedom of emigration is not a problem in Russia any more; however, the amendment is still in force.

While Congress debates the repeal of the Jackson-Vanik amendment, and granting Russia the status of a Permanent Normal Trade Relations (PNTR) country, it is interesting to note that this is not the first time trade relations between the United States and Russia became dependent on Russia’s emigration policies and practices and human rights situation.

One hundred years ago, in 1912, the U.S.-Russian Treaty of Navigation and Commerce, known as the Trade Treaty of 1832 (U.S. Statutes at Large, v. 8, at 444) was terminated by the United States because of Russia’s discriminatory immigration policies.  The problem was that the Treaty specifically said that its provisions shall not “derogate the force of laws published by His Majesty the Emperor of all the Russians to prevent the emigration of his subjects.”  The emigration question was at that time a very sensitive issue in Russia.  In addition, the Treaty required that “[t]he inhabitants of their respective States… submit to the laws and ordinances prevailing” in the country in which they conducted business.

Because of Russian anti-Jewish legislation of that time, passports of Jewish Americans were not recognized in Russia and these people were required to request a special permit from the Russian Minister of Internal Affairs to enter the country.  Even if they were able to obtain a visa, they could not freely move around Russia unlike other non-Jewish Americans.  They were limited to staying in selected predetermined cities and were specifically banned from St. Petersburg, the country’s capital, and other major cities, and were subjected to the same restrictions as Russian Jews.  This discrimination particularly affected Jewish emigrants from the Russian Empire who were naturalized American citizens.

L. to R.: Root, Underwood, Hughes, Lodge, Mills, 10/12/21 (Source: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, LC-DIG-npcc-05165)

The Congress viewed this situation as a “shameless affront upon the honor of our country and upon the integrity of American citizenship,” (W. Sulzer, The Russian Passport Question: Speech in Congress, Dec. 13, 1911) and recommended the removal of these provisions from the Treaty when it was due to be extended in 1912.

New York Congressman William Sulzer and Senators Henry Lodge and Elihu Root (who was later awarded the Nobel Peace Prize) became the champions of Congressional efforts to push Russia to change its policies.  Congressional documents of that time provide a detailed illustration of how this practice was not tolerated by the United States and of the different steps attempted by American government in order to protect American citizens.  In a speech on the floor of the House of Representatives on December 13, 1911, Mr. Sulzer said that the “insult is not upon the individuals as to whom there has been discrimination, but against the entire body of American citizens because a wrong done to one in his capacity as a citizen is a wrong inflicted upon every citizen.”  Speeches and hearings conducted in 1911 resulted in the adoption of a Joint Congressional Resolution requesting the abrogation of the Treaty.

The Law Library’s collection contains various materials related to the 1832 Treaty and the discrimination issue, including speeches of Congressmen, Congressional resolutions, and hearing materials.  Some of these were published as books, while others appeared as separate pamphlets.  Additional materials can be found among the original papers of the relevant politicians that are preserved in the Library of Congress or were later included in their edited collections of works.

The Library’s collection also includes materials that allow us to look at this “passport conflict” (as it was called in Russia) from the Russian angle. There are Russian laws, varied collections of other government documents, and newspaper reports on the issue.

The bills relating to the repeal of the Jackson-Vanik amendment are accompanied by rule of law accountability provisions, which show that “continued dedication of the United States to the fundamental human rights,” as Congressman Sulzer said, is no less important today than 100 years ago.  I wonder what will affect U.S.-Russian economic relations in the next 100 years?

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