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Reassessing the Jackson-Vanik Amendment


The Jackson-Vanik Amendment, an addition to the U.S. Trade Act of 1974, was crafted to put pressure on the Soviet Union for human rights abuses but has become a symbol of lingering tensions in the U.S.-Russia relationship. In order to receive the benefits of normal trade relations with the United States, nonmarket economies, which originally meant Communist economies, must comply with free emigration policies. Though the United States denies normal trade relations treatment only to Cuba and North Korea, U.S. trade relations with eight former Soviet states still fall under the jurisdiction of Jackson-Vanik. These countries--Azerbaijan, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Moldova, Russia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan--are deemed either compliant with the emigration requirement or provisionally exempt. Yet many experts assert that the amendment is an irritant in U.S. relations with these countries, particularly Russia, and has outgrown its relevance.

Signs of the Obama administration's interest in warming relations with the Kremlin (WashPost), as well as negotiations over Russia's World Trade Organization (WTO) accession, have prompted a fresh round of discussion among experts about graduating Russia from the amendment to make it permanently exempt. Whether President Barack Obama can do so and how quickly, experts say, will depend on his ability to overcome long-standing congressional reluctance to make what is perceived as an undeserved concession to Russia.

Cold War Origins

Legislation that would become the Jackson-Vanik Amendment was proposed in October 1972 to prevent the Soviet Union from charging exorbitant fees to Jews trying to emigrate. Though cosponsors Sen. Henry M. Jackson (D-WA) and Rep. Charles A. Vanik (D-OH) cast the legislation as a means to put pressure on Communist countries for human rights violations, the amendment references only emigration, clearly targeting the former Soviet Union. The Soviet bloc stopped charging "education reimbursement fees" in late...

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