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What's Next for Russia and Putin?

On December 10, the largest demonstrations since 1991 shook at least 15 cities in Russia. In Moscow, tens of thousands took to the streets, protesting the fraudulent parliamentary elections on December 4. 

Twelve years of Putin’s corruption and reliance on high oil prices have taken their toll on Russia's economy, and many--primarily middle class Russians, egged on by bloggers, such as Alexei Navalny -- had finally had enough.

While it is clear that Putin’s regime is beginning to crack, what comes next is uncertain. Putin will fight for power with renewed vigor and will most likely win the next presidential election in March 2012. How long he will last beyond then is unclear.

The United States can use this as an opportunity to promote positive change in Russia. Rather than trying to “reset” Russian relations, which has not proved fruitful, there is an opportunity for Congress to pressure Russia to address its poor human rights record. This could help steer Russia away from extreme nationalist sentiments that may also become more vocal as dissatisfaction with the current government continues.

The World Trade Organization (WTO) is expected to approve Russia’s bid for entry during its conference at the end of this week (December 15-17). While the United States can benefit from Russia’s WTO accession, it can only do so if it grants Russia normal trade relations status. This requires repealing the Jackson-Vanik Amendment which, since 1975, has required freedom of emigration in Russia in order for the United States to offer Russia most favored nation status— equal treatment in trade.

Congress should repeal Jackson-Vanik, but embrace its spirit, and exert pressure on Russia to address its human rights problems through other mechanisms, and do this publically. This could include, for example, passage of legislation sanctioning senior Russian officials responsible for human rights abuses by freezing their U.S. assets, and publically naming these officials.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s call for full investigation after Russia’s Duma election results were announced, and her denunciation of the elections were “neither free nor fair” was the right response. A similar response should come from President Obama.

Linking aid to human rights reform could be another tool. The United States has given Russia billions of dollars in aid since 1992 and continues aid in tens of millions each year.

Jackson-Vanik was one of the most powerful "soft power" tools of the Cold war, and its success showed that human rights advocacy can advance U.S. interests; but Jackson-Vanik has lost much of its relevancy after the Cold War. 

Every U.S. president since Bill Clinton has supported repealing it, as Russia’s emigration policies had changed after the Cold War. The White House therefore regularly granted Russia a waiver from the Amendment’s provisions after an annual review, which certified that Russia meets minimal emigration standards.

Today’s Russia is not the Soviet Union, and Russia no longer restricts the emigration of its citizens the way it did in the Soviet era. However, human rights are still poor in Russia—this has not improved since the Soviet era. The State Department’s annual human rights report criticizes the Russian government for severe corruption, torture, and lack of rule of law and due process. Russia continues to be one of the worst when it comes to press freedom.

Russia’s membership in the WTO will benefit both Russia and the United States— Russia will be required, among other things, to follow international trade standards, which will help reduce corruption in the country. 

This is one reason Putin was always suspicious of the WTO and will probably continue to feel this way. 

But bringing Russia into the international system alone will not create incentives for political and democratic reform in the country, just as it didn't lead to meaningful change in China and Saudi Arabia, both WTO members. Absent pressure from the United States, the human rights situation will continue to deteriorate in Russia, despite the dissatisfaction of its citizens with its current leadership.

Enacting new measures that match the current Russian reality would only further US interests in promoting stability—something the Putin regime ultimately has been unable to provide. Western silence, on the other hand, will convince Moscow that it can continue to dictate the rules—whoever is in the Kremlin. With the added uncertainty of who (or what) will eventually come after Putin, this only adds to the urgency.

Anna Borshchevskaya is Assistant Director, Dinu Patriciu Eurasia Center at the Atlantic Council.

Anna Borshchevskaya is a fellow at the European Foundation for Democracy. Follow her on Twitter@annaborsh.