A bill that would open up trade relations with Russia cleared Congress and headed for President Obama's desk Thursday, but Russia denounced the bill as "absurd" and threatened retaliation over a section that would punish Russian officials accused of human rights violations.
"The decision of the U.S. Senate...is a performance in the theatre of the absurd," the Foreign Ministry said in a statement on its website.
A Russian parliament official also suggested sanctions could be imposed on U.S. officials accused of rights violations in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., a main sponsor of the human rights measure with Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., contended it was pro-Russian in that it would help the Russian people and was "sending a signal to Russian President Vladimir Putin and the Russian plutocracy that these kinds of abuses of human rights will not be tolerated."
The 92-4 vote by the Senate to establish permanent normal trade relations with Russia followed an equally convincing vote in the House last month. The bill eliminates a long-obsolete 1974 provision, called the Jackson-Vanik Amendment, that tied trade relations with the former Soviet Union to the emigration of Jews and other Soviet minorities.
The White House says it strongly supports the bill, which also extends permanent normal trade relations to the former Soviet state of Moldova.
Although Obama and his predecessors over the last two decades annually have waived the Jackson-Vanik restrictions, it has lingered on the books because of congressional antipathy toward Russia's human rights record and anti-American policies. This year, the issues have included Russian support of the Assad government in Syria.
But acting to eliminate the 1974 provision and making normal relations permanent became a necessity when Russia on Aug. 22 entered the World Trade Organization, forcing it to lower tariffs, ease import restrictions, protect intellectual property and participate in the WTO dispute resolution system.
Until the United States normalizes trade, U.S. traders will be alone among the members of the 157-nation WTO unable to enjoy access to the huge Russian market. The administration and economists estimate that U.S. exports of goods and services, now about $11 billion a year, could double over the next five years if trade is normalized. But if Congress fails to act, U.S. exporters stand to fall further behind other countries in the race to gain market share among Russia's 140 million consumers.
The Coalition for U.S.-Russia Trade, which represents manufacturing, service and agriculture interests, says the United States now commands only about 4 percent of Russia's import market of $400 billion a year, compared to 40 percent for Europe and 16 percent for China.
It says that over the next 20 years, Russian carriers will need about 900 passenger aircraft valued at about $100 billion, that Russia relies on imports for about 50 percent of its $150 billion chemical market and that Russian demands for information technology, agriculture goods, energy technology and medical equipment are growing rapidly.
Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, stressed that the legislation can only be a plus. "We change no U.S. tariffs and no U.S. trade laws. This is a one-sided deal in favor of American exporters."
But it could have ramifications on overall U.S.-Russian relations because of the addition of what is called the Magnitsky act to sanction Russian human rights violators by withholding visas and freezing financial assets. That measure, named for Russian lawyer and whistleblower Sergei Magnitsky who died in a Russian prison three years ago after allegedly being tortured, became part of the trade bill as lawmakers balked at normalizing trade without holding Russia accountable for its poor human rights record.
"Jackson-Vanik served its purpose with respect to Russia and should be revoked, but in its place we should respond to Russia's continued corruption and human rights violations," said Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah, the top Republican on Baucus' committee.
After the Senate vote, Alexei Pushkov, head of the foreign affairs committee in the lower house of Russia's parliament, said the State Duma may respond by imposing similar sanctions on U.S. officials accused of violating the rights of Russian citizens abroad. An alternative would be to target U.S. officials accused of rights violations in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and other nations, Pushkov was quoted as saying to the ITAR-Tass news agency.
Pushkov's deputy, Vyacheslav Nikonov, told the Interfax news agency that the U.S. legislation will "worsen and poison the atmosphere in our relations. We didn't see such things even during the Cold War, when the Soviet and American sides showed a degree of respect to one another."
Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., who voted against the bill, said he did so because the Magnitsky sanctions, as written by the House, apply only to Russian human rights violators. The original Senate proposal would have made those sanctions applicable worldwide. "Why would we deny visas only to Russian human rights violators?" he asked in a statement. "Why diminish the universality of the values the Magnitsky bill seeks to uphold?"
The Associated Press contributed to this report.