World Bulletin/News Desk
The U.S. Congress may move this month to upgrade trade relations with Russia, a key part of the Obama administration's effort to bolster sometimes strained ties with Moscow and open the Russian market to more U.S. companies, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said on Saturday.
Clinton, addressing the Asia Pacific Economic Forum (APEC) meeting in Vladivostok, said the Obama administration was working closely with Congress on lifting the 1974 Jackson-Vanik amendment, Cold War-era legislation which has blocked normal trade privileges for Russia.
"To make sure our companies get to compete here in Russia, we are working closely with the United States congress to terminate the application to Jackson-Vanik to Russia and grant Russia permanent normalized trade relations," Clinton said.
"We hope that the Congress will act on this important piece of legislation this month."
Congress is under pressure to approve the permanent normal trade relations (PNTR) bill because of Russia's entry into the World Trade Organization (WTO) last month, a move the United States strongly supported.
U.S. business groups hope the House of Representatives and Senate will pass the legislation in September before lawmakers return home to campaign. Businesses worry that without it U.S. firms may not get access to newly opened services markets and be subject to potential arbitrary Russian trade reprisals.
But with concerns in Congress about Moscow's support for Iran and Syria, as well as its broader human rights record, the timing of a vote remains unclear.
The Jackson-Vanik amendment tied normal tariff treatment for goods from the former Soviet Union to the rights of Jews to emigrate. Russia has been deemed in compliance for nearly two decades, but the law nevertheless remains on the books despite WTO rules which require members to provide normal trade relations to one another on an unconditional basis.
Congress may add further conditions to any PNTR legislation, including a measure known as the "Magnitsky bill" to punish Russian officials for alleged human rights violations.
Republican President candidate Mitt Romney, who has called Russia the "number one geopolitical foe" of the United States, has said he would only support PNTR for Russia if is accompanied by a measure to target Russian human rights violations.
U.S. officials said Clinton raised the broad question of human rights in her talks with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.
Clinton is standing in at the Vladivostok summit for President Barack Obama, who is preparing for the November U.S. presidential election. She met Lavrov on Saturday, and was due to see President Vladimir Putin.
U.S. officials say Clinton's trip is partially aimed at assessing Russia's push to expand engagement in Asia, which parallels the Obama administration's "pivot" to the Asia-Pacific region following years of entanglement in military campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Clinton intended to stress to Putin that the United States welcomed a bigger Russian role in the region, and was seeking to build more cooperation, the officials also said.
Clinton and Lavrov signed deals pledging to work together both in the Antarctic and in the fragile region of the Bering Strait between Russia and Alaska.
They also discussed North Korea and Iran, where Moscow and Washington have been working in concert with other permanent members of the U.N. Security Council to pressure Tehran over its nuclear program.
But the United States and Russia remain at odds on a number of issues, including Syria, where Washington has accused Moscow and Beijing of blocking three successive efforts at the U.N. Security Council to approve tough measures against Damascus as it battles an armed rebellion.
The United States has angered Russia by going outside the United Nations to work with allies to support the Syrian opposition, but Clinton told Lavrov it was possible to return to the United Nations if Moscow and Beijing were ready to forego their vetoes and back stronger measures.
A U.S. official said Clinton, who also visited China this week, made the same comments to Chinese leaders.
"Her message was clear to both: if you guys are prepared to make the UNSC of value, we're prepared to work with you again," the official said.
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