Oct. 26 (Bloomberg) -- House Speaker John Boehner is threatening to block legislation to normalize U.S. trade with Russia, as part of its World Trade Organization admission, until it respects the “territorial integrity” of neighboring Georgia.
As he urged President Barack Obama to stop “downplaying Russia’s disregard” for democracy and human rights, Boehner said he found “alarming” reports that the U.S. won’t pressure Russia to return to recognizing borders that existed before its 2008 war with Georgia. Russian troops occupy land inside Georgia in violation of an August 2008 cease-fire agreement.
“The administration should resolve this stalemate in a manner that respects the territorial integrity of Georgia,” Boehner said in a speech yesterday to the Heritage Foundation in Washington. “Then -- and only then -- will movement on the WTO question be worth considering.”
Russia’s admission to the WTO will require Congress to approve “permanent, normal trade relations,” the Ohio Republican said. Besides Georgia, there are “significant, outstanding commercial issues which must be addressed” before Congress acts to normalize trade relations, Boehner said.
The U.S. has helped Russia seek admission to the WTO. Russia has won support from the European Union. It hasn’t reached agreement with Georgia over bilateral issues, including the Black Sea nation’s demands for control of customs checkpoints in two breakaway regions, South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
In Moscow, a senior Russian official called “impossible” Georgia’s demands that Russia drop diplomatic recognition of the two breakaway territories as a condition for membership in WTO, according to DPA, which cited an Interfax news agency dispatch. As a member of the 153-nation WTO, Georgia must agree to Russia’s admission.
Arkady Dvorkovich, an assistant to Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, was quoted by DPA as saying “we will never accept” Georgia’s demands.
White House spokesman Tommy Vietor said in a statement yesterday that “the Obama administration remains unwavering in its commitment to Georgia’s territorial integrity” and has “made clear, both in private channels and in public statements, that the United States will not support Russia’s WTO accession until Russia and Georgia reach agreement on their outstanding trade-related issues.”
Representative Howard Berman of California, the top Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, questioned Boehner’s tactic.
If Congress doesn’t act to normalize U.S. trade relations with Russia, “it is our companies that get hurt” because they wouldn’t “have access to Russian markets,” Berman said.
Even without action by Congress, he said, “Russia has all the benefits of WTO” even if Congress doesn’t approve normalizing its trade with the U.S.
He also disputed Boehner’s assertion that the Obama administration was “leaning on Georgia to acquiesce” on border issues. “We’ve said Russia has to settle this dispute with Georgia and it cannot count on us to deliver Georgia,” Berman said.
As the U.S. tries to “reset” its relationship with Russia, the Obama administration shouldn’t shy away from pointing out Russia’s violations of democratic and human rights, Boehner said.
The House stands ready to give “teeth” to a more forceful U.S. assertion of a human rights agenda with Russia, he said.
“Instead of downplaying Russia’s disregard for democratic values and human rights, we should call them on it -- publicly, forcefully, frequently,” Boehner said.
Berman said, “Human rights cannot, and I don’t believe it has, dropped off our agenda.”
Michael Posner, assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor, returned earlier this month from a trip to Russia to press authorities to improve their record and meet with civic groups that have come under pressure from the government.
Russia’s willingness to impose sanctions against Iran following the alleged plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the U.S. will be a test of its respect for international law, Boehner said. Obama said on Oct. 13 that the accused plotters had “direct links” to Iran’s government.
The U.S. “should do more to compel the Kremlin to curtail its relationship with Iran, particularly related to its nuclear program and missile technology,” Boehner said.
Lawmakers and former officials have called for tighter sanctions against Iran, saying existing strictures haven’t been effective at barring its pursuit of a nuclear program.
The Obama administration began a diplomatic push to have other countries condemn Iran. So far, it hasn’t pursued sanctions or action at the United Nations because of resistance from Russia and China.
“We do believe we’ve had progress together in tightening sanctions on Iran and this continues to be a subject in our ongoing dialogue” with Russia, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said at the agency’s daily press briefing yesterday.
Russia has vowed to block any resolution that could be used to justify or hasten regime change after a UN resolution in March authorized NATO-led military action in Libya. Russia abstained on that vote.
In 2009, Russia blocked U.S. attempts to enforce new sanctions against Iran after evidence suggested it might have enough enriched uranium to make a bomb.
--With assistance from Nicole Gaouette and Viola Gienger in Washington. Editors: Don Frederick, Jim Rubin.
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