U.S. Senators Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) and Todd Young (R-Ind.) introduced legislation on September 7 to repeal the Jackson-Vanik amendment for Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan and grant the three Central Asian states permanent normal trade relations (PNTR) status.
If passed successfully, the U.S. Congress will have alleviated a notable point of irritation for the states of Central Asia affected. In light of the Russian war in Ukraine’s deleterious effect on Moscow’s influence in the region and simultaneous Chinese inroads into Central Asia, repealing the Jackson-Vanik amendment for Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan is a considerable gesture of goodwill from the United States.
The Jackson-Vanik amendment to the Trade Act of 1974 rendered certain countries ineligible for normal trade relations with the United States due to restrictions on emigration, specifically that of Soviet Jews seeking to leave the USSR. Although the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Jackson-Vanik lived on.
Over the years, many countries subject to the amendment were granted conditional normal trade relations on an annual basis, after review. A number of countries, including Kyrgyzstan in 2002* and Russia in 2012, were freed from the amendment’s burden of reviews to establish normal trade relations — having sufficiently proven that they did not unnecessarily restrict emigration.
But although some countries moved out from under Jackson-Vanik, most Central Asian countries — Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan — remained subject to its provisions.
As Washington policymakers sought ways to bolster relationships with countries on Russia’s periphery, both physical and political, Jackson-Vanik came cropping up as a complaint.
In March this year, on the heels of U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s February trip to Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan (and onward to India) the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s Subcommittee on Near East, South Asia, Central Asia, and Counterterrorism convened to hear testimony from Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia Affairs Donald Lu and Geoffrey Pyatt, assistant secretary of state for energy resources.
The subcommittee’s chairman, Murphy, referenced earlier testimony by Lu before the House Foreign Affairs Committee in September 2022 in which he stated the Biden administration’s support for the repeal of Jackson-Vanik in regard to Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan. Lu said the matter of Jackson-Vanik was raised in each of Blinken’s meetings with his Central Asian counterparts. “It is a real drain on the sense of trust between our countries,” he said.
Murphy followed up this summer with an op-ed published by The Diplomat making the case for liberating Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan from the amendment, noting that while all three countries “have more work to do on advancing human rights and political freedoms before they can enjoy a close relationship with the United States,” the granting of PNTR status “would give the United States greater leverage to push on these issues.”
Murphy urged Congress to “seize this moment to advance our strategic and economic interests in the region by passing legislation to grant Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan PNTR status, relieving these countries from the outdated restrictions imposed by Jackson-Vanik.”
It’s worth noting that Jackson-Vanik’s actual impact on trade relations between the United States and the Central Asian countries is effectively nil, as the countries have long been granted conditional normal trade relations. Some have argued that it introduces a degree of doubt for potential investors. And the fact that trade relations are subject to annual review communicates at best hesitation, and at worst disrespect. Although various Jewish organizations in Central Asia and elsewhere have urged the repeal of Jackson-Vanik, nothing has been done. Inertia has kept the amendment in place.
CEO of the National Coalition Supporting Eurasian Jewry (NCSEJ) Mark B. Levin noted his organization’s support of the bill introduced by Murphy and Young. “All three countries,” he said, “have met the conditions of the Jackson-Vanik Amendment, which requires their citizens to emigrate without restrictions. Moving this legislation forward will further strengthen ties between the United States and these countries in an increasingly important part of the world.”
In introducing the bill, Murphy reiterated what he stressed in his June op-ed, “As Russia and China’s influence on Central Asia begins to wane, a Cold War-era relic could cost the United States an important opportunity to redefine our relationship with the region… This bipartisan legislation would advance our economic interests while sending a clear message that the United States is committed to bringing our relationship with Central Asia into the 21st century.”
Young agreed, stating, “Our bipartisan bill will deepen our bilateral and regional relations with key countries in Central Asia, especially as we seek to secure access to critical resources and ensure a pathway for greater regional development and prosperity. This bill will lead to stronger trade ties, expanded international market access, and a greater ability to counter malign influence from China and Russia.”
Ultimately, Jackson-Vanik is truly a relic of an earlier age. Repealing it for Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan costs the United States nothing, but may yield dividends in goodwill and momentum for further growing trade and political relations.
*Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that Kyrgyzstan graduated from the amendment in 1998, this is inaccurate. While Kyrgyzstan was found compliant in 1997, it was subject to annual reviews until 2002 when it was permanently exempted from the Jackson-Vanik amendment’s provisions. The Diplomat regrets this error and thanks the careful reader who pointed it out.