US Food Credits for Soviet Union Signal Warming of Once Icy Ties
Easing stiff trade laws helps Gorbachev, Soviet Jews, and US farmers. ANALYSIS
PRESIDENT Bush's agreement to waive until next June some restrictions of the 1974 trade act and to grant up to $1 billion in agricultural credits to the Soviet Union has domestic and foreign policy advantages for the White House. It also illustrates how important the issues of Jews and Israel are to US-Soviet relations.
The restrictions, known as the Jackson-Vanik and Stevenson amendments, prohibit the granting of beneficial trade tariffs or government credits over $300 million to communist countries that do not allow free emigration. Sponsored by the late Sen. Henry Jackson (D) of Washington and Rep. Charles Vanik (D) of Ohio, they were intended to force the Soviets to allow Jews more freedom to emigrate to Israel.
The restrictions were added to the trade act at a time when President Nixon and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger were trying to expand commercial and technical ties with the Soviets. Conservatives opposed to this policy of d'etente saw the curbs as a way to torpedo a developing relationship with a state they abhorred. The American Jewish community strongly supported the linkage of trade and emigration as the only practical leverage the US had to help win freedom for persecuted Soviet Jewry.
The trade act included provisions allowing the president, with Congress's approval, to waive the restrictions. During the 1970s and early 1980s, for example, Romania allowed a relatively large number of its citizens to emigrate, and was rewarded with annual waivers. This stopped as President Nicolae Ceausescu became increasingly repressive. Hungary and China also received waivers.
Trade act and Soviet Jews
But it was never clear whether the Jackson-Vanik amendment helped or hurt the cause of Soviet Jews. Jewish emigration from the Soviet Union, which had been growing during the d'etente era, fell precipitously after the amendments were passed. It did not rebound until the Carter era, when the controversial SALT II arms control treaty was signed and a move was afoot to waive the restrictions. Those hopes evaporated in the aftermath of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the US-Soviet hostility of the early Reagan years.
Jewish emigration from the Soviet Union began to grow again after Mikhail Gorbachev took the reins of power in Moscow and launched his policies of glasnost and perestroika. It rose proportionately as US-Soviet relations improved beginning in 1985. At the same time, doubts began to increase among US Jews about the effectiveness or appropriateness of continuing the trade curbs.
In the last three years, Jewish emigration from the Soviet Union has mushroomed tenfold to 180,000 this year. About an equal number of non-Jewish Soviets will also depart.
Trade act and Bush
The Bush administration has resisted lifting the Jackson-Vanik restrictions and submitting a new US-Soviet trade agreement to Congress until the Soviet parliament passes a law allowing free emigration. Soviet leaders have repeatedly indicated this will happen soon, but they have been saying that for the past year. Until an acceptable law is enacted, the ban on lower tariffs remains in effect.
But Bush's hand was forced by a variety of factors. The West badly wants Gorbachev to stay in power for fear that whoever might take his place would turn back the clock on human rights and military withdrawal from Eastern Europe.
By moving to waive the credit restrictions, Bush hands Gorbachev an important foreign-policy victory. The Soviet leader can hold it up to domestic critics who say he has given away the Soviet position in Europe but has gained nothing in return.
It also helps Gorbachev domestically by allowing the Soviets to increase their purchases of US food and grain, thereby helping to mitigate the food-distribution and consumer-goods crisis that has struck Soviet cities as the economy deteriorates.
Every Soviet politician remembers that bread riots in February 1917 led to the abdication of Czar Nicholas II. Bush's action brings the US into line with other Western countries, who are granting the Soviets large amounts of aid.
Although both the White House and the Soviets hotly deny it, some will interpret the president's move as a reward to the Soviets for their crucial help in forging the anti-Iraq coalition. Iraq had been an important Soviet client state. Five years ago, the Soviet Union would surely have vetoed any moves by the United Nations Security Council to punish Saddam Hussein for invading Kuwait. Instead, it has helped the UN to move decisively against aggression in a way unseen in New York since the outset of the Korean War.
The Soviets have also helped the US postpone Security Council discussion of the third-world resolution calling for a UN peace conference on the Middle East. The US was concerned about the timing of the resolution, concerned it would appear to play into Saddam's attempts to link resolution of the crisis in the Gulf with the Arab-Israeli dispute.
The president also deflects some of the heat he has been feeling from the US Jewish community over relations with Israel, which have cooled recently. He can point to improving US-Soviet relations as leading to the emigration of more Soviet Jews to Israel.
Such improvement also appears to be leading to establishment of Soviet-Israeli relations, as witnessed by the meeting last week in Washington between Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir and Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze. Israel will benefit from both. The National Council on Soviet Jewry praised Bush's action.
Trade act and US farmers
The lifting of credit restrictions also helps the president with another important domestic constituency: US farmers. Farmer organizations, grain-trading companies, and the Agriculture Department have opposed the Jackson-Vanik and Stevenson amendments as hobbling grain sales to one of their best customers.
It is in the interest of US farmers, who grow far more grain than the US can possibly consume, to sell as much of it abroad as possible. Thus their adamant demand, reflected in the US position at the world trade talks that collapsed last week, that European Community agricultural subsidies and dumping of grain abroad be ended.
The agricultural community is the direct and primary domestic beneficiary of Bush's move. Republicans and Democrats alike remember farmers' reaction to President Carter's 1979 partial embargo on grain sales to the Soviets. Ronald Reagan's promise to lift it helped him win the 1980 election.
The Bush White House and farm-state Republicans on Capitol Hill hope farmers remember this action come 1992.