U.S. Vice President Joe Biden said Thursday that Washington supports Russia's accession to the World Trade Organization because it will lead to greater trade between the two countries, what he called the "next frontier" of the relationship.
"It's better for America and I believe better for Russia to be able to trade with each other under predictable and transparent rules," he said in a speech at Moscow State University at the end of a two-day visit that included meetings with Russia's president and prime minister.
Biden cautioned that to attract more U.S. investment, Russia would have to strengthen the rule of law.
He referred to the case of Sergei Magnitsky, a corporate lawyer who was arrested after accusing law enforcement officials of corruption and then died in prison of an untreated illness. He also scolded Russia over the treatment of oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who has been in prison since 2003 on politically driven charges.
Earlier in the day, Biden met with a group of human rights activists, journalists and religious leaders, who said he assured them that the U.S. would take into account Russia's record on democracy and rule of law when considering whether to repeal a WTO-linked law that discriminates against Russian trade.
"Biden basically said that in one way or another Russia's accession to the WTO could depend ... to some degree on how certain human rights issues are being dealt with," said Oleg Orlov, head of the respected Memorial rights group. There was no immediate comment from Biden or his staff on the meeting.
"He was very receptive to our ideas," Orlov said.
The WTO requires members to extend unconditional most-favored-nation trade status to all other members. But the U.S. currently denies this status to Russia under the Jackson-Vanik amendment, a law passed in 1974 in an effort to pressure the Soviet Union to allow emigration, primarily of Jews.
Although U.S. presidents have granted Russia annual waivers to the law since 1994, business leaders and officials in the U.S. and Russia complain that the continued existence of the discriminatory law undermines relations. Congress, however, has so far refused to repeal the law, arguing that it would send the wrong message to Moscow and deprive Washington of leverage in promoting human rights.
Biden lamented the low level of trade between the United States and Russia.
"The value of the goods that cross the U.S. border with Canada and Mexico every few days exceeds the annual value of our trade with Russia," he said. "We've gotta do better, and I believe we can."
Biden said lifting Jackson-Vanik would be in the best interest of the United States because greater trade would create new jobs. It also would help build a stronger relationship with Russia, he said.
"The next frontier in our relationship in the main area ... will be building stronger ties in trade and commerce that match the security cooperation we have accomplished in the last two years."
Biden met Thursday with Prime Minister Vladimir Putin to discuss WTO entry and visa issues. There was no statement on the precise content of the meeting, though Biden was thought to be seeking a clear commitment that Russia would adopt the legal reforms necessary to join the WTO, something that European Union officials failed to secure during talks with Putin in February.
Russia, the largest economy outside the WTO, has sought membership with varying levels of enthusiasm for the past decade and a half. Although the country wants to improve its prospects for international trade, it has been leery of dropping some protectionist tariffs.
In opening remarks Putin and Biden had a lightly barbed exchange about ending the laborious U.S.-Russia visa regime. Putin is leading a push to abolish visa requirements with as many Western nations as possible, but Western leaders have been cautious and noncommittal.