The Jackson-Vanik Amendment, contained within the Trade Act of 1974, was passed by Congress and signed into law by President Gerald Ford. The legislation denied permanent normal trading relations with non-free-market economies that restricted emigration rights. It remains in force today for several nations, including Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan. While these countries are not among the freest in the world, they have made strides in their human rights records. This coercive weapon used against the Soviet Union has outlived its usefulness.
Originally, Jackson-Vanik aimed to help Jews emigrate from the Soviet Union. The Soviet government persecuted Jews for much of the twentieth century. However, as independent states, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan have become more tolerant toward religious minorities.
Central Asia’s largest and most developed country, Kazakhstan, has changed significantly since its independence by embracing free markets and displaying tolerance towards minority communities. Kazakhstan has a vibrant Jewish community among many other minority groups. Kazakhstan’s constitution requires religious tolerance, and several religious minorities, including Orthodox Christians, Jews, and Catholics, have found refuge in Kazakhstan. Additionally, throughout its independent history, Astana has shown that it embraces free market competition and the rule of law.
Kazakhstan has much to offer the United States commercially. The United States has billions of dollars in energy investment in Kazakhstan, with some major American-owned companies, such as Chevron and ExxonMobil, possessing interests in Kazakh oil and gas fields. In addition, Kazakhstan is an attractive partner in securing rare-earth elements (REEs) as environmental restrictions inhibit U.S. domestic REE excavation. However, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce stated that the Jackson-Vanik Amendment unnecessarily puts American companies at a comparative disadvantage in the Kazakhstani marketplace.
The case for freeing Uzbekistan and Tajikistan from the Jackson-Vanik Amendment is less clear-cut than Kazakhstan’s, but advancements are occurring in these developing countries.
In 2020, the U.S. Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom announced that Uzbekistan, where Sunni Islam is the dominant religion, was no longer engaged in “severe violations of religious freedom.” As a result, the U.S. State Department removed Uzbekistan from the Special Watch List. However, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF)—an independent, bipartisan commission, released a report following the Ambassador’s announcement, which stated, “Uzbekistan has made important progress in recent years—such as ending raids on religious minority communities, granting official registration to a handful of religious groups, and releasing some prisoners incarcerated for their religious activities—but it has yet to fundamentally change its position regarding the state’s role in controlling religious affairs.” As a result of their findings, the USCIRF recommended that the U.S. Department of State place Uzbekistan back on its Special Watch List.
Tajikistan, a country with a Sunni Islamic majority, has its own struggles with religious freedom. In 2009, religious freedom in Tajikistan declined sharply after the government adopted several highly restrictive laws. Recently, USCIRF designated Tajikistan and Turkmenistan as “countries of particular concern” (CPCs) for being among the world’s worst violators of religious freedom. However, Tajikistan has been receptive to international criticism and hosted the U.N. Special Rapporteur Nazila Ghanea, allowing Tajikistan to reflect on and better understand its religious communities' conditions.
The prospect of freeing these Central Asian countries from Jackson-Vanik has caught the attention of prominent U.S. policymakers, including Chris Murphy (D-CT). This growing interest has culminated in the bipartisan Kazakhstan Permanent Normal Trade Relations Act of 2023, introduced by Representatives Jimmy Panetta (D-CA), Robert Aderholt (R-AL), Dina Titus (D-NV), Darin LaHood (R-IL), and Ami Bera (D-CA), which would repeal the amendment.
To the credit of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan, all three countries maintain constructive diplomatic relations with Israel, do not engage in state-sanctioned antisemitism, and Jewish citizens are free to emigrate. How can outside countries like the United States expect more significant progress toward religious freedom in Central Asia without recognizing the steps Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan have taken since their independence?
Despite their progress, these countries are lumped together with Cuba and North Korea, also punished under Jackson-Vanik. In contrast, the United States removed China from Jackson-Vanik in 2002 after it joined the World Trade Organization (WTO), and it did the same for Russia upon its accession to the WTO in 2012 despite Russia’s and China’s questionable human rights records. Meanwhile, Kazakhstan officially acceded to the WTO in 2015 but is still subject to Jackson-Vanik.
The United States Congress should pass the Kazakhstan Permanent Normal Trade Relations Act of 2023, as there is no reason to inhibit economic cooperation with an emerging partner like Kazakhstan with archaic legislation. By repealing the Jackson-Vanik Amendment, the United States would formally recognize Kazakhstan’s improvements and show that it sees Astana as a true partner. While Uzbekistan and Tajikistan have more work to do before achieving Kazakhstan’s level of success, the United States should work to make clear the concrete improvements needed for them to gain permanent normal trading relations with the United States.
Alex Little is an MS graduate of Georgia Tech and specializes in Russian and Central Asian affairs.