Reacting to predictions of severe food shortages in the Soviet Union this winter, President Bush said Friday that he is considering waiving restrictions on trade and export credits to allow Moscow to buy more U.S. grain and other agricultural products.
The restrictions, which have long bedeviled U.S.-Soviet relations, were enacted in 1974 in an effort to increase Jewish emigration from the Soviet Union. Although Jews currently are being allowed to leave the country in record numbers, Bush previously has been reluctant to waive the restrictions because Soviet legislators have not yet adopted a liberal emigration law.
The President’s sudden willingness to consider a waiver without formal adoption of immigration reforms reflects the Bush Administration’s eagerness to help Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev at a crucial time.
Bush also acknowledged that he is under pressure from America’s Farm Belt to change his stand. “Middle America” sees the restrictions as “almost resulting in a grain embargo,” he said, “and I do not want to work hardship on any sector of the American economy.”
The Soviets are shopping openly around the world for grain, and farm-state lobbyists contend that Moscow will turn to other suppliers if it cannot obtain the necessary credits to buy U.S. grain. Earlier this week, Secretary of Agriculture Clayton K. Yeutter said credit guarantees should be provided to the Soviets for such purchases.
“So, we’re caught between some strong and understandable economic interests at home,” Bush said, “and, on the other hand, a position of wanting to stand for free and fair emigration.”
The 1974 law provided that the Soviet Union could receive most-favored-nation trading status, which would eliminate an extra tariff levied on imports from Communist nations, only if it relaxed emigration barriers. The President was authorized to waive the restriction if he received Soviet assurances that “unreasonable impediments” to emigration had been lifted.
Most U.S. Jewish groups now appear to favor lifting the restrictions. The National Conference on Soviet Jewry, representing 47 major national organizations, leans toward approving the waivers if the Soviets provide assurances about their intention to continue the liberal emigration procedures currently in effect, a conference official indicated.
But the smaller, more militant Union of Councils for Soviet Jews still wants Bush to await enactment of a new emigration law, a spokesman said Friday. The Soviet Parliament has repeatedly stalled on the measure. U.S. officials say conservative Soviets fear that passage would prompt a major “brain drain” of many nationalities, including Russians.
Another complication is that top White House and State Department officials are not convinced that the Soviet Union is, in fact, facing severe food shortages. They contend that the country’s primary problem is in delivering abundant crops harvested last fall to consumers in the cities. American grain, they say, would be subject to the same bottlenecks.
Gorbachev, moreover, has won pledges of more than $15 billion in aid for humanitarian purposes from various nations, led by Germany and including Saudi Arabia and Japan, according to U.S. officials. Those funds should be more than enough to cover Soviet needs without U.S. help, the officials said.
“I don’t know exactly what I’m going to do,” Bush acknowledged. He said that he has asked his advisers for recommendations by next week.
However, by emphasizing the continuing Jewish exodus and asserting that he has greater waiver authority than previously believed, Bush left the impression that he favors ending the restrictions imposed in 1974.
U.S. officials have suggested as one possibility a one-year waiver on the grounds that Soviet emigration rules in practice, if not in law, have changed radically since 1974 when the Jackson-Vanik Amendment was passed. At the time, Jewish emigration from the Soviet Union amounted to only 20,000 people a year.
The late Sen. Henry M. Jackson (D-Wash.), chief sponsor of the 1974 measure, said then that a presidential waiver of its provisions would be justified if the level reached 60,000 a year. More than 150,000 Jews have emigrated from the Soviet Union so far this year, according to the National Conference on Soviet Jewry. Over the last two decades, some 500,000 have left, most of them bound for Israel.
The Jackson-Vanik Amendment has been a sticking point in U.S.-Soviet relations for years. It was enacted over the objections of the Richard M. Nixon Administration at the urging of Jewish refuseniks and other Soviet dissidents as an amendment to a U.S.-Soviet economics agreement.
As a result of the restrictions, the Kremlin rejected the entire economics agreement, claiming that the amendment constituted intolerable interference in internal Soviet affairs.
Jewish refuseniks blamed the fiasco not on the Jackson-Vanik Amendment but on an unexpected companion measure pushed by former Sen. Adlai Stevenson III (D-Ill.). The Stevenson amendment, which was attached to an Export-Import Bank authorization bill, limited loans to the Soviet Union to $300 million, a small amount relative to Soviet needs.
It provided that the President could waive the restriction by declaring it to be in the U.S. “national interest.” But unless Jackson-Vanik is also waived, grain and other commodities purchased with Export-Import credits from the Agriculture Department’s Commodity Credit Corp. cannot be loaded and shipped to the Soviet Union, according to White House aides who have recently studied the legislation.
Despite Soviet cancellation of the broader economic agreement in 1974, Moscow allowed Jewish emigration to rise to 51,000 in 1979. The level dropped to fewer than 1,000 a year in the mid-1980s, however, after the United States imposed sanctions in response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
Eighteen months ago, with emigration rates topping Jackson-Vanik’s 60,000 benchmark, the National Conference on Soviet Jewry said that the Bush Administration should consider waiving the amendment if “appropriate assurances” are given by Moscow. But it was told that the time was not right for such a move.