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Russian assembly set for tough response to U.S. rights bill

By Nastassia Astrasheuskaya

MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russia's foreign minister urged parliament on Sunday to agree a tough response to a U.S. law punishing Russian human rights violators, increasing the risk of a chill in relations with Washington.

Moscow announced restrictions on meat imports from the United States on Friday although it denied suggestions it had done so in response to the U.S. Senate's passage a day earlier of the so-called Magnitsky Act.

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said the parliament should now respond and Alexei Pushkov, a senior parliamentary deputy from President Vladimir Putin's party, said the State Duma lower house would discuss retaliatory measures this week.

"As this is an attempt to interfere in our internal affairs, I would be very interested in a reaction by the state Duma that would be collective, on a multi-party basis and representing all party groups," Lavrov said in televised remarks.

Puskhov, who heads the chamber's foreign affairs committee, said a majority of lawmakers wanted a tough response, calling for visa restrictions on U.S. citizens who have violated human rights. He did not say who this might include or what rights violations they were accused of making.

"The Americans have reminded us about the way Russia is viewed on Capitol Hill," Yuri Ushakov, a foreign policy adviser to Putin, was quoted as saying by Interfax news agency.

"Stereotypes about our country persist and no one can get rid of them. So the Americans have made an extremely unfriendly move against us."

President Barack Obama, who launched a "reset" in relations with Russia less than four years ago, is likely to sign the Magnitsky legislation, which will test his and Putin's resolve to improve relations since both won elections this year.

The new U.S. legislation would bar visas for Russian officials linked to the 2009 death in custody of Sergei Magnitsky, a Russian lawyer who accused federal investigators of stealing $230 million from the state.

Lavrov told U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Thursday that Russia would bar entry for Americans "guilty of crude human rights abuses."

Moscow has also warned it would respond with "asymmetrical" measures. Areas in which the United States wants Russian cooperation most include nuclear arms control and Iran.

DAMAGE MAY BE LIMITED

But there are also signs that Putin, back in the presidency since May, wants to limit the damage to relations with Russia's former Cold War enemy.

Political analysts say the Magnitsky Act will probably not derail Russian assistance on Afghanistan, affect diplomacy aimed at curbing Iran's nuclear program, or deepen disputes over U.S. missile defense and the conflict in Syria.

Moscow is trying to ensure its interests are protected in Syria. Despite frequent denials that it is shifting position, Moscow appears to be preparing for when President Bashar al-Assad leaves power.

The Senate approved the "Magnitsky Act" as part of a broader bill to lift a Cold War-era restriction and grant Russia "permanent normal trade relations, " or PNTR.

Despite Russian denials, analysts saw a link between the Magnitsky Act and Moscow's announcement of restrictions on meat imports from several countries, including the United States.

In a joint statement on Saturday, U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said Russia's new requirement for imported beef and pork to be certified free of ractopamine, a feed additive used in the U.S. meat industry but banned in some other countries, appeared to be a violation of Moscow's obligations to the World Trade Organisation.

The move could potentially make producers from the United States, which exports more than $500 million a year worth of beef and pork to Russia, less competitive, giving an advantage to China and the European Union, where ractopamine is banned.

Russia's plant and health regulator, Rosselkhoznadzor, said it had warned over a year ago about the "inadmissibility" of meat with ractopamine to Russia.

(Editing by Timothy Heritage and Jason Webb)

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