The U.S. Congress in coming months could face a tough vote on trade relations with Russia, igniting a potentially fierce debate over Moscow’s record on human rights and the state of its democracy in the wake of Vladimir Putin’s decision to return as president.

International negotiators in Geneva are edging close to an agreement that would allow Russia to join the World Trade Organization after some 18 years of off-and-on talks.

Stefan Johannesson, chair of the WTO working party on Russia accession, told Reuters the talks were “very much on track” and both Russia and the rest of the WTO still appear determined to reach a deal in time for Russia to join at the WTO’s upcoming ministerial meeting in December.

The WTO working party is expected to hold an informal session on Oct. 24 to finalize remaining issues.

Russia’s entry would require the U.S. Congress to vote to establish “permanent normal trade relations” with Russia by removing a Cold War-era human rights provision known as the Jackson-Vanik amendment that is inconsistent with WTO rules.

Failure to approve the change could put U.S. exporters at a disadvantage to other members of the WTO as Russia opens it market to more foreign trade.

The vote, which is not expected before a final deal to let Russia into the WTO is announced, could dredge up an array of concerns in Congress over issues ranging from Putin’s recent decision to Moscow’s foreign policy.

Putin, a former KGB officer, has remained Russia’s paramount leader despite stepping down from the presidency four years ago to become prime minister. His election as president in March is seen as assured.

Other issues, such as the case of anti-corruption lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, who died in prison in November 2009 under suspicious circumstances, are also likely to color the debate.

Notwithstanding, both the Obama administration and business groups want Russia in the WTO, which would require it to abide by global trade rules while also opening its markets to more exports from the United States and others.

U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk told Congress in February that establishing permanent normal trade relations with Russia was one of the administration’s goals for 2011.

House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp, a Michigan Republican, is expected to play a key role in any congressional action and has signaled his support for Russia’s entry in the WTO on the right commercial terms.

That means among other things addressing longtime concerns about barriers to U.S. farm exports and inadequate protections for U.S. intellectual property ranging from music and films to pharmaceuticals. Access to Russia’s fast-growing auto market is an important priority for many lawmakers as well.

No Slackening of Intent

Despite Putin’s reputation as a WTO-skeptic, “we do not detect from the Russian side any slackening of their intention to join,” said Gary Litman, vice president for Europe policy at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, a business group.

Last month, Georgia’s ambassador in Geneva wrote other WTO members to inform them there had been no breakthrough in talks between the two countries on the issue of border controls.

Since the WTO makes decisions by consensus, Georgia has an effective veto over Russia’s membership bid. It has blocked “formal” meetings of the WTO working party, requiring talks to proceed on an informal basis.

For now, most U.S. lawmakers have not had to face the fact of a looming vote on trade relations with Russia, said Timothy Keeler, an former U.S. trade official who is now an attorney specializing in trade at the Mayer Brown law firm.

But once there is an WTO accession deal that will quickly change. Congress will have to approve permanent normal trade relations or risk Russia denying U.S. exporters the market-opening concessions Moscow made to join the WTO.

“At the end of the day, I think Congress will approve PNTR because it will be in American interest to do so. It won’t make sense to have Russia in the WTO and the United States n