The real meaning of the visit

Published : Dec 31, 2004 00:00 IST

Putin at the BrahMos Aerospace headquarters in New Delhi on December 4, flanked by Defence Minister Pranab Mukherjee (right) and Dr. Sivathanu Pillai, CEO and M.D. of BrahMos Aerospace Limited. - COURTESY: BRAHMOS AEROSPACE

Putin at the BrahMos Aerospace headquarters in New Delhi on December 4, flanked by Defence Minister Pranab Mukherjee (right) and Dr. Sivathanu Pillai, CEO and M.D. of BrahMos Aerospace Limited. - COURTESY: BRAHMOS AEROSPACE

India-Russia relations have focussed excessively on defence. Putin's visit seeks to correct this tilt. Political as well as economic collaboration would benefit both countries immensely.

THREE things stand out in President Vladimir Putin's three-day visit to India from December 3. First, the President's increasing critique of the United States' unilateralist policies and his alternative projection of a multi-polar world and multilateral approach in international relations. Second, the recognition by both regimes of the necessity of sharing a common vision of the international system. Third, the practical steps that were taken to raise Russia-India relations to a higher plane. Putin's visit gained importance since it was his first since the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) assumed power.

Putin chose his visit here to warn of the dangers of an international system where a "dictatorship coated in beautiful pseudo-democratic phraseology" attempted to transform a pluralist civilisation "according to the principles of a unipolar world". In a speech to the Nehru Foundation on December 4, Putin took exception to the U.S.' use of the current war against terrorism led by it to occupy Iraq. He complained that there were "two weights and two measures" that were being employed in international relations and stated that "terrorism must not be used as an instrument for any geopolitical games".

This critique was earlier spelled out by the Russian President in an interview to The Hindu (December 3), where he argued that the illegal occupation of Iraq had in fact turned Iraq into a hotbed of terrorism and an "incubator" for militants. Putin levelled specific charges at the U.S. and the European countries that have given safe haven and support to Chechen leaders like I. Akhmadov, Zakaev and A. Maskhadov, who the Russians consider guilty of terrorist actions. This accusation is not dissimilar to Indian concerns about the threat of terrorism earlier in Punjab and now in Kashmir not being taken seriously by the Western countries in this international coalition.

Clearly, this current criticism has deep roots. Russia had been deeply unhappy with the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation's (NATO) eastward expansion and its bombing of Kosovo and Serbia in 1995. Russian concerns about U.S. intentions deepened after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in the U.S. and the manner in which the U.S. put together the international coalition against terrorism.

Russia had hoped that this move would help resolve its problem with the Chechen secessionist movement. The U.S., however, used the terrorist threat as a rationale to establish a string of military bases throughout Central Asia, which remained even after the regime change in Afghanistan and have become permanent. As a consequence, Russia's special relations and treaty arrangements with the Central Asian Republics have been jeopardised as the region becomes victim to militarisation and great-power rivalry, and conflicts increase.

Similarly, in the Caucasian Republics, a region in which Russia has a strategic and historical interest, the U.S. has entered into military ties with oil-rich Azerbaijan as multinational and U.S. oil conglomerates build pipelines designed to bypass Russia. The U.S. has assisted a regime change in Georgia, installing Mikhail Sakashvalli, a leader known to sympathise and rely on the U.S. A similar reversal is in process in Ukraine, which threatens the stability and territorial integrity of that country. The West has viewed the Chechen movement as a freedom struggle and blamed Russia for rights violations.

With this experience of the increasing partisan power politics of the U.S. and its allies, Russia is attempting to build coalitions outside bloc politics. As Putin has stressed, these coalitions are not militarist in nature, nor are they specifically directed against any power. They would, however, favour a greater and consistent use of international law, use a multilateral approach and support plural systems and methods of development. Russia believes that India and China are natural partners in such an engagement, and Putin's speech was made in this context.

India, too, has realised that its interests lie in a multipolar world and has been searching for a greater role in the international political system. This common approach was evident in the agreements signed between these two countries, which spoke of such a shared vision of international affairs. They specifically touched on West Asia and the situation in Iraq and Afghanistan. The shared vision is based on historic and time-tested relations, where neither has ever felt any clash of interest. Russia's unwavering empathy with the Indian position on Kashmir has added to this.

The Russian reiteration that the Kashmir issue be resolved in the framework of the Simla Agreement and in continuation with the Lahore Summit has featured in every statement between India and Russia and in all Russian documents dealing with this issue, including those after the Soviet disintegration when it was felt that the foreign policy of the new Russian Federation could see substantial shifts. This has endeared Russia to all parties in India across the political spectrum. The Russian-Indian joint working group on international terrorism has operated to the advantage of both as information on terrorism, drugs, trafficking and cross-border threats is shared.

Putin's visit has been used to mould further the strategic partnership that was signed with former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee in 2000, when a Russian head of state visited India after a gap of nearly eight years, in an atmosphere where both these countries were trying their best to engage with the U.S. The Indian and Russian leaders met on a yearly basis, with Putin visiting India again in 2002, while Vajpayee visited Russia in 2001 and 2003. Russia-India relations have thus become a continuous process marked by these special events. Given the fact that Putin had met Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Congress president Sonia Gandhi on earlier occasions, this visit was used to establish relations with the UPA regime and its allies.

Defence forms a base for Russia-India ties and Russia still supplies 70 per cent of India's military hardware. In recent times, Russia has insisted that India sign an Intellectual Property Rights (IPR) agreement that would ensure that Russian export of military technology to India was not transferred to any third country. India had stalled signing a blanket agreement, arguing that this was covered under specific clauses in each defence agreement. However, given the fact that both countries seek to shift from the client-patron relationship to one of joint research and production in the defence sector and scientific cooperation in several areas including outer space, the two sides agreed to finalise and sign an agreement on IPR within the next four months.

This makes Russia-India collaboration in space and rocket technology easier. In addition to upgrading the defence agreements, Russia signed an accord on the joint development and use of the Russian Global Navigational Satellite system for peaceful purposes. While India has signed a similar agreement with the European Union, the access given by the Russians is at a qualitatively higher level. Russia started building the nuclear energy plant at Kudankulam in Tamil Nadu in 2002 and it is to be operational in 2007. This plant is being supplied equipment by 300 Russian enterprises.

A matter of concern to both countries has been the small share of Indian capital in investments in the Russian economy and bilateral trade between the two, which reached only $3 billion in the current year. Bilateral trade, which was at an all-time high during the Soviet period, saw a decline after the disintegration of the Soviet Union. The privatisation of both economies, problems with the rupee-rouble exchange rates and the large Indian debt became roadblocks. These glitches have been overcome over the last decade and the Indian rupee debt has been used for investment projects in India and Russia. In this context, both sides have agreed to facilitate an increase in trade to $5 billion. India's interest in investing in Russia lies in the fact that the planned $3 billion worth investments by Oil and Natural Gas Corporation-Videsh in the gas projects of Sakhalin I and III are the largest external investments made by India.

The Russia that was marked by political instability, economic and financial crisis, high inflation and a lack of economic laws and regulations is a thing of the past. Russia has shown a consistent increase in gross domestic product (GDP) by 7 per cent per annum and industrial growth of 3 per cent per annum, and has a favourable trade balance and substantial foreign exchange reserves. Laws regulating the economic and financial system have been put in place and have worked well during the last five years.

The high prices for Russian raw material exports, especially oil, have played a big role in the Russian economic success. The political system has seen regular elections for the seats in Parliament and the presidency. The federal system has been working and an attempt to stop the autarchy of some regions has been made by centralising the appointment of governors. Several Russian business tycoons, who were seen to have made large profits by illegal means, have been indicted for tax evasion, and the assets of the giant Yukos oil company owned by one such imprisoned oligarch, Mikhael Khodorkovsky, are to be partly sold.

In such changed circumstances, the agreements signed during Putin's visit between the State Bank of India, Canara Bank and several Russian banks, which are to open operations in both countries, will assist Russia-India business deals. This is important since trade and economic cooperation depends on the financial mechanisms of implementing deals and projects, and the recognition of bank guarantees. This agreement brings the banks of both countries into each other's markets, conforming to international trade practices.

Russia had requested that it be given `market economy' status, which is necessary while it negotiates entry into the World Trade Organisation. This status has been given to it by the U.S., China and the European Union. India has agreed to grant it this status. India has been negotiating for a permanent membership of the United Nations Security Council along with the veto power, a position that Putin clarified during this visit. Recently a high-level panel of the U.N. submitted a report on the reforms in the organisation, where it has argued that the Security Council be expanded but without veto power for the new members. Both Russia and the U.S. have been represented in this panel by trusted officials. To make a demand that contradicts this panel is thus a bold step. India will, however, have to seek international consensus for this goal.

AN increasingly strategic area of India-Russia relations is now linked to the energy sector. As a country dependent on oil imports, India is seeking to increase its energy imports from Russia and the Central Asian Republics of Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan. A North South International Transport corridor based on a combination of land and sea routes is on the anvil with Iran and is under continuous discussion.

The Russian government's intention to diversify trade, joint ventures and economic partnerships was evident with Putin's visit to Bangalore with a group of 16 business tycoons, for the specific purpose of collaborations with the Information Technology sector. India and Russia have in the recent past collaborated on the supercomputer, Padma Ru, and clear proposals are being worked on for new projects. The cities of Mumbai and St. Petersburg featured in the talks as they signed an agreement for collaboration.

While the mechanics of all these bilateral ties are regulated by the Russian-Indian Inter-Governmental Commission for Scientific, Technological and Cultural Cooperation, which has held 10 sessions so far, it is clear that the two countries need to diversify their trade, commercial and cultural relations. Several sectors of the two countries are complementary and yet unexplored. For example, the services, small-scale and education sectors. These sectors had a history of collaboration during the Soviet period. The intermediate period of transition saw a setback in these sectors and now both governments need to provide information and set standards for them. Indian students had a great interest in going to medical and engineering schools in Russia. Russian students would gain from coming to Indian management schools and technological and liberal social science institutions. Despite the current drawbacks that range from substandard facilities and the problem of recognition of degrees, thousands of Indian students still attend Russian medical colleges. The Education and Human Resource Ministries of both countries need to look urgently into this aspect, since it remains a sector with unexplored potential.

Clearly, Russia-India relations are based on mutual benefit to both countries. In the past decade, these relations have focussed excessively on defence. This visit seeks to correct the tilt. The increase in trade, commercial, financial and cultural ties, which has been attempted, will depend greatly on individual entrepreneurs and the governments that can influence market relations and their national economies when they desire to do so. Russia-India relations need to move from the established bilateral arrangements to multilateral ones.

In this kind of cooperation, China and some of the Central Asian countries like Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan need to play a crucial role. This is understood by both Russia and India. Putin gave clear indications on this, and given Manmohan Singh's recent talks with the Chinese Premier on the sidelines of the summit of the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN), this process should see an early start. Further, Russia is likely to support India's inclusion in the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, which is designed especially for the security issues of Russia, China and Central Asia.

The most important outcome of this visit, however, is the political one. Not only is this the first with the UPA government in power, but the political message given by Putin is a challenge that India needs to take up. The current international system is one where the only superpower has been trying to impose an unconditional hegemony, shape international relations to suit its own narrow interests, privilege its own ideology, unilaterally change political systems, marginalise international systems and bypass international law. Many regimes have accepted this hegemony to safeguard their regime interests. Yet others like Germany, France, China and Iran have articulated their differences. Putin has joined the ranks of those who would like to shape a multipolar world without the use of force or Cold War tactics. It is this alternative world and international vision that suits India's national interest. India, too, has voiced this on occasion. Collaborating with Russia politically as well as economically would go far for the interest of both countries.

Anuradha M. Chenoy is Professor, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi.

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