Firming up a friendship

Published : Dec 31, 2004 00:00 IST

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in New Delhi on December 3. - PRAKASH SINGH/AFP

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in New Delhi on December 3. - PRAKASH SINGH/AFP

Russian President Vladimir Putin and the Indian leadership reiterate the two countries' resolve to cooperate in areas of common concern. And it becomes clear that energy and defence are the two pillars on which the strategic partnership will rest.

THE India-Russia strategic concord is no cliche. At a time when the post-Cold War world is facing new threats to the ideas of sovereignty and nationhood, India and Russia have been able to renew and re-invigorate their post-Soviet era relationship. They have demonstrated enough political maturity to carry forward the cooperation in key areas of agreement in the battle against international terrorism and emphasise the need to have a genuine multilateral approach in world affairs while pushing ahead with bilateral cooperation.

President Vladimir Putin, who arrived in New Delhi for the fifth annual India-Russia summit on December 3, found an Indian leadership that was receptive to his concerns on a range of issues - support for Russia's entry into the World Trade Organisation (WTO), recognising it as a market economy in anti-dumping negotiations or agreeing to clinch an umbrella agreement in the sphere of Intellectual Property Rights (IPRs) in relation to defence technology.

In a written response to questions posed by The Hindu-Frontline (excerpts of which appeared in The Hindu on December 3), Putin, when asked about the importance of annual summits between the two countries, said:

"Russia and India have established especially friendly and warm relations long ago, and our strategic cooperation is genuinely a historic choice. It is based not only on common international approaches and geopolitical interests, but also on the spiritual affinity of the two great cultures... .

"We attach particular significance to a regular high-level dialogue. Our annual summits strengthen mutual understanding between the two countries, including on the key issues of world politics. We have no `forbidden' themes between us. We discuss, inter alia, strategic stability, aspects of disarmament, U.N. activities, establishment of a global system to suppress terrorism and other threats of today's world, and, certainly, the issues of economic, humanitarian, cultural and scientific cooperation.

"Our technological partnership in such spheres as information and biological technologies, aircraft industry and outer space exploration also is of key importance... . I should note that regular contacts are conducive to efficient accomplishment of practical tasks. They make it possible to speed up finding joint solutions to operational, including deadlocked, issues."

Indeed, several "deadlocked" issues were raised during his summit meeting with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. Just before the President's arrival, the Russian agenda was set out. For a change, Moscow was blunt in stating its concerns. The Hindu's correspondent in Moscow, Vladimir Radyuhin, reported on December 3: "The Kremlin is fed up with the endless assurances from Indian officials to look into Moscow's grievances and is ready to take punitive steps... ."

The report added: "While India has pushed for greater access to high-end defence and space technologies, it has been dragging its feet over signing an Intellectual Property Rights (IPR) agreement that will protect sensitive defence and high-tech information. After waiting in vain for two years for a response to the defence secrecy draft, Russia's patience is about to snap. In case of further delays, it would shut the doors of its defence factories to Indian military and technicians."

A senior External Affairs Ministry official, briefing presspersons on the eve of Putin's visit, said India did not see the need for an umbrella IPR agreement and stressed that there were clauses in individual defence agreements signed with the Russians. However, Manmohan Singh, speaking at a joint press interaction with President Putin in Hyderabad House on December 3, addressed all the concerns raised by the Russian side. It was clear that detailed negotiations had taken place at the summit level on areas of concern to the Russian side.

The Manmohan-Putin talks, which stretched into a long, restricted meeting, saw the Prime Minister stating in no uncertain terms that India and Russia would negotiate an umbrella IPR agreement in four months beginning January 1, 2005; India would recognise Russia as a market economy for purposes of anti-dumping negotiations and the two countries would conclude a bilateral pact speedily to facilitate Russia's early entry into the WTO.

Manmohan Singh said at the joint press interaction: "In the course of our discussion, the issue of Russia being described as a market economy came up. I have conveyed to President Putin that we stand by the commitment already given by Prime Minister [Atal Bihari] Vajpayee in this regard. Russia will be treated as a market economy under our own anti-dumping rules in any future anti-dumping investigations. The matter relating to Russia's membership of the WTO also came up. I have assured President Putin that we will fully support Russia's earlier entry into the WTO and we will work towards an early conclusion of our ongoing bilateral negotiations in this regard."

He added: "Altogether, we are fully satisfied with the outcome of these discussions and we are very grateful to President Putin for his deep personal involvement and interest in cementing the close and friendly relations between our two countries. In particular, we are very appreciative of Russia's sustained support for India's permanent membership of the Security Council."

Putin said the one "remaining" technical issue, which pertained to the Russia's WTO accession, had been "coordinated through the negotiations today". "And the process is about formulating and agreeing upon everything on the expert level... our understanding at the moment is that this issue does no more make a problem. Speaking about the intellectual property agreement, this is an agreement in the interests of both the Indian and the Russian sides. I agree with what has been said here by Mr. Prime Minister... within three or four months we can and should resolve this problem," he said.

It was clear that Putin was satisfied with the results of his first-ever discussions with Manmohan Singh, who has displayed in the past six months that on foreign policy issues he is willing to engage and deal directly with his interlocutors. On December 4, Interfax, the Russian news agency, quoted Putin as telling Defence Minister Pranab Mukherjee: "Very detailed two-day negotiations have resulted in settling virtually all problems in our military-technical cooperation. There are no problems that could obstruct our movement forward in this sphere now."

On December 6, Putin told Russian journalists:

"First, I think it is important that we have reaffirmed the strategic nature of our relations with India. This was particularly important after the change of government there. We had to get an idea of the new Indian leadership's views on pursuing cooperation with us and to what extent they are ready to keep working together with us. We are very pleased to note that there has been no drop in the level of our relations.

"Indeed, in the time the new government has been in power, we have made progress and concluded a number of major deals that will enable us not only to maintain but also to increase our level of cooperation. This concerns military-technical, political and economic cooperation.

"It is no secret that there was a certain imbalance between our cooperation in the military-technical area and in the civilian economy... we are beginning now to work more in the machine-building sector, in high technology, transport and energy. This is all the result of this visit.

"Of course, it is also significant that we reaffirmed our high level of cooperation in the military-technical area, because India, after all, accounts for more than a third of Russia's military-technical cooperation with foreign countries. Last year, India's share was 39 per cent and this cooperation represents an average $1.5 billion a year. Contracts that have already been signed but have yet to be fulfilled alone come to $5 billion. This is a substantial figure and it signifies not only the continued competitiveness of our defence industry but will also contribute considerably to its development."

Whether it is the sale of sophisticated Sukhoi aircraft, the purchase and refitting of the Admiral Gorshkov aircraft carrier or the use of a Russian platform for the Israeli air-borne warning and control system (AWACS), New Delhi and Moscow are umbilically linked in their defence relationship. India seemed to have been able to address some issues on the defence front. The Russians, for instance, agreed to maintain supply depots for spares required for equipment purchased from Moscow.

For both countries, the defence relationship is too important to have gaping areas of disagreement. In February, India and the United States signed an agreement ensuring the secrecy of defence technology - a fact that the Russians would have surely noted. Given the extent of high-technology cooperation between India and Russia, Moscow could legitimately argue that New Delhi was stalling an IPR accord on defence technology while it had concluded an accord with the U.S., a country with which India's defence purchase relationship is still to take off. Indian officials also singled out an agreement on the "joint development and use" of Glonass, the Russian global navigational system, as another example of expanding technology cooperation between the two nations.

Apart from Glonass and the joint declaration, nine other agreements were signed between the two countries - ranging from a strategic cooperation accord between Gas Authority of India Limited (GAIL) and Gazprom of Russia to the establishment of direct bank-to-bank relations.

The energy sector is a focus area of the strategic partnership. With ONGC Videsh investing $1.7 billion in Sakhalin-I, it is clear that sky is the limit as far as energy cooperation is concerned. Putin himself stressed that Russia was prepared to contribute to energy stability in India at a time when New Delhi imports some 73 per cent of its oil requirements. Discussions between India and Russian firms are continuing on a number of investments in both countries.

The joint declaration signed by Putin and Manmohan Singh said on the issue: "The sides reaffirm their desire to cooperate in the development of new oil and gas fields and the means of their transportation in Russia, India and other countries. Both sides agree to encourage and assist investments in the energy sector by Indian companies in Russia and by Russian companies in this sector in India. The sides view cooperation in energy as an area of priority attention in bilateral cooperation."

While the trade relationship between the two countries leaves much to be desired, it is clear that energy is the new frontier for cooperation. Already, ONGC Videsh has signed a confidentiality agreement to evaluate the data of Sakhalin-III (Kirinsky block). This investment alone is expected to be in the range of $1.5 billion.

In his conversation with Russian journalists, Putin said on the issue of energy cooperation with India: "Like China, India is one of the world's fast-growing economies and so the Indians are showing interest in all our energy projects. There is no energy project in which they do not show an interest. There are a number of specific projects such as Sakhalin-III, for example. There is also Sakhalin-I, in which they want to continue their participation."

He continued: "There are plans to establish contacts with Gazprom and to carry out a number of projects to liquefy gas and deliver it to India and also to have our gas specialists continue their work on the shelf in the Bay of Bengal. A number of Russian oil company representatives were present in India. There is a wide range of cooperation possibilities open to us and the energy sector is a very promising area for our work together."

Clearly, energy and defence are the two strategic poles on which the bilateral strategic partnership is poised. Indian officials feel that these will be the "core elements" of the ties with Russia in the future. During a visit to Moscow in November, Petroleum Minister Mani Shankar Aiyar spoke of a "strategic alliance" with Russia in energy security.

THE much-discussed and debated issue of terrorism finds India and Russia in complete agreement. Both victims of domestic terrorism, the two countries find themselves cooperating in mechanisms such as the United Nations to further the campaign against terror, while drawing attention to the double standards visible in the approach of some Western nations to the problem.

In his written response to this correspondent, Putin said on the issue: "India and Russia share similar political principles of participation in the anti-terrorist coalition. We have already made [taken] a number of important joint steps. Thus, India spoke in favour of adopting a comprehensive convention against terrorism, while Russia, on its part, put forward a draft convention for the suppression of acts of nuclear terrorism. By the way, the latest resolution of the U.N. Security Council on terrorism encourages all countries to eliminate the existing obstacles on the way of adopting the Indian and Russian draft conventions."

The joint declaration reflected how close the viewpoint of the two countries was on the issue. It said: "India and the Russian Federation reiterate their common resolve to fight terrorism. They reaffirm that global terrorism in all its forms and manifestations constitutes one of the most serious threats to international peace and security, and condemned in the strongest terms all acts of terrorism irrespective of their motivation, whenever and by whomsoever committed.

"They underscore that there can be no justification for terrorism on any grounds, including ideological, religious, racial, ethnic or any other. They believe that the fight against terrorism has to be long-term, sustained and comprehensive. In this regard they emphasise the need for giving substance and credibility to the global fight against terrorism and avoid selective approaches and political expediency. With the recent targeting of open societies around the world, India and the Russian Federation as two large and influential democracies have reasons to be concerned about the vulnerability of democracies to terrorist attacks, because terrorism exploits the strengths of democracies such as the protection of human rights, freedom of expression and movement," it added.

Though there was no direct reference to the massacres by Chechen terrorists or the attacks by "jehadi" elements in Kashmir, the joint declaration reflected an unprecedented degree of accord between the two countries on this key global issue.

The path to addressing bilateral irritants has been clearly charted out, while traditional areas of agreement on a range of issues have been reinforced during Putin's visit.

In 12 months' time, it will be Manmohan Singh's turn to travel to Moscow for what will be the sixth annual summit between the two countries. India's relationship with the Soviet Union, and now with Russia, remains without precedent as far as areas of agreement and cooperation are concerned. It is up to the political leadership and the bureaucracies of the two countries to keep it that way.

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