The Primakov visit

Print edition : January 02, 1999

Russian Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov's visit to India, the first state visit by an important head of government since the BJP-led coalition came to power, was marked by significant initiatives in bilateral relations.

THE two-day visit of Russian Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov to New Delhi in the third week of December was the most significant state visit by a foreign government leader since the Bharatiya Janata Party-led coalition came to power at the Centre. Since the Pokhran-II nuclear tests of May, no important leader from the West has visited India. In this context Primakov's visit assumes importance since Russia, a Permanent Five (P-5) member of the United Nations Security Council, had also expressed serious reservations about the tests conducted by India and Pakistan. Russian President Boris Yeltsin was originally supposed to visit New Delhi in late November, but owing to his continuing indisposition he deputed Primakov instead.

On his arrival in New Delhi, Primakov told mediapersons that Yeltsin would visit India in the early part of 1999 and that he would sign important bilateral treaties, including a declaration to move towards "strategic partnership" until the year 2010.

Primakov is an old friend of India and the Third World. After a long gap, Russia now has a Prime Minister who is being allowed to exercise his powers, since Primakov enjoys the confidence of his President. Unlike some of his predecessors, Primakov is no political lightweight either.

PRIMAKOV landed in Delhi the day after the United States and the United Kingdom suspended their attacks against Iraq. Under Primakov's leadership, Russia had adopted a tough stance against the attacks and gone to the extent of withdrawing its Ambassadors from Washington and London. (China too strongly criticised the military action against Iraq.) However, in his statement to Parliament, Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee expressed only "grave concern" over the happenings in the Gulf, without actually condemning the attacks. It has been evident for some time now that both Beijing and Moscow have become extremely wary of the unipolar world and the hegemony being exercised by Washington in world affairs.

It was therefore no surprise that Primakov spoke about the need for closer strategic linkages between Moscow, New Delhi and Beijing. However, his remarks appeared to have caught the Indian side unawares. It is well-known that the BJP-led Government consists of leaders who view China as a potential threat to the India's security. Thus, during the wide-ranging talks with the Russian side, India made it clear that it perceived any talk of a "strategic triangle" involving Russia, China and India reminiscent of Cold War jargon. The present Government also does not seem to give as much importance to the concept of multi-polarity as Russia and China do.

Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee with his Russian counterpart Yevgeny Primakov in New Delhi on December 21.-SHANKER CHAKRAVARTY

The confidence- and stability-building measures undertaken by Moscow and Beijing are models for an Asia-wide collective security system. They also illustrate a commitment to growing economic ties and an absence of ideological polemics. Moscow would like India and China to have a similar relationship. Before leaving for Moscow, Primakov, while admitting that there were no bilateral discussions on the issue of a "strategic triangle", said that if there was close cooperation between the three countries it would be good for the region and also the Third World.

In response to a question on the issue, Vajpayee told mediapersons that while Indo-Russian relations had withstood the test of time, India was still "trying to improve relations" with China.

Speaking at a reception hosted by President K.R. Narayanan, Primakov once again expressed the hope that India, China and Russia would be able to establish a "strategic triangle" that would be in the interests of peace and security. "India," Primakov said, "is a great power, and a lot depends on the policy pursued by India, Russia and China."

In a joint statement, India and Russia expressed satisfaction over the fact that Indo-Russian bilateral cooperation was proceeding well in all spheres. They agreed to identify new ways to exploit jointly the tremendous potential that both sides have in the fields of science, technology and industry. Both sides expressed their determination to impart a "qualitatively new character and long-term perspective" to their partnership and actively develop them into the 21st century.

The joint statement affirmed that both countries would move towards a "strategic partnership". The Declaration on Strategic Partnership between the two countries will be signed when the next summit-level meeting is held in early 1999. According to officials, the Declaration will be a step forward in the elaboration of principles contained in the Indo-Soviet treaties of 1971, the Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation of 1993 and the Moscow Declaration of 1994. Primakov said that the new agreement "will set new parameters and guide the further development of the close partnership between India and Russia".

Indian officials, however, hastened to add that neither was the proposed strategic partnership intended to be directed against a third country nor did it give rise to a political bloc; it would encompass expanded cooperation in key areas such as trade and defence supplies. Russia already has the biggest defence as well as science and technology tie-up with India. According to Indian officials, the rest of the world together does not buy as much defence equipment as India does from Russia. The Indian Air Force is dependent on Russia for 80 per cent of its requirements.

Indian officials acknowledge that Russia is the only country with which India has had a "consistent" relationship. Primakov assured the Indian side that his country had no plans to sell defence equipment to Pakistan and that defence contracts with India would be strictly adhered to. Russia delivered the first cryogenic rocket engine in September 1998; six more are due to be delivered in the near future.

SEVEN agreements were signed during Primakov's visit. The key agreement was on long-term military cooperation until 2010. India has spelt out its long-term military requirements, with particular emphasis on indigenisation. It also wants to enter into joint ventures to develop and manufacture sophisticated defence hardware. Both countries signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) for the possible purchase of the 40,000-tonne Russian aircraft carrier 'Admiral Gorshkov'. According to Indian officials, the MoU is only a signal of intent of India's desire to acquire the ship, the price of which is considered a little too high by the Indian side.

India has also evinced interest in the MIG AT advanced jet trainers and mid-air refuelling planes for frontline aircraft such as Su-30s and MiG-27s. The Indian Army is looking at T-90 tanks, which can fire ground-to-air missiles. A report in a Russian newspaper in early December said that Russia had decided to convert a top-secret defence factory near Krasnayorsk into a joint Russian-Indian venture to manufacture silicon chips for semi-conductor gadgets. Quoting "official" sources in New Delhi, the newspaper, Navaisimaya Gazeta, said that the new venture would give India an opportunity to obtain enough silicon chips for its civilian and defence sectors. (The chips are used to make solar batteries and semi-conductors.) If such a project is indeed in the pipeline, it will be an illustration of the growing cooperation between the two countries in the sophisticated high-tech sector.

The agreement on economic, industrial and financial cooperation seeks to give a boost to tie-ups in the energy sector, including those relating to the civilian use of atomic energy. Official sources said that joint ventures in the hydrocarbon sector would extend to third countries such as Iraq and Central Asian countries like Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan. Russian firms will be given concessions to prospect for oil and gas on Indian territory. Indian companies have been offered exploration sites in Sakhalin and Siberia. The debt issue, which had become a minor irritant in the bilateral relations, has been more or less sorted out. According to Indian officials, India is repaying $1 billion annually to Russia. As per the agreement, the entire amount is to be used to purchase Indian goods.

Bilateral trade between the two countries has also improved. Joint bilateral trade turnover in 1997 amounted to $1.79 billion as compared to $1.39 billion in 1996. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, the volume of trade between the two countries amounted to $5.5 billion. Russian officials feel that it is possible to boost bilateral trade by 300 per cent by the year 2005.

Both sides reiterated their commitment to peace, non-violence and secularism. More importantly, in the joint press statement both countries emphasised the need to create a multi-polar world based on the sovereign equality of all states. They also pledged to contribute their mite to strengthen the role of the U.N. and its specialised agencies and the "democratisation" of international relations.

There was convergence of views about the recent developments in the region. The topics that came up for discussion included the situation in and around Afghanistan, the West Asian peace process and the economic crisis in the Asia-Pacific region. Russia has been particularly alarmed by the developments in Afghanistan since the "fundamentalist virus" has already spread to many of the autonomous republics in the Russian Federation. It fears that if Central Asian republics such as Tajikistan succumb to the virus, it would be calamitous for Russia's security. Both Moscow and New Delhi also expressed concern over the illicit trafficking in drugs, the bulk of which originates from Afghanistan.

DURING his talks with Indian leaders, Primakov stuck to the Russian position that India should sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and accede to the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). The Russian side was of the view that signing the NPT would considerably strengthen India's case for a permanent seat in the U.N. Security Council. For its part, the Indian side reiterated its position that the NPT had become superfluous after India tested its nuclear weapons. As for the CTBT, New Delhi indicated that the talks with the U.S. were poised at a delicate stage. The relevant part of the joint statement on the nuclear issue said that "both sides supported the process of nuclear non-proliferation". On the question of India becoming a permanent member of a reconstituted Security Council, the Russian Prime Minister refused to endorse India's candidature categorically. The joint statement stated that both sides "agreed on the need to expand the U.N. Security Council to make it more representative and increase its effectiveness." "Russia considers India an influential member of the international community, to be a strong and appropriate candidate for permanent membership of an expanded U.N. Security Council."

Primakov reaffirmed his support for India's efforts to normalise relations with Pakistan on the basis of the 1972 Shimla Agreement. The two countries criticised the missile strikes against Iraq and strongly urged that diplomatic efforts under the auspices of the U.N. be resumed to restore peace.

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