October 3, 2000


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Fresh impetus to an old friendship

C V Ranganathan

Russian President Vladamir Putin's visit comes when India and Russia are well poised on the international stage, albeit the host of domestic problems which the leaderships of each country face at home.

An old-style apparatchik of the innermost decision-making sanctum of the erstwhile Soviet Union, Putin must be aware of grandiose visions of friendship and co-operation with India, which former President Mikhail Gorbachev fostered with Rajiv Gandhi.

With Russia's share of India's external trade falling to a little over two per cent, with enormous geo-political changes in Russia, Eurasia, South Asia and reality checks imposed by the impact of globalisation of markets, capital technologies and challenges posed to domestic stability, little remains of old foundations on which visions were based.

Putin's visit thus provides the opportunity to lay down an updated foundation for present and future co-operation between India and Russia. In an interview to a leading English weekly, Putin hoped to achieve full-fledged relations between the two countries that he saw as having many mutual areas where they can effectively help each other achieve national interests. He described this process as more than just business..."this could be called destiny."

Such rhetoric and talk of India and Russia signing a strategic partnership agreement should not lead one to false expectations. The strategic partnership intended would not be one where a quasi-military alliance with Russia which served India well in 1971, is recreated.

What it means is an opportunity for forging a mature partnership in keeping with pragmatic national interests, with effective co-operation in the political, military, economic, scientific and technological fields.

Such co-operation could equip each society to face up better to globalisation and international competition. The objective conditions prevailing under Putin's leadership probably offer a better environment for India to intensify a well-rounded relationship with Russia than under Boris Yeltsin's.

The development of such a relationship cannot be based on any exclusivist principle. Proposals for Indo-Russian co-operation will have to be clear, transaparent and inclusivist. This is because the effort by India to build a better understanding with the United States over the last year cannot be jeopardised by an appearance of ganging up with Russia on matters that affect American vital interests. Nor is Russia going to endanger a risk to its stabilising economy under Putin, which is hungry for American investments and markets by adopting overt or covert anti-American postures.

In fact, India and Russia will have to step warily not to convey wrong signals that would invite over-reactions from an America which is now in election mode. One could also add that Putin is not going to risk the dense and solidly substantive relations built up with China by playing to a gallery in India which may be tempted to emphasise alleged threats from China to India.

The rapidly evolving strategic situation in the world would best serve India's national interests where there is an overall balance in relations between the US, Russia, China, the European Union and Japan on the one hand and India on the other, without any set of bilateral relations outweighing the other to the detriment of the balance.

Such a denouement would make India a sought-after strategic partner. Putin's visit, following that of other leaders to India, should help in conveying the image of a country following an omni-directional policy.

Anxiety on the score that the Russian Government is not playing the 'Isolate Pakistan' game is misplaced. India should be sensitive to the bitter aftermath of the two-decade-old Soviet intervention in Afghanistan, which even today threatens to engulf some central Asian states and parts of Russia as in Chechnya.

The complete victory of Taliban over all parts of Afghanistan is imminent. If the main supporter of the Taliban, Pakistan, can be prevailed upon by the Russians to use its influence in moderating the radical regime in Afghanistan, then so be it. Any Russian effort in this direction, if it succeeds, will lend meaning to the phrase "strategic co-operation". The sharing of Russian experience in closely co-operating with China and three of the central Asian states in combating cross-border terrorism and separatism would be useful for India.

Substantive trade, mutual investments and technology exchanges are obvious building blocks without which all talk of "strategic partnership" is meaningless. In 1994, the old mechanism of the rupee-rouble system was replaced with a mechanism to sell Indian goods in Russia against massive rupee credits built up by Moscow. While this rupee debt repayment mechanism will be in operation for a few more years, hard currency dealings are envisaged for other trade and economic transactions.

Traditional actors in Indo-Russian trade and economic relations such as public sector units and state trading corporations need to be phased out in most fields with the coming into play of new actors in the information technology, pharmaceutical, bio-technology, diamond cutting, food and raw material processing industries.

Sustained growth of the Russian economy and competitiveness of Indian industry, commerce and services will determine the future of Indo-Russian economic relations. Political will to improve the economic relationship needs to be converted to real economic gains through devising imaginative mechanisms for financing, banking and transportation of trade.

Russian keeness to intensify co-operation with India on the peaceful use of nuclear energy and in the production of nuclear power-generated electricity, should not be seen as a measure of Russian acquiescence in India's nuclear weapon capability.

Rather it is a continuation of Russian interest in reviving its flagging nuclear industry while meeting India's energy shortage.

A scheme to build a north-south transport corridor providing for passenger and cargo movement between India, the Persian Gulf countries and transit across Iran and the Caspian Sea to Russia and the central Asian states extending to Eastern Europe, holds a very exciting promise. Steps to realise such a transport corridor, if taken during Putin's visit, will mark a real breakthrough for India and its neighbourhood, which suffer from physical and psychological feelings of being land-locked.

India and her great neighbours are still to take advantage of natural geographical factors of proximity to promote economic and cultural interaction among people of the region.

[C V Ranganathan served senior positions in Moscow, Beijing and Paris before he retired from the Indian Foreign Service in 1993. Along with V C Khanna, he is co-author of the recent book India and China -- The Way Ahead, published by Har Anand Publications Pvt Ltd, New Delhi]

The Putin visit: The full coverage

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