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January 24, 2007
Kanwar Sibal, India's Ambassador to Russia and former foreign secretary, is a stylish, articulate and experienced diplomat. He plays with words a little boldly while giving his take on diplomatic issues unlike some of his contemporaries.

On the eve of Russian President Vladimir Putin's visit to India, Sibal spoke to Managing Editor (National Affairs) Sheela Bhatt on the issues on the agenda between the two countries.

Is it correct to say that after decades of excellent defence ties with Russia, India is now striving to develop a strategic partnership with Russia in the energy sector?

I think so. We need to broad-base our relationship. While the relationship with Russia in the defence sector will continue to be a vital part it will expand in other areas too.

The most important area potentially in terms of our future relationship is the energy sector. Because there is clear compatibility between Russia's resources and India's needs. The fact that we are not geographically contiguous is not a barrier here.

What are the challenges in developing this strategic relationship?

The challenges are that Russian resources in the far-east and eastern Siberia need to be developed. In that process we want to participate. And if we are given an opportunity to participate then, as in case of Sakhalin-One, we can obtain oil and gas, specially oil.

We can obtain gas in the form of Liquefied Natural Gas. Russia has plans and capacity to export LNG. If we can partner Russia in exploration of its gas potential in eastern Siberia and the Russian far-east then that gas can be liquefied into LNG. For example gas from the Sakhalin -- two plants in which Gazprom (the Russian state-owned oil company) now has the majority share holding can be sold to India.

We can also have a swapping arrangement with Japan. Japan can give us their LNG from the Gulf and we can give them LNG from our arrangement in Russian far-east.

In the Central Asian countries and elsewhere we are looking for joint ventures with Russia in the hydel power sector.

If compared to India's other sources for energy like the Iran gas pipeline, what do you see as Russia's role?

The problem we have is the issue of stability in Afghanistan and of course the barrier of Pakistan. So while Turkmenistan gas coming through the TAPI (Turkmenistan- Afghanistan-Pakistan-India) pipeline into India or the Iran-Pakistan-India gas pipeline have some political problems there are no problems with Russian resources.

It simply is a question of being able to develop these resources to get access to that oil and gas by investing with Russian companies. We can also invest in infrastructure right from there to India so that transportation by ships and having downstream arrangements with Russian companies in India is possible.

How do you see the much talked about expansion of cooperation in the nuclear sector?

During this visit we are not looking forward to having any more nuclear reactors for the Kudankulam Atomic Power Project. Bilateral talks on nuclear fuel supply or technology will be only according to the Nuclear Suppliers Group guidelines.

We must understand that Russia is not out to violate what they see as their international obligations. Yes once the rules change then Russia will have a head start and that will work to their advantage.

How does Russia look at the surging Indo-US relations?

I don't think they are particularly focusing on this. Because they understand that India has every reason to strengthen its relationship with America just as Russia has every reason to have very good relations with the US. For that matter China also has good relations with us. I don't think they are overly concerned about that. And they also look at the positive side of it.

If due to this relationship certain breakthroughs occur then Russia's capacity to collaborate in certain areas with India will expand. They feel they will be able to capitalise on the long-standing relationship of friendship and trust. They will be able to profit from it.

How about increasing the trade relations? Are we confident of achieving the target of $10 billion (about Rs 45,000 crore) in bilateral trade flows by 2010?

We are not confident but we are hopeful. Current trade is at $3 billion (about Rs 13,500 crore) and to increase it to $10 billion in 3 to 4 years is not easy. But political determination can help improve the figures.

The issue of visas is not sorted out yet. The first increase of 50 per cent in trade from current figures will be difficult but the subsequent increase will be easier. Currently we are facing inertia where everything is being put in place but the critical mass has not been achieved.

Are Moscow's security considerations over visa issues justified?

We are not happy with the Russian position on the granting of visas to Indians but largely speaking Russia has stringent visa policies with all countries.

Once we increase the volume of trade, the Russian side will feel the necessity to change. With this kind of low volume they don't feel the pressure to simplify visa procedures.

What should Indian entrepreneurs look for in Russia?

Energy, information technology, bio-technology, pharmaceuticals and diamonds. India is not in position to compete in the consumer sector. The Russian market has, at one level, many high-spending consumers who go for branded goods. We are not in this area. When we come to lower-end the Chinese beat us.

How do you view the meeting in New Delhi as a part of on-going dialogue amongst Russia, India and China?

I think it's very good to have this dialogue.

Some people are sceptical about it.

Yes but nobody is going into this with starry eyes as if they are going to reshape the world. It's not true at all. We are looking at it very realistically.

First of all, they are not meeting only because they want to have a multi-polar society. I think they have every reason to get together. If as a result it can strengthen multi-polarity then nothing wrong with it. But the purpose of the meet is not to strengthen multi-polarity.

Don't you think the cultural exchanges and people to people contact between India and Russia is nothing to sing and dance about?

With Russia we never had people to people relations. Seeing movies in a theatre is not people to people relationship. Awara and such other films and film stars and cultural ties were State directed. Because it was safe to see Indian films, it was safe to fraternise with a country like India.

It was also, necessary to give the Soviet people, who had very drab life, some cultural exposure of the rest of world. India was a safe bet.

Now that the sensitivity is no longer there, Russians are watching Hollywood films!

What kind of exchanges of ideas are taking place between Russia and India on the issue of NATO's role in Afghanistan and other related issues like the emergence of the Taliban?

The Russians have told us in private that the situation in Afghanistan is deteriorating. Notwithstanding the claims of success at times by the Western countries, they don't think that this is really the case.

The Russians are extremely worried about some Taliban figures being given leading positions. They consider it absolutely necessary to control the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. They are very worried about drug trafficking too.

Some of these concerns are our concerns too. There is a commonality of viewpoints over Afghanistan between India and Russia. The fact of the matter is that both India and Russia support the Hamid Karzai government. They want the Karzai government to succeed. They see the problems Karzai government is facing but we are not the key players in Afghanistan. We are important players but not the key players.

The chances of NATO succeeding in Afghanistan are receding.

That you are saying. But let the NATO countries themselves reach that conclusion. And if they reach that conclusion then they may wish to include Russia or India or other countries to broaden the framework within which the Afghanistan problem should be treated. Then we can have more say. But first let NATO reach that conclusion.

Is Russia really changing? What's your view from Moscow?

I would say Russia is very much doing that. That is what the mission of the Russian leadership is. They also have certain question marks over the process of globalisation and its impact on Russia's vital interests just as India has.

So if globalisation means that Russia must entirely accommodate itself to Western priorities and preferences, then that obviously is a wrong way to analyse the situation.

Russia is becoming part of the globalised world but would like to be so as much as possible on its own terms. That is a very difficult exercise even for Russia.

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