Interview of H.E. Alexander Ignatov to UNB and Dhaka Courier on the occasion of the 45th anniversary of establishing diplomatic relations between Russia and Bangladesh
Dhaka-Moscow ties gain further momentum, Russian Ambassador
This year Russia and Bangladesh happily celebrate the 45th anniversary of establishing diplomatic relations. In 1971, the former USSR (Union of Soviet Socialist Republics) came in support of the struggle of the people of Bangladesh for independence and was one of the first countries to recognize the new sovereign state. The exchange of notes verbales on establishing diplomatic relations between the two countries took place on January 25, 1972.
Ambassador of Russia to Bangladesh Alexander I. Ignatov, who started his diplomatic career in Dhaka back in 1978, talked to UNB and Dhaka Courier exclusively on the occasion.
How do you describe the present state of the relations between Bangladesh and Russia?
Ambassador: We are quite satisfied with the way our relations are developing. After all, there are no major problems or unsettled issues. This is very positive and gives us a sense of assurance. Talking about the prospects, it is relevant to evaluate the foundation of our ties.
The basis of our cooperation is very solid. I can say this from my own experience as I came here in 1977 for the first time and can judge the relations at their initial stage. I saw a close rapport between the then Soviet Union leaders and Father of the Nation Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. He visited Russia several times. The friendship between our nations was sincere and honest. Everything that we did at that time was because of our genuine will to help Bangladesh, not because we tried to play against somebody's interests. We considered it as our international duty. In the 1970s, Russian people did a great job to assist in reviving the economy of Bangladesh. Many Russian engineers worked here at that time, I remember. The power plants “Ghorashal” and “Siddhirganj”, electrical equipment factory in Chittagong and other objects were built with financial and technical assistance of our country.
Now, we continue to build up our cooperation. We have very good political relations. H.E. Sheikh Hasina, Hon’ble Prime Minister of Bangladesh, visited Moscow in 2013. Vladimir Putin and Sheikh Hasina held extensive negotiations on numerous issues of bilateral and international agenda. During this landmark visit, Russia and Bangladesh signed three intergovernmental agreements on credit cooperation and six MOUs in different spheres, covering cooperation in nuclear energy, weapons supply, agriculture, education, health, culture, justice and counter-terrorism. It gave a great boost to our relations.
The major bilateral project is the construction of Rooppur NPP. As you know, Russia has provided an almost 12 billion USD credit to Bangladesh for this purpose. Not to many countries do we give such big credits. Russia has its own development tasks inside the country, but we trust Bangladesh and we trust its leadership. We are building RNPP with the top of the line technology like we do at present in India. And we are paying a lot of attention to the safety aspects of this project. Quite a number of Russian experts will take part in the top phase of the RNPP construction. Thousands of engineers will participate in it. This is the biggest project in the history of Bangladesh.
There are questions raised by some quarters that Russia will not take back wastage from the plant. Is it correct or just misleading information?
Ambassador: This information is completely baseless and misleading. The spent-fuel, all of it, will be taken back to Russia. We are expecting to sign - hopefully in March this year - an agreement especially on the spent fuel that will be taken back to Russia. It will happen within a couple of months.
Why do you have a massive focus on energy sector in Bangladesh?
Ambassador: Yes, we do have a special focus on energy sector. First of all, energy power is our specialty. It is Russia’s strongest point and we have best energy specialists in the world. Secondly, we understand that your country badly needs electricity. So, it is quite logical that we are paying major attention to the development of energy and gas sector here. Russian company Gazprom is going to open its office in Bangladesh soon, which is a positive development also. It demonstrates that we are serious about dealing with your country in this particular field.
You want to take relations to a next level. What will be your priority areas during your tenure here to further strengthen the ties?
Ambassador: Trade, naturally. Our focus is trade. Bilateral trade volume is growing. Last year it hit a historical high of 1.6 billion USD – a 40 percent increase in one year only. It was a very big jump. We expect further growth this year. In all big shops in Russia you will find made-in-Bangladesh garments and leather products. One month ago, we signed a deal to supply wheat to Bangladesh. The G2G contract to supply 200 metric tons of the Russian milling wheat to Bangladesh was concluded between the JSC “Foreign Economic Corporation “Prodintorg” and the Directorate General of Food of the Ministry of Food of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh in Dhaka on December 14, 2016. According to the agreement, in January-March 2017, Russia will deliver up to 200 metric tons of wheat to Bangladesh. We expect these supplies to grow to almost 1 million tons per year. We have a great potential here as the quality of Russian wheat is recognized to be the best.
Our Prime Minister visited Russia back in 2013. Is there any possibility to see a return visit anytime soon?
Ambassador: It is always a possibility. At the same time, we never talk about it unless it is decided. In any case, such a visit has to be prepared properly. That is why together with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Bangladesh and other ministries we are working on a package of documents, covering many issues including economics, migration, energy, etc. There could be up to 20 altogether.
We have strong cultural ties. What is your plan to deepen it with more initiatives?
Ambassador: The main sphere of our humanitarian cooperation is education. Russia provides 50 scholarships a year for Bangladeshi students. Out of this number, 20 scholarships are for nuclear science. It is aimed at contributing to your economy and society. We will definitely continue and develop such education programs.
This February a group of the A.P.Chekhov Theatre is coming to Bangladesh. The artists will hold several performances and workshops in Dhaka. I believe it will be of great interest, especially for the Russian speaking members of Soviet/Russia Alumni Association of Bangladesh.
A few days ago, well-known Russian artist Sergei Radiuk visited Dhaka, held an exhibition of his paintings here which was a success. He came out with an initiative to invite Bangladeshi artists to our country this summer to acquaint them with real Russia. Their trip would include visiting not only Moscow and St.Petersburg but also other places, arranging Bangladeshi art exhibitions there and taking part in open-air painting sessions.
So, our cultural ties are growing.
You have visited Cox’s Bazar recently. Our government is working to develop Cox’s Bazar to attract more foreign tourists. How do you see the prospect? Are Russian investors interested to invest in Bangladesh’s tourism sector? What’s your assessment of security arrangement in Cox’s Bazar.
Ambassador: While on a visit to Cox’s Bazar early in January, I did not feel any danger. I enjoyed my time there at the seaside very much. Fresh air makes you feel refreshed. Up to 20 people from the Russian Embassy also went to Cox’s Bazar with me and they were satisfied with the quality of hotel hospitality, food, etc. We even organized a Russian food festival with a Russian chef at one of major hotels there.
It is obvious that there is a need for massive investment in tourism sector - from Bangladeshi side in the first place. To compete with such tourist destinations as India and Thailand, you need to do your part of job. It is necessary to stress that foreign investors will come only when they see benefits. And Bangladesh has to attract them. You need to develop infrastructure. Your businesspeople need to invest more. In addition, government is expected to provide conditions for foreign investment to come to the tourism sector.
Cox’s Bazar has a good potential. It may repeat the success story of Goa in India where a lot of Russian tourists come and spend their money, thus contributing to the Indian economy. But to make it happen, it is important to create favourable conditions.
What’s your assessment of business environment in Bangladesh?
Ambassador: I see improvements in business environment. At the same time, my personal view is that in banking sector the foreign currency regulation should be more flexible. I believe that it is crucial that Russian and Bangladeshi banks have direct dealing facilities. Then our economic relations will grow much faster. Russian rouble and Bangladeshi taka should be exchanged directly, not trough dollar or any other currency. I have been vocal in promoting this simple idea for quite some time. It will really benefit the bilateral trade.
The United States has got its new administration under the leadership of Donald Trump. How do you foresee the relations between Russia and the USA in Trump era?
Ambassador: President Trump is a successful businessman, and we expect him to be realistic in his policies. But we are cautious in making forecasts. Hopefully he will not make big mistakes, though, like his predecessor.
Speaking about the existing US sanctions to punish Russia, they didn’t and will never work. Actually, they have led to contrary results. Now Russian producers make a variety of products, and we’ve reached self-sufficiency almost in everything. We have substituted some imported food with our own foodstuff. We are not importing, for example, tomatoes from Turkey now. Although the Russian climate is not a very comfortable one and half of the year is a cold season, these European and American sanctions created necessary incentives for us to apply modern agro-technologies and grow almost everything the year round. I think that our relationship with the United States and Europe could be mutually beneficial. But our position is that relations should be built on equality, first and foremost.
So, we are waiting to see Mr. Donald Trump’s first steps towards Russia. I have a big hope that he will be reasonable.
In present globalized economy many things are interconnected. The main principles of Russian foreign policy is that countries should take each other’s interests into account and shouldn’t interfere in each other’s internal affairs. For example, we have never interfered in the internal affairs of Bangladesh. We have never told your government what you should do. We respect your nation and its sovereignty.
What is the role of Russia in the Bay of Bengal?
Ambassador: We are ready to develop economic cooperation with Bangladesh in the Bay of Bengal. I discussed with Bangladeshi authorities ways to strengthen the legal framework of cooperation and prospects of Russia’s participation in priority development projects of Bangladesh, including Russia’s involvement in construction and equipment of deep-sea ports. The Bangladeshi side is now reviewing our proposal to sign an agreement on sea shipment cooperation. In a broader perspective, we are interested in the balance of relations and balance of powers in the region.
How do you see the prospects of BIMSTEC?
Ambassador: SAARC, BIMSTEC will develop if the countries comprising them manage to get foreign investment, if they manage to create beneficial conditions for foreign investors. I am not talking about political will of their leaders. That is a separate issue.
There are some reports that Bangladeshis are facing difficulty in getting Russian visa here. What’s your observation on that?
Ambassador: The present situation is such that we do not have a legal basis for foreign workers from Bangladesh to come to our country. I met Bangladesh Expatriate Welfare Minister Nurul Islam couple of months ago. He wanted to know the prospects for us taking your workers. I explained that Russia and Bangladesh simply do not have an extradition treaty and that is a major restraint. We cannot accept foreign workers without it. If a foreigner comes to Russia and, say, commits a crime, we have to send him back, which is impossible without an extradition agreement. Unless we have this agreement signed with Bangladesh, it will be impossible for Russia to accept workers from Bangladesh. We have extradition agreements with many countries. In fact, we proposed to sign the deal 10 years ago but still are waiting for a feedback from Bangladesh.
Getting a tourist visa to Russia is not difficult. You only need a tourist voucher and hotel booking.
Moreover, I would like to note that on February 12, 2017 the Agreement between the Government of the Russian Federation and the Government of the Peoples’ Republic of Bangladesh on visa-free visit for persons holding Diplomatic and Service (Official) Passports enters into force. So, those Bangladeshi citizens who have diplomatic or official passports will be entitled to enter the Russian Federation on a visa-free basis and vice-versa.
Do you think Russia can help Bangladesh address challenges related to global threat – terrorism?
Ambassador: We are happy to note that the authorities of Bangladesh are actively dealing with the threat of terrorism here. These efforts already gave results. At the same time, we believe that only through united effort can we defeat terrorism. It is important to help each other and share information about terrorism threat. As this is a rather sensitive subject, I will say that we have the necessary legal basis to develop our cooperation with Bangladesh in this sphere and assist it in fighting terror. During the visit of H.E. Sheikh Hasina, Hon’ble Prime Minister of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh, to Moscow in January 2013, Russia and Bangladesh signed Memorandum of Understanding on Cooperation in Counter-Terrorism that is fully relevant nowadays.