Time-tested bilateral relations between Sri Lanka and Russia
Russian Ambassador Alexander A. Karchava, in an interview with the Daily Mirror underscores the importance of his country’s relationship with Sri Lanka, the potential areas for future cooperation and the new global developments.
" I am here for four and half years. During my time, we delivered a batch of helicopters. We are negotiating another delivery of certain armaments. After the war, we helped and also provided special equipment for demining. I must say that with the help of these equipment and Russian experts’ help, Sri Lanka managed successfully to demine vast areas of each territory in quite a short time."
Q How do you analyse the evolution of Russia-Sri Lanka relations over the decades?
The 60th anniversary of diplomatic relations shows that our relations are quite seasoned and grown up. Sixty years in the life of a person is quite a period. Sri Lanka is quite young as an independent State. Your country is just 70. Our diplomatic relations are 60 years old. To tell you the truth, it is much deeper because, in the 19th century, we opened a consulate here. Even before Sri Lanka became independent, this lovely island was visited by several famous Russian representatives.
Among them are popular writers and authors such as Anton Chekhov. Also, Sri Lanka was visited by another great Russian writer Ivan Bunin, who received Noble Prize for Literature. In 1981, Sri Lanka was visited by then Crown Prince of Russian empire Nikolai II the last Russian emperor. During his visit, he planted a tree. You can see it grown big at the Peradeniya Botanical Gardens. Our relationship was a road with two-way traffic. We try to help Sri Lanka in many ways, politically and economically.
Our military technical cooperation has a quite sizeable share in the whole context of relationship because we were delivering some armaments to Sri Lanka during the Soviet Union time and after that. I am here for four and half years. During my time, we delivered a batch of helicopters. We are negotiating another delivery of certain armaments.
After the war, we helped and also provided special equipment for demining.
I must say that with the help of these equipment and Russian experts’ help, Sri Lanka managed successfully to demine vast areas of each territory in quite a short time.
I can bring another opposite example. That is the war in Cambodia. The war ended more than 40 years ago. For a long period of time, this country was nicknamed as ‘killing field’ because of the live land mines. But, Sri Lanka managed its problem with the help of Russian experts and equipment. Of course, a great share of our relationship belongs to education. So many young Sri Lankans have received their education in my country. May be, around 3,000 graduates, who received their higher education in Russia work here now. What is special is our medical education. Many of those are successful not only in medicine. For instance, the present Ambassador to Russia Dr. Saman Weerasinghe is a medical doctor. He became a successful businessman and now he represents Sri Lanka as the ambassador.
Sri Lanka is one of the gems of South Asia, a crowned gem. Of course, Sri Lanka is very popular with Russian tourists. In the period of my presence here, the number of Russian tourists grew three fold. Now, we have about 70,000 Russian tourists per year. It was only 22,000 earlier. We also cooperate in other fields. In 2016, we signed bilateral protocol on cooperation in the exploration of a nuclear energy for peaceful development. Sri Lanka is now a partner of Russia in this field. We can help you to build nuclear power plants and power stations here.
Q How far have you progressed in this field?
Actually, the document has been signed. No actual project has started yet. I think it is the time to think about it. Of course, after Fukushima tragedy, there is a big question mark. I can tell you that Russian experience in providing security and danger-free use is enormous. We ourselves suffered the Chernobyl tragedy more than 30 years ago.
We know now what to do, how to protect such installations. Russian experience is very unique. You can trust it. Also, we helped Sri Lanka politically during the period when your Republic was somewhat victim of a very politicised resolution concerning human rights. We always try to help you. We supported you in the UN fora. Sri Lanka is our trusted friend and partner in the international fora.
Q You mentioned that Russia is planning to deliver some armaments. What are they?
I think you can get more details from the Ministry of Defence. But, I can tell you that the Russian armaments meet designs for airports, sea or land. They are very reliable, of very high quality and value for money. In my knowledge, they are practically unbeatable. For instance, I know that you will be participating in peace keeping operations in Mali.
I think we can help equip your contingent with all necessary arms and so on.
Q How has Russia-Sri Lanka relations evolved after the new Government assumed office in Sri Lanka?
I see changes in personalities, not in friends. Friends are the same. We see the new Government as the choice of Sri Lankan people. We respect this choice. We view the choice and the result of the free expression of this by Sri Lankan people.
"In the United States, there is a well-developed, seasoned system of checks and balances. It is not totally correct to say that the new President means new policy. In any case, the new President has to follow the policies and interests of the whole country. "
Q Sri Lanka voted against Russia’s resolution against the extension of staff benefits to the same sex couples at the UN once. Were you offended by it?
We were not offended. We just noted. Of course, every country has a certain choice, and is free to make it.
Q Russia has been Sri Lanka’s traditional tea buyer. How is the tea market now?
Well, due to certain difficulties in the Russian economy, the exchange rate for Russian Ruble is different now.
When I came here, the rate was one Ruble for four rupees. It is now only two rupees.
Now, tea traders of Sri Lanka make less profit as a result. Still, the business is not that bad. Recently, Sri Lankan Plantation Minister Navin Dissanayake just visited Russia. You can check with him. Of course, it is not as profitable as before. Still, Ceylon Tea is extremely popular in Russia. Many Russians consume a lot of Ceylon Tea.
Q How does Russia view Sri Lanka’s strategic location in the Indian Ocean, especially in the context of countries such as China, India and the United States harbouring their interests?
We always recognise the very strategic position of Sri Lanka. But, we never exert our individual interests here from this point of view. Of course, you have excellent ports both in the south and the north east in Trincomalee. Trincomalee is an excellent port. Russian ships are frequent guests here. During my time, for instance, there were ten port calls.
But, I underline we never try to seek advantages from our national point of view here. We are not that egoistic to seek something for ourselves. You are our partner. Our cooperation is quite strong. We are very friendly. We never seek any position for certain military installation or whatsoever. In your relation with other countries- China, the US and India as you named – it is your own choice. People and the Government of Sri Lanka have to decide.
Q How do you look forward to the visit of President Maithripala Sirisena to your country?
We are looking forward because you know President Sirisena and our President Vladimir Putin had a very good meeting last October in Goa. There was BRICS summit hosted by India. This opportunity was used to invite BIMSTEC countries. Sri Lanka was there. Our friend and your President had a good chance to meet. After that, I met President Sirisena two or three times. He told me personally that he had a very good meeting. And, he was very happy to be in conversation with my President. President Sirisena is quite keen to visit Russia. Now, we are working actively to realise this visit and make it a substantive one. We learn that such summit definitely give another tangible impetus to the whole context of our bilateral relations. Former President Mahinda Rajapaksa visited Russia as well.
It was not an official visit. It was a participation in an international event in Russia. The last official State visit was made by former Prime Minister the late Sirimavo Bandaranaike.
"Udayanga was Sri Lankan Ambassador to Russia. Then, he was recalled. He left Russia. He is not hiding in Russia. How could we help? In what sense? There was some information from time to time appearing in the media here that there is some suspicion that the former Ambassador was somehow involved with the killing of a Sri Lankan in Russia in 2014"
Q During the last Government, there were moves by leading Russian Gazprom to invest in Sri Lanka in oil exploration. How is the progress?
Gazprom is coming from time to time. They are cautious. They are studying certain feasibilities at two blocks for exploration. Sri Lanka is quite keen to invite Gazprom for more activities. They are really cautious, though. While I am here, they visited three times.
Q Apart from this, how does Russia view the role of the UN and the UNHRC?
In a nutshell, the UN is a universal instrument of international relations. But, the UN, as an organisation, was not created to make this world a political heaven. It was created not to lead this world to become a political hell. There is a certain difference. You cannot think that with the help of the UN regulations and movements, you can create a heaven. But, with the help of this universal instrument, you can prevent this world from becoming a hell. Sometimes, you stop wars, reduce troops and stop fire. Another thing is the UN was created after the World War II.
The structure and design reflected the situation of the world in those days. The world has changed. It is changing rapidly. We do think these international bodies need certain reforms. But, of course, the interests of the larger world players should be protected and provided. Many countries have reached that level, for instance, our partners in BRICS such as India
In Europe, Germany has become very advanced. It is one of the leaders economically and politically in Europe. We have to think how to accommodate these big countries in a new design. We are for certain reformation. We are not going to pull it down to create a new one.
We have to keep traditions, basic principles of the charter of this universal mechanism.
"Now, tea traders of Sri Lanka make less profit as a result. Still, the business is not that bad. Recently, Sri Lankan Plantation Minister Navin Dissanayake just visited Russia. You can check with him. Of course, it is not as profitable as before. Still, Ceylon Tea is extremely popular in Russia. Many Russians consume a lot of Ceylon Tea."
Q In Europe, there is rising nationalism. Alongside, there is opposition to integration with the European Union. How does Russia observe?
We are closely watching. It could create a new situation, of course. To my mind, no one can predict what would be this situation. We are watching the processes to understand how our interests could be secured in these environments politically and economically. For instance, if we are dealing with the EU, there are basic principles to follow in doing business with each member state.
Now, if the United Kingdom is pulling out, they will introduce new regulations for business. We must somehow adjust our economic relations to that situation. We are closely watching and monitoring the process to determine our approach, standards and actions.
Q In your view, how will the new world order be in the context of the United States of America having a new President, who has a different worldview?
To my mind, at the end of the 19th century, there was such a phenomenon concerning the United States. It is gold rush. What we are seeing today is Trump’s rush which is not totally correct. The President of the United States is not a king. He is not a monarch. He is not the only person running the whole country. He cannot personally pursue or realise his interests.
In the United States, there is a well-developed, seasoned system of checks and balances. It is not totally correct to say that the new President means new policy. In any case, the new President has to follow the policies and interests of the whole country. Do you think the whole country helps the implementation of the new policy?
Q There is legal action initiated against Sri Lanka’s former Ambassador to Russia Udayanga Weeratunga, locally. Has the government of Sri Lanka reach you for help in the arrest of him?
No, why should it approach us? Udayanga was Sri Lankan Ambassador to Russia. Then, he was recalled. He left Russia. He is not hiding in Russia. How could we help? In what sense? There was some information from time to time appearing in the media here that there is some suspicion that the former Ambassador was somehow involved with the killing of a Sri Lankan in Russia in 2014.
There were some allegations that he was involved in the crime. This is totally false information. The person responsible for the demise of this poor Sri Lankan is a Russian. He is sentenced in Russia. I requested for documents proving it. They are in my office now. The case was seriously investigated. The culprit was found and arrested. He was tried.
Q What are the new potential areas for cooperation between the two countries?
I think energy, science and technology. Sri Lankan Minister Susil Premajayantha is very active in this regard. He has proposed a whole programme.
"No, why should it approach us? Udayanga was Sri Lankan Ambassador to Russia. Then, he was recalled. He left Russia. He is not hiding in Russia. How could we help? In what sense? There was some information from time to time appearing in the media here that there is some suspicion that the former Ambassador was somehow involved with the killing of a Sri Lankan in Russia in 2014"
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