Ambassador: The past year has been hectic, fruitful and satisfying

 H.E. Mr. Ajai Malhotra, Ambassador of India to the Russian Federation. Source: Press Photo

H.E. Mr. Ajai Malhotra, Ambassador of India to the Russian Federation. Source: Press Photo

As India celebrates the 66th Independence Day August 15, India's Ambassador to Russia Ajai Malhotra speaks to Russia and India Report (RIR) about the blossoming of India-Russia relations in virtually all spheres, ranging from defence and technology to trade, tourism and people-to-people contacts.

Mapping out a brave new future for the bilateral relationship, the Indian envoy predicts closer partnership in the area of innovative technologies and hopes Russia’s entry into the WTO should also open up new opportunities for cooperation.

RIR: Our conversation is taking place on the eve of August 15, India's Independence Day. Let me congratulate you on this occasion.  What is the significance of August 15 for Indians? How does India view itself in the second decade of the 21st century?

Ambassador: Thank you for your greetings! On India’s Independence Day, we remember and honour those who fought for our freedom. We appreciate the valiant protectors of our frontiers and those who sacrificed their lives for our security and safety. It is also a day to re-dedicate ourselves to serving our country and the larger cause of humanity. In the sixty-five years since our independence, India has secured a respected place in the community of nations. We are proud citizens of the largest, most diverse, and vibrant democracy in the world. Our democracy is backstopped by an active civil society, a free media, an impartial and independent judiciary, and redressal mechanisms. It is very satisfying that our country of 1.2 billion people, characterised by vast linguistic, religious, ethnic and cultural diversity, is confidently moving ahead as one.

RIR: It has been slightly over a year since you officially assumed charge as India’s 20th ambassador to Russia. What do you think are your most important achievements during this year?

Ambassador: Over the past year we have advanced our bilateral engagement in every direction. Our inter-governmental ties have traditionally been close. In the second half of 2011 there were visits from India to Russia by our ministers of external affairs, home affairs, commerce, defence, power, steel, shipping, tourism, and our National Security Advisor. The pinnacle was the annual summit visit to Russia in December 2011 by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, which reaffirmed the unprecedented goodwill and trust between us. In March 2012, we reviewed bilateral ties when President Medvedev met our prime minister in the context of the BRICS summit in New Delhi. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and President Vladimir Putin met on the sidelines of the G20 Summit in Mexico in June 2012. Deputy Prime Minister Rogozin visited India in July 2012. We now look forward to warmly welcoming President Putin to India later this year for the annual India-Russia Summit, the build up for which is already underway.

Besides assisting with this intensive governmental interaction, I have focused on enhanced people-to-people contacts over the past year. After all, they constitute the bedrock of our unique relationship. With this in view, and given the vastness of Russia, an embassy Facebook page was opened upon my arrival in Moscow in May 2011. We also began an outreach to the regions of Russia in May 2011. Our visa regime for Russians travelling to India was liberalised in June 2011, marking the start of a concerted multi-pronged effort to boost our trade and expand business and tourism. We have also pursued a more intensive cultural presence across Russia.

The response has been very encouraging. Russian tourist and business arrivals into India increased 25% in 2011-2012, compared to 2010-2011, and continue to grow at a good pace. Moreover, statistics show a solid 53% increase in our bilateral trade during the first six months of 2012, compared to the same period in 2011. This is especially noteworthy given the world economic slowdown that has rather negatively impacted India’s trade with several European economies.

Our stepped up cultural offerings have included a Festival of Indian Culture in Russia in September 2011, a Festival of Indian Culture and Cinema in April 2012, and the conduct of numerous academic and cultural events in 2012 commemorating 65 years of our diplomatic ties.

Overall, the past year has been hectic, fruitful and satisfying. Our already close cooperation in the political, defence, nuclear energy, S&T, space, and other fields has continued apace, while there has been notable progress in sectors like trade, tourism, culture and academia.

RIR: We all have witnessed a significant progress on behalf of the Indian embassy in Moscow in public diplomacy domain during this year. Undoubtedly, a new impetus has been given to bilateral relationship on the people-to-people level. But are you satisfied with the level of our “privileged strategic relations”?

Ambassador: Thank you for your encouraging words! There has indeed been a very good response to our using social media platforms to connect with Russians as well as the Indian community across Russia.

Russia is our foremost partner in such sensitive and strategically important sectors as defence, space, nuclear energy, and science & technology. Even in oil & natural gas, our biggest investments abroad are in Russia. Our special and privileged strategic partnership with Russia is steadily forging ahead. While I am satisfied with its present level, we will continuously strive to further enhance it.

RIR: One of your first initiatives as Ambassador was to ease the visa regime for tourists and businessmen. Can we say that it has been successfully implemented and led to significant results?

Ambassador: Indeed, it has been successfully implemented and I am happy to have taken the initiative! Our liberalised visa regime and other business and tourism promotion initiatives have boosted our bilateral trade and tourism. It is good that Russia has reciprocated, thus also leading to a considerable increase in Indian tourists coming to Russia this year.

RIR: Our countries have set an ambitious trade target of US$ 20 billion by 2015, although compared to Russia-China and India-China trade this figure is rather modest. Why do you think the private business in both countries appear so cautious and reluctant to make investments?

Ambassador: There is much untapped potential in promoting our bilateral trade and economic ties. We are engaging through the India-Russia Inter-Governmental Commission and the India-Russia Trade and Investment Forum in diversifying and expanding the commodity basket of our trade. In June 2012, our Commerce, Industry and Textiles Minister led a high-level delegation to the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum and we convened the Third India-Russia Business Dialogue at it.

Part of the reason for the caution shown by businessmen on both sides is that there is not enough exposure to each other's changed situation and latest achievements. As a result, we are often bound by old stereotypes. We will continue to put in effort to correct this so that Russian companies become more aware of our capabilities and are more responsive to opportunities in India, and vice versa. Economic slowdown elsewhere in the world is also compelling our businessmen to explore trade and investment opportunities in both our countries more attentively. Russia’s entry into the WTO later this month should also open up new opportunities for mutually beneficial cooperation.

RIR: You regularly visit different Russian regions. Is there a probability that cooperation at the regional level will prove to be more successful?

Ambassador: We already have close ties with Moscow and are more actively engaging with other Russian regions with a view to promoting trade, investment, and cultural ties. Over the last fifteen months, I have visited Arkhangelsk, Kazan, Kaliningrad, Sochi, St. Petersburg, Tver, Ufa, and Vladivostok, interacted with the regional leadership and explored new vistas of cooperation with local business, academic and other representatives, with good results.

RIR: Bilateral cooperation in the sphere of innovative technologies is clearly the one area that can be mutually beneficial, but unfortunately is still undervalued and lacks important initiatives. Are Indian companies going to participate in the Skolkovo innovation hub?

Ambassador: Bilateral cooperation in innovative technologies can indeed be mutually beneficial. The Science & Technology Working Group of the India-Russia Inter-Governmental Commission on Technical and Economic Cooperation and the India-Russia Integrated Long Term Programme (ILTP) of Cooperation in S&T, are the main institutional mechanisms in this regard. The Working Group focuses on cooperation in priority areas of biotechnology, industrial realization of technologies, medical research, metrology & standardization, meteorology and oceanology. ILTP has set up joint centres of excellence to promote research in fields such as powder metallurgy, vaccine development, supercomputing, biotechnology, biomedicine, gas hydrate studies and earthquake research. It has recently been assigned the added objective of fostering innovation-led technology development with dedicated funding from both sides.

We have also recently inaugurated an Indo-Russian Science and Technology Centre, with branches in Moscow and Delhi, to facilitate the two-way transfer of technologies developed by Indian and Russian scientists. India has major strengths in IT and biotechnology, whereas Russia is strong in material sciences, silicon production, space and nuclear technologies. We could also offer innovative technological solutions to each other in these areas of our respective strength. We hope our companies will take advantage of such joint initiatives, besides of the Skolkovo innovation hub.

RIR: How would you generally define the level of the Indo-Russian cooperation in the energy sector?  Are there any major joint projects anticipated in the near future?

Ambassador: The energy sector illustrates strong complementarities between our economies. Russia is a major producer of energy, while India is one of the fastest growing energy consumers. Our Intergovernmental Agreement for Cooperation in Oil & Gas of 2010 recognised that our development and energy security is linked to the availability, accessibility and affordability of oil and natural gas. Cooperation and investment opportunities in oil and gas are being seriously explored between the OVL and Russian companies such as Gazprom and Novatek.

RIR: What is the update on the Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft Project? Can we expect other new projects in bilateral military cooperation?

Ambassador: Russia is India's largest partner in military-technical cooperation and vice versa. Our cooperation in defence is moving ahead nicely and has long been an important pillar of our strategic partnership. Our defence ties have transformed radically in recent years from a straightforward buyer-seller relationship to one involving joint research, development, and production of advanced defence systems. The Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft (FGFA) project is a flagship project reflecting this fundamental change. The Inter Governmental Agreement for joint development of the FGFA was signed in 2007 and the first FGFA flight took place in 2010 while a second FGFA prototype had its first flight in 2011. Overall, we are satisfied with the progress of the FGFA project. Other such projects being implemented are the Multi-Role Transport Aircraft project, besides projects to manufacture T-90 tanks, SU-30MKI fighters, and Brahmos missiles in India. We hope that this trend will continue.

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