Economic cooperation “both a challenge and an opportunity” - P.S. Raghavan

Ambassador Raghavan: "Russia is India’s strongest defence partner by a long shot and this not going to change in the foreseeable future." Source: Embassy of India in Moscow

Ambassador Raghavan: "Russia is India’s strongest defence partner by a long shot and this not going to change in the foreseeable future." Source: Embassy of India in Moscow

The new Indian ambassador to Russia shares his insights on bilateral relations and the prospects for expanding economic, political and cultural ties.

Welcome back to Moscow. This is your second stint in the Russian capital… What are the biggest bilateral challenges that the two countries face at the moment?

It is a great privilege to be here as Ambassador of India to the Russian Federation because of the nature of our relations. They have been so close, so intense and cover such a wide canvas of virtually every field of human endeavour and it’s a privilege to be in some way contributing to this relationship. 

The challenge is to sustain the relationship in all its aspects, to make sure that it is also responsive to the newer opportunities that come up in global situation, dynamic economics, to make sure that we keep in sync with these changes in the environment, and constantly upgrade our relationship in the areas that we didn’t touch before.

I think that our economic cooperation is both a challenge and an opportunity. People talk about the economic cooperation between India and Russia. Is it as strong as the other pillars of our relations? The answer is that maybe it should be stronger. Bilateral trade turnover is $11 billion; it should be much more than that. If you take a look at the possibilities of our economies, of their complementarities, I think it ought to be much greater.

Similarly, investments are another major area because Indian requirements for investments are areas where Russia is very strong. If you look at infrastructure in India, the physical infrastructure like telecommunication and power, these are areas where a great demand is expected. India is a resource-hungry country. These are areas that should be exploited. These are challenges that remain for the Indian Embassy in Moscow and the Russian Embassy in New Delhi. We should be working towards creating new opportunities, towards recognizing opportunities and creating close links between businesses of the two countries. The aim is to facilitate the business and the economic dimension is one of our greater challenges.

Given the present global realities, how would you characterise Indo-Russian interaction at the international level?

Our outlook on international relations and various international problems range from similar to identical. This is the reason we have very close interaction between our governments at all levels. Besides the annual summits between leaders, our countries' leaders meet at a number of multilateral meetings around the world. We have a very dynamic system of exchange of views and synchronization of views between our countries. We are working together on a number of international platforms, right now in Geneva, so called Geneva-2.

What are the prospects of greater cooperation within the RIC (Russia-India-China) format?

We have sustained interaction in a particular format where all three countries see meaning and importance. Russia-India bilateral relations and RIC are two separate fields. RIC is an area where we benefit by exchanging and share information so we can understand each other better, and therefore function better through cooperation.

Bilateral relations between India and Russia are greatly different. I don’t think that two can either compare or substitute each other.

What about the BRICS format?

I think BRICS is very important not only for India, but also for Russia. We have both invested a lot of our diplomatic time and effort in BRICS. This purpose is distinct from RIC. The two also need to be distinguished from each other. Both have a purpose in coordinating positions and exploring possibilities. BRICS has a very strong economic content, on important initiatives.

What are the prospects for anti-terror cooperation? Are there common concerns on the situation in Afghanistan?

India and Russia face similar issues and talk on Afghanistan. There are two common problems: terrorism and drugs. These are the areas, where India and Russia have constant contact and exchange information. It’s a complex problem beyond the boundaries of any state. It’s a multinational problem. We cooperate both bilaterally and within the SCO.

When is India becoming an SCO member? Is it clear? 

The SCO is still finalizing the procedures on expanding membership. India has applied and Russia has been very supportive. We hope that the process will be complete this year. But in any case, even as observers we can participate closely in SCO meetings.

How important is Central Asia for India?

We have old cultural links with the region. Much of the migration to India through the medieval period and into the modern period has been through Central Asia. It’s important that we have good relations with them. And of course from the energy perspective it’s very important as well.

How would you rate ties in the defence field between Russia and India? From time to time we hear critical media reports from both sides. There have been growing calls from Russia for a more transparent decision-making process when it comes to defence purchases in India.  And just recently an Indian media source claimed that IAF is not satisfied with the bilateral FGFA project.

Let me tell you this. I was there at HAL which is the factory to produce FGFA. I was there with the Air Force, with the Defence Ministry. And I was asked when we are going to get the contract negotiations resumed. And just this morning I was at a meeting with Russia’s FSMTC (Federal Service for Military Technical Cooperation). And we were talking about FGFA among many other things. I was told that a team was going for this purpose. 

There may be comments on defence tenders in India, lost by Russia. But you should look at the record. Last year alone, the aircraft carrier Vikramaditya was delivered, 4 naval ships were delivered recently; MiG-29 upgrade has gone into proper production, Su-30 is under production.

Every one of these is an IGA (intergovernmental agreement) not a tender. A very large canvas of Indo-Russian projects have been done on an IGA basis. There also are a few projects that are tendered as part of our requirements. You know, we also have regulations on transparency of supplies and so on.

If you look at the whole range of India - Russia defence cooperation it is still huge, it is expanding, and it will continue to do so in the foreseeable future. The larger picture is big and is getting bigger. The other thing is that India’s defence purchases are also getting bigger and bigger. Russia is India’s strongest defence partner by a long shot and this is not going to change in the foreseeable future.

Russia is both supplying weapons to both India and to China. Does it cause suspicion from the Indian side?

This is one thing that does not enter the India-Russia relationship. Suspicion, or any kind of doubt, cannot enter the relationship. The nature of our defence cooperation doesn’t exist between any other two countries. Having сlose and intense relationships doesn’t mean tying yourself up to exclusivity. However, we do understand that when you have such a close defence relationship you understand the sensitivity of each other.

Energy cooperation: Are Russia and India close to a deal on reactors three and four of the Kudankulam Nuclear Power Project.  Are we likely to see a deal before the 2014 Lok Sabha elections?

Yes, I think the agreements on units 3 and 4 will be concluded soon.

Our energy cooperation must be deepened. What is not realistic today may become very profitable tomorrow. For instance, we are talking about other links of  oil supply from Russia to India parallel to TAPI but separately. Because it is not something that will happen tomorrow morning I don’t think we should discount these possibilities. It can dramatically change Russia-India trade by reducing costs. And again we are coming to the conclusion that we should work on infrastructure problems. We need to convince our partners that there is a long-term benefit to these projects.

We have heard media reports that Russians may be offered visa on arrival in India. Is this close to becoming a reality? Would India be requesting reciprocity in this case?

I don’t know what the source of this information was. But our home ministry was looking at a list of countries that will be granted visa on arrival. The problem is sufficient infrastructure to be able to process visa on arrival, so that it doesn’t become an irritant instead of facilitating the process. This is something that is worth consideration. What we are trying to do is to streamline our visa procedure to make it easier to get visa for Russian visitors. Last year we issued over 200000 visas to Russians.

Can we expect more cultural and educational exchanges between Russia and India? Are there any concrete plans in the making? How does India plan to harness its soft power in Russia and reach out to more Russians?

I think we need to reach out in regions beyond the capitals. This is something that I need to pursue. We need to reach out to the younger generation in both countries. Older generations are aware. And we need to be looking at the things that the younger generation is interested in. For example, new art forms that are flourishing in India now. 

Culture also needs to be renovated and recharged. These days even culture is becoming commercialized. There is not enough money in India to promote culture. So if culture is used to be commercially viable, we need to reach out to regions beyond Moscow and the same in India.

We need many more Indians coming to Russia. And we need to have more Russians going beyond such places as Goa, Golden Triangle and some places in Kerala.

Do you know which European country Indians visit most often? It’s Switzerland! Bollywood does free publicity for this country. We need to see how to attract Bollywood to Russia, and this will create publicity for Indian tourists. 

What are the prospects for educational exchanges?

In Soviet times there were tens of thousands of students now there are thousands. The number of opportunities also expanded greatly.

Yesterday I saw an article in the Russian press about students going abroad for studies. India has the largest number of students studying abroad, because in America alone about one hundred thousand Indian students are in Universities every year. It’s the same in Australia. One problem is language and the second issue is non-recognition of degrees. This is an issue that we have to sort out and then we’ll have more students.

How do you see Russia-India relations after the 2014 Lok Sabha elections?

The great thing about Russia-India relations is that it has never been dependent on any political party in office in India. It has always had support across the political spectrum. There has been no change in the relationship over the past many decades. And I don’t see any change in that situation. 

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