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A new chapter in economic and political cooperation?

by tbhdesk

What does Sergey Lavrov’s Dhaka visit hold for Russia-Bangladesh ties?

According to diplomatic sources, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov will make a two-day trip to Dhaka on September 7 and 8. The sources disclose that his visit to Dhaka is a prelude to his participation in the G20 meeting in New Delhi later in September. It is noteworthy that Lavrov’s visit holds historical significance since he will be the first Russian Foreign Minister to visit Bangladesh since the country gained independence.

Russia’s commitment to deepen its ties with Bangladesh in the face of changing global dynamics will be demonstrated by this visit, which comes after the postponement of a prior trip. During a phone conversation between Bangladesh’s FM Momen and his Russian counterpart Lavrov in November last year, both sides expressed a desire to take their countries’ existing bilateral relationships to new heights.

Relevancy of the visit

Though Russia and Bangladesh are trusted friends united by historical ties, it is fair to say that Bangladesh has always been marginalized in Russia’s foreign policy during the post-Cold War period. However, in an increasingly multipolar world where Russia has become interested in the Asian-based world order and is trying to position itself as a key player in the geo-political conflict over the Indian Ocean, the Kremlin places great importance on Bangladesh’s geostrategic position.

Western and European countries have been denouncing Russia and introducing resolutions one after another against the country at the United Nations, where it is losing by a wide majority. So, given the reality of Russia’s current global isolation stemming from its actions in Ukraine, it is not surprising that Moscow’s strategic pivot involves not only strengthening existing alliances but also forming new partnerships across the world.

Moreover, Lavrov’s visit to Dhaka has garnered significant attention as it is taking place at a crucial time when Russia is under pressure from Western sanctions and Bangladesh is constantly criticized by the USA on issues of human rights in the context of the upcoming parliamentary election scheduled to be conducted early next year.

It has been noted that, in the Russia-Ukraine war, Dhaka has not yet shown any bias towards any side, and is instead continuing to hold its position of advocating a return to dialogue and diplomacy. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has urged the lifting of Western sanctions against Russia, citing humanitarian and economic concerns. Because it is feared that these sanctions will cause a global food crisis and cruel hunger, causing tremendous suffering to the majority of people in the world.

Scope of cooperation

The upcoming 12-plus-hour visit by Sergey Lavrov will include meetings with both Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and Foreign Minister AK Abdul Momen. The agenda items, which cover a wide range of subjects from nuclear energy to military cooperation, further highlight the multifaceted character of the bilateral relationship between Russia and Bangladesh. Significantly, the discussions will encompass issues including the Rooppur nuclear power plant, defense cooperation, Gazprom activities, imports of wheat and fertilizer, as well as possible agreements and memoranda of understanding.

Earlier, Bangladesh shipping authorities refused to let a Russian ship dock in Mongla port to deliver supplies for the Rooppur Power Plant because the ship was subject to US sanctions. Despite pressure from Russia, the Bangladesh government has stuck to its decision to deny the ship entry. There is a possibility that Sergei Lavrov may hold discussions on this issue to avoid future complications.

Another top priority for both sides is to find a solution to the payment complexity for the Rooppur power project, which is considered to be a game-changer for Bangladesh’s energy security and socio-economic development. In accordance with the loan arrangements made with Russia for the power project, Bangladesh is required to repay the debt in dollars. It became, however, impossible as Moscow has been barred from much of the international banking system following the war in Ukraine.

After the most recent round of US sanctions on Russia, the Bangladesh government’s attempt to settle Russia’s $330 million debt using the Chinese yuan has encountered new difficulties. The payments are now held in an escrow account, which is a type of trust fund run by a third party. Therefore, Momen and Lavrov might negotiate to find ways to unclog the payments in the upcoming meeting. Again, while commercial supply of 2,400 megawatts of electricity is scheduled to start in 2024, Dhaka needs to discuss ways for timely completion of the project and training of the scientific and technical personnel.

It’s no secret that the Russia-Ukraine conflict has hurt economies worldwide, including Bangladesh’s. It is hardly surprising that the price of food and fuel items will rise on the global market if this war drags on and sanctions and counter-sanctions continue, affecting key sectors of the economy. However, to tackle a possible worsening global economic crisis, Bangladesh must prioritize cooperation in two key areas: Energy diplomacy and food security.

Many international institutions have warned that a food shortage is imminent. If the price of wheat, flour, and other baking ingredients rises globally because of market instability, it will be difficult for Bangladesh to ensure food security. Therefore, the country needs practical collaboration with Russia to find ways to import more grain and fertilizer, making food stocks more secure.

Like many other countries, Bangladesh’s energy supply has been unstable as of late. Every year, the country imports 50 lakh tons of diesel, 13 lakh tons of crude oil, 2 lakh tons of furnace oil, and 120 thousand tons of octane. The government had to pay a loss of $150 million a day when oil prices surged to their highest level in nine years. Hence, the Lavrov-Momen meeting has the potential to contribute positively towards facilitating Bangladesh’s oil supply.

Despite Western sanctions, several countries, particularly China and India, are purchasing Russian crude oil at substantial discounts. No doubt, buying oil from Moscow would be economically advantageous for Dhaka as well. But, unfortunately, it is not possible to refine Russian oil through the existing refineries in the country. Now, Dhaka may discuss the construction of a state-of-the-art oil refinery in the country with Russian funding to ensure energy security. Subsequently, Bangladesh also needs to explore the possibility of engaging with Gazprom to extract oil and gas from different gas fields.

Undoubtedly, Bangladesh faces increasing challenges in managing the Rohingya crisis as the funding deficit for Rohingya humanitarian assistance increases every year. The crisis is now inflicting a huge burden on the country’s economy. While many nations have offered diplomatic support to solve the crisis, Russia is playing the villain role on the issue, selling advanced weapons, including fighter jets, to Myanmar.

Dhaka is well aware that, given Moscow’s interest in both Bangladesh and Myanmar, it will not be easy for Lavrov to take a stand on the Rohingya issue during the visit. Nevertheless, Dhaka might strongly highlight the crisis and invite Moscow to start a trilateral dialogue with Naypyitaw or look for other relevant backing in the UN.

Political message for Dhaka

In contrast to its usual policy of refraining from meddling in a country’s internal affairs, Russia has gradually asserted its presence in Bangladesh. Social media activity in Dhaka and routine press briefings in Moscow lend credence to this claim.

The significance of the engagement between Moscow and Dhaka lies in their common opposition to perceived Western intervention in Bangladesh’s domestic affairs. Moscow has sent a clear message of support to Dhaka in the face of American criticism of Bangladesh’s election procedures. Moscow considered the campaign for free, fair, and peaceful elections in Bangladesh by the American administration a sort of neocolonialism. It also described such behaviour as “blatant interference” in the internal affairs of Bangladesh.

In light of pressure from the United States, Sergey Lavrov’s upcoming visit will therefore represent a political show of support, demonstrating Russia’s commitment to Bangladesh’s aspirations for free, fair, and peaceful elections as well as broader human rights issues. It will also underscore Russia’s commitment to standing by Dhaka’s side during these turbulent geo-political times.

In short, Sergey Lavrov’s Dhaka visit has far-reaching consequences, both in light of past precedents and current geo-political realities. This landmark visit sends a message of solidarity in the face of global challenges and offers fresh prospects for cooperation between the two countries. It is expected that the upcoming visit will deepen the already-existing partnership and remove the bottlenecks to further growth of the friendly ties.

Prithwi Raj Chaturvedi is a Researcher and Political analyst from New Delhi.

Source: Dhaka Tribune.

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