Ahead of President Maithripala Sirisena’s State visit to Russia; the first in decades by a Sri Lankan leader, the country’s Ambassador to Moscow Dr. Saman Weerasinghe outlines the significance of relationship between the two sides. The two countries marked the 60th anniversary of diplomatic ties this year. Dr. Weerasinghe shared the following with the : Daily Mirror.
Exported 34mn kg of tea to russia in 2016
Russia always stood by Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka can harness Russia’s potential
New efforts underway for tea promotion
Nuclear energy has pros and cons
How do you assess the importance of SL-Russia relations?
The Sri Lanka-Russia relationship has always been cordial. SL was among the first countries that established diplomatic relations with former Soviet Union. Today, we are commemorating two important milestones. As you know the first one is the 60th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between SL and Russia which was marked on February 19, 2017. The second milestone which could be considered to be even more significant in the history of bilateral relations between our two countries, is the first official visit of the Sri Lankan Head of State to Russia after several decades.
Furthermore, Russia has always supported SL in almost every international resolution brought forward. Russia has been with SL in times of crisis. So our bilateral relations are referred to as friendship.
President Sirisena is planning to visit Russia this month. How useful will the visit be?
As I told Sri Lanka is always continuing its fruitful relations with Russia. Both Sides welcomed initiatives to promote direct links between the two nations and gave positive evaluation of the work of the SL-Russia Intergovernmental Joint Commission on Economic, Trade and Scientific Cooperation. Our President’s visit will make a thorough review of the progress of joint projects in different fields of bilateral cooperation.
The prospect of joint agreements, increased investments, greater participation in tourism and travel, expansion of trade and economic relations and defence ties within the framework of the Sri Lankan government’s plan, will be high on the agenda of the President’s visit to Russia.
During this visit, SL and Russia are preparing to sign several agreements, including in the spheres of Fisheries, Tourism and Defence Cooperation.
"The prospect of joint agreements, increased investments, greater participation in tourism and travel, expansion of trade and economic relations and defence ties within the framework of the Sri Lankan government’s plan, will be high on the agenda of the President’s visit to Russia"
How has the relationship with Russia evolved under the new government?
The new govt of Sri Lanka from the very first day started implementing the policy of friendly and mutually effective cooperation in regard to other countries. Considering that Russia is one of the major allies of Sri Lanka on the global arena, the new Govt focused on strengthening of existing relationships and exploring new fields to establish direct cooperation.
Last year, President Maithripala Sirisena met with the President of the Russian Federation Vladimir Putin for the first time at the BRICS Summit 2016 held in Goa, India, and after their first meeting the Presidential Secretariat received an official invitation for President Sirisena to visit Russia in 2017. This visit is the milestone of bilateral relationships between SL and Russia, and I am certain that immediately after this memorable occasion both countries would urge each other, now more than ever, to diversify bilateral ties and strengthen the already-existing cooperation.
The first SL-Russia Intergovernmental Joint Commission on Economic, Trade and Scientific Cooperation was held in February last year at the Russian Federation. We see this as a new step in policy level collaborations of two countries in the sphere of Customs Duties, Science and Technology Cooperation, Fisheries Sector Cooperation and a road to future potential avenues.
As for the potential areas of cooperation, Russia is technologically advanced in the areas of infrastructure development; power energy, gas and oil explorations and many more. Sri Lanka can definitely see the possibility of using these advanced technologies for its developments.
However, during the period where I served as the Ambassador, I was able to expand our trade relationships beyond the traditional tea market to a diversified basket of consumer products. SL showcased its most other food and beverages at various international exhibitions in Moscow and tapped the Russian market for sea food, spices, coconut-by products, confectionery, processed fruits, vegetables, etc.
Ninteen Sri Lankan sea food processing companies have been identified and registered by the Russian Federation enabling them to export to Russia and see it as a win-win situation where the Russian customers too gained the opportunity of consuming the unique taste of seafood from Sri Lanka.
We have organized a Gem and Jewellery networking session for Sri Lankan exporters and Russian Buyers in the Embassy, and we have had more than 80 interested parties attending this event, and it showed us that the vacuum existed for these unique local produce. We are happy that we had the opportunity to make correct match that serves both countries.
During the previous regime, Russia’s Gazprom sought to invest in oil and gas exploration in Sri Lanka. What is its current status?
As you know Gazprom holds the world’s largest natural gas reserves. The company’s share in the global and Russian reserves amounts to 17 and 72% respectively. Gazprom keeps expanding its capacity in a way that mutually benefited to every party. So it’s no doubt about their technical capacity and project implementation procedure.
Also they have already in the projects with Europe for more than 40 years, and have positive collaborations with China for gas pipeline projects and other energy related projects. Not only China, they have recently, on the sidelines of the 8th BRICS Summit in India; India and Gazprom signed a memorandum that shows the interest of the parties in jointly exploring the routes for pipeline gas supplies from Russia and other countries to India, as well as the opportunities for cooperation in other areas.
Looking at these, I cannot say that it’s very far that for us to also explore theses energy sources; so in this scenario, the discussions meetings and the documented processes would definitely be the base for Sri Lanka.
"My view is that having a power plant in Tamil Nadu will have almost the same effect, if it is in Sri Lanka, in case of a disaster. Hence it is time for our experts to study the pros and cons, the country requirement and the social impacts in order for us also to find an energy solution for the country"
Recently the Russian Ambassador here said Russia had the capacity to invest in a nuclear energy sector in Sri Lanka. Any move in that direction?
When you come to talk about nuclear power it has a story of two sides. The economic impact and the social controversy are these two sides. Both are equally important.
If you see almost all the developed countries of the world, power and energy is one of the cheapest utility products and almost all of it generate through nuclear power. Economic development of a country depends on cost of production. And one of the highest cost factors is energy especially for a country like Sri Lanka. Hence it is more important for us to see a cheap source of energy.
The controversy all comes as it has some very serious threats. Best example was the disaster that inflicted major damage of the Fukushima nuclear power plant in Japan in 2011 following Tsunami. We were reminded of just how dangerous nuclear power could be. Japan failed in quick corrective actions for this disaster. Also it is riskier in terms of human error, terrorist attacks and natural disasters. This has very bad environmental results. Therefore, what I am trying to explain is this is an area for the experts of all these sectors to get together and decide.
However, I should mention here that we all know that the Russian Federation is in the process of establishing “Koondankulam Nuclear Power plant project” in Koondankulam of Tamil Nadu State. It is the single largest nuclear power plant project in India and now at the third stage of development.
My view is that having a power plant in Tamil Nadu will have almost the same effect, if it is in Sri Lanka, in case of a disaster. Hence it is time for our experts to study the pros and cons, the country requirement and the social impacts in order for us also to find an energy solution for the country.
Russia is our traditional tea buyer. How is the trend of our tea trade now?
The Russian Federation is the largest tea importer in the world for the consumption with an annual intake of around 172 million kg of tea.
In the year 2000, SL became the leading tea exporter to Russia with an export volume of 45 million kg in overtaking its close competitor, India. From the year 2000, SL continued its leading position in the market till 2014. During that period, a large portion of Ceylon tea was exported to Russia in pre-packed form.
In 2016, a total volume of 34 million kg of tea was imported from SL to Russia with a value of USD 145 million. We experienced a decline of Ceylon tea exports to Russia by 20% and 25% in volume term and values term respectively from the year 2015.
The decline of the Ceylon tea imports to Russia was attributed mainly to the sharp devaluation of Russian Rouble over 100% during last two years which was associated with the financial crisis in the Russian Federation which began in 2014. The situation was further aggravated by the increasing tea prices at the Colombo tea auction.
Though the fact was that, SL Embassy joining hands with Sri Lanka Tea Board is in the process of launching a Ceylon Tea promotional campaign in Russia to arrest the declining trend of Ceylon tea exports to this country. Against this backdrop, a visit by Plantation Industries Minister Navin Dissanayake and the tea trade delegation to Russia last month to initiate the proposed Ceylon Tea promotional campaign in Russia. Now the SL Embassy in Moscow is negotiating with Cinema chains in Russia to screen the newly developed Ceylon Tea commercial as the first stage of the promotional campaign.
In addition to the above, the SL Embassy has been organizing the participation of SL tea companies at larger food and beverages exhibitions in Russia every year enabling the SL tea exporters to find potential tea buyers. Also this mission organized the consumer promotional activities in supermarkets in Russia to make the Russian consumers aware of Ceylon tea.
So we are quite optimistic that, with the recovery from the dwindling economic situation in Russia in the near future and launching of a Ceylon tea promotional campaign in Russia would support to increase Ceylon Tea exports to this market and make Sri Lanka the largest exporter to Russia.
How important is Russia in today’s global order?
Russia has emerged as one of the key players involved in the majority of important processes in the global arena. I think if we say the year 2016 has been “under the sign” of Russian President Vladimir Putin, that is correct. Moscow managed to significantly enhance its global reputation step-by-step after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
"We have organized a Gem and Jewellery networking session for Sri Lankan exporters and Russian Buyers in the Embassy, and we have had more than 80 interested parties attending this event, and it showed us that the vacuum existed for these unique local produce"