The diplomatic relations between Russia and Sri Lanka were established on February 19, 1957, but their history goes long before the Sri Lankan Independence. We find first mentions of Ceylon in the memoirs of Russian merchant and traveller Afanasiy Nikitin as early as in the late 15th century. Later in the 18th century, several princes, scientists and geographers toured the island. The first idea of opening the Russian consulate in Sri Lanka appeared in 1858, but its first official representative was appointed only more than 30 years later and the Consulate was opened in Colombo. In 1891, Russian Crown Prince, future Emperor Nikolai II, visited Ceylon. The tree planted by the future emperor can be observed in the Peradeniya botanical gardens.
The multifaceted history of Russian-Sri Lankan relationship was recited in detail in ‘Sri Lanka-Soviet-Russia relations,’ the recently-published book by Former Deputy General Secretary of the Sri Lankan-Soviet Friendship League Sirimanna Karunatillake. It will be useful for anyone interested in bilateral relations between the two countries. I also read with great pleasure a piece by Mr. Somar Wijedasa published in the Sunday Times on February 12, 2017, and I am very grateful to the author for his accurate recollection of many significant events from the rich history of our bilateral relations.
Our long-lasting ties, fruitful and extensive exchanges in different spheres, despite the long geographical distance between the two countries, take roots in shared multicultural, multinational and multi-religious landscape. Bilateral relations between Russia and Sri Lanka in the political sphere can be defined as excellent: Russia, from the very inception, expressed understanding of the Sri Lankan Government struggle against terrorism, and supported Colombo in all international fora in its fight against foreign interferences in internal affairs. As did Sri Lanka and we value this support very much.
Bolstering political and cultural cooperation
Lately, the bilateral contacts between our two countries picked up a good pace. Moreover, it gives me an immense pleasure to highlight that Sri Lankan interest and commitment to the activities of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) as a dialogue partner is highly appreciated. In 2015, Deputy Justice Minister Sarathi Dushmantha Mithrapala travelled to Moscow to take part in the legal forum organised under the auspices of SCO.
Later that year, the delegation from the Russian Upper Chamber of Parliament, Federal Council of Federal Assembly of the Russian Federation, headed by the Deputy Speaker of Federal Council Iliyas Umakhanov, visited Sri Lanka. Mr. Umakhanov conducted substantial talks with Speaker Karu Jayasuriya and members of the Sri Lankan-Russian parliamentary group of friendship. He also held meetings with Foreign Affairs Minister Mangala Samaraweera and Sri Lankan Board of Investment (BOI) Chairman Upul Jayasuriya.
Also, in the course of the last three years, we managed to ink several bilateral agreements on cooperation in nuclear area, visa-free journeys for holders of diplomatic and service passports and on cooperation in mass communications.
Russia and Sri Lanka have always valued the importance of education for empowering the future generations. Since 1960s, more than 800 Sri Lankans graduated from the People’s Friendship University in Moscow and overall around 3,000 obtained their degrees in various universities in Russia and CIS. Thanks to the efforts of the Russian Cultural Centre in Colombo we expand every year the educational opportunities for Sri Lankans by increasing the number of scholarships.
Bilateral cooperation in education is also promoted by the private sector, which only brings our countries closer. The Nizhni Novgorod State Medical Academy (NNSMA), one of the most respected medical universities in Russia and around the world, has been providing professorship for the South Asian Institute of Technology and Medicine (SAITM) for some time. The Academy’s Dean Boris E. Shakhov has continuously expressed his satisfaction with the level of training Sri Lankan students and honours cooperation with SAITM. There is no doubt that SAITM and the university team contribute greatly to the formation of Sri Lankan professional healthcare. SAITM and the Neville Fernando Teaching Hospital (Hospital of Sri Lanka-Russia friendship) provide indispensable link in medical studies: they combine fundamental base knowledge with hands-on experience while also helping patients. In 2016, some 54 Russian doctors and professors worked in SAITM in shifts. By taking advantage of long-standing educational ties with Russia and its internationally-recognised tradition of quality medical education, SAITM brings to its walls not only internationally-renowned experience but the Russian practitioners themselves.
New era of bilateral economic cooperation
Even though bilateral economic relations fall behind the political cooperation, the year 2016 marked the beginning of a new economic era in commercial relations between Russia and Sri Lanka. In February 2016, the first meeting of the Intergovernmental Commission on Trade, Economic, Scientific and Technological Cooperation took place in Moscow. The Sri Lankan delegation led by then Industry and Commerce Ministry Secretary T.M.B.K Tennekoon met with Russian Deputy Agriculture Minister and Head of the Fisheries Agency Iliya Shestakov.
This anniversary year is expected to be quite dynamic in terms of political exchanges between Russia and Sri Lanka. The great milestone will be the official visit of President Maithripala Sirisena to Moscow. We are working very closely with our colleagues from the Sri Lankan Foreign Affairs Ministry to substantially beef up this visit. We expect to sign some crucial agreements that will bring Russian-Sri Lankan bilateral relations to a new level. It is a significant event because as far as I recall, it is going to be the first official visit of the Sri Lankan Head of State to Russia in decades.
As far as parliamentary interaction is concerned, the year will be marked by the visit of the Sri Lankan parliamentary delegation to Russia, headed by the Speaker himself, which we hope will boost the exchanges between our legislative bodies.
The time-tested nature of the friendly Russia–Sri Lanka links gives me all reasons to say there is a wide and open road for the continuous development of our bilateral political contacts, highly-beneficial cooperation in the trade, economic, educational and cultural spheres. I have not any doubt in the bright perspectives for the sustainable and large-scale development of the relations between our two countries.
Long live Sri Lankan-Russian friendship!