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Russia push for visa pact

New Delhi, Nov. 2: India must have been saddened when the Soviet Union disintegrated, but it is certainly not missing the KGB — Moscow’s dreaded intelligence agency when it rivalled Washington in superpower status.

Thirteen years down the line, Delhi is trying its best to keep the new spy masters off Indian turf. “Time-tested” ally Russia’s insistence on getting India to agree to an arrangement that will encourage unfettered movement between the two countries has so far fallen on deaf ears.

A renewed effort is going to be made early next week when the two sides begin talks here on a visa-free regime. Nikolai Borishevsky, head of the Russian consular services, is planning to fly down to the capital. However, one of Borishevsky’s juniors may be sent if Moscow feels the outcome of the talks may not be to its expectations.

There are two reasons why India is reluctant. Delhi feels unscrupulous elements, particularly those that want to foment trouble in India, may take advantage of the liberal visa regime and enter the country through Russia. Officials in South Block cite instances in which, despite the best intentions of Moscow authorities, people from other nations have found access to false Russian travel documents.

Delhi is not spelling out the other reason although it is an important one. India is not sure about Russia’s motive. A section of the Indian establishment feels Moscow is keen on the arrangement because it wants to keep a close watch on the growing closeness between India and the US.

In a visa-free regime, Russians could arrive here on one pretext or the other. Indian officials fear many of them would be from Russian intelligence agencies sent with specific instructions to keep tabs and report back to Moscow on important developments.

There are some countries, like Nepal, with which India does have visa-free regime agreements and Moscow thinks Delhi should extend a similar gesture to it, given their broad and diverse ties. But Indian officials point out that since last year, Delhi has stopped getting into such agreements.

The arrangement with Nepal has proved to be a wrong diplomatic move. The long, porous border and unrestricted movement have encouraged nationals of other countries, particularly Pakistan, to enter India through Nepal.

With terrorism back on the international agenda after September 11, 2001, the Union home ministry has made it clear to South Block that all such future agreements should be put on hold.

The two-day talks scheduled for November 7 and 8 will also focus on illegal migration and the new Russian visa law that makes it mandatory for all applications to be whetted by the foreign ministry.

Indian officials say that even if there is no agreement on a visa-free regime, the two sides may still agree on certain categories of their nationals who will be exempt from the visa rules currently in force.

Indications suggest the exemption may only be extended to each other’s diplomats. And certainly, not a number that neither can keep track of.

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