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PM talks nostalgia & business with Russia

Moscow, Dec. 5: Raj Kapoor, Awara Hoon and Mera Naam Joker were the staple of India’s relations with Russia in the days when a humungous USSR was a counterweight to the US.

That the idiom, character and terms of reference have changed dramatically and perhaps irrevocably in a unipolar world were the burden of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s addresses in various forums he attended today on the second day of his bilateral visit to Russia.

The underpinning of his speeches was a recognition of the reality that “the structure of the global economy is changing and so is the structure of global power and politics”.

Whether it was his acceptance speech at the Moscow State University after he was conferred the honorific of “Professor Honoris Causa” or at a joint meeting of Indian and Russian businessmen a little later, Singh’s principal message was nostalgia ' Nehru’s tributes to the Russian literary masters, the Soviet Union’s “valuable” help in setting up infrastructure and heavy industry in the years following Independence and the Hindi-Russi bhai-bhai catchphrase of the sixties and seventies.

But a long-term perspective on Indo-Russian relations will have to be based on hard-nosed material considerations.

“Our bilateral trade has, so far, largely been conducted within the framework of rupee-rouble arrangements,” Sigh told the Russian “oligarchs” ' the clutch of industrialists who replaced the communist-era apparatchiks as the country’s movers and shakers. “But it is moving towards, and it will soon be, a fully market-determined phenomenon.”

He announced that the two countries were working on an agreement that would permit the utilisation of the remaining rupee debt for Russian investments in India.

Singh explained that such an agreement would put the ball in the court of Indian and Russian businessmen to identify and grab the opportunities for expanding trade and economic cooperation.

He clarified that the governments would act as facilitators and the business community would have to occupy centrestage.

The Prime Minister expressed unhappiness at the volume of bilateral trade which, he said, did not correspond to the potential of the economies of the two countries and the strategic partnerships in other key areas such as defence.

Singh underlined the need not only to stem the decline of trade in traditional items like tea, tobacco, textiles and leather but expand the trade basket to include value-added items in applied technologies, information technology, telecommunications and energy.

Official sources said the meeting with the business “oligarchs” was not on the Prime Minister’s original itinerary reportedly because it was difficult to get the elite club of seven together at the same place and the same time for logistical reasons. That the “impossible” was achieved was seen as a “big booster”.

The oligarchs included V.I. Yakunin, president of Russian Railways, V.P. Evtushenkov, president of Sistema, and S.M. Vainshtok, president of Transneft.

However, the Indian business delegation, which timed its visit with the Prime Minister’s and called on him separately today, mentioned the “roadblocks” in improving business relations such as lack of information of each other’s markets, difficulty in getting Russian visas, a weak financial base and lack of direct air links. The delegation included CII and Ficci heads Y.C. Deveshwar and Onkar Singh Kanwar.

As Singh in his address to the Russian “oligarchs” spoke of the energy sector as a “key” interest area and his keenness to diversify India’s engagement, he also met Russian energy minister Viktor Khristenko.

A breakthrough was achieved when the two agreed to have joint ventures in oil and gas exploration and production in third countries in central Asia. The pact will include equity participation.

Briefing the press, foreign ministry spokesperson Navtej Sarna said India was considering the Russian request for constructing additional nuclear reactors at the Kudankulam power plant to meet the growing energy needs.

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