Sonia picks Russia for first visit

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By K. SUBRAHMANYA in Delhi
  • Published 4.06.05
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New Delhi, June 4: It is old ally Russia, not Pakistan, that Sonia Gandhi has chosen for her first official foreign tour after the Congress returned to power last May.

The United Progressive Alliance chairperson, who enjoys cabinet rank as head of the ruling coalition’s National Advisory Council, is scheduled to leave on June 13 for a four-day visit. The trip is being interpreted as a strong message of the coalition’s commitment to revitalise Indo-Russia ties.

Russia is seen as India’s “time-tested” friend and strategic partner.

“In principle, the visit is scheduled to begin from June 13,” official sources said today, adding that the itinerary was being given final touches. An official announcement was, however, delayed as the timing of Sonia’s meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin was awaiting Kremlin’s confirmation.

Sonia had earlier deferred a proposal of a visit to Pakistan in March, choosing to wait till Prime Minister Manmohan Singh travelled to the country with which India is trying to make peace.

External affairs minister K. Natwar Singh is believed to have done the spadework with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov for Sonia’s visit when the two met earlier at Vladivostok for a trilateral meeting of foreign ministers that included China. Sources said Singh could accompany the Congress chief on the trip.

The diplomatic significance of Sonia’s visit can hardly be missed.

President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam has just returned from a four-day visit to Russia, during which he extensively interacted with the political leadership and heads of various defence production establishments there. Just before Kalam, the Prime Minister was in the Russian capital for the 60th Victory Day celebrations.

While the visit itself is seen as a strong signal to the Russian leadership about India’s commitment to strengthen ties, Sonia may avail the opportunity of her meeting with Putin and other leaders to pave the way for greater co-operation in nuclear energy.

India is seeking Russia’s supply of nuclear fuel to keep the Tarapur reactor going. The government is also negotiating with the Russian side for expediting work on the second phase of the planned 4000-mw nuclear power plant at Koodamkulam.

According to the agreement on the Koodamkulam nuclear power plant, talks on which were initiated in 1987 when Rajiv Gandhi was the Prime Minister, Russia has supplied the two reactors. India is pressing Russia for the supply of two more reactors as envisaged in the agreement.

While this would be her first official visit abroad since the Congress’s return to power last May, Sonia has been to Thailand and Mauritius in the past year. According to Congress sources, a visit to China is also on the cards.