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Russia: Prime Minister's Visit To India Renews Old Ties

By Susan Tapply

Madras, India 23 December 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Russian Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov's visit to India, which concluded yesterday managed to give new warmth to the close relationship which has existed between Moscow and New Delhi since Soviet times.

Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee went out of his way to express India's support for Russia, now racked by a financial crisis and with diminishing power in the world. Speaking in Delhi at a banquet given in honour of Primakov, Vajpayee said India had in the past received valuable support from Russia in "its efforts at securing self-reliance in crucial sectors." He continued: "In turn, Russia can be sure that it has in India a dependable partner ready to deepen and diversify bilateral cooperation and jointly face the challenges that lie ahead".

One practical step to help Russia during the Primakov visit was a move to reorganise payment of the debt India owes Russia from Soviet days. India's debt, mainly for arms deliveries, is estimated at the equivalent of some $10,000 million.Under a 1994 arrangement, India pays annual installments in the form of food and commodities like medicines and tobacco. However, over the last three years this source of payment has not been fully utilized by Russia.

According to the new arrangement, part of the debt repayments will be organised so that much-needed commodities will go to specific regions in Russia.

Both parties also appreciated the need for setting aside some of the debt repayment money to establish joint ventures in India in such areas as power generation, steel production and information technology. India's Union Commerce Minister, Ramakrishna Hedge, also said that if Russian banks were to establish a presence in India, this, he felt, would give an impetus to bilateral trade.

During the Primakov visit, his first to India as Prime Minister, the two sides signed seven agreements. One was on economic, industrial and financial cooperation. It aims to encourage links in civilian uses of atomic energy, the oil and gas sector, thermal and hydro-power and to exchange knowledge in the steel and coal sectors. India has been offered the chance to explore for oil and gas sites in Sakhalin and Tatarstan, and the Russians the chance to prospect for hydrocarbons in India.

Other agreements covered plans for collaboration in air services, telecommunications, defence cooperation, consular relations and organised crime, including signing an extradition treaty and mutual legal assistance in criminal matters.

The defence agreement signed outlines the general direction of the two countries' defence cooperation until the year 2010. India, long a major purchaser of Russian military hardware, has a big military-industrial complex of its own. And the Indians stressed their interest in becoming more of a partner in defence equipment production.

Further talks took place over the possible purchase by India of a Russian aircraft carrier, the Admiral Gorshkov, but reports say the Indians stopped short of making a binding commitment to buy. Russia's asking price for refurbishing the 40,000 ton carrier, which is 25 years old and presently out of commission, is between $500 million and $650 million.

In a broader framework, both sides agreed to continue developing their strategic partnership, the origins of which date from a 1971 treaty. The deepening of that partnership is set to be formalised when Russian President Boris Yeltsin makes his delayed visit to India next year.

On the visit, Primakov unveiled an unusual initiative -- a plan for a triangular strategic relationship between Russia, India and China. The plan appears an attempt to balance the predominance of the U.S. in world affairs following the end of the Cold War and the decline of Russia's global influence.

According to Primakov, the strategic triangle would help strengthen regional geo-political stability. However, although Russia and India are close, India and China are certainly not on warm terms. An Indian official recently identified China as India's main potential enemy.

Although the Indian hosts listened politely to Primakov's suggestion, China appeared to quickly sink the idea. Beijing's Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhu Bangzao said China pursues an independent foreign policy dedicated to peace. Zhu discouraged the suggestion of a three-sided special alignment, saying that China is ready to develop diplomatic relations with all countries in the world.

On another big political theme, Primakov said Russia would support India having a permanent seat on a reformed United Nations Security Council.