After years of ups and downs, relations between Pakistan and Russia saw unprecedented improvement over the last few years. Established in 1948, Pakistan and Russia celebrated 70 years of their diplomatic relations in May this year.
High level visits and interaction between the two countries and conclusion of a $2.0 billion inter-government deal for the construction of North-South Gas Pipeline Project from Karachi to Lahore, on October 16, 2015, is a testimony to the upward trajectory in Pakistan-Russia relations. The 1100-km pipeline will have a capacity to receive up to 12.6 billion cubic metre of gas.
The relations between the two countries is marked by replacement of restraint, mistrust, suspicions and ill-will that overshadowed Pakistan-Russia ties during the cold war period with relations based on the principles of reciprocity and mutuality of interests, convergence of views on regional and global issues, common stakes in maintaining durable and sustainable peace and stability in the region in the post-cold war era.
Beginning 1991 when former Russian vice-president, A. Rutskoi, visited Islamabad, leaders of both Pakistan and Russia have been paying visits to each other’s country for exchanging views on key issues of regional and bilateral cooperation. After Rutskoi’s visit, Russian foreign minister, A. Kozyrev, visited Islamabad in December 1993. Both the Russian leaders offered to supply modern weaponry to Pakistan in exchange for consumer goods.
In 2007, Pakistan-Russia bilateral relations took a new turn when the Russian prime minister, Mikhail Fradkov, visited Pakistan and held in-depth talks on Pakistan-Russia relationship. Friendly gestures continued and Russia lifted its arms embargo on Pakistan and expressed willingness to provide Mi-35 (Hind E), which turned into a milestone military cooperation deal that was inked in 2011.
Reciprocating visits by the Russian leaders, General Pervez Musharraf visited Russia in 2003. However, the official visit by former president Asif Ali Zardari to Russia in May 2011 proved to be a milestone in Pakistan-Russia relations because it helped not only to strengthen the bilateral trade, economic and business relations, it also enabled the leaders of the two countries to coordinate their positions on the Afghan settlement. The official visit to Russia by former foreign minister, Hina Rabbani Khar, in February 2012 gave a further impetus to Pakistan-Russia relations.
The rapprochement paved the way for a military cooperation pact, in December 2014, when the Russian Defence Minister General Sergei Shoigu, accompanied by a 41-member delegation visited Pakistan. It was the maiden visit by a Russian Defence Minister during the last 45 years.
In late April, this year, Pakistan’s Chief of the Army Staff, General Qamar Javed Bajwa paid an official visit to Russia. Earlier, naval and air force chiefs of both the countries had paid visits to each other’s country and held mutually beneficial talks.
These high level visits have contributed in consolidating bilateral relations in diverse fields, like trade, finance, commerce, energy, agriculture, defence/security, education, technology and infrastructure.
A permanent member of the UN Security Council, the Russian Federation enjoys considerable respect and clout at the global level. Since its independent birth as a multi-ethnic democratic state, this mineral-rich largest country in terms of territory has succeeded in strengthening its economy and ensuring steady increase in citizens’ quality of life. Industrially developed, technologically advanced and militarily powerful, Russia managed to pull through the global financial crises of 1998 and 2008 with minimum losses.
Russia seems determined to continue pursuing an active foreign policy, based on the principles of respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity of other states as well as non-interference in the internal affairs of its partners. One of the priority areas for application of Russia’s diplomatic efforts is Asia – the epicentre of global political processes in the present era.
Apart from bilateral visits, Pakistani and Russian leaders have been regularly interacting on the sidelines of international events. For instance, in September 2011, former President Zardari met the then Russian President Dmitry Medvedev at the summit of heads of states of the “Dushanbe quartet” (Pakistan, Russia, Afghanistan and Tajikistan) in Dushanbe; and in November 2011 the then Prime Minister of Pakistan Yousaf Raza Gilani met Chairman of the Government of Russia Vladimir Putin at the meeting of the council of heads of governments of Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) in Saint Petersburg. Also at the expert level, there is constructive interaction between various ministries and departments of both Pakistan and Russia.
But, against the backdrop of dynamically developing political contacts, one must admit that at US$541 million Pakistan-Russia bilateral trade does not correspond to the actual potential. Presently, Pakistan’s main imports from Russia are chemical industry products, metals, newsprint and craft paper; while its exports to Russia include sports goods, agricultural, textile and leather products.
This brings to the fore the need for accelerated development of trade and economic ties between both the countries, especially when there is substantial potential for cooperation in energy, oil, gas, telecommunications, satellite television, metallurgy, machinery, auto- industry, construction of highways and pipelines as well as air transport service. As Soviet Union’s successor, Russia has a history of providing assistance for strengthening infrastructure to Pakistan and other developing countries. For example, the regional CASA-1000 project – creating a system to transfer electricity from Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan to Afghanistan and Pakistan – can become mutually beneficial for the concerned countries, especially when Russia has expressed its willingness not only to join this project but also to bear expenses up to US$ 500 million.
Besides, Russia is keen to participate in the expansion of Pakistan Steel Mills (PSM), which was built with USSR’s financial and technical assistance in the 1980s. Earlier, a Soviet loan of 27 million Rubbles laid the foundation for the establishment of OGDCL. In 1981, the Soviet specialists helped in the commissioning of Guddu Thermal Power Plant; and in 1990s they assisted in the construction and commissioning of three units of Muzaffargarh Thermal Power Plant.
It would be pertinent to mention here that Pakistan made a beginning to change the relationship of restraint as early as 1960s when the then foreign minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto opted for a policy of bilateralism in place of its pro-west posture during the cold war period and concluded an oil exploration agreement with the Soviet Union in 1961. At the end of 1965 war, the Soviet Union, acting as a constructive super power, brokered the Tashkent Declaration between India and Pakistan. Pakistan’s Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto visited Moscow twice – in 1972 and 1974 – and his visits helped both the sides to understand each other’s points of view on regional affairs. However, relations between Pakistan and Soviet Union deteriorated after Soviet intervention in Afghanistan in 1979.
After 1988, when Soviet troops began to withdraw from Afghanistan, Pakistan played a positive role in ensuring that the withdrawing troops were not harassed by the Afghan Mujahideen. Islamabad also facilitated contacts between Moscow and the Mujahideen for negotiating the release of prisoners, including some Russian Air Force personnel, held by the Mujahideen.
Following Soviet troops withdrawal from Afghanistan and the Soviet Union’s implosion in 1991, Pakistan started making earnest efforts to mend fences with the Russian Federation. With this goal in view, then Secretary General Foreign Affairs, Akram Zaki visited Moscow in 1992 and then Foreign Minister Gohar Ayub Khan in 1997. These two visits paved the way for former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s visit to the Russian Federation in April 1997.
Earlier, on former Senate Chairman Wasim Sajjad’s advice, a Parliamentary Friendship Group was constituted in the Upper House of Pakistan’s Parliament to foster cordial and friendly relations with the Russian Federation. Around mid-1990s, the Russian ambassador was invited to the Parliament House to give a briefing to the Senate’s friendship group. The interaction between the Pakistani Senators and Russian diplomats was followed by visits by a couple of members of the Russian Parliament’s upper house. Later, a delegation from the Senate of Pakistan, led by then Senate Chairman Wasim Sajjad, paid an official visit to the Russian Federation in the 1990s. In 2006, a six-member delegation of the Russian Duma’s (Parliament) International Affairs Committee had paid a visit to Pakistan.
These visits heralded into a process of constructive dialogue and harmonious relations, which has helped in building confidence and a shared vision for peace and stability in the region.
The writer is a freelance journalist based at Islamabad: [email protected]