“Without any condition here we are your allies in the full sense of the word” was how Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin conveyed his warm feelings to his Pakistani counterpart Yousaf Raza Gilani when the two met on November 25, 2010 on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit in Dushanbe.
Both reiterated their belief that there are vast opportunities for mutually beneficial relations and complementarities that must be utilised optimally for mutual advantage. Putin told Gilani that Russian companies were interested in investing in various sectors in Pakistan, speaking in response to Gilani’s desire “to seek comprehensive partnership with Russia” and his proposal for a bilateral dialogue on matters relating to peace and stability in Afghanistan.
The desire to augment bilateral relations between Moscow and Islamabad should be explored for a new beginning by building a strong edifice of interactions aimed at strategic, political and economic convergence through consultations on the “evolving new security architecture in the Asia pacific region as well Greater Eurasian Region”.
Relations between Pakistan and the former USSR have historically been cool, even antagonistic, during the decade of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan and earlier due to Indo-Soviet friendship. After the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the emergence of the Russian Federation, relations have steadily improved, particularly in the economic field. A debt-rescheduling agreement of $127 million was signed in March 2005. Russia also supported Pakistan’s request for observer status at the SCO and Pakistani leaders have since met their Russian counterparts at SCO meetings in different capitals.
However, relations between the two countries lacked depth and dimension despite strong possibilities for mutual cooperation. The spell was broken in April 2007 when then prime minister Mekhail Fredkov visited Pakistan, the first visit by a Soviet leader in almost four decades. Fredkov termed his visit an ‘important step’ for strengthening bilateral relations between Pakistan and Russia with special focus on cementing economic ties.
Since Fredkov’s visit, relations have been steady but with below par progress. Prospects for joint collaboration in the oil sector were explored with the signing of an MoU on November 19, 2007 during Pakistan’s petroleum minister’s visit to Moscow. Economic interaction has till now lacked behind the strong political desire to forge close relations. The annual trade turnover is a pitiful $700 million.
Defence relations between Moscow and Islamabad have also been non-existent except one maverick helicopter deal in 1969 during then president Yahya’s visited to Moscow. Pakistan has now expressed interest in the purchase of a MI-35 attack helicopter to fight terrorism. An MoU is also under consideration on defence collaboration to intensify overall cooperation.
Pakistan has an important place in Russia’s foreign policy, being one of the major influential Muslim countries. Pakistan’s foreign policy is now rightly gravitating towards Central Asia and close relations with Russia would pay us a rich dividend. Pakistan should institute a high-level dialogue on strategic and political issues and build up a mechanism to focus on economic cooperation through increased market access to Pakistani products in Russia and building connectivity in trade and energy sectors. Friendly and cooperative relations with Moscow will also assist us in securing full membership of the SCO and open the door for significant economic activity with all Central Asian States, rich in oil and energy resources.
Published in The Express Tribune, November 30th, 2010.