By Pathik Hasan
Russia is a true friend of Bangladesh. Diplomatic relations between the two countries were established between Bangladesh and the Soviet Union on 25 January 1972, with 2022 marking the 50th anniversary of bilateral relations.
Bangladesh has maintained bilateral relations since the collapse of the Soviet Union, with a Russian embassy in Dhaka, and a consulate-general in Chittagong. Bangladesh has an embassy in Moscow, with the two countries enjoying close military, economic and political relations. This relationship is contributing to the development of Asian regional politics, economy, and culture.
Bangladesh’s relations with Russia are historic. It would have been difficult for Bangladesh to achieve independence without the cooperation of the Soviet Union, and this continues to be recognized today.
Russia’s cultural ties with Bengal were established in the eighteenth century. The first Bengali play was staged by Russian playwright and explorer Gerasim Lebedev, who with the help of local intellectuals, also established the first European-style theater in Bengal.
Lebedev also produced a short Bengali dictionary, wrote a book in Bengali on arithmetic, and translated parts of the Anandamangal poem into Russian.
Both Bangladesh and Russia share the same ideals in various regional and international forums, including the United Nations, in maintaining global peace and security, with the Russian UN representative often aligning with Bangladeshi counterparts. Russia has helped Bangladesh get recognition on the global stage and this has increased Russian investment in Bangladesh.
Bangladesh has signed a number of agreements with Russia on various issues ranging from construction of nuclear power plants to trade, investment, education, and culture. Russia has cooperated with Bangladesh to build the nuclear power plant at Rooppur, including financial assistance. The assistance of Russia in this regard brings international status and prestige for Bangladesh and helps alleviate Bangladesh’s search for new energy sources – the country has historically been energy poor. Such projects also help downstream with improving energy infrastructure leading to further corporate and business development in the country.
Russia has invested heavily in the country’s power sector and will continue to do so. Russia is investing 90 percent or 12 billion in the Rooppur nuclear power plant. Russia is also investing in Ghorashal and Karnafuli. During this time, many agreements have been reached between the two countries.
The Rohingya Issue
Bangladesh has also signed a US$1 billion arms deal with Russia, which also provided financial assistance. This assists in dealing with security issues with the Rohingya problem in Bangladesh, which extends into ASEAN. The Rohingya are a Muslim sect originating in Myanmar’s Rakhine state who have been fighting the Myanmar Government to create their own state. An estimated 750,000 have fled across the border to Bangladesh to escape the fighting in a situation not dissimilar to Sri Lanka’s civil war with the Tamil Tigers. The Russian Ambassador to Bangladesh has pledged assistance to Dhaka to help resolve the crisis.
Russia is also investing in other industries in Bangladesh, with increasing interest in ICT, energy, and pharmaceuticals. Investment into infrastructure is also continuing with Russia looking at upgrading the Ishwardi airport. It can be expected that Bangladeshi-Russian cooperation will increase in all fields including economic, social and cultural.
Railway sector: Bangladesh has called for investment in the railway sector in Bangladesh during a meeting of Bangladesh’s Railway Minister Russian Ambassador to Bangladesh Alexander Mantitsky at the Railway House on November 01, 2021. Russian Trans-Siberian railway is world famous. Russian management of Railway is very well. Bangladesh can learn from Russia in this regard. Russia can invest in Bangladesh railway to promote the quality of service and technical advancement of Bangladesh railway. Accroding to the minister’s statement, Bangladesh is procuring new coaches and locomotives. In addition to building and renovating bridges, new railway tracks are being built. Russian investors can invest in these sectors and set up a training institute jointly with Bangladesh. It is true that Bangladesh could benefit from Russia-Bangladesh railway cooperation.
When Alexander Mantitsky invited the minister to visit his country, Nurul Islam accepted the invitation to visit Russia at an appropriate time next month to see their railways, technology and coaches and locomotives. Russia-Bangladesh railway cooperation would be mutual beneficial for both states.
At present, Bangladesh’s bilateral trade with Russia is slightly more than US$2 billion.
Russia has expressed interest in importing mangoes from Bangladesh. Russia’s Ambassador to Bangladesh Alexander V. Mantitsky expressed this interest during a meeting with Agriculture Minister Abdur Razzak at the Secretariat on August 20, 2021.
Bangladesh wants to import DAP (di-ammonium phosphate) and potassium fertilizers, and agreement has been reached between the two countries in this regard.
According to the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics, the country produced about 1.5 million tonnes of mangoes last year, valued at about US$11 million. Bangladesh ranks seventh in the world in terms of mango production, however exports lag far behind. For example, in 2021, neighboring India exported US$14 million worth of mangoes, while Bangladesh exported just US$50,000 worth.
Bangladesh does not produce much wheat; the local climate is unsuitable. However, wheat consumption is going up and the new generation of Bangladeshi’s consume increasing amounts. This is why Bangladesh imports wheat from Russia. Fertilizers are also imported from Russia, the use of a new fertilizer called DAPP has increased in Bangladesh. Where earlier 600,000 tonnes of DAPP were used, now the demand has increased to 1.4 million tonnes.
A memorandum of understanding is to be signed with Russia, with Bangladesh importing DAPP and Russia importing potatoes, overturning a 2014 ban due to the presence of brown rot disease. Since then, the Bangladesh government has taken many steps to make is potatoes safe. The Russian Ambassador to Bangladesh, Alexander V. Mantitsky said recently that necessary steps would be taken to import potatoes in this regard.
The Russian government is providing scholarships to Bangladeshi students. Many students from the country are pursuing higher degrees in Russia and are becoming proficient in various subjects including nuclear science, IT and bioengineering.
Potential Free Trade
Bangladesh has completed the preparation of signing an MoU (Memorandum of Understanding) with Russia concerning the possibility of a Free Trade Agreement with the Eurasian Economic Union, (EAEU) which also includes Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan. The actual MoU is expected to be signed at the end of March 2022 and will ease trade complexities. Bilateral Banking and possibly ECommerce channels will be launched through this.
There is a huge demand for Bangladeshi-made garments, seafood, potatoes, and medicines. Once the EAEU MoU is signed, Russia’s economic and trade relations with Bangladesh will greatly increase.
Russia agreed to provide and produce its Sputnik Covid-19 vaccine in Bangladesh, which will open up pharmaceutical and other medical research cooperation.
Russia has shown interest to celebrate the ‘50 years diplomatic ties. Bangladesh has also welcomed this. These ties are set to strengthen and grow during 2022.