HomeArticlesOpening Statement

Opening Statement

Kanwal Sibal

IFS (Retd.) & Advisory Council
We will begin with the Prime Minister’s visit to the Russian Federation. This will be the second visit by our Prime Minister to Russia this year, from 11th to 13th November. You would recall that in May this year he had attended the Tercentenary Celebrations of St. Petersburg at the invitation of President Putin. During that visit the two leaders had had a bilateral meeting and they had later met in New York, on the sidelines of the 58th Session of the United Nations General Assembly.
Since President Putin’s visit to India last year in December 2003, the forthcoming Summit between the two leaders in Moscow will be their fourth meeting within a space of twelve months. This regular interaction at the highest level is symptomatic of our close contacts and regular exchanges with Russia at all levels, which is in keeping with the Strategic Partnership between our two countries.
On this visit, Prime Minister will be accompanied by the External Affairs Minister and other senior officials from concerned Ministries and Departments as well as business and media delegations. A strong business delegation comprising of up to 90 businessmen from various sectors of our industry and trade has been put together by FICCI, CII, ASSOCHAM and All India Association of Industries. The heads of CII and FICCI are part of the business delegation.
In terms of the programme, upon his arrival the Prime Minister has been invited for a quiet one-to-one dinner with President Putin in a dacha. This would be on 11th evening. On 12th Prime Minister will have delegation-level talks with President Putin. That evening there will be a banquet in his honour by the Russian President. The Deputy Prime Minister Ilyushin will be the accompanying Minister for our Prime Minister. Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov and Defence Minister Sergei Ivanov will be calling on our Prime Minister. Prime Minister will also visit the Russian Academy of Sciences and deliver an address there. He is also slated to meet members of the Indian community in Moscow and address a special business event involving major representatives of Indian and Russian businesses on 13th November. He will leave Moscow for Tajikistan on 13th November.
Several bilateral documents are expected to be signed during the visit. It is a very significant number; ten in all in terms of documents and eleven if you include the Joint Statement. So, in all eleven documents will be issued or signed during the visit. These cover the areas of scientific cooperation, space cooperation, industry, establishment of an Indo-Russian Centre for Earthquake Research. Another agreement is on Joint Publication of Bilateral Archive Documents. Some interbanking agreements are there.
As you know, Russia especially is focusing a great deal on global challenges and threats to world security and stability which is currently one of the important areas of focus of their diplomacy. We intend to issue a declaration on this. More details will be naturally given to you in Moscow.
It is clear from the number of documents that will be signed that this will be a substantive visit. The focus will be on giving greater thrust to bilateral trade and investment. There is urgent need to boost the stagnant bilateral trade and promote new investments. A number of steps in this regard are being taken which include: intensification of exchange and contacts between entrepreneurs of the two countries. The Joint Business Council has been revived this year and it met in Moscow in February this year when a senior Indian business delegation participated in an Indian Exhibition. The response was encouraging. There has also been an increase in visas issued to Russians traveling for business and leisure to India. FICCI has also invited its counterpart, the RFCCI, to visit India to coincide with the India International Trade Fair 2003. CII is resuming its operations in Russia.
These steps need to be supported by development of inter-banking relations and other steps. We expect that the SBI-Canara Bank joint venture in Moscow will soon get the necessary approval and start its commercial operations. ECG will sign an MoU on cooperation with Vneshtorgbank of Russia during the visit. It is also expected that the Joint Task Force constituted to look into issues of utilization of remainder of Rupee-Rouble Debt Repayment Fund – the balance with RBI is Rs.2792 crore as on 12th September this year – and outstanding mutual financial obligations will meet at the earliest to address the issues.
We are aware of the need to facilitate travel by businesspersons by putting in place a more conducive visa regime. Discussions on this issue will be on the agenda of a Working Group, which will meet in India in January 2004.
The Indo-Russian Inter-Governmental Commission on Trade, Economic, Scientific, Technological and Cultural Cooperation (IRIGC) has continued to oversee and guide our bilateral economic cooperation.
The Indo-Russian defence cooperation has transcended a buyer-seller relationship. The recent successful testing of the jointly developed Brahmos missile, which is the world’s first supersonic cruise missile, is an example of this. In the past few months the ongoing contracts have continued to be implemented. The Indian Navy has acquired three state-of-the-art frigates, built on order in St. Petersburg. The two sides held joint naval exercises in the Arabian Sea, as you may recall, in May this year. Prime Minister’s visit will naturally provide an opportunity to review defence cooperation at the highest level.
Our cooperation in atomic energy and space for peaceful purposes has been progressing satisfactorily and will also be reviewed. I mentioned to you that we are going to sign some important documents in the area of science and technology which will take our cooperation in high technology forward.

India and Russia share a rich legacy of cultural relations. The success and popularity of the ongoing Days of Russian Culture in India from 1 to 8 November in three India cities – Delhi, Kolkata and Mumbai – is an example of this. Days of Indian Culture will be held in Russia next year.
India and Russia have an extensive and deep dialogue and cooperation in meeting the challenges which the world is faced with today, most importantly – terrorism, drug trafficking, illicit arms trade and related phenomena. There is a very strong governmental framework for such cooperation under the aegis of Joint Working Groups on Combating International Terrorism and Global Challenges, the first meeting of which was held very recently and which is chaired by Mr. Drubnikov on the Russian side and by me on the Indian side. The forthcoming Summit will also provide the two leaders an opportunity to discuss Indo-Russian cooperation in this regard both bilaterally and at multilateral fora.
To sum up, Indo-Russian relations have acquired a new dimension and significance while preserving and enhancing their traditional warmth, friendliness and mutual trust, understanding and concern for each other’s interests. We share a very wide range of cooperative activity and there is a great deal of identity of views with Russia. The thrust of the visit of our Prime Minister will be to reinforce the mutually beneficial nature of this relationship by focusing on potential for further development in key areas. This will contribute to further strengthening and consolidating of the Indo-Russian Strategic Partnership.
Following his visit to Russia, Prime Minister will go to Tajikistan from November 13 to 14. This would be the first visit by the Prime Minister of India to independent Tajikistan which became independent as of September 9, 1991.
In terms of calls, Prime Minister will be calling on the President of Tajikistan Emomali Sharifovich Rakhmanov and will hold restricted and delegation level talks with him. He will also be meeting the Prime Minister of Tajikistan, Mr. Akil Gaibullaevich Akilov. President Rakhmanov will be hosting a luncheon in honour of the Prime Minister on November 14.
Prime Minister would be unveiling a statue of Mahatma Gandhi in Dushanbe. He will also be visiting a ‘Made in India’ exhibition, specially put up by the CII.
Two agreements are expected to be signed during the visit. One is an agreement between the two Governments on cooperation in the field of terrorism and the second is a protocol on exchange of instruments of ratification on the agreement between the two Governments on encouragement and protection of investment. From the map you will see that Tajikistan is our closest neighbour geographically in Central Asia. The country is secular and democratic, those again are values we share with them.
Earlier this year in February, Tajik Airlines started direct flights between Dushanbe and New Delhi which is an indication of stepping up of the relationship and general contacts between the two countries. As a further step in that direction, just before our Prime Minister’s visit, Tajikistan has opened its Embassy in New Delhi in October. With this starting of the direct flights between Dushanbe and New Delhi, India is now connected for the first time with every country in Central Asia by air. It also has, for the first time, diplomatic representation both ways with every Central Asian country.
Following his visit to Tajikistan, Prime Minister will be visiting Syria which will be a 3-day State visit beginning on November 14. I have already mentioned to you his accompanying delegation. The State visit would be the first VVIP visit exchanged since Shri Rajiv Gandhi visited Syria in 1988. So there has been a long gap. Prime Minister was scheduled to visit Syria in March 2003 but because of the precarious situation in the region at that time and possibility of war in Iraq this visit was postponed. Prime Minister did visit Syria but as External Affairs Minister in 1979. This would be the first meeting that our Prime Minister will have with President Dr. Bashar al-Assad, who took office in the year 2000. The Syrian President has been invited to India and the visit is likely to take place in early 2004.
During the visit, Prime Minister will naturally hold discussions with the Syrian President Dr. Assad. He will also have a meeting with the Syrian Prime Minister Engineer Mohammad Naji al-Otari. A number of bilateral Memoranda of Understanding, etc., are expected to be signed in such sectors as science and technology, IT, BT, agriculture, technical cooperation, education, culture, small-scale industries, etc. Our Prime Minister and the Syrian President will jointly inaugurate the Syrian National Biotechnology Centre in Damascus. Before returning to India, Prime Minister is also likely to visit historic sites like the Omayed Mosque in Damascus and Roman ruins in Palmyra.

The visit would provide a useful opportunity to re-emphasise our bilateral ties and is likely to give a fillip to India’s economic profile in the region. India’s exports to Syria have gone up in recent years to reach Rs.586 crore, i.e., US$ 122 million, in 2002-03. Imports from Syria during the same period are not very high – Rs.43 crore which amounts to not a very impressive figure of US$ 9 million. The composition of our export basket to Syria has become more varied and comprises of more finished goods. Syria also acts as an entrepot to the Iraqi market. The visit should give a fillip to these developments. Opportunities we feel exist for export of Indian projects in areas such as railways, steel, cement, software, etc. ONGC Videsh Ltd has recently been awarded its first oilfield exploration and prospecting block in Syria and a contract is likely to be signed soon.
Syria would be interested in the Indian experience in upgrading its industrial and economic infrastructure. We can offer them expertise in high tech areas of Information Technology and Biotechnology for peaceful purposes. Similar possibilities exist for promotion of mutual investments, services and transfer of technology.
The political context of the visit naturally is very significant with Syria – a frontline State with both Israel and Iraq – as the key regional player. The visit would enable us to discuss our perspectives on both these volatile issues with the Syrian leadership. In its capacity as a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council, Syria has been useful for us with regard to a number of our concerns. We must also keep in mind Syria’s influence in the OIC and, of course, its role in the Non-Aligned Movement.
Syria and India have many similarities. Both are ancient civilizations and yet modern countries. We achieved independence in the forties from colonialism. We have common interests in both United Nations and NAM and we do share perceptions on several regional and international issues. The secular orientation of Syria is, of course, important to us. The commonality of perception and background has contributed to understanding between the two countries and this is renewed by high level visits that we exchange regularly with this country.
That is it insofar as my prepared brief is concerned. If you have any questions to ask, do please ask them. The Joint Secretary from WANA Region is with me and he can add to what I am not able to clarify to you with regard to the visit to Syria.



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