As Sri Lanka and Russia celebrate 60 years since establishing diplomatic relations, this year, the Daily News met with Sri Lankan Ambassador to Russia Dr. Saman Weerasinghe to discuss the economic and political relationship between the two countries. The relationship, which strengthened during the days of the non-alignment movement, has come a long way, and while the number of dominant players in the international stage has increased since then, Dr. Weerasinghe trusts that we could still do more to further strengthen ties with Russia, which has been an all-weather friend to Sri Lanka over the years.
Q. In 1958, two years after Russia and Sri Lanka established diplomatic relations, the two governments signed an agreement on economic and technical cooperation. The Cabinet recently approved a proposal to sign another agreement with Russia on science, technology, and innovation during President Maithripala Sirisena's visit to Russia this month. Over the last 60 years, how has this partnership helped improve the field of technology in Sri Lanka? And especially when we are trying to expand into the field of electronic exports, how can Russia assist us improve our technology?
A. The Agreement on Economic and Technical Co-operation, which had existed between the two countries, was replaced by a proposal made by the Sri Lankan side on co-operation in the trade sector in the year 1998. Since then, Sri Lanka has been negotiating with the Russian Federation in the framework of the same topic, and finally, the both parties came into consensus and established the Inter-governmental Joint Commission on Trade and Economic Corporation and Science and Technology Corporation in 2015. After my appointment as the new Ambassador to the Russian Federation, the first session of this Commission was held in February, last year, in Moscow.
This is one of the most significant milestones for our country in terms of expansion of technological relations with Russia. In the framework of activities implemented by the above Commission, the Secretary of the Ministry of Science and Technology of Sri Lanka had further discussions and agreed to consider several collaborations with the Russian counterpart.
You may see that now we are signing an MoU between the ministries of both countries on co-operation in science, technology, and innovation during the official visit of the President, and it covers areas such as exchange of scientists and specialists, scientific and technological information, etc. Minister Susil Premajayantha will be a member of the official Sri Lankan delegation to sign this Memorandum on behalf of the Sri Lankan side.
In addition, a delegation from the Arthur C. Clark Institute of Modern Technologies, Katubedda, will visit Russia parallel to the visit of the President for discussions and singing of an MoU with the State Space Corporation of the Russian Federation (ROSCOSMOS) and visiting the Samara State Aerospace University for further enhancement of technological co-operation between our countries.
Plus, for the last few years, top Russian technological universities, among which is the Bauman State Technical University and St. Petersburg State Polytechnic University, have been providing education in the areas of aircraft engineering, nano technology, mechatronics, etc. to students from Sri Lanka.
I think all these activities implemented by both, Sri Lanka and Russia, clearly explain what kind of relations our countries have in the areas of science and technology, and I am absolutely certain that the near future will bring us even more positive outcomes of this co-operation.
Q. What other areas do you hope to cover during the President's visit?
A. Russia is a country which we are having a strong and cordial relationship with. We wish to cover all possible areas of co-operation, including political and economic relations, trade and defence.This year, we are celebrating 60 years of diplomatic relations between our countries and, without a doubt, we have come through a long period, so obviously we have a long history to discuss. And we will.
In addition to the MoU on co-operation in science, technology, and innovation, we are in the process of finalizing policy documents and agreements on the areas covering cultural relations, tourism, and fisheries. Signing of these documents will enable us to enhance co-operation in these spheres, which for sure can bring very fruitful results.
Concerning the sector of fisheries, the document has a status of a Federal Agreement which covers the areas of technological improvement, research, and skill development, addresses marine related conservation activities and policies, etc.
Q. Russia, last year, expressed interest in further improving relations with Sri Lanka through bi-lateral ties. What are the areas you are looking at for further co-operation, and how can more Russian investments be brought into Sri Lanka? The Cabinet also approved many agreements to be signed with Russia. How can this be used to expand on and build new business ties?
A. Sri Lanka is currently in the process of negotiations of an agreement on the topic related to investments. Up to date, Russia has not yet signed any agreement with Sri Lanka.
However, as an initiation, we have organized a seminar with the support of the Chamber of Commerce and Industry of the Russian Federation for incoming business delegation, covering such sectors as tea, tourism, trade, construction, and logistics etc.
We expect more than 40 representatives of the Russian business and investment industries. Moreover, Chairman of the Board of Investment of Sri Lanka Upul Jayasuriya is expected to deliver a comprehensive presentation on Sri Lanka and its investment potentials and the benefits to the audience.
Q. There is a possibility of US ending sanctions on Russia, and thus, it is expected that the Russian economy would have a boost as a result. How will this help improve Sri Lankan exports to Russia, especially in the areas like tea, where Sri Lanka holds close to 17 percent of the market?
A. To my knowledge, the US sanctions have not made significant impact on the Russian economy. In fact, the Russian economy is mainly hit by lower global oil prices, as a large portion of foreign exchange income of the country is generated by oil and gas exports.
We should not forget that not only Russia, but also the global economy is going through an economic slowdown. The repercussions of this global economic meltdown also reflect in the Russian economy.
As I know, the present on-going dialogue and relationship between the US and Russia is on the eradication of world terrorism. However, it can be anticipated that a positive movement of the US-Russia relationship would bring desirable outcomes for Russia in future.
If I talk about the Sri Lanka tea exports to Russia, the current economic situation in the Russian Federation under pressure from declining oil and gas prices and continuous depreciation of Ruble against USD is severely affecting the Sri Lanka tea export to Russia. From the 2014 to 2016, the Sri Lanka tea exports to the Russian Federation declined by 25 percent in value term. Sri Lanka is the largest tea exporter to Russia with market share of 28 percent in value term by 2016.
However, our Ceylon tea market share in the Russian tea market has declined from 38 percent in 2014 to 28 percent in 2016, under the weakening economic condition attributed to the lower global oil prices.
Given the circumstances, if the global oil prices were increased, it would boost the Russian economy, and the Russian Ruble would begin to be appreciated against US Dollar. With a stable economic condition, the Russian importers would be able to bring down the products from foreign countries at a lower cost, and Sri Lanka could also exploit the opportunity to export more Ceylon tea to the Russian market. In a sound economic condition in Russia, the purchasing power of the Russian people would increase, and the consumers would shift to high quality products such as pre-packed Ceylon tea. In addition, there is a very high chance that under such conditions, Ceylon tea will reinforce its position in the Russian market.
Q. As Ambassador, what are your own areas of focus, and where do you see potential for Sri Lanka?
A. Since I have spent a lot of time in both, Sri Lanka and Russia, I have a very strong wish to enhance the relationship between these two countries. I have focused on the all areas, including defence, political, and economic relations. I have seen that the trade between two countries is not up to the expectations, and during my tenure, I have taken measures to initiate these improvements.
As a result, we have started to participate in international trade, tourism, food exhibitions, and now, are able to diversify our export basket from tea, into seafood, spices, confectionery, etc.
For the first time after a decade, we have started promoting gems and jewellery in the Russian Federation, and had a delegation of top precious stone exporters come to the Russian Federation. They also held a networking session for them to build their contacts in prospective business opportunities.
Seafood exports to the Russian Federation has surpassed USD 1.3 million for the last year. The embassy conducted a seafood demonstration programme for top seafood exporters exhibited in Russia in 2015, and had a significant impact on this increase.
Apart from this, there is a potential for apparel products to be exported to the Russian Federation, and we are looking forward to seeing signs of enhancement in this sector as well.
Q. Do you think the reputation of the Sri Lankan Embassy in Russia and its relationship with Russia has been tarnished due to the alleged actions of former Ambassador to Russia UdayangaWeeratunga?
A. This is a topic under the discussion of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Sri Lanka. Therefore, I would rather not comment on this question.
Q. What steps have been taken to apprehend him? Has Interpol reached out to the Embassy?
Q. In the last 60 years, more after the 70s, we have seen Russian influence over Sri Lankan foreign policy wane as other powers such as US, China, and India are coming into the fore. How does this impact relations between the two countries?
A. Sri Lanka’s foreign policy is based on the principle “friendly towards all enmity to the world”. This is an honest open foreign policy for all the countries in the world.This is exactly what the Russian Federation and Sri Lanka have had for last several decades, and we are expecting to keep the same cordial relationship with Russia in the future, and I believe that visits like this (visit of the President of Sri Lanka to Russia) would warm up the relationships between our countries with very prospective bilateral outcomes as a result in future.
Q. With the UN Human Rights Council deliberating on Resolution 30/1 to be co-sponsored by Sri Lanka, along with the UK and USA, how can Russia help support Sri Lanka on the international stage?
A. Like in the past, Sri Lanka is always grateful to Russia for the consistent support extended by the Russian Government in multilateral fora.
Q. How has Russia's foreign policy changed since Donald Trump was sworn in as President, and what role do developing countries such as ours have to play, and does it benefit us or not?
A. I believe that we should positively think about political changes in the USA and hope that the conducive policies will come into effect as a result, which will be beneficial for all countries.