'Russia coming back to Bangladesh'
“We never stopped, but we want to engage more actively,” Deputy Head of Russian Federal Agency for Cooperation with Foreign Countries Alexander Chesnokov says.
Russian ambassador in Dhaka Alexander Nikolaev said on Friday the relations between the two countries were experiencing “a renaissance now”.
He added that “Russia is coming back to Bangladesh, ‘seriously’ and ‘for long time’.
The ambassador's effusive remark was made in the presence of the Deputy Head of Russian Federal Agency for Cooperation with Foreign Countries (Rossotrudnichestvo), Alexander Chesnokov, currently in Dhaka.
Chesnokov is here on a visit to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Russian Centre of Science & Culture in the city.
The ambassador told journalists that Russian culture and its people's friendliness were his country's “power”. “And it (culture) has enormous importance.”
Russia-Bangladesh relations began in 1971 when the then Soviet Union stood by the side of Bangladesh’s freedom fighters in their struggle against Pakistan.
Bangladesh was born after a nine-month war and the erstwhile Soviet Union had extended its support to the newborn country at the UN in 1971.
It also helped Bangladesh to restore and develop its war-ravaged economy.
The Cultural Centre was set up in 1974, encouraging many Bangladeshis, students in particular, to visit the Soviet Union.
Russian books and cinema became popular among Bangladeshi readers and cine goers.
The Soviet Union broke up in 1991, leaving Russia without its union of socialist republics.
In a period of Russia's own transition, the Culture Centre had stymied owing to a lack of diversity and modernisation.
“We never stopped, but we want to engage more actively,” Deputy Head Chesnokov said. “This centre acts a bridge between Russia and a foreign country.”
There are more than 80 such centres across the world and at least another 20 will be added soon.
Chesnokov said they would modernise the Dhaka centre, connecting its library with Moscow’s national library and national museum, enabling Bangladesh’s new generation learn a great deal about Russia from Dhaka.
“It’ll also foster their interest in visiting Russia,” he said.
“We have a strong alumni group. Now we are focusing on the young generation,” he said.
Last year, a group of Dhaka University students had gone to Russia, and more students will be on a visit this year, he said.
Last year, 47 Bangladeshi students had enrolled in different Russian universities. This year the number was expected to cross 60, he said.
Young professionals from various fields, aged between 20 and 35 years, would also be invited.
“It will be the ‘first step’ in further strengthening our relationship,” he said.
The ties between the two countries have not always been close because of Bangladesh’s own political transition.
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s visit to Moscow in January last year was the first by a Bangladeshi head of government since Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s visit of the erstwhile Soviet Union in April 1972.
The ambassador attributed the "cool" relationship to a “series of events” in between without elaborating.
The transition in Russia was difficult, too, he said, referring to the period following the collapse of the Soviet Union.
“And that’s why our presence has not been felt in South Asia,” he added.
He said when he came to Dhaka two years ago he had faced a barrage of questions like: “Where are Russian books? Where are Russian films? Where’re Russian documentaries, where are your actors? Moscow circus?”
“It gave me new hope,” he said.
Deals were signed during Hasina's visit to Moscow on the Rooppur nuclear power plant, to be built in northern Pabna. The plant will add a generation capacity of 1000MW to a country that is badly power-starved.
Russia has a history of contributing to Bangladesh’s power sector. The thermal power plants at Siddhirganj and Ghorasal, commissioned in the mid 1970s, still produce a major share of the country's total power output.
Two oldest blocks of Ghorasal have been recently modernized by a Russian engineering company.
The bilateral trade also grew after Hasina’s visit.
The two-way trade, which touched $700 million last year, would cross $1 billion next year, the ambassador hoped.
He said they would extend their support in all areas of bilateral cooperation, with politics topping the list.
“Russia will support Bangladesh at the UN on every point,” he stressed.
“Our foreign policy has shifted from a bi-polar mindset to a multi-polar concept. We are following UN standards. We do not impose our own views to other countries. We show respect for a country’s internal affairs”.
“And our relationship with Bangladesh will be based on cooperation and respect,” he said.
He, however, urged the media to gather their information about Russia from the “main source”.
“Don’t publish one-sided news. Try to look at multi-sided sources,” he said in an oblique reference to recent coverage of Russia’s 'annexation' of Crimea that President Vladimir Putin has described as “reunification”.
The ambassador said he noted that Bangladesh media without keeping its journalists in overseas countries were covering stories following foreign media, mostly British and American.
Russian embassy can be a source of news in Dhaka, he said.