Wooing Russia is savvy statecraft

Wooing Russia is savvy statecraft

By Zafar Sobhan | 19 January, 2013
The government should be congratulated for at least having the vision and gumption to take a big bold policy measure.

As a general principle, the Awami League (AL) government's efforts to woo China, and now, most recently, Russia, constitute smart and savvy statecraft. Bangladesh will only benefit from opening up to the rest of the world and diversifying our relations both creates opportunities for economic and technological advantage and provides us with wider foreign policy options in a multi-polar world.

In this sense, this week's $1 billion defence deal, including $500 million for the country's first nuclear power plant, together with Gazprom's deal with Petrobangla to drill 10 wells, represent a significant achievement for the government.

More even than the financial advantages of the deals signed, the importance of the recent sit-down between Sheikh Hasina and Vladimir Putin in Moscow is that it signals a willingness to stake out policies in the national interest even if they cause discomfort to the other big countries we are doing business with.

The optics of the PM in Moscow signing billion dollar deals was well received and will have boosted the government's image internally.

On closer inspection, however, the fine print of deals signed by the government is less encouraging. It's all very well to forge bold new bonds, both economic and strategic, but at the same time one has to be careful that the money committed is money well spent.

Questions have already been raised locally about the reported 5% rate on the billion dollar loan deal, which comes to a cool $50 million a year in financing charges. Add that to the hefty bill for defence purchases and it is fair to ask whether that is money well spent.

Actually, as far as the government is concerned, it may well be, if it succeeds in its primary purpose of winning goodwill in the cantonment and buying off restive officers by giving them lots of shiny new toys to play with. Nevertheless, for the rest of us, the price tag is a legitimate gripe.

More problematic still is the $500 million for our first nuclear power plant. Now, I am not opposed to nuclear power per se. In today's climate of growing energy needs and dwindling and increasingly more costly resources, there has to be a space for safe nuclear power.

We may excel in a number of areas, but waste disposal is not one of them. When we do such a poor job of dealing safely and adequately with non-nuclear waste, what are the chances that we will be able to safely deal with the issue of nuclear waste disposal?

Well, at least we are taking the assistance of a country that is well known for the quality of its nuclear power plants and their strong adherence to the best safety measures. Oh, wait.

An added concern is the fact that there is no one inside the country competent to run such a plant or to

meaningfully oversee those who do. Nor do the Russians go in much for technology transfer.

Bringing Gazprom to Bangladesh should prove to be a good move. They are the established titan of the gas industry and in addition to the direct benefits of their involvement locally, their arrival will build confidence in the sector within the industry worldwide and also foster some needed competition that can only work to Bangladesh's long-term advantage.

Of course, in the final analysis, whether these deals turn out to be winners for us will depend first on the actual small details of how they are negotiated and in the second on how they are implemented both by our new partners as well as by ourselves. The country's past record in such situations is not encouraging, but the government will correctly argue that we can't blame them for that and that it would be unfair to second guess this deal on those grounds.

It's a fair point, and, in any event, the government should be congratulated for at least having the vision and the gumption to take a big bold policy measure. Whether the deals will prove wise in the long-run is a legitimate concern.

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