ISLAMABAD: Moscow believes that there are still not enough reasons to justify Russian President Vladimir Putin’s visit to Islamabad.
“The problem is that usually the purpose of the visit is not participation in ceremonies. The visit should have some substance,” Russian Ambassador Alexey Dedov said at the Institute of Strategic Studies Islamabad (ISSI), where he was delivering a lecture on Pak-Russia relations.
“As soon as the substance is ready we can discuss the visit,” he said.
Mr Dedov defined the substance as “signing of documents” for cooperation, “preparation of plans” for expanding ties, and “declarations”.
No Russian or even Soviet president has ever visited Pakistan. President Putin had planned a visit to Islamabad in October 2012 for attending a quadrilateral summit between Pakistan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Afghanistan, but cancelled it at the eleventh hour.
Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was then hastily dispatched to Islamabad to explain the cancellation.
Lately, there was renewed talk of Mr Putin visiting Islamabad after Russia agreed to invest in the $2 billion North-South gas pipeline project for carrying liquefied natural gas (LNG) from Karachi to Lahore. It was being speculated that he could visit Pakistan for performing the groundbreaking ceremony of the project.
Despite the perceived lack of incentive for taking the relationship to a higher plane, Moscow has, nevertheless, kept Pakistan engaged because of strategic and political compulsions, particularly the evolving situation in Afghanistan, terrorism concerns and anti-narcotics collaboration.
The ambassador rued the “unrealised potential” of the ties, but noted that Pakistan was “seen (in Russia) as an important and reliable partner with whom relations could be developed”.
He cited the geostrategic position of Pakistan and challenges and interests shared by the two countries as the motivation for Moscow to work for better and stronger bilateral relations.
Over the past few years, the two countries have signed important agreements for military-to-military cooperation, and technical military cooperation, besides regularising meetings of the Inter-Governmental Commission and initiating a business and investment forum.
The two countries are also close to resolving a longstanding economic dispute that led to freezing of Russian assets worth $120 million in Pakistan. A draft agreement has been initialled and a final accord is likely soon. The row was a major obstacle to economic cooperation between the two countries.
“Pre-requisites have been met.… the foundation has been laid and there are chances of success,” Mr Dedov observed.
In a landmark defence deal, Russia last year agreed to sell Mi-35 helicopters to Pakistan.
“Technical issues related to delivery of helicopters are being discussed now, which may require time,” Mr Dedov said about the helicopters’ sale describing it as a “pilot deal”. He hoped that the cooperation (military hardware export) would develop. Russia is also supporting Pakistan’s entry into Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO).
The diplomat said that Moscow was also focusing on creating a positive atmosphere in South Asia (in a reference to India-Pakistan ties) and believes that the SCO could provide the platform for fostering confidence and cooperation between Delhi and Islamabad.
Mr Dedov said that the upcoming SCO meeting in Tashkent would provide a good opportunity for a meeting between President Putin and Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.
The two leaders last met on the sidelines of the SCO summit in Ufa in July 2015.
Published in Dawn, March 18th, 2016