President Maithripala Sirisena’s journey to Moscow last week would have been more than a state visit to an enduring, friendly world power. In Moscow is also his alma mater, the Maxim Gorky Literature Institute, where he studied political science after his diploma in agriculture at Peradeniya. A budding communist activist in his youth, the President would have found little difficulty (even if he has forgotten his Russian) in empathising with the vicissitudes of post-communist Russia.
But the President’s personal experience notwithstanding, the enduring friendship between Moscow and Colombo over decades provides a solid foundation for further strengthening of ties. This bilateral friendship has been unwavering ever since diplomatic relations were established in the first decade after cataclysmic World War 2. As the bigger partner, the one-time Soviet Union, and then Russia, generously extended concessionary aid from the inception of post-colonial Sri Lanka’s national development endeavour.
Beginning with capital assistance to early state industrial ventures here, USSR/Russian aid broadened to an extensive educational support program that, over the decades, benefitted successive generations of Sri Lankans. The aspiring rural intelligentsia, empowered by state-funded free education here but disadvantaged by the lack of English language teaching in rural schools, were quick to take advantage of the wide spectrum of educational scholarships offered by USSR/Russia. People who could not afford paid higher education nor had the ability to compete in English language institutions with their more elite westernised counterparts found a saviour in USSR/Russia for their professional and intellectual ambitions.
Today, along with the British Council, American Centre and Indian Cultural Centre, the Russian Centre remains a centre for international artistic and intellectual currents.
In addition to that early support in industrialisation, Russia has been one of the biggest buyers of Sri Lankan tea for decades. Many a local tea exporter has thrived on that steady market in Russia.
Likewise, an early customer for Sri Lanka’s tourism industry was the Russian holiday-goer who once crowded the then pristine beach fronts in Wellawatta and Mount Lavinia. Today, the Russian tourist market has returned with some vigour. Arrivals from Russia topped 56,000 in 2016 alone, despite the current economic difficulties in that country.
Economics and culture aside, Russia has continued the Soviet tradition of providing Sri Lanka with affordable military hardware. In fact the successor suppliers of some defence assets, namely China and Pakistan, have been able to maintain continuity in Sri Lankan defence supplies because much of their own first generation hardware were derived from Russian technology – whether it is infantry weaponry, ground warfare vehicles or ground attack and interceptor aircraft.
President Sirisena’s own Moscow visit will see more trade development as well as the prospect new naval assets provided affordably by Russia.
In addition to development aid, the Soviet Union and, later, Russia, has supported Sri Lanka in international fora in the face of many challenges. And Sri Lanka too has reciprocated, insisting on viewing ties with Moscow as undefined by other global relationships. Thus, Colombo was able to take a neutral position on the Ukrainian issue in recent times, perceiving the problem in the larger context of dynamics in former Soviet Bloc Eastern Europe.
In world bodies, Russia has helped Sri Lanka withstand pressures from rival major powers using her veto in the UN when necessary to block moves initiated by other geo-political camps that could disadvantage Colombo. During the our internal war, Russia, while respecting Sri Lanka’s sovereign interests as a nation, was careful to avoid taking sides in the ethnic conflict knowing full well the dangers of ethno-nationalism in the formation of modern Russia.
After the foreign policy fiasco of the past Rajapaksa regime, Colombo’s careful re-set of foreign policy enables a far more multi-lateral network of friendly relations across the globe. Russia, being a staunch geo-political friend, remains in the ‘inner circle’ of our closest friendly nations and President Sirisena’s visit has served to underline this relationship.
Who gave the orders?
Even as the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva agreed on a further two-year extension for Sri Lanka’s UN-supported democratic recovery project, there were signs last week that yet more criminal investigations into the repressive actions of the previous regime were showing progress.
The succession of attacks on and murders of journalists during the last regime are among the investigations showing progress. Arrests have been made of suspects in the abduction and assault of journalist Keith Noyahr while the Lasantha Wickrematunga assassination probe is also resulting in the unearthing of new evidence.
While relatively junior officers and staff are now being implicated in these acts of violent political repression, the world and, especially Sri Lankans will watch to see how high the trail of complicity goes up the chain of political command. After all, the evidence being turned up in most of these investigations indicate political interests and not criminal ones as motivating these violent acts.
Then the most important question that must be answered is: who gave the orders?
Sri Lankans will want the answers to this question, even if Geneva does not.