Two weeks ago, Russia slapped a ban on tea from Sri Lanka, ostensibly due to a solitary beetle allegedly found in a tea consignment.
The Government in Colombo bent backwards and, suspecting that the Russians were on a tit for tat, promptly revoked the ban on asbestos, which had earlier been imposed disregarding the Russian concerns. Russia is the main exporter of Chrysotile fibre used for the production of roofing materials, worth around $ 148 million last year.
Now we are being told that there was much more than a solitary Khapra beetle in the tea container or the government’s ban asbestos on health grounds.
Reportedly, there had been an old- Cold War-style spy drama over a Russian computer hacker arrested in Colombo on the request of the US Justice Department. Americans, as Sunday Times reported yesterday, wanted him over alleged bank fraud. Moscow has demanded his repatriation over alleged ‘theft’. The suspect, a 22 year old Russian named, Manokin Raufovich has since jumped the bail and left the country.
He has allegedly flown back to Russia in the private jet of the head of Rosoboronexport, the State-Owned Russian arms exporter, Alexander Mikheev, who recently visited Colombo to negotiate the sale of controversial Russian light frigate Gephard 5.1, which Sri Lanka is purchasing at a cost of 24 billion rupees, paid by the unutilized allocations from an earlier Russian line of credit for military supplies.
Moscow has a coterie of ‘patriotic’ hackers, who had been accused of meddling in elections in a number of European countries, ranging from Brexit in Britain to recent elections in Germany.
US special investigator Robert Muller is probing the alleged Russian links to the Trump campaign, and Facebook has disclosed millions of dollars-worth Russian funded attack ads on Hilary Clinton during the election. If Mr. Raufovich is worthy of a flight back on the plane of one of Mr. Putin’s confidantes, he could probably be one of these Kremlin Accessories.
It is said, more than anything else, Putin hates being ignored; his entire foreign policy, including the successful gamble in Syria, was to bring back Russia to the centre of the world stage. If they loathe us, they respect us too, goes the new Russian foreign policy thinking.
Small states like Sri Lanka, in their foreign relations, cannot afford a margin of error, especially in their dealings with great powers. That requires the Government to have a greater care in its relations with important players, especially the unpredictable ones, for their policies could change at the hint of a perceived snub, even if it was just an unintended oversight in the part of Colombo.
Now we are getting hit in the groin because Moscow thought we were either too cozy with the Americans at the expense of their interests, or we had been too cocky not to heed the Russian concerns over the asbestos ban, which the Russian Ambassador in Colombo had repeatedly argued against in the past.
Despite the latest twists of the story, the prospect of a Russian retaliation to the ban on asbestos had been warned long before. The Chairman of the Tea Board had raised apprehensions. Russian ambassador Alexander A. Karchava warned that the ban could strain relations between the two countries. Russian embassy took up the matter with the President and Prime Minister, who had reportedly assigned Minister of Law and Public Order Sagala Ratnayake to look into the issue.
Also in December last year, the Russian Minister of Trade and Industry Denis Manturov wrote to Minister of Industry and Commerce Rishad Bathiudeen to request “inter-departmental consultations” to discuss the matter.
“To avoid any negative impact on the bilateral trade between our countries…I would like to ask you to examine the possibility of organising inter-departmental consultations during the 1st quarter of 2017 to discuss the supply of chrysotile to Sri Lanka and its use in the industry,” he said in the letter.
Russia accounts for nearly 19 percent of Sri Lanka’s $ 1.27 billion tea exports and was Sri Lanka’s largest tea importer until last year when it was overtaken by Iran.
Sri Lanka still has the largest share, about 29 percent, in the Russian market, though it had declined since it reached its peak of 50 percent in 2006. In the wake of declining global demand due to an economic slowdown and political uncertainty in main tea importers, the Russian ban, if continued, would be a major blow to the local tea industry.
Russia has a history of tit-for-tat trade sanctions; After the EU and American sanctions over the Russian action in Ukraine, Moscow responded with a ban on agri-exports; after the Turkish Air Force shot down a Russian plane, Russia retaliated by stopping Russian tourists from visiting Turkey. Last month, Moscow designated a host of American broadcasters as ‘foreign agents’ after Washington declared Russia Today and Sputnik, two Kremlin-backed media outlets as ‘foreign agents’.
Before it decided to ban asbestos, the Government ought to have assessed the wider implications, which it did not. It is now rushing to make amends, but the damage is done. Health concerns of the public ought to be addressed, so too, the unintended economic fallout, both locally and globally.
Last week, the Cabinet decided to defer the ban on asbestos until further review. This should cool down things. A Ministerial delegation would visit Moscow this week for further discussions. Plantation Minister Navin Dissanayake has said Russia would lift the ban by the mid- January after the Cabinet decision to postpone the ban on asbestos.
There is another evolving foreign policy conundrum that Sri Lanka would confront sooner or later if it fails to level out its relations with all major players in the international system.
The UNP’s tilt towards America and Europe is good to win a pat on the back diplomatic statements.
On the other hand, the Chinese, who are gradually building their own China-Centric economic systems have deep pockets.
This Government learnt the hard way the national imperative of sustaining the rapport with China. Russia too matters, so do many, perhaps less salubrious Arab countries, who would recover from current troubles over time.
We would also have to rush to Russia or China or Pakistan if something goes amiss again, either to buy weapons or seek solidarity at the international forums. If the bridges are burnt, it would be very hard to rebuild.