Sri Lanka-Russia Relations: Epitome of Unfeigned Diplomacy

By Somar Wijayadasa*

NEW YORK (IDN) — Sri Lanka (formerly Ceylon) gained its independence in 1948, but it was only on 19 February 1957 that Mr S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike, then Prime Minister of Ceylon established diplomatic relations with the former Soviet Union (now Russia)—a superpower at the time, and today a global power.

It is natural for Russia (the world’s largest country with two-thirds of its territory in Asia) to have a foreign policy with economically pragmatic and geo-strategic interests in the Asia-Pacific region—including Sri Lanka. 

Russia’s ambitious diplomatic relations are based on international law, mutual respect, and recognition of the sovereignty of other nations—and most importantly, on mutually beneficial economic cooperation.

In his address to the United Nations, in 1956, Prime Minister Bandaranaike said, “We are committed to peace in a positive form, to friendship among all nations and to the peace and prosperity and happiness of all mankind”. That policy of non-alignment was attractive to the Russians.

When Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranaike became the world’s first woman Prime Minister, in 1960, she continued with the foreign policy of non-alignment giving impetus to the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM). Her visits to the Soviet Union in 1963 and 1974 further enhanced relations between the two nations.

Russia’s unwavering assistance to Sri Lanka 

Russia has constantly been a reliable partner both in peaceful or fraught times when Sri Lanka underwent two major insurgencies and a brutal civil war lasting three decades.

From 1957-the 1970s, the two countries signed several landmark bilateral agreements. The first and most significant was the economic and technical cooperation agreement under which Russia built the steel, tyre, and flour milling factories—a much-needed boost to Sri Lanka’s industrial development.

Other noteworthy agreements were on housing construction (1963), on-air transport (1964), marine fisheries (1971), agreements in the field of scientific, technical and cultural cooperation, and an agreement to assist each other in identifying, preventing and suppressing illicit drug trafficking; illegal economic and financial activities, and illegal immigration.

Since 1980, I have written several feature articles “Lanka should join the global trend in strengthening ties with Moscow” (Daily News, 1989); “Sri Lanka and Russia have a long history of congenial relations” (Sunday Island, 2002); “Lanka should strengthen ties with Sinhala speaking Russian Foreign Minister” (The Island, 2004) with suggestions to enhance bi-lateral relations – that were implemented benefiting both countries. 

During the last two decades, the two countries signed a number of mutually beneficial Agreements thanks to the perseverance of Russia’s Ambassadors such as Alexander Karchava and Yuri Materiy in Sri Lanka. 

While almost all leaders of Sri Lanka visited Moscow, foreign ministries of both countries maintain regular bilateral contacts. Russia’s Sinhala speaking Minister of Foreign Affairs, Sergey Lavrov visited Colombo in 2009 and in 2020.

The two nations engage in inter-parliamentary exchanges, Ministerial consultations, and visits by civilian and military dignitaries. The two countries have made significant progress in the field of military and technical cooperation, and offer military training to Sri Lanka’s Armed Forces.

Recently, Russia’s Security Council Secretary Nikolay Patrushev held consultations with Sri Lanka’s defence officials, and a squadron of the Russian Navy’s Pacific Fleet, including two submarines, arrived at the Colombo Port in a show of strengthening relations between the Armed Forces of the two countries.

Sri Lanka’s Army Commander General Shavendra Silva visited Moscow and held discussions with Commander-in-Chief of the Russian Land Forces General Oleg Salyukov on joint combat training events and the training of Lankan servicemen in Russia.

The UN Security Council’s veto-wielding Russia has defended Sri Lanka during almost all sessions of the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in the face of western countries’ allegations of war crimes and other human rights abuses in Sri Lanka.

While Russia continues to be the largest importer and consumer of Ceylon tea, Sri Lanka has seen significant growth in Russian tourists visiting Sri Lanka.

Recently, Russia granted US$ 5.5 million to Sri Lanka via the World Food Program (WFP) to finance sustainable school nutrition systems in Sri Lanka. Channelling funds of this magnitude via UN Agencies ensure that funds are properly utilized.

A detailed chronicle of this unprecedented diplomatic relationship between Russia and Sri Lanka can be found in my article “60 years of inexorable Sri Lanka-Russia relations” published in 2017, in the Sunday Times.

Russia’s monumental gift to Sri Lanka

Russia’s inestimable contribution to Sri Lanka, which no other country could ever match, is the thousands of fully paid graduate scholarships granted by the former Soviet Union and later Russia to Sri Lankan students.

Coincidentally, it is also the 62nd Anniversary of the Peoples Friendship University in Moscow—opened in February 1960—with the strategy to provide higher education in medicine, engineering and other sciences that were vital to developing the newly liberated nations in Asia, Africa and Latin America. 

In 1962, when I was a graduate student at Friendship University, it had only a few thousand students from 85 countries. Today, it is a mega-university occupying 125 acres consisting of 27 buildings and an enrollment of over 33.5 thousand graduate and post-graduate students from 157 countries.

Since 1960, over 1000 Sri Lankans graduated from the Friendship University, and overall, about 5000 Sri Lankans graduated from universities of the former Soviet Union (USSR) and Russia.

Currently, over 150,000 of its graduates, including over 6000 PhD’s work in 180 countries around the world.

Details of this university can be found in my previous articles “Russia’s Friendship University, Educating the Developing World for 55 Years” (IPS, Jan 2015), “Russia’s Prodigious Gift of Higher Education to the Developing World” (IPS 2020), “Moscow’s Friendship University resembles a mini-United Nations” (Sunday Times, 2020) and “A Renowned Russian University Celebrates 60th Anniversary” (IDN-InDepthNews, 2020).

Sri Lanka’s non-alignment policy in a quagmire

Sri Lanka’s global recognition as a non-aligned stable democracy—based on its principle of friendship towards all and enmity towards none—has been impaired by its partisan foreign policy.

Sri Lanka was colonized for 450 years by the Portuguese, Dutch and British to exploit its resources and utilize the island’s strategic location in the Indian Ocean. Likewise, since its independence, all economic assistance from Western nations came with strings attached solely because of Sri Lanka’s geostrategic significance.

Today, China’s “debt-trap” diplomacy of lending massive loans to indigent Sri Lanka knowing that it cannot repay, and thereby shamelessly acquiring its prime land on 99-year leases (Hambantota Port with 15,000 acres and Colombo Port with 50 acres) is a predatory stratagem to boost China’s global dominance in the Indian Ocean.

That besmirched and violated Sri Lanka’s non-aligned foreign policy, and infuriated our neighbour India and our western allies. Moreover, that would incite other countries to sleazily carve out slices from Sri Lanka. Such Machiavellian conduct by China—the world’s second-richest country—is beyond reprehensible.

Conversely, Russia’s stupendous contributions towards Sri Lanka’s economic, technological and educational progress over the past 65 years manifest that the relationship has been the paragon of true diplomacy. And, it is laudable that Russia never sought an inch of our land in return.

Today, when world powers are trying to divide the world, it would bode well for Sri Lanka to maintain a neutral but consistent foreign policy to reap the full benefits of the unique geographical position it occupies in the world. [IDN-InDepthNews – 13 February 2022]

* Somar Wijayadasa, an International lawyer was a Faculty Member of the University of Sri Lanka (1967-1972), worked for IAEA and FAO (1973-1980), delegate of UNESCO to the UN General Assembly (1980-1995), and was the Representative of UNAIDS at the United Nations from 1995-2000.

Image: Map indicating locations of Russia and Sri Lanka. CC BY-SA 4.0

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