Russian Ambassador Mr Vasily Pospelov sat down with Mizzima Editor-in-Chief Soe Myint to discuss Russia’s long-standing relationship with Myanmar and how he views the balance of world power shifting towards Asia.
The interview was conducted at the Russian Embassy on January 29.
Mizzima: What would you say is Russia's main focus when it comes to Russia-Myanmar relations?
Russian Ambassador: Our overall goal is to develop friendly ties and good cooperation in the interests of the people of both countries. We have a very solid foundation for this historically. We have been friends for sixty years. There are material monuments of the friendship and good cooperation like the Yangon Technological University, the hospital in Taunggyi, so the history is favourable and should be built up on this. We have very good political relations and we discuss with our Myanmar colleagues serious international problems like disarmament, combating terrorism, strengthening information and better communications and security. So we believe that every country regardless big or small can contribute to the decision and solution of foreign problems.
We have good humanitarian ties. Thousands of Myanmar students study in Russia plus Myanmar medical doctors visited Russia to acquire new knowledge in healthcare and child disease prevention. We have a tradition of cultural exchanges. For the future I think the main focus should on the development of economic ties because there we are somewhat lagging behind but we have very good potential and there are lot of Russian companies which are interested in doing business in Myanmar to develop trade and cooperate in co-production. So we are working together with our Myanmar colleagues through our joint commission on the action plan to develop economic ties.
When you talk about the economic ties, I think there was a target that by 2017 bilateral trade would be around US$500 million. Do you think the target will be met?
This target was just mentioned in one of the presentations during the first meeting of our joint commission. We will be working on this. We know the interest for example from Myanmar’s side for exporting agricultural goods but some steps are needed like certification and licensing, so we will be working on it but right now we have a good base but additional steps are needed.
How do you view the changes that have taken place in Myanmar over the last five years?
We welcome reforms which enhance the standing of Myanmar as a sovereign nation and contribute to the economic development of the country. Unlike some other countries, we do not intend to teach Myanmar people how to live what political or economic system to adopt. This is completely for the Myanmar people to decide and we strongly believe that each country should adopt a system which suits its history, traditions and other features including psychology. So overall we follow closely the reforms, we follow historical actions, our observers took part in monitoring the election and made positive conclusions. We welcome, of course, the progress in the peace process because it enhances the security of the people and creates additional possibilities for development and economic reforms are also beneficial both for Myanmar people and expanding ties with foreign countries. So we hope the liberalization and economic reform would create additional opportunities for our bi-lateral relations.
So despite the difficulties, we see the economic development of Myanmar over the past five years as quite impressive
What do you expect for Russia-Myanmar relations with the new government led by NLD?
History tells us Myanmar was most successful when she adopted active and independent foreign policy. We remember well in the 1950s Myanmar was prominent and a player in international and regional affairs. Was one of the founding members of the non-aligned movement, one of the founders of the peaceful co-existence principles, so we hope this good tradition of active and independent foreign policy would continue. We were encouraged by the words of the leader of the National League for Democracy, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, that Myanmar is planning to develop friendly and mutually beneficial cooperation with all countries. From our side we are absolutely ready to cooperate, to interact in various areas on the basis of mutual respect, equality, and mutual benefit. So we can talk about political relations and promoting for example inter-parliamentary ties and human exchange and of course as I mentioned before to take additional steps and implement economic projects.
Myanmar has an electrical power problem, with only about 30 percent of the country on the electrical grid. Please can you tell us about Russian engagement with Myanmar to transfer nuclear power technology?
We have concluded an agreement in 2007 about the construction of research nuclear reactors and last year an MOU was signed between Rosatom Cooperation and Myanmar Ministry of Science and Technology on the cooperation and peaceful use of atomic knowledge. This is a very advanced and long-term project and it demands effort from both sides in order to implement operation in this area the country should have capacity. And most important is a human resource capacity.
So the first step is the training of people about technology, safety measures, etc. Of course, we would develop our cooperation in this area in strict accordance with all international rules and regulations and the Myanmar side is to take some certain steps in this regard. I know the nuclear safety law was discussed in parliament recently so this is a good step.
So first training of personnel and then the next step if the Myanmar side is interested will be the developing of a research reactor to produce isotopes and nuclear technology. It is not only nuclear power stations. The isotopes can be used in medicine, in agriculture, for quality control in industries. There’s quite a spectrum of application.
About the nuclear power station, we analysed the Myanmar plans in terms of electricity so our understanding is that the country plans to triple or even quadruple the production of electricity by 2030. This is ambitious and not an easy task and we believe that the development of nuclear power could be one of the ways to achieve this goal. You know one nuclear power station with four blocks can produce the same amount of electricity as all Myanmar power stations are producing now. So in terms of quality and quantity it will be a breakthrough.
Our state corporation Rosatom is a well-known and leading actor in this regard in the world and uses very reliable, sophisticated equipment for nuclear power stations and the overall trend, I believe, especially in the light of recent decision of the climate conference would be in favour of the development of nuclear energy. Look at neighbouring countries. China is developing this sort of technology, (and) India. Recently Rosatom concluded agreements with Bangladesh, with Vietnam, so we believe this is a long term trend as we face the task of reducing CO2 emissions.
But again the cycle is very long even if we start today the station could be built in maybe 10 to 12 years, so it’s a long cycle. So we are ready to start and we feel that the Myanmar side is interested in starting the technological cooperation, research and training of personnel and we expect the decision from the Myanmar side on the future of cooperation in this area. It’s very promising and it would also raise the technological level of Myanmar industry and whole technological level of the country. So we believe this is a very promising area for future cooperation.
I would like to go into safety questions. With this nuclear programme, are you satisfied as of now with Myanmar dealing with international bodies including the IAEA to make sure there is enough of a safety mechanism when it comes to nuclear energy or nuclear power technology?
We know that our Myanmar colleagues take this issue very seriously and they told us there are certain steps ahead. First is the adoption of the legislation. Then there should be a body responsible for nuclear safety and then identification of additional protocols, inspection and cooperation with IAEA. So I think this is a good and solid plan and we are ready also to cooperate with Myanmar in the area of nuclear safety and in personnel and explain, we have 50 years of experience of this, explain what are the main points, the main difficulties in this area and hopefully this could progress and safety would be fully ensured. The new generation of nuclear power stations is different from the old ones and specialists are saying they are very reliable and in economic terms they are competitive because long-term costs, the costs of construction seems expensive but the long-term operational expenses are less. So in economic terms this is competitive.
Please can you tell us about the productive engagement Russia has with selling new and reconditioned military equipment to Myanmar's armed forces?
This is an area we cannot comment on publicly. I must say yes we have good cooperation with Myanmar and I attended a military parade last year and was pleased to see Russian helicopters with the Myanmar flag and MiG fighter jets. This is normal. We continue our cooperation, again in strict accordance with international regulations in this area and the purpose is to enhance the capabilities and modernise the Myanmar Army, so this is again quite natural. We cooperate with very many countries, with neighbours, so this an important area of our cooperation. Because, among other things, it also increases the technological capacity of Myanmar because when you deal with sophisticated aircraft or helicopters people acquire specific skills and knowledge which they can use in other areas as well.
What about training, training for the intelligence officers?
We have proposed cooperation in anti-terrorism training and we have courses for ASEAN countries and to share experiences and best practices in anti-terrorist activities. We also have an MoU of cooperation in anti-narcotics and our experts came to Myanmar last year. We have a course on investigation techniques in fighting narcotics. So that sort of cooperation is mutually beneficial, and again we cooperate with all ASEAN countries in this area as well.
Where does Russia fit today on the world stage? Under Russian President Putin, Russia appears to be standing tall, fending off several moves by the US and NATO to get involved in countries that lie on Russia's European flank, notably in Ukraine. Russia is also being more proactive in the Middle East.
Russia is the biggest country in the world, it’s a nuclear power, and a member of the UN Security Council, so we feel a responsibility for protecting international security and peace. It is quite natural that we are playing a very active role as a global power.
You know, during the last years, according to our viewpoint, the international situation has deteriorated and it is now pretty complicated. We see two trends. One is attempts from some countries to stop the trend for building a more just and more equitable new world order, polycentric with many players which interact with people. Some countries want to keep their domination, and that was one of the reasons. And of course, the second trend, which is worrisome, is the growing instability in the Middle East. We believe that to some extent it was also provoked three years ago by outside interference. And the destabilization that followed led to the rise of terrorist activities, to the ISIL (Islamic State of Iraq and Levant) problem and other problems which we are facing today.
We also have complications in Europe when we also have outside interference that destabilized Ukraine, which led to a chain of events which unfavourably influenced the altercation with other countries.
But in the long term, we are optimistic because you know this trend for democratization of international relations and establishing new and more just equitable arrangements is a subjective historical trend. So we have very good relations with many countries, and many countries think the same way as Russia. Now for example, BRICS countries had a summit in Russia last year where they expressed their strong view about the need to change the world economic system and to change political arrangements so that all countries could participate in solving international issues on an equal footing and we should progress through collective efforts and collective decisions.
So we will continue our active engagement. In Syria, our aerospace forces take part in military operations at the request of the legitimate government of Syria, and my understanding is that Russian participation in anti-terrorist operations changed the situation on the ground to a large extent. But of course terrorism cannot be defeated by airstrikes or by military operations, so we hope for a political solution in Syria on the basis of Geneva principles and with all the discussions are taking place today but the talks are strongly in favour of reaching a political solution in Syria and undertaking reforms which would bring peace to this country.
How do you view Russia’s position and role in Asia, generally, and also Russia’s relationship with Myanmar compared with for example with China’s relationship or the United States’ relationship?
A big part of Russia is in Asia so we see ourselves as an integral part of the Asia-Pacific and actively engage in all the political endeavours and economic cooperation. So generally speaking, Asia-Pacific and Asia, we see, there is a lot of talk about the “Asia Century”, yes, we see the development of this region and the shift of power, and economic power, to Asia which is a very important global trend.
We take active steps to promote cooperation in Asia. BRICS, I mentioned, BRICS is not regional, but three of the members are in Asia, so BRICS also pays great attention to the Asia situation. We have also have progress in cooperation under the (Shanghai Cooperation Organization) organization, and now you see many countries would like to join (Shanghai Cooperation Organization) with India and some others. So this would be a new building block to develop cooperation in different area. You see initially (Shanghai Cooperation Organization) was focused on very narrow area of border security, was born many years ago as a means to solve the border issues in five countries. Now it has evolved into a big political and security organization, with emphasis on anti-terrorist activity, political cooperation, and what is new is we are now talking about the economic potential of (Shanghai Cooperation Organization).
So next year will be marked by the Russia-ASEAN dialogue, so we will have a summit meeting with ASEAN leaders. So our dialogue is also very important and it extols the three pillars of ASEAN integration and we support ASEAN neutrality, support integration within ASEAN, and are ready to support cooperation in political affairs, the economic area, and the social and cultural sphere. And all this would be discussed among President Putin and the leaders of ASEAN. We hope a political document will be prepared and a plan of action.
So conceptually we are not talking about two things. In the area of security, we have made a proposal together with China about new architecture of indivisible security and development. Indivisible security means a very simple thing that one country should not enhance her own security at the expense of other countries. And now we have two or maybe three rounds of consultations under the East Asia Summit. Many countries have proposals. Indonesia has her own proposals for this. India, China, Russia, so many countries are interested in the discussions and hopefully our long-term goal is to work out a sort of legal framework for the new system of cooperation and security and development in the Asia-Pacific.
In the economic area, we quite recently, in December, President Putin put forward an interesting proposal to have negotiations about economic partnership between the Eurasia union, which comprises five countries, and the (Shanghai Cooperation Organization), and ASEAN. So this would cover the areas of many, many countries. So we have concluded an agreement of free trade with Vietnam. So on the horizon is the possibility of a free trade agreement with ASEAN. But now we must take into account the economic organization of (Shanghai Cooperation Organization). So these three – Eurasia union, (Shanghai Cooperation Organization) and ASEAN should be three pillars, three members of a new economic partnership system. So that basically is our approach to Asian security and economic cooperation.
How to you view Russia’s relationship with Myanmar? Compared with China or the United States?
Yes, you know we are. Our relations with Myanmar has its own context and history and reality, so we do not compare our relations with China-Myanmar relations or US-Myanmar relations. For example, China is a neighbour of Myanmar. Of course, the volumes of economic (trade) and people-to-people interaction is much greater. So we are in different positions. And more generally speaking, we do not see it appropriate to consider the relations in terms of competition, rivalry and struggle for influence. We believe the relations could be mutually complementary.
Myanmar has a lot of problems and a lot of needs, all countries can find a way and a place to participate in cooperation and the development of Myanmar. So we do not believe that the rivalry and attitudes dictated by other countries is appropriate. We seek mutually beneficial relations and I think our position is that every country when developing relations with other countries or making any international moves should take into consideration the interests of other countries. And to move ahead with balance and in a cautious way.
Just one last question – Russia has been a good friend of Myanmar since the time when we became independent. What would be your advice for nation building and the kind of federal set up?
I am hesitant to give any advice, again, as I mentioned, this is for Myanmar, the Myanmar people to decide in accordance with their tradition and history and their attitudes. If we are asked, we can share our experience, as you mentioned, and you also mentioned the issue of federalism. I can only say this is very serious matter, and this cannot just be a political slogan. You know federalism is complicated arrangements, power sharing, resource sharing, money transfer. So this should be discussed and worked out in a very prudent and serious way. From our perspective, from our experience, not only the Soviet Union, the Russian Federation is also a federation. So we walked along different stages of arrangements. And this issue must be taken very seriously and we can share our experience, for example in financial matters, how to regulate between regions that are more rich and regions that are not so rich. In Russia we also have similar problems. Some regions have dollars, some are recipients, a very sophisticated system of redistribution of resources, so that those that are more advanced cannot suffer and their development is stimulated. Yet at the same time they must also help other regions to develop.
There also other problems. For example, natural resources. In Russia, we decided that natural resources should be a state monopoly. There is problem is culture and education. If somebody wants to teach and have education in the national language, we welcome it. And the problem is if a person goes to university in Moscow, and must pass an exam in the Russian language. So that means national language and state language should be studied. Of course, we pay great attention to the preservation of national heritage and the national traditions of many nations. We have 150 (ethnic groups). Myanmar has 136. So in this regard we are somewhat similar and we even discuss with the Ministry of Culture to cooperate is sharing best practices in the preservation of national cultures and national traditions.
So no advice but we are ready to share our experience through visits, discussions and seminars and exchanges and I think this is more appropriate than giving advice.