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Moscow rolls out red carpet for Manmohan

By Manish Chand, IANS

Moscow : Russia rolled out the red carpet for Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh as he began a two-day visit here that is set to reinvigorate the two countries’ strategic and economic ties that have stood the test of time.

Manmohan Singh was received by Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Alexandre Losyukov at Vnukovo-2 airport and accorded a ceremonial welcome befitting the state visit.

Although Moscow is enveloped in a chill with mercury dipping below zero, the Indian prime minister’s visit kindled the old warmth between the old friends and allies who enjoy a special relationship bound by a congruence of interests between a resurgent Russia and a rising India.

Manmohan Singh will hold talks with President Vladimir Putin Monday on a wide range of bilateral and global issues including civil nuclear cooperation, intensification of business ties, UN reforms, terrorism and the situation in Afghanistan and Central Asia.

The two countries are expected to sign a slew of agreements on resolving rupee-rouble trade issues, preventing drug trafficking and trans-national crimes and promoting space cooperation.

An agreement on jointly developing and producing multi-role transport aircraft (MTA) with Russia will also be signed.

An agreement on Russia building four more additional reactors in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, however, will not be signed Monday with the stalling of the India-US nuclear deal.

However, India is hopeful of expanding civil nuclear cooperation with Russia after a change in guidelines by the 45-member Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) of which Moscow is an influential member.

“We are in the process of discussing an inter-governmental agreement on building four more reactors in Kudankulam. We look forward to expanding civil nuclear cooperation with Russia,” Foreign Secretary Shivshankar Menon told reporters earlier aboard the prime minister’s special aircraft on way to Moscow.

India and Russia signed a protocol of intent for building four additional light water reactors at Kudankulam during Russian President Vladimir Putin’s visit to India in January.

But the inter-governmental agreement, which both sides have been working on for months, will not be signed Monday after talks between Manmohan Singh and Putin. This is because Russia cannot unilaterally go ahead with the project without a rule change in the NSG in favour of India.

“It is for the NSG members to decide. Their obligation comes from that. We are looking forward to expanding civil nuclear cooperation with other members of the international community,” Menon said, while repudiating speculation about any setback in India-Russia ties.

“The original agreement in 1988 doesn’t provide for more than two reactors. The additional reactor cannot be considered part of the 1988 pact,” Menon clarified.

India and the then Soviet Union signed an agreement in 1988 on building a 2,000 MW power plant at Kudankulam in Tamil Nadu. An addendum was signed 10 years later.

Atomstroyexport, Russia’s nuclear power equipment and service export monopoly, started building the Kudankulam plant in 2002.

Despite a temporary setback on the nuclear front and amid speculation about a recent frostiness in bilateral ties, Manmohan Singh underlined the enduring bond of friendship between the two countries and hoped for the progressive consolidation of bilateral ties.

“As we rejoice in our joint accomplishments during the six decades of unbroken friendship, we also stand committed to further deepen our friendship in the fields of trade and investment, defence, energy security, science and technology, space and other areas of mutual benefit,” Manmohan Singh said in a statement in New Delhi before leaving for Moscow.

Ahead of his discussions with Putin Manmohan Singh said: “I will convey to him the high priority that India attaches to its partnership with Russia and the benefits that this partnership has brought to our two peoples.

“I am confident my visit will lead to a reaffirmation of our joint endeavour towards creating greater economic prosperity and a secure, stable and peaceful world order,” he said.

Besides civil nuclear cooperation, India will take up the issue of delays in arms delivery and cost escalations by Russia – a sore point with the Indian defence establishment that continues to depend on Russia for over 50 percent of military hardware.

Indian defence officials are unhappy over the Russian attitude over delays and supply of spares.

Russia is at least three years behind schedule on a $1.5 billion contract to modernise Admiral Gorshkov, an aircraft carrier India bought from Russia in 2004.

Manmohan Singh will bring up these irritants related to defence deals during his talks with Putin. A resolution of this issue could be an important breakthrough paving the way for smoother India-Russia relations.