Figuratively there has never been much heat in Bangladesh's relations with Russia (stretching back even to its independence). Yet, that observation might become literally false: Russia boasts deeper imprints on our energy sector than many other countries. Beginning with electricity in the 1970s (then in the form of the Soviet Union), Russia has huge investments in gas exploration and nuclear-plant construction. In the best-case scenario, these could accelerate our middle-income climb and add fuel to a sparkling 50th birthday anniversary. In the worst-case circumstance, these engagements might drag our vibrant economy down to the sagging levels often associated with the Russian economy.
We should not be unkind about Russia. As the Soviet Union, it played a crucial role in the last part of 1971, in conjunction with India, to distract the U.S. Seventh Fleet in Bay of Bengal waters. It did not stop there. Shortly after independence, Russia helped build the electric power-plants in Ghorasal and Siddhirganj, eventually serving as a platform for the country's shift to manufacturing. As the RMG (ready-made garments) sector exploded and we began to run out of energy, Russia's Inter RAO-Engineering teamed up with our Power Development Board while Gazprom, Russia's state-owned gas corporation, joined Petrobangla to search for natural gas (both over the past five-odd years).
Behind the din accompanying trade with our next-door India, our burgeoning partner, China, as well as North Atlantic countries, Russia's name is barely raised or heard. One obvious reason is the sheer lack of ample trade between the two countries. It is not among our top-dozen trading partners, and the roughly billion-dollar trade does not carry any spark to shift to a higher gear.
That Russia, and before it, the Soviet Union, operates/operated through state-owned corporations may be a symptom of the stigma now that privatisation has become our middle name. Though GS Group collaborated with Beximco on the private front to open up the RealVU service provider last year, the bulk of Russia's engagements has been in the energy sector, one traditionally dominated by the public sector in both countries. State management need not always be problematic: China constantly shows how a private-public mix can still be among the pacemakers in a neo-liberal setting. Russia, by contrast, has a dismal record on this front, especially with corruption riddling the private sector and inertia the public. Even India, which mirrored Russia's developmental plans, especially through that iconic and long-term "treaty of peace, friendship and cooperation" in August 1971, began to slowly dismantle the public sector from the 1990s when that treaty expired (though not because of it).
Is this the bug in boosting Bangla-Russia trade? Matters may not improve since the cream bilateral venture both sides have planned is the Rooppur Nuclear Plant to complete by 2023, obviously within the public domain. Anyone who has monitored Soviet/Russian handling of nuclear plants can not overlook the bungled handling of anything radioactive at the state level: it is not just the Chernobyl meltdown, which still haunts the region thirty-years later, and the Krasnoyarsk contamination of pine forest that led to its closure by 2010. Overall, Russian inability to demonstrate finesse and sensitivity seems to be part and parcel of the problem. Without being a big name in handling sensitive issues with finesse, Bangladesh will have to deal with a B-team as it plunges into the nuclear realm to power its way out of energy shortages.
Yet, few countries other than Russia would have coughed up US$13 billion to finance the Rooppur construction. This was a project that was on a Pakistan drawing-board even before Bangladesh was born, with the crucial difference being that, given its explicit pro-western stance (with membership in U.S. supported Central Treaty Organization and Southeast Treaty Organization), Pakistan did not have Russia at all under consideration. Ironically, as with India, partnering Russia elicits the worst of both worlds: we latched on to Russia at a time of a deep alignment between India and that country amid our independence war; and now that India is shedding its state-centric armour, our turn to Russia mirrors the same Pakistan-Russia state-centric attachment becomes an ailment.
In the best-case scenario, a functional Rooppur plant would do what the Ghorasal and Siddhirganj plants did in the 1970s: supply a large chunk of our multiplying energy needs. Yet, unless we simultaneously build the radioactive safeguard infrastructure while constructing that plant, we might end up with a Fukushima-type nightmare hovering over and around us.
While we have every reason to boost ties of all sorts with Russia, we must be careful not to be duped by a hard-headed, US-bashing Vladimir Putin. Very much like China, Russia gives two hoots to grassroots concerns, civil society complaints, democratic preferences, and private-market magic. At a time when the nuclear industry is suffering immense losses owing to the growth of solar, wind, and shale sources of energy, we look like a fool sticking on to an outmoded model (Russia) in a risky business.
Rethinking the partner and project would do our future generations immense good: Russia could be converted into a mutually beneficial commercial partner; and nuclear plant construction could be substituted by solar, wind, hydro, and gas energy far more efficiently. We could amicably return the love to Russia that seems absent in what we are getting from Russia.
Dr. Imtiaz A. Hussain is Professor & Head of the newly-built Department of Global Studies & Governance at Independent University, Bangladesh.