By Ashis Biswas
In Bangladesh, political circles are still puzzling over an apparent display of Russian prickliness over a minor spat, even as bombs rain down in Ukraine! The Russians recently registered a strong protest against what they saw as a pro-West anti-Moscow narrative in the Bangladeshi media in their coverage of the war in Ukraine.
Russian ambassador in Bangladesh Alexander V. Mantytskiy took the highly unusual step of issuing a public statement outlining the reasons for Moscow’s chagrin.
Leading Bangladeshi media managers reacted along expected lines, defending the local press coverage and rejecting accusations of bias and discrimination. But the intriguing little sideshow in the larger context of global developments also showed that Bangladesh still needed to learn the nuances of high-level diplomacy during major crises. Despite their neutral stand on the current Russian attack on Ukraine, Dhaka-based policymakers may have ended up offending both East and West!
Especially in Washington, the abstention of Bangladesh from voting on the anti-Russia resolution in the recent UN General Assembly session did not go down well. However, it did not cause much worry in Dhaka.
What is surprising is the realization that even Russia is not satisfied with certain aspects of the present situation prevailing in Bangladesh. Some observers feel the public display of Russian displeasure over Bangladeshi coverage of the war in Ukraine may presage a deeper malaise in Dhaka-Moscow bilateral relations.
To deal with the Western perspective first: Even earlier, there was no denying a general Western displeasure over many aspects of Bangladesh’s policymaking. The US a few months ago announced sanctions against a few Bangladeshi officials for their allegedly poor HR record in several cases. The move followed persistent complaints made by prominent West-backed HR groups and NGOs to the Awami-League ruled Bangladesh government. Bangladesh government rejected such complaints almost routinely.
The sanctions against seven Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) officials angered the ruling establishment in Bangladesh, but hardly surprised anyone. Most opposition groups beginning with the main Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) welcomed the US move and thanked western HR groups for their consistent support in the battle to establish a better HR regime. Clearly this could not be accomplished in parts of South Asia without ensuring punishment for habitual, hardened HR violators enjoying official immunity in their respective countries.
So far so bad, but why the unexpectedly negative Russian reaction to Bangladesh media coverage on the Ukraine war?
In general most Bangladeshis have a soft corner for the erstwhile USSR and the Russians collectively, not least because of their consistent support for Bangladesh and India. Both India and the USSR defied the West in supporting the Bangladesh freedom struggle and eventually ensuring the emergence of an independent sovereign Bangladesh.
In recent times again, trade and other relations between Bangladesh and the Russian Federation have become stronger than before. Bangladesh imports a considerable part of its wheat requirements by from Russia and Ukraine (around 20/21% of its total imports from each.)
Now there are worries that owing to the recent conflict essential purchases and supplies will almost surely be disrupted. Alternate markets may have to be accessed, there may be more purchases from India, following fresh negotiations. The price of wheat imports for most deficit countries is almost certainly likely to increase.
The prospect of shelling out more money for ensuring the supply of essentials like food naturally does not please the ruling establishment. As it is, Bangladesh is grappling with inflation, costlier food and medicines which have hit poor hard already, not to mention ever rising fuel costs and growing problems of maintaining existing supply chains built over the years.
Some of these impacts are partly attributable to the outbreak of the hostilities in Ukraine. Now there is increasing diplomatic pressure from the US and EU countries over the neutral stand taken by Dhaka on the war, which the ruling Awami League has resisted firmly so far.
Dhaka leaders insist that neither the US/EU nor Russia has any logical reason to be upset with its studied neutral response on the present conflict in East Europe. As a top diplomat recently explained in the print media, being hundreds of miles away from the hostilities, Bangladesh reacted in a most reasonable manner. It called for an immediate cessation in hostilities, appealing to both Russia and Ukraine to organise a cease fire. This could be followed by a dialogue at the highest level to address all security-related issues/grievances/demands/guarantees etc to settle the matter once and for all.
Nowhere there was any trace of support for Ukraine or condemnation of Russia. With both countries Bangladesh had a friendly relationship. About 1000 Bangladeshi students were studying in Ukraine, most of them returning home in recent days.
However, even as Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina had declared recently, the construction of the $13 billion nuclear power plant with Russian help would proceed on schedule, All existing trade with Russia would also continue as far as possible, never mind the west-imposed sanctions.
This had led to some uneasy speculation in the local media. As in India, there is a strong body of pro-western opinion in Bangladeshi media especially among the younger generation. Many youths have little awareness of the difficult freedom struggle in 1970-71.
Some also feared a negative impact on Bangladeshi garments exports to the Western countries following its latest stance on the Ukraine issue. There was veiled criticism suggesting that it anti-Western bias may end up costing Bangladesh, its people and developing economy far more in the long run than was being assumed. There was nothing remotely critical about Russia in most such analyses. However, Dhaka-based Russians obviously viewed matters differently. They felt that there was not enough support among the people for Russia’s help in building infra development projects so critically important for the country. (IPA Service)