Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 144

Already on top of the world for his “dazzling” performance at the summit of Group of Seven countries and Russia in Japan (see the Monitor, July 24), Russian President Vladimir Putin had cause to celebrate still another diplomatic victory over the weekend: the release by India of five Russian pilots who had been sentenced to life imprisonment on weapons smuggling charges. The decision to release the five pilots, formalized on July 22 by Indian President K.R. Narayanan, followed repeated appeals from Russian government and Foreign Ministry officials.

Indeed, Moscow’s diplomatic pressure campaign was said by one report to have gone so far as to include a threat that Putin would cancel a planned visit to New Delhi in October if the pilots were not released. Russian diplomatic sources denied that report (Electronic Telegraph, July 16; see the Monitor, July 20). But in announcing the decision to commute the life sentences of the five pilots, Indian officials made it clear that they were doing it to ensure harmony in Russian-Indian relations. An Indian Foreign Ministry spokesman was quoted over the weekend as saying that the decision had been made “taking into consideration the strength of our relations with Russia and the humanitarian dimensions of the problem… Indo-Russian relations are time-tested, they are being consolidated into a strategic partnership.” Putin and Indian Prime Minister Indian Prime Minister Vajpayee are expected to sign a package of agreements during the October summit meeting, the most of important of which is an agreement formalizing the Indo-Russian “strategic partnership.”

Putin, not surprisingly, was gracious in victory. In a statement released during the G-7 meeting in Okinawa, the Russian president expressed his desire “to thank the Indian authorities.” He added that “relations between India and Russia are making progress and this gesture will, without doubt, contribute to the improvement of relations between the two states” (AFP, Times of India, July 23).

While New Delhi’s decision was a triumph for Moscow, it left the British government with egg on its face. A British citizen by the name of Peter Bleach had been taken into custody along with the five Russians on charges of having airdropped crates of assault rifles, antitank missiles, rocket launchers and ammunition from a Latvian-registered AN-26 transport plane over the eastern Indian district of Purulia in December of 1995. The six men were imprisoned in a Calcutta jail, where they remained until they were sentenced to life imprisonment in February of this year. However, where the Russian government had pressed hard for the release of the five Russian nationals, the British government had chosen to leave the disposition of the case to Indian authorities. Not surprisingly, perhaps, Bleach’s sentence was not commuted over the weekend. London will apparently attempt now to remedy that situation: British officials said on July 23 that Home Secretary Jack Straw will personally raise Bleach’s case with Indian officials and urge that they speed his appeal case through the courts so it can heard quickly (Times of India, July 24).

In Russia, meanwhile, television and radio stations reportedly gave top coverage to news of the pilots’ release, with NTV calling it a “sensational and happy end of a five-year-long drama.” The jubilation was apparently tempered only by suggestions from Russia’s Foreign Ministry that Moscow would like to handle the matter in a low-key fashion. “After all,” the sources were quoted as saying, “they are no heroes. They broke the law and were punished for it” (The Hindu, July 23).

The status of the pilots, however, is now a bit up in the air. The five men were in fact permanent residents of Latvia (“members of Latvia’s large Russian minority,” according to one source) at the time of their arrest, but were granted Russian citizenship and Russian protection late last year. Under Latvian law they are prohibited from returning to Latvia because they have served jail sentences in excess of three years. News sources over the weekend suggested that the five would nevertheless have no trouble getting visas so that they can visit family members and relatives in Latvia. Ultimately, however, the five are expected ultimately to settle in Russia and, indeed, were scheduled to arrive in the Russian capital this morning on an Aeroflot airliner (Times of India, The Hindu, Russian agencies, July 24). Aside from its diplomatic and geopolitical implications, the release of the five pilots over the weekend suggested that Russians suffering the harsh conditions of imprisonment abroad are likely to get more attention from the Kremlin than are Russians suffering the same–or worse–sorts of conditions in the dismal prison system maintained at home by the Russian government.