Publication: Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 78

Russian President Boris Yeltsin and visiting Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, after a meeting yesterday in Moscow, proclaimed that their two countries had opened a new chapter in bilateral relations. The talks, which followed a meeting a day earlier between Sharif and Russian Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov, marked the first time in some twenty-five years that a Pakistani leader had visited Russia. But while this week’s talks appeared clearly to signal a warming in relations between the two countries, it was unclear whether Sharif’s visit represented the kind of diplomatic “breakthrough” which he had proclaimed as his goal on the eve of his departure for the Russian capital.

During Sharif’s stay in Moscow, Russian leaders reportedly emphasized their desire that Pakistan and regional rival India sign both the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. Russian officials were said also to have expressed Moscow’s willingness to play a diplomatic role in easing tensions between India and Pakistan in South Asia. Those two countries raised the specter of a regional arms race last year when they tested nuclear devices and declared themselves to be nuclear powers. Earlier this month those same fears were revisited when both countries conducted tests of long-range missiles capable of carrying nuclear missiles.

Aside from the positive atmospherics surrounding Sharif’s visit, the most noteworthy accomplishment of his stay was the signing of a package of bilateral agreements aimed at boosting flagging levels of trade between Russia and Pakistan. Trade between the two countries reportedly stood at only US$81 million in 1997, and fell–even from that modest level–to US$56 million in 1998. One of the agreements signed this week will permit Russian companies to participate in the construction of Pakistani power plants, roads and bridges, and is expected to increase Russian supplies of engineering and road-building equipment to Pakistan. Another agreement established a Pakistani-Russian bilateral trade commission. The foreign ministers from the two countries have also agreed to conduct regular consultations.

This week’s talks were also notable for what they did not accomplish. Sharif apparently had little luck in persuading Russia to play a mediating role in the dispute between India and Pakistan over Kashmir. Islamabad has long sought international mediation of the dispute, but Delhi has resisted all such efforts. This week’s talks were also noteworthy for the apparent absence of discussion involving possible military or military-technical cooperation. Reports listing the Russian government officials who participated in this week’s talks made no mention of representatives from either Russia’s Defense Ministry or the country’s arms export establishment. This is not surprising. India and China are the two major purchasers of Russian military hardware, and India and Russia late last year agreed upon a new program of military-technical cooperation which is believed to be worth billions of dollars. Moscow is in no hurry to endanger those arms contracts by moving too precipitously in its efforts to improve ties with Islamabad.

There was also little mention this week during the Russian-Pakistani talks of the conflict in Kosovo. Pakistani leaders have expressed their concern over reports of ethnic cleansing by Serb forces in Kosovo. Moscow has ignored such reports both in offering diplomatic support to Belgrade and in blaming the growing humanitarian disaster in Kosovo on NATO air strikes (Russian agencies, April 17-20; AP, April 18, 20; UPI, April 21).