Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 141

With international attention focusing in recent days on Russian President Vladimir Putin’s visits to both Beijing and Pyongyang, Moscow has found itself fending off rumors regarding alleged problems in relations with another of its key Asian partners–India. In a report published on July 16, the London-based Sunday Telegraph claimed that the Kremlin had threatened to cancel Putin’s planned visit to New Delhi this fall if five Russian pilots are not released from an Indian prison. The men were sentenced earlier this year to life sentences for “conspiring to wage war against India” on the basis of their role in the delivery of a large arms drop over the West Bengal countryside in 1995. The Sunday Telegraph quoted an unnamed “senior Russian diplomat” as saying that “Putin’s visit will not take place” if the pilots remain imprisoned. Moscow has also reportedly warned of dire consequences should anything happen to these prisoners, one of whom reportedly has tuberculosis and is said to be “close to death.” The five, together with a British businessman, have been held in a Calcutta prison since their arrest in 1995 (Electronic Telegraph, July 16).

A Russian Foreign Ministry official this week denied the Daily Telegraph report. Anwar Azimov, deputy director of the Asian department of the Russian Foreign Ministry, told reporters that Putin would indeed visit India as planned in the first week of October. “The issue of pilots is not a priority in our relations,” he was quoted as saying. Azimov nevertheless did express the hope that the case of the pilots might be resolved–presumably more to Moscow’s liking–“given the nature of [Russia’s] special relationship” with India. He confirmed that the issue had been raised during Indian Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh’s recent trip to Russia (see the Monitor, July 5), saying that Moscow had been fully satisfied with assurances offered at that time by the Indian diplomat. He also underscored once again the importance that Moscow is attaching to the early October visit to New Delhi by Putin. The two sides are expected to sign an accord formalizing their “strategic partnership” during the Putin visit (Times of India, The Hindu, July 18).

Azimov’s assurances notwithstanding, the Sunday Telegraph report alleges that Russia has expended considerably more diplomatic energy in trying to get the five Russians released than London has in trying to win freedom for the lone British citizen imprisoned in the case. And, indeed, the pilots’ case has received a great deal of attention in Russia, where both the Orthodox Church and the Russian Duma have made pleas for their release. A Russian organization seeking to defend the pilots has gone so far as to appeal to the UN Human Rights Commission, arguing that the trial against the pilots was deeply flawed and that the prison conditions to which the pilots have been submitted are “horrible” (Itar-Tass, February 21). Against this background, Russia’s Foreign Ministry has appealed repeatedly to the Indian government for a more satisfactory resolution of the case.

Moscow’s complaints about the inadequacies of the pilots’ trial reportedly have some validity. There are nevertheless a few oddities related to the case. For one, the five pilots were apparently permanent residents of Latvia at the time of their detention. Late last year, however, they appealed to Moscow for Russian citizenship–and protection–after the authorities in Riga chose to leave the case to the disposition of the Indian courts (Russian agencies, Xinhua, February 2). There are also some ironies in the fact that the official and unofficial Russian groups involved in the case are appealing for the pilots’ release on grounds related to human rights and to the difficult conditions in Indian prisons. These groups have not shown the same outrage over the dismal and dangerous conditions that exist in Russia’s own prisons, or over the fact that several Russian nuclear whistleblowers–to name only the most publicized cases–have been incarcerated in Russian prisons on trumped up charges for long periods and at a considerable cost to their health. There is also some irony in the fact that, while Moscow has complained incessantly of alleged foreign involvement on behalf of rebel forces in Chechnya, there appears to be no recognition that the Indian government may be equally sensitive about foreigners involved–even if inadvertently–in supplying separatist forces operating in its own country.

Be that as it may, Moscow will apparently not let the case derail the October Indian-Russian summit meeting, though it may continue to pressure the Indian government behind closed doors. Against that background, it would not be a total surprise if Indian leaders choose during the summit to free the five pilots as a goodwill gesture to Putin.