Sri Lanka-Russia tensions more than a storm in a tea cup
Posted on December 27th, 2017

By Kelum Bandara Courtesy The Daily Mirror

When Minister of Plantation Industries Navin Dissanayake said that unofficial reports suggested that Russia’s restriction on the tea trade was due to Sri Lanka’s decision to ban the import of Asbestos roofing materials, it threw some light on how relations between the two countries remained strained despite utterances, couched in diplomatic language, that it was a smooth sail.

Sri Lanka’s announcement of the ban on White Asbestos roofing materials from Russia was to be effective from January, 2018.

Barely two weeks ahead of the ban coming into effect, the Russian Federation imposed a temporary restriction on the import of plant-origin products from Sri Lanka. Tea accounts for more than 80 percent of the agricultural products exported to Russia. Sri Lanka’s exported $ 114.18 million-worth Ceylon Tea to Russia between January to August this year.

The restriction on exporting tea to Russia was effective from December 18. The decision was linked to the discovery of the insect called ‘Khaprabeetle’ in a consignment of tea shipped from Sri Lanka.
It came as a body blow to Sri Lanka as Russia accounts for 25 percent of Sri Lanka’s total tea market.

The presence of a beetle was the cause cited for the imposed restriction, which was lifted later after diplomatic engagement by none other than President Maithripala Sirisena himself.

Other than Asbestos, there are other irritants to the relations between the two countries    Expecting the same courtesy 

Though this was the reason announced publicly, it transpired later that the decision was taken in retaliation to Sri Lanka’s decision to ban the import of Asbestos. Minister Dissanayake himself admitted to this fact at a press conference. His admission corresponded with action by the Government which lifted the ban, apparently expecting Russia to reciprocate with the same level of courtesy.

Russia is the world’s largest exporter of Asbestos. Asbestos is a fibrous, silicate mineral used for the production of roofing materials. Fifty five countries have banned mining and the use of this mineral over reports that the exposure to it causes cancer.

There are claims for and against this research finding. Russia has been antagonized by Sri Lanka, one of its close allies in the international arena, which joined the anti- asbestos chorus sung by the western world.

Let alone, this is not the only instance when Sri Lanka’s actions caused resentment to Russia.

In 2015, Russia brought a resolution seeking to remove benefits to the same-sex partners of the UN staff. The resolution failed in the UN General Assembly committee as 80 nations opposed it. The regional countries such as India voted along with Russia for the resolution. Sri Lanka was, however, among the countries that voted against it.

The countries that supported the Russian resolution were India, China, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Oman, Pakistan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, UAE and others.

Former Russian Ambassador to Sri Lanka Alexander Karchava, in an interview with Daily Mirror, said that he noted Sri Lanka’s position in this regard.

If passed, the resolution would have then had UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon withdraw his policy laying out the United Nations current rules for the personal status of staff members for determining their benefits and entitlements.

  • Tea accounts for more than 80 % of the agricultural products exported to Russia
  • It came as a body blow to Sri Lanka as Russia accounts for 25 % of Sri Lanka’s total tea market
  • 55 countries have banned mining and the use of this mineral over reports that the exposure to it causes cancer
  • In 2015, Russia brought a resolution seeking to remove benefits to the same-sex partners of the UN staff

Another blow by Sri Lanka

In another instance, Sri Lanka’s position hugely impacted Russia’s stand at the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC).

Like the countries such as China and Pakistan, Russia too is opposed to country-specific resolutions at the UNHRC. In principle, Russia stood with Sri Lanka when the United States moved resolutions on it year after year. Yet, Sri Lanka had a new practice under the new Government in 2015 when it decided to co-sponsor the resolution.

Sri Lanka’s decision was, in fact, challenging the stands taken in principle by some countries against the country-specific resolutions.

In this manner, apart from the planned ban on the import of Asbestos, there were areas in which Russia and Sri Lanka had differences in the recent past.

However, President Maithripala Sirisena was keen to foster ties with Russia right from the beginning. In fact, he undertook a state visit, the first by a Sri Lankan leader after former Prime Minister the late Sirimawo Bandaranaike in 1972.

The President tried to use his good office with Russian President Vladimir Putin to get the restriction on tea trade lifted. He directly wrote to President Putin. The Embassy of Sri Lanka in Russia, which received the letter signed by President Maithripala Sirisena and addressed to the Russian President, forwarded to the Administration of the President of Russia.

Visit to Moscow 

Afterwards, a technical delegation from the Sri Lanka Tea Board visited Moscow to conduct negotiations with the Russian authorities.

The talks were conducted with the Russian Federal Service for Veterinary and Phytosanitary Surveillance and met with the Deputy Head of the Service Ms. Julia Shvabauskene.

Negotiations were very fruitful. At the meeting, the Russian side informed that they’re waiting for a Sri Lankan delegation to arrive to proceed with resolving of the Ceylon tea imports restrictions issue and requested a report from the Plant Quarantine Service of Sri Lanka. The Sri Lankan Embassy in Moscow obtained the document from Sri Lanka and forwarded to the Russian authority later on the same day. Also, it was pointed out by the Russian side that the pest found in tea is very destructive and not available in Euro-Asian regions. However, it can damage the entire grain production in Russia, considering that this country is the largest producer and exporter of grain in the world. The Russian officials also informed the Embassy that all tea consignments shipped before December 18th from Sri Lanka would be strictly inspected and released, if no quarantine pest is found.

On the whole, the Russian officials expressed their commitment to the issue of temporary restrictions imposed on the Ceylon tea imports from Sri Lanka and highlighted that they are also interested in the quickest resolution of this situation. That is why there are many positive signs at this moment and I think that the visit of the Sri Lanka Tea Board delegation will be very efficient and productive,” Sri Lankan Ambassador in Russia Saman Weerasinghe said.

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