Our relations have enormous potential
Among all the ambassadors accredited in Russia, it’s difficult to find someone who knows our country better than 64-year-old Dr. S.M.Saiful Hoque, Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of Bangladesh. And it’s not just because he speaks great Russian and loves Russian blini and pelmeni. Dr. S.M.Saiful Hoque knows a lot about Russia because, after first coming here to study, he has lived in our country for a total of 34 years. “I can’t say that Russia is my second home, because it’s been my home for a long time,” he said during his conversation with Sergo Kukhianidze, Editor-in-Chief at Capital Ideas.
Mr. Ambassador, relations between Russia and Bangladesh have a long history. They date back to 1971, when your country became independent…
Yes, the Soviet Union really helped us get on our feet back then. Moscow was one of the first countries in the world to recognize our independence, and reached out to us with a helping hand right away. Since then, mutual respect and equality have always been at the foundation of our relations. In 1972, we signed an intergovernmental agreement on economic and technical cooperation. Bangladesh’s economy, which took a hit during the war for independence, was largely restored with the help of Soviet specialists.
But a lot has happened since then. The USSR no longer exists, and Bangladesh has changed a lot over the decades. Are you happy with the current state of our relations?
Overall, you could say that I am happy. Relations between Bangladesh and Russia are developing in a positive light across all spheres of cooperation, from political to humanitarian. But there is still a lot to do. I am certain that our relations have enormous potential across all spheres, including trade and economic relations. However, I am concerned that our business communities don’t know each other well. Many Russian businessmen would be hard pressed to find Bangladesh on a map these days. I think this is unfortunate.
What’s the best way to bridge this gap?
You know, we have to create lobbies both in Moscow and in Dhaka (in the good sense of the word, of course). In both countries, decision makers need more information about each other. But there is, of course, a major objective challenge – the distance. Unfortunately, there are no direct flights or charter flights between our capitals. There are always layovers in Dubai, Doha or Istanbul. As a result, the journey from Moscow to Dhaka takes anywhere from 10 to 15 hours. First and foremost, this affects tourists, and the two-way tourist flow is still very inadequate. For example, last year, only about 200 Bangladeshis visited Russia.
What do Bangladeshis think of when they hear the word “Russia”?
The older generation thinks about the October Revolution of 1917, about Lenin, about Stalin, about a big country that helped us a lot. In general, people in Bangladesh know Russia not only as a big country with huge natural reserves, but also as a highly developed country in terms of science, technology, and culture. We know Dostoevsky, Chekhov, and Pushkin … at some point, the books of these authors were widely published in Bengali. I am very sorry that this is no longer the case. I am deeply convinced that people learn much more about other countries through culture than through commerce. The radio station “Voice of Moscow” was broadcast in Bengali during the Soviet era, but it has closed since then. Because of this, people in Bangladesh are not aware of Russia’s achievements in various areas of public life and politics.
There are nearly 170 million people in Bangladesh, and about 100 million people in the Indian state of West Bengal and its surrounding areas. In terms of the number of speakers, Bengali is ranked 6th in the world. I also wrote to Sergey Lavrov, the Foreign Minister of Russia, and Dmitry Kiselyov, head of Russia Today, for Moscow to resume broadcasting in Bengali, but so far my efforts have not been successful. They explained to me that there is no funding. Perhaps I may not seem very diplomatic, but I think that Russia is being very modest when it comes to funding.
When the Soviet Union began to fall apart in the 1980s and Moscow left Bangladesh, who came instead?
Yes, nature doesn’t like empty space. When the Russians left, they were quickly replaced by the Chinese, who are very active today. There are also the Japanese, who are currently building the monorail, Germany and other Western European countries, and also, Americans, who have political interests in the region. Russia needs to once again show interest in Bangladesh, especially in the East. Unfortunately, since perestroika started, Russian businessmen no longer look to the East, but to the West, to offshore areas where money can be extracted, though, of course, these funds need to be invested in production at home.
From what you’re saying, it seems there is one conclusion to draw: our countries need to re-discover each other. In this vein, I have a question: if you were talking to a group of Russian businessmen right now instead of me, what would you tell them?
I would say that Bangladesh is a huge country with a population of almost 170 million people, and our economy and agriculture have been developing rapidly in recent years. There are truly great opportunities in the country for foreign investors and business people. We are open to new ideas and new technologies. We have a free economic zone with benefits – residents don’t pay taxes for 10 years. To get started, I would advise Russian businessmen to simply come and see it all. I would also recommend thinking about opening joint ventures.
What kinds of joint ventures, for example?
For example, in tailoring, in textile manufacturing … I would like to add that we are also interested in Russia opening vocational schools in Bangladesh, like those that existed in the USSR. We need skilled labor.
OK. And what would you say to businessmen from Bangladesh about Russia?
First and foremost, I would say that Russia is a huge market. I would advise them to not only visit Moscow, but also other regions, where a lot of interesting things are happening right now. And I would advise them to not come empty-handed, but with their products. The fact of the matter is that textiles can be imported from Bangladesh for 30-40% cheaper than from Western countries. Russians would have better clothes, and at lower prices. Another sphere of cooperation is mechanical engineering. Different kinds of Russian equipment can be assembled in Bangladesh. We really need machines, because our country is developing. Russia also has metals, and all the necessary raw materials. From our country, all of this equipment can be shipped to other nearby countries and adjacent states of India. The energy sector is another important sphere of economic cooperation. Gazprom has been operating in Bangladesh since 2011, and our cooperation with this giant of the Russian economy is constantly developing.
In your opinion, what do foreigners who want to come to Russia need to be cautious about?
Because of the ruble’s volatility, financial instability is something to be aware of. For example, you invest 100 million rubles here – you might not be able to predict what kind of profit you’ll have afterwards. Some people are afraid of the mafia. Although in my conversations with people, I always say this is no longer a problem, and that the 90s in Russia have been over for a long time. Still, stereotypes remain. In any case, Russia needs to work on creating a positive image. Of course, the World Cup has already helped a lot in this regard, but you shouldn’t stop there. Businessmen should not be the only ones taking care of this, the state should help as well.
And there is another very important question that comes up every time we talk about foreign investments into the Russian economy. If Russians don’t want to invest money into their own country, why should foreign businessmen and investors do so? It’s good that the government has focused on repatriating offshore money. It’s important to do this, so that these billions of dollars work to benefit the country’s economy.
This year marks an anniversary for you. It’s been 10 years since you came to Moscow. You’re practically a Muscovite now! How do you like the city?
I feel comfortable in Moscow. I go to Europe often, but I always want to return to the Russian capital as quickly as possible. I always come back to Moscow like I’m coming back home. Yes, Moscow is changing and it’s changing for the better. There are more beautiful places where it’s pleasant to spend your time. My wife and I spend a lot of time walking around the city. We have our favorite places – the squares on Arbat, Sparrow Hills, Fili Park, Prechistenka Street. When new metro stations open, we like to visit them. In Moscow, there are a lot of buildings that speak to the history of this multicultural city. When you know the history, you understand the city and its residents much better.
In your opinion, what else needs to be done to improve the experience of foreigners in Moscow?
You know, getting around the city if you don’t know Russian is still difficult right now. There aren’t many street signs in English, and it’s difficult to find people who speak it too. Even the waiters in restaurants don’t know elementary English, and don’t know how to explain what’s on the menu. It would be so great if a waiter could say their restaurant not only has fish, but fish from Murmansk or meat from Voronezh. And if they could talk about these places a bit too. Because a waiter not only serves food, they set the atmosphere. Very often, they don’t know how to do this. I also want to say that, in spite of the fact that there are different restaurants in the city right now, there aren’t that many really good restaurants. And if you do find a decent restaurant, it will be incredibly expensive – much more expensive than a similar place in the West would be. Why is this the case? It’s unclear to me.
What inspires you every day when you come to the office?
The work we already do jointly with Russian colleagues, and the work that will be done in the future. Recently, for the first time in 47 years since we first established relations, we held an intergovernmental meeting in which we identified points of contact in various spheres. We identified new projects – in the energy sector, in the study of the Bay of Bengal. For example, I proposed to establish a fishery department in our country, where Russian professors would share their experiences on how best to use water resources. I am in favour of Russia transferring more of its knowledge to us, sharing its intellectual potential with us. After all, I myself am the product of this intellectual exchange. I became who I am today thanks to the knowledge I gained in Russia.