Smiling Russia

SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan (The Philippine Star) - September 5, 2018 - 12:00am

For a Russian, Igor Khovaev smiles a lot. Russia’s top diplomat in the Philippines himself says smiling does not come easily to many of his compatriots. He says his posting of two years in the Philippines has infected him with the ready Pinoy smile.

But this is not the only reason the envoy is smiling these days and even cracking jokes on national TV. Russians and Filipinos know so little about each other. Now bilateral ties have warmed significantly, thanks to President Duterte’s foreign policy shift and open admiration for his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin.

Ambassador Igor, as he prefers to be called, is now preparing for what he describes as his “dream” of contributing to the two countries’ rapprochement, by laying the groundwork for a likely visit in Manila by Putin. It will be the first ever visit to the Philippines by a Russian leader.

Even if Putin changes his mind, however, and again sends in his stead Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, bilateral ties have so warmed that the Philippines is considering buying big-ticket military equipment from Russia.

Ambassador Igor even proposed last year a joint production in the Philippines of Russia’s world-renowned export, the AK-47 and other Kalashnikov weapons and ammunition.

Over 100 countries use Kalashnikovs, Ambassador Igor points out, and many of them also use weapons from other top defense equipment producers such as the United States. Russia, he stresses, knows how to deal with any technical compatibility problems.

We all know what could douse cold water on these warming bilateral ties: the Philippines’ treaty ally the United States.

* * *

Randall Schriver, US assistant defense secretary for Asian and Pacific security affairs, recently cautioned the Philippines that the purchase of Russian military equipment such as submarines could harm the decades-old Philippine-US alliance.

The comment expectedly drew an acerbic rebuke from Duterte. Ambassador Igor, facing us on “The Chiefs” on Cignal TV’s One News, described Schriver’s comment as “outrageous,” adding that Manila’s traditional allies “have no right to interfere” in such matters.

Russia has no alliance with any state outside the former Soviet Union, Ambassador Igor emphasizes, because alliances shut out others. The Kremlin prefers partnerships, and it’s time for the Philippines to “diversify” cooperation arrangements, he said. In the process, he said Russia has “no intention to inflict any damage” on the Philippines’ traditional alliances.

Is the Philippines open to such diversification? Under Duterte, it seems likely.

* * *

As far back as 2007, Dmitry Medvedev had said in an interview, “It’s an argument which dates back to Soviet times – is it better for the world to have a weaker or a stronger Russia?” Medvedev stressed that Russia is different from the Soviet Union and its “totalitarian tendencies.”

“A strong, democratic Russia is good for the world. But I’m afraid that old concepts still hold sway among many in the West,” Medvedev said.

Russia is still under US-led sanctions for its annexation of Crimea and its support for the regime of Syria’s Bashar al-Assad as well as accusations of interference in US elections. The British are also accusing the Kremlin of poisoning a Russian double agent and his daughter in England with the Soviet-era nerve agent Novichok in March this year, with two more Britons becoming critically ill from the same poison in a nearby town in July.

Moscow has vehemently denied the accusations, with suspicion raised that the Brits were trying to sabotage the goodwill generated by Russia’s hosting of this year’s FIFA World Cup.

Several months ago, the US blacklisted Rosoboronexport, the state-owned Russian arms maker with which the Philippine government was working out the purchase last year of 750 rocket-propelled grenade launchers. The US has warned of sanctions on governments and private sector entities dealing with Russia’s defense industry, including disruption of the delivery of the goods.

Duterte has brushed aside these developments and is forging ahead with strengthening ties with Russia and Putin.

Last year during the Marawi siege, Russia donated AK-47s with ammo and military trucks to Philippine troops battling Maute militants. Off-camera, Ambassador Igor told us with pride, “Russian trucks don’t need a road, they just need a destination.”

Beyond weapons, Russian businessmen are exploring other areas of partnership, including participation in Duterte’s Build Build Build infrastructure expansion. Also renowned for their subways and extensive train network (the Trans-Siberian railway from Moscow to Vladivostok is the longest in the world), Russians will be constructing the Clark to La Union railway.

* * *

In its rapprochement with Russia, is the Philippines turning its back on democratic ideals? If the world, including democratic Western Europe and the US, can be heavily engaged with China, why not with Russia?

Ambassador Igor prefers to dwell on shared values, pointing to many things in common between Russians and Filipinos. One in particular has not been emphasized: Christianity. The envoy points out that while his country was a communist state for decades, many Russians are Orthodox Christians, and his country, like the Philippines, also has Muslims. Religion, he stresses, is much more binding “than any ideological principles.”

He admitted that making people forget Russian stereotypes won’t happen overnight and will take some effort.

“Look at me, I’m a typical Russian guy,” he told us. “Not those aggressive, stupid Russian guys” as portrayed by Hollywood, which he said has produced “not a single good movie” about his country.

He said the World Cup showed that “the absolute majority of Russian people are friendly and hospitable. They are normal people. We have the same values.”

Referring to his country and the Philippines, he acknowledges, “We have never been close friends, but we have never had conflicts… there is nothing that can cast a shadow on the improvement of our relations.”

He said defense cooperation is not only technical but also “mental, psychological, even emotional.”

“We have to overcome all possible prejudices. I believe it’s possible. It’s not easy but it’s possible,” he told us. “My country has only one wish: to become a reliable partner and a close friend of the Philippines. And I believe this is mutual.”

A ready smile, which Ambassador Igor says he flashes in Manila more often than in Moscow, is a good start.

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