Russia's leadership position in Indian markets appears to be at risk after several high-profile military bids were rejected, and a joint nuclear power plant delayed by local protesters.
MOSCOW - Ahead of Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's planned December visit to Russia, the "privileged strategic partnership" between the two countries has been running into major problems.
The construction of a nuclear power plant in which Russia is involved is threatened by protests, Moscow lost a recent bid to provide the Indian Air Force with high-tech helicopters, and a joint project for multi-function military transport planes appears to be stalled. Experts think that these are not unrelated events, but the result of persistent factors that will make it more and more difficult for Russia to maintain its leadership in the Indian market.
The situation at the construction site in the southern Indian state of Tamiland became critical at the end of last week. Several hundred locals went on a hunger strike to protest the planned opening of the first reactor in December, and blocked off the entrances to the plant, effectively putting it under siege. The protesters were able to paralyze work on two reactors simultaneously (the first reactor, which is scheduled to be brought on-line in December, is 99% finished, while the second reactor is 93% completed, and expected to begin operations in August 2012).
In the past several days, several thousand seasonal construction workers have abandoned the plant. The protesters have used whatever means possible to encourage these workers to leave, including breaking rental agreements with the seasonal workers. Indian media reported that after the Indian workers left, Russian specialists followed them out the door, but that does not jibe with an announcement made by the power station's director, who said that every one of their Russian specialists continues to work on site.
The agreement to build the atomic power station with Russia was signed in 1998 by the then Russian Atomic Energy Minister Evgeny Adamov and the head of the Indian Atomic Energy Commission R. Chidambaram. Since then, Russian representatives have not once spoken about the uniqueness of the project, nor about its safety. As the press agency of the Atomic Energy Department explained, however, the project in Tamiland has third-generation reactors, which meet all modern safety requirements.
However, the activists protesting against the power plant, who seem to be taking their cues from larger global movements against nuclear energy, insist that after the nuclear accident at the Japanese plant in Fukushima, a similar disaster could happen in India. One of their arguments is that the planned power plant is located on the coast and could, like Fukushima, be vulnerable to tsunamis. The protesters don't believe Russian assurances about the safety of the plant.
The crisis surrounding the plant has put the Indian government in a difficult position in the run up to Prime Minister Singh's official visit to Moscow, and his discussions with Russian President Dimitri Medvedev. Up until recently, the power plant was a symbol of the "privileged strategic partnership" between the two countries, which Medvedev announced last year during an official visit to Delhi.
Nuclear lobby rep?
In an attempt to calm the protesters, Singh appointed a government commission of 15 experts to study the technological conditions at the station. In addition, former Indian President Abdul Kalam will visit the site with other experts to act as a mediator between the government and the protesters. But the activists have already rejected his services. "Kalam is another representative of the nuclear lobby, and he will not be able to convince us," said an announcement from the people's movement against atomic energy.
The scandal surrounding the power plant coincides with yet another failure for Moscow's military technology partnership with India. Earlier this week, Indian authorities announced that Moscow had lost a bid to sell India military helicopters, preferring US-built Apaches.
This is the second failed Russian bid of the year. Last April, Russia lost a bid to sell India multipurpose military planes, which the Indians decided to buy from France instead.
A source close to the Indian Defense Ministry said there were more than 20 reasons the Russian helicopters were refused, and that the Russian bid had no chance of winning.
"One of the reasons for Russian's loss was India's desire to diversify its weapons' sources and not to be dependent on Russia for 80% of its arms, as was the case in previous decades," explained Nandan Unnikrishnan, vice-president of the Indian research center Observer Research Foundation. "In addition, the decision-making process looks like this: The Indian Air Force announces specific parameters that are needed by the leadership to make a decision. The Indian government can't ignore those demands to facilitate the development of a strategic political relationship."
There are also the difficulties encountered by yet another dual project - to build multi-feature military transport planes. According to a source at the Indian Defense Ministry, Delhi was not satisfied with Moscow's proposed business plan because it did not include Indian engineers and researchers, as had been expected.
According to experts, the problems that Moscow has run into with Delhi mark a new tendency in the two countries' relations. "In spite of the declaration of ‘privileged strategic partnerships', going forward things are not that simple, " said Nandan Unnikrishnan. "To keep its leadership position in India's markets, Moscow is going to have to show more flexibility and innovation."