CONCERN voiced by the US about the Kudankulam nuclear power project in Tamil Nadu with India is unlikely to shake Russias decision to go ahead with the deal, high-ranking Russian officials say. In what is viewed as the most concerted opposition to US hegemony so far, senior Russian officials went out of their way to assure visiting Indian External Affairs Minister Inder Kumar Gujral that Moscow considers the project a priority area of bilateral cooperation.
The agreement to build two light-water reactors with 1,000 MW capacity in Tamil Nadu was one of the last fruits of Indo-Soviet economic cooperation before its dramatic decline following the collapse of the Soviet Union.
"I have been told most categorically and clearly that the Russian stand on the sale of reactors to India has not changed," a confident Gujral told journalists in Moscow following meetings with his Russian counterpart Yevgeny Primakov and Security Council Secretary Ivan Rybkin. Primakov noted that the reactor deal is "purely a bilateral matter" and no other country, including the US, has any right to interfere. According to Gujral, Prime Minister Victor Chernomyrdin, first vice-premier Victor Ilyushin and Duma Speaker Gennady Seleznyovs remarks were in the same vein. At any rate, Primakov denies receiving any official protest from the US so far.
The recent controversy was sparked off after US State Department spokesman Nicholas Burns said the sale violated the spirit of a 1992 agreement between "nuclear club" member-states banning nuclear exports to potential nuclear powers. American officials say the proposed sale breaks Russias commitment to demand control of the International Atomic Energy Agency (I A E A) over nuclear installations in countries which are not members of this exclusive "club".
This so-called suppliers agreement refers to the sale of nuclear technology to countries not formally recognised as nuclear states and countries which do not allow international inspections of all their nuclear facilities and material. Currently only the US, Russia, China, Britain and France are official nuclear club members.
"The 1992 treaty has a recommendatory character and does not expressly forbid such sales,"sources in the Russian foreign ministry told Outlook . According to Deputy Foreign Minister Grigori Karasin, the agreement will not break any international treaties. "The facility will have internationally accepted safeguards and would be open for IAEA inspection as well," he said. But what does the International Atomic Energy Agency feel about the sale of Russian light-water nuclear reactors to India? David Kyd, its spokesman, told Outlook f rom Geneva: "The Russians are looking for opportunities to export this kind of nuclear technology. It is legitimate for them to seek to sell it and with India there is a making of a deal". According to Kyd, there are hardly any markets for nuclear power plants left in Western Europe or Latin America. "The market exists only in Asia and Eastern Europe". But what about the American objections? "Thats a political issue and we have no view on that," Kyd stated.
Experts note that the American statement coincided with Chernomyrdins recent visit to Washington to infuse a new dynamism into US-Russian relations, which have been at a virtual stand-still in the last six months due to President Boris Yeltsins illness. Chernomyrdin and US Vice - President Al Gore co-chaired the joint Russian-American commission on economic and trade cooperation. Earlier, US officials hinted that the sale of nuclear reactors to India might place at risk Russias cooperation with the US.
THOUGH Indian officials in Moscow repeatedly stated that the Kudankulam project was not on the agenda of the Indo-Russian inter- governmental commission during Gujrals visit, Ilyushin, the commissions co-chairman, referred to the issue in his opening speech. "The most advanced area of economic cooperation in our view is nuclear power stations," he said. But he also noted:
"Unfortunately, our negotiations are somewhat slow." He said Russia was ready to grant India a $2.6 billion loan for the project. No other details of the proposed terms and conditions of the loan were revealed.
Ilyushins remark on the slow pace of negotiations was seen by Russian experts as a complaint against Indias complicated bureaucracy.
The agreement to build two light-water reactors in Tamil Nadu was reached in 1988, two years after the Delhi Declaration on building "a non-nuclear, non-violent world" was signed by Mikhail Gorbachev and Rajiv Gandhi. At the time, Moscow and New Delhi claimed that the Kudankulam project was an example of nuclear ahimsa . Besides the economic motivation, the pact was another manifestation of the decades-old special relationship between the two countries.
The two light-water reactors valued at between $1.5 and $2 billion each can individually produce one million KW and greatly contribute towards alleviating Indias acute energy shortage. The reactors are similar to those currently being constructed in Iran, where 240 Russian specialists are working at the Busher construction site.
"Back in 1988 it was also envisaged to grant India a 20-year loan to finance the project," Yufi Kaurov, a spokesman for Russias Atomic Energy Ministry told Outlook . "It was to be paid back not in cash, but in goods and commodities. However, after the agreement was reached, no follow-up contracts on Kudankulam project were signed." Any reports about details of the newly-proposed loan repayments are also premature, he said.
According to Kaurov, the disintegration of the Soviet Union, which battered Indo-Russian bilateral trade and economic ties, led to the shelving of the project for several years. The problem of repayment of possible loans has become the main stumbling block and the subject of gruelling negotiations in the implementation of the Kudankulam project. Moscow refused to stand by old Soviet-era agreements and wanted to be paid in hard cash, while New Delhi was not prepared for that.
Nevertheless, sources in Russias Atomic Energy Ministry hint that the negotiations may be completed by next month. Ilyushins statement on Russias readiness to grant India a $2.6 billion loan can well lead to a compromise on repayment terms, they say.
Resolute statements from Russian leaders are echoed by Russian industry, which is trying its best to increase the countrys export potential. Atomic Energy Minister Viktor Mikhailov said recently, that his organisation plans to increase exports from $2.2 billion in 1996 to $3.5 billion by the year 2000. This will be achieved by fulfilling relevant contracts with India, Iran and Cuba, he said.
According to Karasin, the proposed Indo-Russian summit in Moscow before the March 20-21 Yeltsin - Clinton meeting in Helsinki "will put an end to all the speculations about the (nuclear) deal".
It is still not clear what the consequences of the Kudankulam deal would be for Russian-American relations. Political analysts in India and Russia remember how, in 1993, Kremlin had to downscale the contract on the sale of cryogenic rocket engines to India under pressure from the US. At that time the Russian Foreign Ministry was headed by Andrei Kozyrev. Nicknamed "cozy Kozyrev" in the West, he put improved relations with Washington "even above Russian national interests", says Sergei Solodovnik, of the Moscow International Relations Institute.
But US-Russia ties quickly passed from their honeymoon to a "cold peace". Moscow does not fear diff e rences with Washington any more as is evident from the hardening of its position over such issues as the planned eastward expansion of N AT O, or relations with the so-called pariah states. The Busher nuclear deal with Iran in 1994 was the first instance when Moscow voiced a resolute no to US pressure. Russian foreign policy thinking has overcome the "cryogenic engine syndrome", Solodovnik said.