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India, Russia talk free trade deal in step-up of relations

India, Russia talk free trade deal in step-up of relations

India and Russia are in discussions for a free trade agreement, their ministers said on Monday, with the deal expected to further boost commercial ties that have flourished since Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine.
Russia’s Deputy Prime Minister Denis Manturov and India’s Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar held a meeting with business leaders from the two countries on Monday as part of Manturov’s two-day visit to the South Asian country.

A free trade deal will mark a step up in India-Russia economic relations as New Delhi maintained expanding ties with both Russia and the West amid the war in Europe, which it has not explicitly criticized.

“We will rely on trusted foreign partners. We will make every effort to expand our cooperation ties,” Manturov, who is also the industry and trade minister, told a business forum in New Delhi. “Particular importance is attached to the issues of mutual access of products to the markets of both countries. Together with the Eurasian Economic Commission, it is planned to intensify negotiations with India to conclude a free trade agreement.”

Discussions on a trade pact between India and the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union had been disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic, Jaishankar said at the event.

“The (COVID-19 pandemic) interrupted those discussions, so I would very much hope that our colleagues will pick up on this. We will certainly encourage them from the Foreign Ministry side, because we do believe that they will make a real difference to our trade relationship,” he said.

India and Russia are also in “advanced negotiations” on a new bilateral investment treaty, Jaishankar added.

India’s imports from Russia more than quadrupled to over $46 billion over the last fiscal year, mainly through oil, which had been available only in small quantities before the war that began in February last year.

While Russia has long been India’s top source of military hardware, last month it became New Delhi’s top supplier of crude oil, displacing Iraq.

Monday’s announcement comes at a time when India is also in talks for an FTA with the UK, the EU, and the Gulf Cooperation Council.

While an FTA with the Moscow-led Eurasian Economic Union has been discussed for years without much progress, India’s trade priorities shifted after the Russian invasion, said Amitabh Singh, an associate professor at the Centre for Russian and Central Asian Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University.

“Now, our priority of trade has changed after the Ukraine war. Earlier, we were not buying crude oil from Russia, and now we are doing that. So, it would require a rethink in terms of the FTA,” Singh told Arab News.

“India and Russia have not been able to achieve the level of trade relations that they could (potentially) have. Trade between them is minuscule compared to the size of the two countries,” Singh said.

“Ideally, India would like to join the FTA, but…I don’t think in the course of war anything substantial can be done. India wouldn’t like to be seen as a sympathizer to Russia if the war goes on.”

Even if such a deal goes through as war continues in Ukraine, however, India may not have to worry about any implications from the West, said Harsh V. Pant, head of strategic studies at the Delhi-based Observer Research Foundation.

“I don’t think the West will really take it that seriously if India does go ahead with the deal,” Pant told Arab News.

“India and Russia have, for a very long time, been trying to revive their economic relationship because their relationship is very weak. Signing an FTA would be Russia’s way of saying that they are serious about economic relations with India,” Pant said.

“They want to invest in it whether or not it goes through, whether or not there is any possibility of succeeding.”
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