Britain’s war-time Prime Minister had some memorable words to describe Russia – “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma” he called it. “However, there is a key. The key is Russia’s national interest,” he added. The latest tea vs. asbestos fiasco between Sri Lanka and Russia epitomises this Churchillian quote.The Cabinet of Ministers [...]


Crisis with Russia: A James Bond thriller


Britain’s war-time Prime Minister had some memorable words to describe Russia – “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma” he called it. “However, there is a key. The key is Russia’s national interest,” he added. The latest tea vs. asbestos fiasco between Sri Lanka and Russia epitomises this Churchillian quote.The Cabinet of Ministers earlier this week, in what seemed a knee-jerk reaction to a Russian blanket ban on all Lankan agricultural products due to a solitary beetle purportedly found in a packaging of presumably “Pure Ceylon Tea”, rescinded the ban on asbestos imports to the island. Russia is one of the exporters of asbestos to Sri Lanka.

The Ministers were convinced the Russians were engaging in a tit-for-tat trade war with Sri Lanka.
Yet it was only in March this year that the President visited Moscow and after meeting his counterpart and the Prime Minister, said that Russia was interested in greater trade and investment in Sri Lanka. As a gesture of goodwill, he was also presented with a 19th century kastane (sword) which the Russians had purchased from Sotheby’s in London. For good measure, the Russian also extended a loan facility for defence purchases, with which Sri Lanka is acquiring a controversial Russian-made naval craft. So what has gone wrong for this slap on the Lankan wrist by Russia? Our Page 1 news story today of Sri Lanka being sandwiched in a super-power tug-of-war over the extradition of a young Russian fugitive arrested in Sri Lanka has confused the tea vs. asbestos issue. Has the ban on tea anything to do with the ban on asbestos, is the question.

According to reliable sources, the Russians showed considerable interest in having this 22-year-old computer man sent back home rather than to the United States of America whose Justice Department also made a claim for him. The wanted man, Manokin Raufovich, is an alleged computer hacker. The US wants him for his links with a computer malware which is a package that can steal personal and financial information and has been engaged with some Bulgarians in wire frauds, stealing online banking login credentials and money laundering. The Russian Prosecutor General wants him for “theft”. Is he linked to the US investigations into hacking the Democratic Party computer and alleged Russian involvement in influencing the American Presidential election last year?

Caught between a rock and a veritable hard place, and only after the Russians made a second request for the young man to be sent to Moscow rather than Washington, did Colombo get a move on, that too with a non-committal position. One might not disagree with the Sri Lankan Government’s non-aligned stance, but the fact that the man was arrested on the US request, while the Russian request was ignored is what, we are told could have irritated Moscow – not so much the asbestos issue. The procrastination on the Russian request seemingly caused the rupture in relations since the Presidential visit in March.

Whether all this is a storm (or beetle) in a tea cup is too early to say. Clearly, there was a big price on Raufovich’s head. He was a ‘big fish’ wanted dearly by Washington and Moscow. That is an established fact. Now, he has jumped bail and is believed to have gone back to Russia. How he went is also a mystery. Some believe he went in the private jet that brought the head of Rosboronoexport, the agent for the Russian patrol craft who we were told was coming here for negotiations. The Russians are not happy on that front either with the President showing some reluctance to proceed with the deal. That flight is not proved, but if it is correct it shows the nexus Raufovich has to the powers-that-be in Moscow. Our Immigration has no idea of how the young man left. This is stuff straight from a James Bond thriller. The silence from Moscow on both counts – the asbestos issue and the Raufovich affaire is deafening.

The desperation on the part of the Government to lift the asbestos ban hoping the Russians would lift the tea ban is understandable from its point of view. Local council elections are looming and most tea that is exported to Russia is low-growns coming mainly from hundreds of smallholders in the south for whom it is their rice and curry. The largest volume of black tea imported to Russia comes from Sri Lanka, and Russia accounts for almost one-fifth of total exports of Sri Lankan tea (19 percent). Other tea exporting countries are seeking to exploit the situation.

Still, need the Government have panicked? Was the Cabinet so sure the tea ban was in retaliation to the asbestos ban? How did they arrive at this conclusion? How does cancer causing asbestos, whether blue or white, become bad one day and okay the next? Take coal. The Government declares it is implementing a ‘green policy’ in energy and moving away from ‘dirty coal’. It even tells India to change from its proposed coal plant at Sampur in the Eastern Province to LNG (liquefied natural gas). Then, two Ministers bring forth a joint Cabinet paper to set up yet another coal plant next to the gasping Norochcholai coal plant which has not only spluttered 25 times since it was installed but is producing more toxic fumes than energy. Both plant and people in the area are gasping for breath.

Of all things, one of the Ministers who introduced this Cabinet paper is the Minister for Renewable Energy. Nobody seems to have explained to him the meaning of his portfolio. Fortunately, the Cabinet which lifted the asbestos ban, rejected the coal plant proposal. Of late, the President has taken credit for the restrictions on tobacco products and the ban on Glyphosate fertilizer – a ban that agriculturists, from the paddy farmer to the plantation sector now blame for low yields. Glyphosate was considered one of the contributory factors for the high-rate of kidney disease among farmers. Then came the on-off-on again polythene ban. Nobody is sure what the status of this ban is, now.

This is not to say that the Government’s intentions are dishonourable. Asbestos, tobacco, coal, Glyphosate, polythene are all bad for the environment and the health of the people. There is a concerted effort to cut down on sugar consumption by increasing taxes. The previous Government took an awfully long time to bring laws to control carbon monoxide from exhaust fumes of vehicles – something that North India is plagued with these days with New Delhi referred to as a “gas chamber”. Coordination between Ministries and Government departments in Sri Lanka is poor. Leaving it to the Cabinet is too dangerous as they indulge in a policy of ‘you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours”. But this week’s decision lifting the ban on imports of asbestos, and the inability to stand firm on the other bans due to pressure-lobbies, betray the fact that decisions are taken at the highest levels of Government on an ad-hoc basis without the stomach to stick to them, and in the case of asbestos, for political and economic expediency in the short-term rather than the benefits that accrue to the health of the nation long-term.


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