Participants at a roundtable styled "Bangladesh-Russia Relations: New Openings & Challenges" jointly organised by The Daily Star and the Centre for Foreign Affairs Studies at The Daily Star Centre in the capital yesterday.Photo: STAR
The $ 1.5 billion arms purchase and Ruppur nuclear power plant deals with Russia lack transparency, as they had been signed hastily without any public debate, former ambassadors and retired military officials said yesterday.
Although the country's armed forces need supplies from varied sources, the move with Russia demands accountability, they said at a discussion on Bangladesh-Russia relations and its prospects and challenges.
The Daily Star and Centre for Foreign Affairs Studies jointly organised the discussion at The Daily Star Centre in the capital.
On January 15, governments of both the countries signed the deals in Kremlin in presence of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and Russian President Vladimir Putin with the latter granting $ 1 billion weapon purchase loan at 4.5 percent interest rate.
The rest $ 500-million loan at 3.5 percent interest rate is for conducting feasibility study for setting up two nuclear power plant reactors, each with 100MW capacity, in Ruppur.
According to former foreign secretary Syed Muazzem Ali, both the deals lack transparency and accountability.
A public perception was that Russia had pushed the high-interest loan on Bangladesh in exchange for helping to set up a nuclear power plant, he said, adding that a pre feasibility study should be conducted by an independent third party.
He also emphasised training for the required manpower for the projects.
Muazzem Ali pointed out that the natural cooling system for a nuclear reactor would not be possible, though planned, as the rivers in Ruppur were drying up and had changed course.
Former chief of army staff Lt Gen (retd) Mahbubur Rahman said China had so far been Bangladesh's consistent source for weapon purchase at a nominal interest rate with longstanding and comprehensive defence cooperation deal.
Making a huge arms deal with Russia all on a sudden without any public discourse was a big shift from that stand, said Rahman, also a vice-chairman of the main opposition BNP.
He said even the armed forces were not notably involved in making the decision, nor was there any international tender.
Brig Gen (Rtd) Sakhawat Hossain, a former commissioner of election commission, said it was not clear whether the weapons would be purchased keeping the local requirement in mind.
Russia having significantly lost arms market in India, Middle East and east, west and north African countries, was now looking for new markets, he said, adding that there was no specifically laid down defence policy at the political level for the armed forces that function on certain principles.
Former ambassador Harun-ur-Rashid said an apparent negligence shown by the US to the incumbent government of Bangladesh might have prompted it to incline to Russia.
Any credit against an interest rate higher than 1.5 percent is considered hard commercial loan, he said.
"I am puzzled what national interest has been given priority in these deals," he said, "I wonder why these were not even discussed."
He said Russia wanted to contain the influence of China, Japan and the US in South-East Asia.
Harun, however, said Bangladesh's access to Russia with its readymade garment products would open up markets in the central Asia, including Belarus and Kazakhstan.
The Daily Star Editor and Publisher Mahfuz Anam, in his opening remark said it was natural that Bangladesh was trying to reach out as many countries as possible to serve its national interest.
But it was important to look into what rationale had prompted the deals with Russia, he continued, "Because I do not subscribe to the view that a country, which was a true friend to Bangladesh during its Liberation War, should be compensated in other means.
Former ambassadors Mahmood Hasan and Ashfaqur Rahman, and Shahedul Anam Khan, editor of Oped and Strategic Affairs at The Daily Star, among others, also spoke at the discussion moderated by CFAS Chairman M Serajul Islam.