HE Andrey Tatarinov, Ambassador of Russia to Singapore, speaking to Editor-in-Chief Nomita Dhar reflects on the close relationship the two countries have enjoyed over these past 50 years, for which the Golden Jubilee celebrations are in full swing

Good afternoon Your Excellency and warmest greetings to you on the New Year. This is a very special year for Russia-Singapore ties as we celebrate 50 years of bilateral diplomatic relations. Please share your views on this momentous occasion.
Thank you for your warm wishes on the New Year and on our Golden Jubilee Year. The year 2018 is indeed very special as we celebrate the anniversary of our 50 years together. Actually the relations between Russia and Singapore go much further back in time because Singapore was a very important trade and transit post between Europe and the Far East in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Many commercial and naval ships used to travel from Russia to the Far East.

After Singapore declared its independence we established trade and commercial relations, formally on April 2, 1966. It was the first trade agreement signed by the Soviet Union and Singapore. The two sides agreed to exchange trade representatives then, but it was not till 1st June 1968 that the two countries established formal diplomatic ties and the Embassy of the Soviet Union was opened here on Nassim Road, a very prestigious part of town and still an object of envy of my colleagues from the other missions. I want to emphasise that from the very beginning we enjoyed and maintained close and very good relations. The late Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew placed great importance to trade-economic relations between us and considered my country as an important actor on the international stage. It is well known that Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong learned Russian for some time and still speaks the language to a certain extent.

These 50 years of our history has been marked by a good and friendly atmosphere in our relationship, which is very important. Even during complicated international circumstances our two countries always continued to maintain a dialogue and pushed forward our mutually beneficial ties in various fields, be it in trade or science or culture or whatsoever – not to mention of course the political dialogue on the high level, on the professional level – where the two countries always openly discussed issues, even when they agreed to disagree.

The last couple of years have been marked with some events of great significance. Most important of course was the Golden Jubilee of Singapore’s Independence which was attended by a high level Russian delegation led by the Deputy Speaker of the Federation Council – Upper House of Parliament. Another significant event was the Russia-ASEAN Summit held in Sochi in 2016 and the working visit of PM Lee Hsien Loong to my country – the first one in 25 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Previously Mr Lee’s father, the former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, had visited the Soviet Union in 1990. The meetings between the Singapore Prime Minster and our President and Prime Minister were very fruitful. Many arrangements were reached between the leaders of our two countries, which added more maturity to our relations and richness in substance to all our fields of interest. My primary task as ambassador is to implement these arrangements and bring new momentum to Russia-Singapore relations. Against the backdrop of our Golden Jubilee we are celebrating this year I must say that all my meetings with the Prime Minister or the officials of the Singapore government show that Singapore is willing to cultivate relations between our two countries to the proper level of the 21st century.

This spirit has been once again reconfirmed in the congratulatory messages of Singapore President Halimah Yacob and Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong addressed to Vladimir Putin on the occasion of his reelection as the President of the Russian Federation. We strongly reciprocate Singapore intention to advance bilateral cooperation on various fronts and appreciate the invitation sent to President Putin to pay a state visit to Singapore.

Have you planned special events to celebrate the Golden Jubilee year?
We are going to have several events. Some have been planned and some are still a work in progress. We are planning to issue a postage stamp to commemorate the Golden Jubilee Year. We will have a photo exhibition on the history of Russia-Singapore relations and host a big reception to commemorate the anniversary.

I am happy that our Golden Jubilee coincides with Singapore’s Chairmanship in ASEAN. Throughout the year a large number of the Russian delegations on various levels will visit Singapore to attend the meetings of the key regional mechanisms including East Asia Summits, ASEAN Regional Forum and ASEAN Defence Ministers’ Meetings with dialogue partners. We cannot waste this unique opportunity to highlight the golden anniversary of diplomatic relations by organizing sidelines’ bilateral events and meetings with the Singapore hosts.

Russian culture is very fascinating for many people in Asia, and there have been cultural collaborations for many years. Another very important aspect of this relationship is that you are starting a Russian Cultural Centre here in Singapore. Please tell us about it.
Well right now this is in its initial stage. There has been an agreement between the Governments of our two countries to set it up and the contract for the land lease for the centre was signed last year. The design of the project is being discussed by the two sides and I hope later this year we will address the ground breaking ceremony. This is a very important project. A part of the complex will feature a traditional Russian Orthodox Church, so that our parish here in Singapore will have an attractive place to come and worship. It will not only be for Russians, there are other communities living here in Singapore, from Eastern European countries who would also like to attend the services. The complex will also have a space where the Russian language will be taught, as there is a growing demand for learning Russian in Singapore. There will also be space for organizing exhibitions and cultural events.

How large is the Russian community in Singapore?
It is growing and currently we have about 5,000 people. They are engaged in business and science research, in services, some have started their own businesses here, there are people working for Russian companies and some for international companies with offices here. There are musicians who play with the Singapore Symphony Orchestra and also some smaller ones, some also teach music in the local institutions.

How do you engage with the Russian community in Singapore?
We engage with them through our consular services for things related to passports, legal documentation. People also come to the embassy when they need to. Once a year, before Christmas I organize a big New Year-Christmas event for the community. We have a big Christmas tree set up in the premises and invite people for the reception and engage with them quite informally.

We also have a Russian Club in Singapore which unites some part of the community here and they invite us for their events, concerts, dance performances. There are some good musicians there as well. There are also good places here for cultural education of children.

Russia-Singapore ties in terms of investment. How is this going right now? What is your message to future investors?
Several Singapore companies have been working in Russia for many years. They have invested in the food industry, in agriculture; some are there in real estate. Amongst the most active investors is Olam International, which has been working in the European part of Russia for a very long time. It has invested in agriculture and dairy farming. Food Empire has a plant near Moscow producing coffee mixes, tea and other food products. Some companies have taken part in master planning Special Economic Zones in Russia.

My government is working hard to improve the business and investment environment in Russia and much has been done in the Russian Far East, where there are a lot of opportunities for business to invest in. Of course, we want Singapore companies to invest in the Russian Far East which is close to Singapore. We want Singapore businesses to actively attend the Eastern Economic Forum which is held annually in the beginning of September in Vladivostok. Today Singapore business in Russia is lagging behind Japan, South Korea, China, but given the vast opportunities in various fields – ship-building, agriculture, urban environment, waste management and healthcare, there are enormous opportunities to tap areas in which Singapore has the expertise. I hope that in the next 50 years we will see a sizeable presence of Singapore in terms of investment in Far East Russia.

The Russia-Singapore Business Forum used to be a very key event for the two countries, but over the past few years attendance has dropped. Do you see this changing?
Yes, I think it will regain momentum. Trade and economic relations between Russia and Singapore are being pushed regularly and we have annual meetings of our High Level Inter-Governmental Commission headed by the Deputy Prime Minister from Singapore and the First Deputy Prime Minister from the Russian side. Given the growing interest from both sides to enhance cooperation I think this year the number of attendees at the Forum will be much bigger than in recent years.

What do your figures say on the tourism front?
There are many Russians coming to Singapore now. Last year numbers grew from 70,000 to 83,000 and I am hoping in the coming years it will go beyond 100,000 visitors.

And what about Singaporeans visiting Russia?
The numbers are growing too though they are lower, but the interest in visiting Russia is becoming stronger and I think the numbers will start growing faster.

Russian vodka is very famous. What are some of the other Russian products you would like to see on Singaporean tables?
We have our mineral water which is excellent, then there’s the traditional beverage called kvas, which is made from rye bread. We also produce very good chocolate, better quality and less expensive than what you buy here in Singapore. And, of course, Russian caviar. In fact in Singapore we have the Russian Caviar House, which is doing good business.

The changing geopolitical situation in Asia – what is Russia’s equation within it and what role Russia plays in it?Russia is an Asia-Pacific country. Two thirds of its territory lies in Asia resulting in the growing interest and growing participation of Russia in regional affairs. Until recent times, more attention was given to our direct neighbours: China, Japan and Korea. But in 1996 we established dialogue partnership with ASEAN, and our relations with ASEAN nations have been growing steadily. Last year we established our representative office to ASEAN in Jakarta and appointed a Russian ambassador to ASEAN. We also have the Russia-ASEAN Financial Fund which is aimed at promoting our relations in various fields. Some projects have already been implemented such as tourist guides being trained to serve Russian tourists in ASEAN. We will continue to fill the fund and discuss projects with ASEAN countries.

At the Russia-ASEAN Summit in Sochi both sides reached an arrangement to move towards strategic partnership. I am confident that Singapore as the new ASEAN Chair will play a positive role in this regard.