The first fortnight of September is appearing hectic in Dhaka’s diplomatic calendar with multiple high-profile visits and agreements that are being scheduled. The series is expected to start with the arrival of Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov to Dhaka on September 7. This will be followed by the visit of French President Emmanuel Macron on September 11. The two visits are unique as a French President is visiting Dhaka after nearly 33 years and Mr. Lavrov is the first Foreign Minister of Moscow to visit Bangladesh in its history. In between, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina is due to arrive in New Delhi in the afternoon of September 8 and participate in the G-20 meetings where Bangladesh is among the “guest countries”.
The visit of Mr. Lavrov comes days after Ms. Hasina returned from Johannesburg where Bangladesh participated in the discussion on the expansion of the BRICS (the grouping of world economies comprising of Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa). Facing increased pressure from the European Union, the U.S. and the U.K. for alleged democratic backsliding, Ms. Hasina had lashed out repeatedly during April and May this year and threatened not to engage with the sanctions-imposing countries in commercial deals indicating her tilt towards the BRICS countries.
Russia’s state energy company ROSATOM is building Bangladesh’s first nuclear power plant in Rooppur and the visit of Mr. Lavrov has raised expectations that the power plant is going to be completed soon. Ms. Hasina and ROSATOM Director General Alexey Likhachev in October, 2022, launched the final stage of the installation of the reactor vessel at the construction site. The 2015 contract signed with ROSATOM was Bangladesh’s biggest agreement worth at least $12.65 billion. Out of the total amount, Russia is known to have funded nearly 90%. However, repayment has been facing a few issues as Russia continues to face international sanctions because of the campaign in Ukraine.
In Dhaka, Mr. Lavrov is expected to meet Ms. Hasina and it is understood that both sides may discuss the option of payment in a third currency. Paying Russia in U.S. dollars has become difficult for many partner countries because of the international sanctions. In recent months, a few payments to Moscow like the recent one by Indian oil majors, were made in Chinese Yuan. The discussion in Dhaka therefore is being keenly watched as it may reflect certain financial and geopolitical trends. According to the sources in Dhaka, Ms. Hasina is scheduled to reach Delhi on September 8 after concluding her discussion with Mr. Lavrov back home and subsequently participate in the G-20 engagements.
Diplomatic sources have indicated Dhaka’s willingness for a bilateral meeting between Ms. Hasina and Prime Minister Narendra Modi during her stay in New Delhi, while maintaining that she may not visit the Sufi shrine in Ajmer this time as she has to head back home to welcome French President Emmanuel Macron in Dhaka’s Shah Jalal International Airport. Ms. Hasina was hosted by Mr. Macron in November 2021 in Paris and ever since the two sides have been in talks over expanding defence ties.
France has had historic ties with Dhaka where Paris maintained a trading mission even during the 17th century and France was also one of the first Western countries to recognise Bangladesh on February 14, 1972. France has increasingly reoriented its strategic posture towards the Indo-Pacific region and an expanding military relation with Dhaka is now within the realm of possibility.
That apart, Mr. Macron’s visit will provide Ms. Hasina with an opportunity to apprise him of the pressure that her government has been facing from the European Union and the U.S.. The last French President to visit Dhaka was Francois Mitterrand in 1990.
Both the visits and Ms. Hasina’s presence in Delhi during the G-20 are being seen in the context of the upcoming election that is likely to be announced in October. With deepening ties in multiple world capitals, Ms. Hasina is clearly sending a message to her political opponents such as the BNP which has demanded that polls should be held under a caretaker government. Ms. Hasina has so far rejected that demand.