Diplomatic Disaster

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A diplomatic row is brewing between Moscow and Colombo and it may have disastrous consequences for the Sri Lankan economy, plunging the country into an even worse predicament.

On 2 June 2022, the Commercial High Court of the Western Province issued an Enjoining Order on a Russian flagship carrier Aeroflot flight carrying 191 passengers and 13 crew members, restraining it from taking off from Bandaranaike International Airport.

The following day, Sri Lanka’s Ambassador to Russia, Janitha A. Liyanage was summoned to the Russian Foreign Ministry, and given a stern warning. According to State-owned news agency TASS, the Ministry has protested “over the groundless decision by Sri Lanka’s judicial authorities to detain a regular Aeroflot flight preparing to depart for Moscow at the Bandaranaike International Airport on June 2.” It added, “We urged the Sri Lankan side to settle this problem as soon as possible to avoid its negative impact on traditionally friendly bilateral relations.”

However, responding to Russia’s allegations, the Foreign Ministry issued a statement yesterday, saying the case relates to a commercial dispute between the Plaintiff, Celestial Aviation Trading 10 Limited, an Irish Company, against the first Defendant the Public Joint Stock Company “Aeroflot” and the second Defendant, Mr. N.C Abeywardene/Acting Head of Air Navigation/Airport and Aviation Services of Sri Lanka (AASL), Katunayake.

The matter is still pending final determination of the Court. This matter is also under consultation through normal diplomatic channels, the Foreign Ministry added.

On the other hand, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe has informed Moscow that the issue with the Russian flag carrier is not between two countries but a private legal matter.

Former Sri Lankan Ambassador to Russia, Udayanga Weeratunga, told our Sunday edition that Russia is engaged in a severe diplomatic tussle with the West over the war in Ukraine. “Global players and aviation experts have raised concerns and brought sanctions on Russia due to the ongoing Ukraine war. It is said that over 175 Aeroflot aircraft are leased for 10 to 15 years from many Western countries and they are demanding their aircraft back and have also cancelled the leasing agreement with the airline.”

This issue has cropped up while Russia has also assured a US$ 500 million line of credit to purchase fuel from them and one consignment has arrived already.

On the other hand, out of 286 million kilograms of tea exported in 2021, Russia bought 29.7 million kilos, the third largest buyer after Iraq and Turkey. In January 2022, Russia bought 2.5 million kilograms of tea becoming the second largest buyer. According to the United Nations COMTRADE database on international trade, Sri Lanka’s tea exports to Russia was USD 123.02 million during 2021.

Also, as the tourism industry took a nosedive during the two years of Covid-19 pandemic, with a number of countries issuing travel advisories and bans, it was Russia that kept sending tourists to Sri Lanka, bringing us the much needed dollars.

As Ceylon Today reported in our Sunday paper, “The bulk of overseas tourists are sent to Sri Lanka by Russia and a BIA source revealed that close to 400,000 Russians were planning to arrive in Colombo during the forthcoming winter season.”

Unfortunately for Sri Lanka, Aeroflot announced that it is suspending commercial flights to Sri Lanka after Sri Lankan authorities detained the airline’s Airbus A330 jet on 2 June. “Aeroflot is suspending commercial flights to Colombo for the immediate period due to an unreliable situation in terms of the airline’s unobstructed flights to Sri Lanka. The sales of tickets for flights to Colombo have been temporarily shut down,” Russian State-owned news agency TASS said quoting the airline.

Although the Prime Minister emphasised the entire episode is a dispute between two private parties, it is doubtful that Russia will be willing to regard the matter in the same light. Therefore, Sri Lanka might have to endure the repercussions of this incident in the coming months where Sri Lanka is bracing for a severe food and fuel shortage. A diplomatic spat with Russia is the last thing that Sri Lanka needs right now!