In 1961, two days after Tanganyika gained independence from Britain on December 9, the Soviet Union established diplomatic relations with the newly-independent nation. It is a relationship that has stood the test of time, and last week saw the two countries celebrate 56 years of their diplomatic relations.
Political Platform speaks to the Russian Ambassador to Tanzania, Yuri Popov, in his first exclusive interview since he was appointed to Tanzania more than two years ago.
He is a career diplomat who has had extensive service experience in Africa. Before his present appointment he worked in Nigeria, Lesotho and Zimbabwe, and later in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. His profession as a diplomat has also taken him to a number of African countries such as Angola, Mozambique, Zambia, South Africa, Namibia and some others over the years.
As a seasoned diplomat, how different is your experience in Tanzania?
Chronologically, I have been posted in Nigeria, Lesotho and Zimbabwe but then I had to shift my work interests to Central Asia and was dealing with that region for nearly 20 years. I am happy to be back in Africa and especially Tanzania.
I have a feeling that it is my well-deserved good luck because Tanzania is in fact the essence of Africa as it has almost everything that this continent can offer: the Great Lakes, Mt Kilimanjaro, the Indian Ocean beaches, Zanzibar and other beautiful islands, world famous national parks.
Once you have seen Tanzania then you can as well say you have seen a good deal of Africa because there is hardly another African country as diverse and gorgeous as this one.
My coming back means I have grown roots going deep in this continent’s soil. I started my career in Africa and hope to finish it accordingly.
On trade and investment, countries like India and China are known to have contributed a lot to the Tanzanian economy. Is Russia bringing anything new to the table?
In the process of restoring Russia’s status as one of Tanzania’s leading partners, in April 2016 we held a bilateral forum under the motto “Russia and Tanzania: Advancing Towards Each Other”. That event brought a number of representatives of Russian big companies to Tanzania. The delegation was headed by Minister of Trade and Industry Denis Manturov.
They had a few days of close discussions with their Tanzanian counterparts. This has led to enhancing mutual understanding. A number of bilateral contracts are under negotiation and close to conclusion, and increased contacts between Russian and Tanzanian counterparts are now being developed.
We are at an advanced stage of talks on the draft inter-governmental agreement on establishing a Joint Economic Commission. Once set, this body will be quite instrumental in bringing the two countries closer since it will provide a solid platform for regular contacts between our business people.
I must emphasise that no matter how fluctuating our economic relations used to be, Moscow and Dar es Salaam have enjoyed very close political understanding and cooperation, including that in dealing with international issues.
Soviet universities used to educate many Tanzanians. For instance, Deputy Foreign Minister Suzan Kolimba holds a degree from the RUDN (formerly Patrice Lumumba University) in Russia. What is the situation like today?
We still receive Tanzanian students, probably in lesser numbers than in the past, but certainly we are still on that track. Not only Deputy Minister Suzan Kolimba, but a number of other prominent Tanzanians, statesmen and women included, graduated from Soviet and Russian universities. For example, Dr. Ali Mohammed Shein, President of Zanzibar, received his degree in the Soviet Union.
I am personally happy that a number of Russian-educated Tanzanians hold high-profile positions, making this country strong and prosperous. We continue to provide educational opportunities to Tanzanian students, with 12 getting budget state scholarships this year to study in Russian universities.
There are also Russian students and teachers coming to Tanzania in numbers, especially those who learn Kiswahili. This trend is likely to continue.
You worked in Zimbabwe before, what is your take on the recent events? Could you have expected this to happen at any one time?
I worked in Zimbabwe in the first half of the 1990s when the country was in her prime, enjoying social peace and economic prosperity, and I left the country in 1996 not long before the economic crisis erupted.
Speaking about the recent events, President Mugabe will forever be remembered as the founding father of Zimbabwe, and this man repeatedly displayed his friendly attitude to my country. Moscow always enjoyed cordial relations with Harare.
However, any responsible leader must realise age and health limits, even if he is de jure or de facto president for life. As a leader becomes frail to govern his country, he has to step down and relinquish his power. This is what Boris Yeltsin, the first President of the Russian Federation, did at the turn of the century by handing his authority over to the then Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.
Tanzania has discovered huge amounts of gas reserves, what lessons can she learn from Russia in the exploitation of this vital resource?
Being a major gas producer and supplier, Russia can render all sorts of support in terms of know-how and engineering to Tanzania as a future gas producer. So far we have not received any invitation from the Tanzanian government to invest in the gas sector or to provide assistance. I believe that should we get such request, it will be considered. And definitely Russia can be of considerable help in this field.