15 Feb 2016
Fiji’s flirtation with Russia a legacy of post-coup freeze-out
By Anthony Bergin and Richard Herr
In the 1966 comedy The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming, a remote New England village is surprised and alarmed to find a Soviet submarine aground on a sandbar just off the island.
There are echoes of this reaction in some of the reporting on Russian arms reaching Fiji late last month, and last week’s arrival in Suva of a 10-member team from Russia’s armed forces to help with the transfer of the weapons and train local instructors on their use. The handover of the equipment happens tomorrow, with senior military brass from Russia attending.
In reality, we shouldn’t be surprised by these events. Their genesis goes back well before the signing of a series of mutual
co-operation agreements in Moscow between Fijian Prime Minister Josaia Voreqe Bainimarama and Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev in June 2013.
Indeed, it goes back further than the four years ago when Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov visited Fiji in February 2012.
The real origin is to be found in Fiji’s search for “new friends”, which began soon after sanctions were applied to Fiji following the December 2006 military coup.
The attempt to cut Fiji out of the UN’s peacekeeping operations provoked an angry defence of its interests in New York that ultimately led to the development of mutual interests between Russia and Fiji in the world body. This connection has been bolstered both through closer non-resident diplomatic ties, maintained via the Fijian embassy in Tokyo, and a string of Russian military delegations visiting Fiji.
Direct support to the Republic of Fiji Military Force began with the promise of small arms and related supplies by the Russians to the expanded deployment of Fijian peacekeepers to the Golan Heights from mid-2013.
Russia announced a few years ago at the UN that it intended to donate and ship the arms directly to Fiji’s soldiers. Discussions on more military assistance have continued since then. These talks were made more urgent as the instabilities following the Arab Spring heightened risks to RFMF peacekeepers in the Golan Heights and in the Sinai.
Fiji has about 1000 UN peacekeepers in the Middle East at a time. UN peacekeeping is one of Fiji’s main contributions to the wellbeing of the international community.
It’s very proud of that.
Dissatisfaction with dated peacekeeping equipment was intensified by frustration at the post-2006 military sanctions that impeded modernisation from its traditional sources.
Fiji had been asking around for a while — mostly sounding out Western countries — for assistance to upgrade its equipment. But only the Russians responded positively. (It’s somewhat surprising the US didn’t see merit in helping Fiji’s armed forces.)
It was agreed that, although logistically more time-consuming, it would be better for the weapons to go to Fiji first and for Russian specialists to be sent as trainers. (The Russians have different types of weapons to those usually used by Fiji’s forces. )
Thus, although unexpected, there should have been little real surprise when a cargo vessel appeared bringing military materiel into Suva harbour last month. What is unusual was the size of the shipments and their value. It’s been reported that 24 containers of weapons and supplies were offloaded, valued at $US41.8 million.
Both countries describe the Russian aid as being the small arms and ancillary equipment that’s used under UN regulations for peacekeeping operations. Repeatedly these supplies have been linked to the Golan Heights deployment, although the need for upgraded equipment is just as high in the Sinai, where the threat to peacekeepers has escalated significantly in recent years. The significance of the Russian military aid for Australian relations with Fiji will depend partly on whether the latest shipment is a one-off holdover from the sanctions period and partly on how well Australia re-engages with the RFMF.
The lifting of sanctions following the September 2014 election has softened some of the irritation in the relationship, but not removed all points of annoyance.
Rightly or wrongly, the RFMF believes restrictions related to the 2006 coup remain in place for some of its officers.
Even the positive news that Fiji has agreed to join the follow-on to Australia’s Pacific Patrol Boat project has had an edge to it. The Fijian navy will receive two new vessels, but some wondered why the three Australia had provided were required to be returned as part of the deal.
It’s not a question of whether the Russians are coming to Fiji: they’ve already arrived.
Whether the Russians are only visiting or staying for the long haul, and on what terms, has yet to be resolved. The equipment and the professional relationships that the Russian advisers develop with their Fijian hosts over the next two weeks may have a significant bearing on further ties between these new friends in the Pacific.
But the early signs are that relations will get closer: on Friday, news broke in Suva that negotiations are under way for a second Russian consignment of arms and ammunition to the Fijian military.
Richard Herr and Anthony Bergin are co-authors of Our Near Abroad: Australia and Pacific Islands Regionalism, (Australian Strategic Policy Institute)
Originally posted on The Australian, p8