Jakarta. Relations between Indonesia and Russia seem to be getting closer and closer as top officials agreed to speed up the drafting of a new strategic partnership agreement in Moscow last month.
"We agree that the necessary conditions have been created for elevating our relations to the level of strategic partnership. We have agreed to accelerate the drafting of a corresponding declaration," Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said after meeting with Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi on March 13, according to a statement issued by the Russian Foreign Ministry.
The progress in bilateral relations materialized less than a year after Retno and Lavrov signed a Plan of Consultation for 2017-2019, which was aimed at intensifying dialogue between the two countries.
The document was signed as part of Lavrov’s visit to Jakarta in August, during which Indonesia and Russia agreed to strengthen cooperation in trade, exchange of information and counterterrorism efforts.
"At this moment, we are negotiating it [the draft] and we are hoping that Indonesia-Russia’s strategic partnership agreement can be signed when President Vladimir Putin visits Indonesia, hopefully later this year," Minister Retno said at the time, published in a video provided by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and seen by the Jakarta Globe.
When the two countries celebrated 65 years of diplomatic ties in 2015, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin touched on his country’s readiness to increase cooperation, as part of an effort to guarantee stability and security in the Asia-Pacific region.
At a bilateral meeting with Putin in May 2016 in Sochi, Russia, President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo expressed Indonesia’s interest in expanding cooperation in trade, politics and culture.
"Our relations date back from the time of Indonesia’s first president, and I think we need to increase it further. I want our economic, political and cultural relations to continue developing," Jokowi said then, as quoted in a statement issued by the Cabinet Secretariat.
As Indonesia continues to play a more prominent role in Southeast Asia and the broader Asia-Pacific region, its deepening ties and intensive engagement with Russia may prove to be noteworthy in the bilateral and global context.
In the 1950s and early 1960s, the former Soviet Union shared close relations with Indonesia, during which former President Sukarno and Soviet leader Nikita Khurshchev visited each other’s capital city.
Relations between the USSR and Indonesia remained intact even under President Suharto's anti-communist regime, compared to the suspension of diplomatic relations between Indonesia and China from 1967 to 1990.
At the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow, Indonesia was one of more than 60 countries that boycotted the games in protest of the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
Indonesia-Russia relations have improved significantly in recent years, with high-level engagement among top officials.
According to the Foreign Affairs Ministry, Putin is likely to reciprocate Jokowi’s 2016 visit in the near future, possibly later this year.
Indonesia seeks to tap into the Russian market, which has a total population of over 144 million people.
Indonesia and Russia recorded a 19.7 percent increase in bilateral trade last year to $2.5 billion, with around 40 percent of Indonesian exports to Russia comprising of palm oil products.
With the support of Russia, Indonesia is also working on a free trade agreement with the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU). Members of the union comprise of Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Russia.
The Foreign Affairs Ministry said more than 110,000 Russian tourists visited Indonesia in 2017, a 27 percent increase from the year before.
Russia provided 161 scholarships for Indonesian students in 2017, an increase from 100 scholarships in 2016. The Russian Embassy in Jakarta told the Globe that it is currently working to further increase the number of scholarships it sponsors here.
With the new strategic partnership agreement in sight, Teuku Rezasyah, an international relations expert from Padjajaran University, emphasized that both countries need to form working groups across different sectors of cooperation to garner the full potential at hand.
One of the major highlights of bilateral relations between the two countries has been strong cooperation in the defense sector. Russia is a major arms supplier to Indonesia, and both countries recently signed a contract for Indonesia’s purchase of 11 Russian-made Sukhoi Su-35 fighter jets through a barter deal.
Based on several media reports, the deal consisted of a trade of Indonesian commodities, including palm oil and coffee, for the Sukhoi jets.
According to Teuku, Russia’s willingness to engage in a barter deal with Indonesia illustrates a high level of trust.
He told the Globe that Indonesia and Russia must expand their defense cooperation to include regular exchanges of military personnel.
In early March, Chief Security Minister Wiranto hosted the secretary of Russia’s Security Council, Nikolai Patrushev, in Jakarta for Indonesia's and Russia’s fourth bilateral consultation.
During the meeting, Wiranto and Patrushev agreed to continue close cooperation in counterterrorism efforts, including through their financial intelligence units to reduce risks of terrorism financing.
Russia is amid a diplomatic rift with a number of Western countries over the poisoning of a former Russian spy, Sergei V. Skripal, and his daughter in the United Kingdom, which took place on March 4.
More than 20 countries, including the United States, Canada and Australia, have expelled Russian diplomats in solidarity with the UK.
In spite of its free and active foreign policy, Indonesia does not seem inclined to follow the mass condemnation against Russia.
"Indonesia has chosen not to meddle [in the issue] to sustain its good relations [with Russia] … This showcases Indonesia’s maturity," Teuku said, noting that the British government has yet to provide hard evidence to support their accusations against Russia.
As high level engagement seems to indicate deepening ties between Indonesia and Russia, Teuku also said that both countries have always had mutual respect for each other.
"Russia sees Indonesia as a trustworthy partner, and we never question their credibility at the international stage," Teuku concluded.