«Our joint project with ROSATOM to build the Rooppur Nuclear Power Plant is massive, and it will definitely go down in history»: an interview with H.E. Ambassador S.M. Saiful Hoque by Elena Karnaukhova

July 26, 2023

State Atomiс Energy Corporation ROSATOM is currently constructing the Rooppur NPP in Bangladesh. This evolutionary project of Generation III+ is one of the largest initiatives of ROSATOM and fully meets modern safety requirements.

Elena Karnaukhova, PIR Center Deputy Director – Education and Training Program Director, conducted an interview with H.E. S.M. Saiful Hoque, Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh to Russia with concurrent accreditation to Belarus, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia and Ukraine (2009-2019). During the talk a wide range of issues were discussed, including the development of nuclear energy in Bangladesh, construction of the Rooppur NPP, as well as history, current state and prospects of Russian-Bangladeshi relations.

The discussion took place on the margins of the IX Annual Meeting of the Gorchakov Club, H.E. Ambassador S.M. Saiful Hoque and Elena Karnaukhova being members thereof.

Elena Karnaukhova: Your Excellency Ambassador, at the moment the Russian State Corporation ROSATOM is engaged in the construction of the Rooppur Nuclear Power Plant in the People’s Republic of Bangladesh. You call this project “your brainchild”. Tell us more about it and your country’s interest in peaceful nuclear energy.

H.E. S.M. Saiful Hoque: I would like to start with the historical aspects. Back in the early 1960s, when Bangladesh was  part of Pakistan, a site was allocated for a project in the sphere of peaceful nuclear energy. At that time, we cooperated with Western countries, but the project did not succeed.

In 1971, Bangladesh declared independence. I had the good fortune to contribute my small part in the guerrilla war in East Pakistan. Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, our first Prime Minister (1972-1975) (he was the President of the country since 1971 to 1972 and since January to August 1975 – editor`s note), wanted to revitalize the project, but in 1975 he was assassinated in a military coup. So, we had to forget about the project for nuclear energy as we had just gained independence — developing the country and getting back on our feet was our first priority. Besides, in the 1970s, the interest in peaceful nuclear energy was mostly triggered from outside as Western countries needed experimental sites.

In 2009, Sheikh Hasina Wazed was elected prime minister (she had also held the post since 1996 to 2001 – editor`s note). She returned to the idea of building a nuclear power plant. At that point it was expected to cater specifically for the needs of our society. Bangladesh does need diversification of energy sources. The current population of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh is about 172 million people. We need energy for industrial development.

We had talks with several countries on building a nuclear power plant, including with Russia. As a result, Madam Prime Minister chose Russia as our partner in the field of peaceful nuclear energy. In 2011, we signed a memorandum of understanding with the State Corporation ROSATOM. It became foundation for the subsequent construction of the Rooppur NPP. Russia provided us with about 500 million dollars as the first tranche. In 2013, we signed the framework agreement to build a nuclear power plant in Bangladesh, in the city of Dhaka, not far from our capital. I must say that this is not just any nuclear power plant. This is a Generation III+ project. The Rooppur NPP will be equipped with VVER-1200 nuclear reactors. They also function in the power units of Novovoronezh NPP, which is a template NPP for us. Russia then provided us with new loans.

I was indeed personally involved in working out the terms of the contract between us and ROSATOM State Corporation. I was working on it on the direct instructions from our Prime Minister.

Elena Karnaukhova: You said that there were several negotiation tracks on the construction of a nuclear power plant. Why did you decide to prioritize Russian technologies?

H.E. S.M. Saiful Hoque: Historically, the Soviet Union played a major role in the process of our country gaining its independence. When there was a guerrilla war in East Pakistan, it was thanks to the Soviet Union and the Soviet veto in the UN Security Council that we managed to avoid Western interference in our struggle for independence.

Then, as we gained our independence, the USSR would contribute to the reconstruction of our national economy. Many students from Bangladesh studied in the USSR. They were physicists, engineers, historians and philologists. I was one of those who received scholarship from the All-Union Central Council of Trade Unions and I studied diplomacy. In 1979, I graduated from the Institute of International Relations at Taras Shevchenko Kyiv State University. After that, I moved to Moscow to join a postgraduate program at the Institute of Oriental Studies of the USSR Academy of Sciences. We then called it just IVAN (a letter play based on the abbreviation of the institute’s original name in Russian – editor`s note). For brevity. When I graduated from IVAN, I worked there for some time as a doctoral student. So, you can call me “a child of the Soviet Union” in the full sense.

Elena Karnaukhova: Tell us more about the years when you worked with Yevgeny M. Primakov.

H.E. S.M. Saiful Hoque: He was my mentor, my teacher. At that time Yevgeny M. Primakov was the head of the Institute of Oriental Studies of the USSR Academy of Sciences. My dissertation was on Bangladesh’s foreign policy in the first decades of its independence. It had restricted access, for official use only, I don’t know whether it was fortunate or not. But I was able to prepare it and defend it successfully to receive my PhD in History. I must say that those years in general were a very interesting period for me in the development of the Soviet Union. Russia’s current foreign policy is a kind of continuation of the Soviet Union’s foreign policy.

Elena Karnaukhova: Which one is better, from your point of view? Which one is more effective?

H.E. S.M. Saiful Hoque: I think the Soviet policy was less opportunistic. I don’t want to use the word “strategic”; it is not a very appropriate word for comparison. But it was generally more humane. The point of Soviet policy was to help a country to gain independence, to stand on its own feet. In doing so, the USSR did not impose any conditions, as other states do.

Elena Karnaukhova: How is Russia now perceived by the citizens of Bangladesh?

H.E. S.M. Saiful Hoque: We get news about Russia from the Western press. So, we are faced with one-sided propaganda, which is, of course, not in Russia’s favor. Despite this, most of the citizens of my country have a positive view of Russia. But, as you realize, there are different views and interests among the elite. This is the case anywhere. Of course, we have a pro-Western lobby. Western investments are pouring into Bangladesh, and China is increasing its influence. But I want to emphasize that our joint project with ROSATOM to build the Rooppur Nuclear Power Plant is massive, and it will definitely go down in history. I cannot even say when something equal could be achieved.

Elena Karnaukhova: Tell us how the Bangladeshi society now views treats nuclear power. Are there those who call for abandoning the peaceful atom?

H.E. S.M. Saiful Hoque: Common people know little about it. But they do know that it will bring electricity and development to the country. And this is the most important aspect. We do not have enough energy to develop industry.

Elena Karnaukhova: And what is their attitude towards nuclear weapons? How does your country assess the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT)? Nowadays we often hear it being criticized by many non-nuclear-weapon states.

H.E. S.M. Saiful Hoque: Our country is not interested in nuclear weapons; we will not manufacture them. And we have treaty obligations in this regard. We can assess the NPT only positively as we are always in favor of peace. I think that criticism of the Treaty is a temporary phenomenon. Reason will prevail.

Elena Karnaukhova: How does Bangladesh view the situation around the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant?

H.E. S.M. Saiful Hoque: We all look with fear and with great apprehension at the events around the Zaporizhzhia NPP. Any kind of sabotage could take place, even unintentionally. And it will not matter who was right and who was guilty.

Elena Karnaukhova: Please share your experience of cooperation with the Russian State Atomic Energy Corporation ROSATOM.

H.E. S.M. Saiful Hoque: When I was Ambassador to Russia, I worked very closely together with this structure. And it was very easy for me. Perhaps this is due to the fact that I studied in the USSR, and I speak Russian. I understand your mentality, I understand when and what you need to say, and when you need to stop talking. Choosing the right words is very important. My colleagues at ROSATOM have always treated me well and politely. I would especially like to mention Sergey Kirienko[1], Nikolay Spassky[2], Kirill Komarov[3], Alexander Lokshin[4], Valery Limarenko[5]. Of course, we had problems. But we could discuss everything calmly over a cup of tea and find a mutually beneficial and right solution. I have never felt any pressure or arrogance. I am very grateful to all ROSATOM employees for their sincere support.

Elena Karnaukhova: Have you ever worked with similar Western or Chinese structures? What differences could you point out?

H.E. S.M. Saiful Hoque: One cannot compare anyone with Russian colleagues. You are different. You have your own mentality. The same can be said about other countries and peoples.

Russia, India and Bangladesh sign tripartite pact for cooperation on Rooppur Nuclear Power Plant, 2018

Elena Karnaukhova: How do your “neighbors” view the construction of a nuclear power plant based on Russian technologies?

H.E. S.M. Saiful Hoque: I would like to take India as an example. India looks positively at our joint project with Russia. India itself is building the Kudankulam NPP together with the State Corporation ROSATOM. In 2017, they agreed on the construction of its fifth and sixth units. We also have a trilateral treaty on cooperation between Russia, India and Bangladesh in the field of peaceful nuclear energy.

Elena Karnaukhova: What spheres of social development do you believe to be as promising from the point of view of the development of relations between our two countries?

H.E. S.M. Saiful Hoque: Firstly, I think we need to reach an agreement on the construction of new power units at the Rooppur NPP. The project must go ahead, otherwise our country will suffer losses. By the way, the Director General of the State Corporation ROSATOM Alexey Likhachev will soon visit Bangladesh. Secondly, we need to develop projects to promote the Russian language in Bangladesh and to restore the Bengali language school in Russia. The USSR trained specialists with knowledge of the Bengali language, which helps a lot in work and ensures mutual understanding. My life is also an example of the importance of knowing the language of the country you are working with. Thirdly, Russia is training specialists for our NPP. Cooperation in the educational sphere in this field also began when I held a position of Ambassador of Bangladesh to Russia. For example, our specialists study at MEPhI. I would also like to note that now I am studying  the history of Great Patriotic War (1941-1945). It is very important to combat falsification of history. I hope that I can contribute to the preservation of the historical memory of the Soviet Union’s struggle against fascism for the next generation.

Elena Karnaukhova: Your Excellency, thank you very much for such an interesting conversation. Let us hope that the relations between Russia and Bangladesh will only keep deepening and flourishing.

[1] Sergey Kirienko was Director General of the Russian State Atomic Energy Corporation ROSATOM in 2005-2016. – editor`s note.

[2] Nikolay Spassky served in 2006–2008 as State Secretary and Deputy Director of the Federal Agency for Atomic Energy. Since April 2008, Mr. Spassky has served as Deputy Director General of ROSATOM. – editor`s note.

[3] Kirill Komarov has been First Deputy Director General for Development and International Business of ROSATOM since 2011, responsible for the oversight of the state corporation’s foreign business activities, international orders portfolio growth and ROSATOM’s global standing. Earlier he was in a variety of leadership positions, including CEO of Atomenergoprom. – editor`s note.

[4] Alexander Lokshin has been the President of ASE Group of Companies since December 2018. Since March 2021, he is also the First Deputy Director General for Nuclear Energy. – editor`s note.

[5] Valery Limarenko served in 2016-2018 the President of ASE Group of Companies, which unites leading design and engineering enterprises of the nuclear industry. He managed the design, construction and commissioning of power units at NPPs being built under the auspices of ROSATOM abroad (in particular, in Bangladesh, Belarus, Hungary, Egypt, India, Iran, China). – editor`s note.

Key words: peaceful atom; South Asia