ON Thursday, July 2, we will be celebrating the 40th anniversary of our establishment of diplomatic relations with Russia. Both the Philippines and Russia will also celebrate their national days on June 12.
We have many things in common with this distant northern land, though much of Russia is in the Arctic region. When the swallows reappear in Siberia during springtime, the Philippines enjoys its most pleasant weather due to the cold winds blowing from Siberia.
During the presidency of Boris Yeltsin, Russia suffered a national identity crisis. With the rejection of communism as the nation’s ideology, and the acceptance of democracy and private enterprise, Russia went through a period of introspection on what is the Russian psyche. Earlier, we faced the same experience conscious of being ethnically Asians living in Asia, surrounded by Asians, but having a culture and national aspirations molded by Western civilization.
The Russians are not only Europeans. They are Eurasians, being also Asians. They inhabit the largest landmass in the world stretching from the Baltic Sea to the Pacific Ocean.
Russia was part of the Silk Road, and in the 13th century, Moscow fell under the suzerainty of the Mongol hordes with the consequent mixing of the races. As Napoleon Bonaparte once said: “Shave a Russian and you will find a Tatar.”
The Philippines was also a part of the Silk Road as an alternative route that linked not only Europe with Asia but also the newly discovered American continent. As one author noted, Manila was the first truly global city in the world. The galleon trade of the Pearl of the Orient brought Chinese treasures to Spain and the rest of Europe paid for with silver mined in Bolivia.
Moscow is the Third Rome, succeeding Constantinople as the center of the Eastern Christian Orthodox Church. The Russians have time and again discovered that the Christian Orthodox religion is deeply embedded in Russian culture. In Yeltsin’s time, this was symbolized by the re-burial of the bones of Nicholas II in the Cathedral of St. Peter and Paul in St. Petersburg.
My spouse and I were present at this historic event and seen on CNN seated at the front rows of the cathedral. Many of our colleagues were absent because they doubted that Yeltsin, as a former communist, would witness this religious ceremony. Happily, he
attended this symbolic event with his devout spouse.
Until lately, the Philippines was the only Christian country in Asia. The Roman Catholic Church and the Russian Orthodox
Church have essentially the same doctrines, although the latter may have its own rituals. Both believe in the presence of Jesus Christ in the holy sacrament of the Eucharist. Russians, before receiving holy communion, turn to the nearest person and say: “Please forgive me.”
It may not be widely known that the Philippines and Russia are old friends and meet in friendship in the Pacific region. During the Commonwealth, the Philippines gave refuge to the White Russians who had reached our islands by sea when they fled from the Bolsheviks.
With a seaport in Vladivostok, Russia became a Pacific power. It had been a strategic objective of Russia over the centuries to obtain an outlet to the sea, unimpeded by the forces of nature. Russia’s predecessor took an active part in the prolonged UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Together with the United States, the Soviet Union, as the other superpower, fiercely defended the principle of freedom of navigation. Russia is a party to UNCLOS, and is, therefore, bound by its provisions. Curiously, the United States has not ratified UNCLOS.
In the Second World War, we fought on the same side as Allies against the Axis powers.
The Philippines and Russia both signed the UN Charter in San Francisco. In more recent times, the Philippines supported Russia’s objectives to join APEC and to become a Dialogue Partner of ASEAN and a member of ASEM. Russia joined this last organization, Asia-Europe Meeting, as an Asian country. ASEM is a forum to deepen relations between Asia and Europe at all levels.
There are striking similarities between our incoming President Rodrigo Duterte and President Vladimir Putin. After appointing a number of Prime Ministers who were unable to hold on to this position, Yeltsin catapulted Putin to national prominence from being a vice mayor of St. Petersburg to Prime Minister of Russia, then Yeltsin resigned as President in favor of Putin at the end of the 20th century, trusting that Putin was the tough leader who could hold immense Russia together and overcome the nation’s enormous challenges. In our recent elections, Filipinos elected Duterte, mayor of Davao City, to the highest position in the country, seeing in him a macho, decisive, and a man of action who could impose law and order throughout our archipelago, and build an inclusive economy.
I was based in Peking when preparations were being made by Malacañang to establish diplomatic relations with Moscow. President Ferdinand Marcos’ strategic objective was to have the Soviet Union as a counterweight to the United States. I was tasked to join Minister Rodolfo Diaz as the advance party of the negotiating team but because my son, Daniel, was taken ill, I was instructed instead to return to Manila and serve as the anchor man for the visit of Marcos to Nairobi (for the UNEP Conference), Moscow and some Asian capitals on the return trip. Though I did not see Russia at the beginning of our diplomatic relations, it was my destiny to be accredited as Ambassador (AEP) to Russia at the end of my diplomatic career and concurrently as AEP to the five Central Asian countries, the three countries in the Caucasus, and to Ukraine and Belarus. Based on my diplomatic experience, I can appreciate that Russia, as a Pacific Power with its own pivot to Asia, can influence events to preserve the peace and prosperity of our Pacific region.
Russian Ambassador Igor Khovaev told me Russia encourages the peaceful resolution of the conflicts in the South China Sea in accordance with the generally accepted principles of international law, the United Nations Charter and the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), and supports the full implementation of the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea and the efforts to work out and adopt a legally binding Code of Conduct. These principles are stated in the Sochi Declaration of the ASEAN Russia Summit held on May 19-20.
Jaime S. Bautista, PhD, was Ambassador to Russia (1996 to 2003) and is professor of International Law at the Philippine Christian University and Ateneo de Manila Law School.