News

Russo-Lankan diplomacy: PM tells FS to explain case to Russia

 

  • Aeroflot suspends flights to Colombo over dispute 
  • Aviation Minister briefs Russian Ambassador
  • Attorney General requested to expedite case
  • Experts warn of impact on Russian relations
  • AASL says no State involvement in the litigation
  • Stranded Aeroflot passengers put up in hotels

By Asiri Fernando

Russian State-owned carrier Aeroflot yesterday (4) suspended commercial flights to Sri Lanka and stopped issuing tickets to Colombo, citing the “unreliable situation in terms of the airline’s unobstructed flights to Sri Lanka”, and is expected to challenge the legal order – issued to detain an aircraft from its fleet in Sri Lanka – in Court next week, The Sunday Morning reliably learns.  

In a bid to resolve the brewing diplomatic issue, it is learnt that Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe had yesterday directed the Foreign Secretary (FS) to speak to the Russian Foreign Ministry and explain the case, and to further clarify that the enjoining order had nothing to do with the Government of Sri Lanka. Meanwhile, the matter is to be heard before court tomorrow (6).

The Justice Ministry has meanwhile informed the Attorney General’s Department to expedite the case due to the implications it has had on multiple third parties and the country, Minister of Justice Dr. Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe told The Sunday Morning.

“I have instructed the AG to accelerate this matter and sort it out because there are consequences beyond the law. Our country can be affected prejudicially due to such orders,” the Justice Minister said, adding that the Court decision had ‘surprised’ him.

Aeroflot’s decision comes in the wake of Sri Lankan authorities moving to detain a Russian aircraft (Airbus A330) at the Bandaranaike International Airport (BIA) last week, following an enjoining order by Colombo Commercial High Court (2 June) issued by Judge Harsha Sethunga. The Court order was issued in relation to a dispute regarding the lease and insurance of the aircrafts with the complainant, Celestial Aviation Trading Limited, an insurance and lessor company based in Ireland.

According to Airport and Aviation Services Sri Lanka (AASL), the Aeroflot aircraft (MSN 1301, flight No. SU289) was scheduled to depart from the BIA to Moscow, Russia on 2 June with 191 passengers and 13 crew members and was restrained from taking off based on an enjoining order issued by Judge Sethunga of the Commercial High Court of Colombo on the same day. Said order is in effect till 8 June. 

The AASL yesterday distanced itself from the issue, stating that the Court had informed it that there was no Court order directed against the AASL, as the AASL was listed as the second defendant.

“It was also noted during the hearing that the dispute between Aeroflot Russian Airlines and Celestial Aviation Trading Limited (Plaintiff) was purely of a commercial nature, which should be dealt with between said two parties, and no involvement of the State was emphasised,” the AASL said in a statement issued yesterday (4).

Aeroflot operated a number of regular flights per week to the BIA, bringing in much-needed tourists during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Sri Lanka’s action triggered a strong diplomatic response from the Kremlin, with international press reporting that Sri Lankan Ambassador to Moscow Prof. Janitha Liyanage had been summoned to the Russian Foreign Ministry to discuss the matter. When contacted, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) would neither confirm nor deny if Ambassador Liyanage had been summoned by the Russian authorities.

When asked for the Foreign Ministry’s stance on the issue, the MFA told The Sunday Morning that as far as the Foreign Ministry was concerned, “this is a commercial dispute in a Court in Sri Lanka and does not involve the Government”.

However, issuing a press release last night, the Foreign Ministry stated that the matter was still pending the final decision of the Court. “This matter is also under consultation through normal diplomatic channels,” it added.

When contacted, Minister of Ports, Shipping, and Aviation Nimal Siripala de Silva told The Sunday Morning that he had spoken to the Russian Ambassador in Sri Lanka on the issue and explained Sri Lanka’s stance.

According to Minister de Silva, the aircraft in question (an Airbus A330 aircraft) had been leased by Aeroflot from the petitioner based in Ireland.

“It is my understanding that the lessors had taken legal action based on the lease contract with Aeroflot, alleging discrepancies in the lease payment. The plaintiff has secured an enjoining order against the Air Traffic Controller (ATC) of Katunayake (BIA) to prevent the aircraft from leaving. This is purely a commercial dispute between the lessor and Aeroflot. The Sri Lankan Government has nothing to do with this,” de Silva explained, adding that since the Court had given an order, the parties had to go through the process of law.

“Aeroflot is contesting that the Court order is wrong and says this Court has no jurisdiction regarding the matter. But that has to be decided by the Judge who gave the Order; we have to abide by the law. We will leave it to the Courts. The Government will not interfere with matters or verdicts given by the Court,” Minister de Silva said.

However, he conceded that the issue has affected the relationship between Sri Lanka and Russia to an extent. “The Attorney General will examine the matter. Since this is a commercial dispute, Aeroflot should challenge this in Court and seek to get the Order rescinded. My understanding is that they are doing that next week,” he stressed.

The Minister told The Sunday Morning that the stranded passengers had been quickly provided accommodation in hotels close to the airport and that arrangements were being made to repatriate them to Russia via Dubai and other airports. 

When asked why the National Carrier, SriLankan Airlines, couldn’t repatriate them to Russia, de Silva said that many of the aircraft in the SriLankan fleet had been leased from European lessors who, due to aviation restrictions and embargoes placed against Russia, had advised SriLankan Airlines not to fly those aircrafts into Russian airspace.

Sri Lanka should move quickly to defuse the concerns raised by Russia regarding the detention of the Russian aircraft, Lakshman Kadirgamar Institute Executive Director Dr. D.L. Mendis told The Sunday Morning, pointing out that Russia had been a long-term friend of the country, a valuable source of tourism, and a key importer of Ceylon Tea. Dr. Mendis also raised concerns about the grounds on which the aircraft had been detained.

When asked about the impact the incident may have on Russian-Sri Lankan relations, Awarelogue Initiative Initiator and diplomatic historian George Cooke said that Sri Lanka should not create disputes with its allies, especially as the island was facing an economic crisis.

“Russia has consistently supported Sri Lanka since the establishment of diplomatic relations in 1957 and this is not the time to create disputes with allies. Sri Lanka should be doing all it can through our diplomatic network to seek support and aid at this crucial hour and instead we are jeopardising critically-important relations,” Cooke said, adding that Sri Lanka should not let itself get involved in bilateral disputes other countries had with Russia.  

Sri Lanka is facing a food shortage, while the ongoing economic crisis has exacerbated fuel, power, and forex shortages. Russia is a main producer of fertiliser, wheat flour, coal, and crude oil – all of which Sri Lanka is struggling to source. Sri Lanka has already appealed to Russia regarding the supply of fertiliser and has purchased Russian crude and petroleum products.

“We need economic and diplomatic support at this time and tend to forget that Russia is a permanent member of the Security Council and has consistently supported Sri Lanka in Geneva. This latest development will be far worse than the asbestos issue that came up in 2018 when Russia stopped buying our tea,” Cooke opined.

Attempts to reach Foreign Minister Prof. G.L. Peiris,  the Sri Lankan mission in Moscow, and Aeroflot regarding this issue failed.