Amid deteriorating relations with the West, Russian President Vladimir Putin is looking to diversify a Russian economy that is tightly linked to European markets. Fittingly, an old Soviet-era satellite state seems eager to lend a helping hand.
Emilio Lozada, Cuba’s ambassador to Russia, led a trade delegation in June to Kazan, the capital of Tatarstan, a resource-rich republic located 500 miles east of Moscow on the Volga River. Garcia met with Tatarstan’s chief executive, Rustam Minnikhanov, to discuss Cuba’s efforts to emulate the “Tatarstan model,” which has seen the autonomous republic emerge as one of Russia’s most prosperous regions during the post-Soviet era.
Lozada explained that Cuban officials, in studying Tatarstan’s economic experiences over the past few decades, seek to “find many useful things for ourselves,” the Tatar-Inform news agency reported.
Cuba by no means represents an alternative to Europe, but the Kremlin is still very interested in encouraging Cuban trade. In late May, prior to the Cuban delegation’s trip to Tatarstan, two major Russian energy companies, Rosneft and Zarubezhnetf, signed joint exploration agreements with the Cuban energy concern, Cupet.
Underscored by its recent gas deal with China, Russia is intent on reorienting trade away from Europe. Toward this end, the Kremlin hopes an expansion of commerce with Cuba could act like a wedge, opening broader ties with Latin American states. The diversification push stands to make Russia less vulnerable to economic pressure, especially sanctions exerted by the United States and European Union in response to the ongoing crisis in Ukraine. Annual trade turnover between Russia and Latin America stood at $16.2 billion in 2012, according to International Monetary Fund data.
The Kremlin’s revived interest in Latin America was also evident in Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s recent tour of the region. Lavrov sought to bolster relations with old allies, such as Cuba and Nicaragua, as well as woo traditionally anti-Communist states, especially Chile and Peru.
During their Kazan meeting, Lozada and Minnikhanov discussed ways Tatar businesses in the oil, pharmaceutical, and tourism sectors could help bolster economic development in Cuba. “I think that this is a very useful undertaking. These contacts were started [back in the Soviet era], and now they need to be restored, to work actively with Cuba; through it they can access all of Latin America,” Shamil Ageev, the chairman of Tatarstan’s Chamber of Commerce, asserted.
While many Russian regions are struggling, Tatarstan has comparatively thrived over the past two decades. The republic produces 32 million tons of oil per year and possesses reserves estimated at more than 1 billion tons. In addition, Tatarstan hosts the Kamaz truck factory, the Kazan helicopter plant, and Tupolev aviation production facilities.
Cuba’s ties to Tatarstan date back to the early 1990s, a time known among Cubans as the special period, when the island’s economy imploded due to the Soviet Union’s collapse and cut-off of aid from Moscow. “We will never forget that late in the 90s, when our country experienced serious difficulties, Tatarstan opened an economic representation in Cuba,” Ambassador Lozada said in Kazan.
“Cooperation between Russia and Cuba are getting stronger and diverse ties between Tatarstan and Cuba develop within its framework. We are your friends and Tatarstan is open for you,” Mintimer Shaimiev, the former long-time Tatar president who now serves as a senior advisor to the autonomous republic’s government, was quoted as telling the visiting Cuban delegation.
Peter J. Marzalik is an independent analyst of Islamic affairs in the Russian Federation.