(From the National Interest)
By Anna Powles and Jose Sousa-Santos
When the MV Saint Confidence and MV Solidat arrived in Suva Harbor last week to deliver a consignment of donated Russian weapons and equipment to Fiji, it sparked an immediate reaction. Opposition MPs and security analysts have made several claims including: the deal was clandestine, the weapons could potentially be used against Fijian citizens; and Russia’s increased engagement with Fiji is an opening move in a battle for influence in the Asia Pacific region.
The Russian arms deal was not secret but nor was it transparent. During Fiji’s Prime Minister Voreqe Bainimarama’s inaugural visit to Russia in 2013, five bilateral agreements were signed, including new protocols on military technical cooperation. At the time, Russia’s Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev stated that Russia wanted to pay particular attention to assisting Fiji with its UN peacekeeping deployments. Bainimarama also referred to having secured Russian help for Fiji’s peacekeeping forces in the Golan Heights. In July 2013, the then Land Force Commander, Colonel Mosese Tikoitoga, announced that Russia had offered to arm Fiji’s peacekeepers. That month also, Fijian Foreign Minister Ratu Inoke Kubuabola stated in the Russian English language press that Fijian peacekeepers would be issued with Russian-made individual combat gear that includes small arms. The details were still to be worked out and were subsequently never officially made known.
Which is why, when the Russians arrived bearing gifts last week, Ratu Isoa Tikoca, Fiji’s opposition spokesperson on foreign affairs and a member of the parliamentary standing committee on defense and foreign affairs, demanded the defence minister explain the consignment and discuss it in parliament.
So why didn’t the Fijian Government provide the parliament—and the public—with some information about the deal? The best time to have done so would have been in 2014, after the release of the Fijian peacekeepers captured by al Nusra Front in the Golan Heights. The incident highlighted the impact that Western sanctions imposed on Fiji in 2006 had on the Royal Fijian Military Force, reinforcing earlier concerns around military equipment resupply and modernization. The government could have rode the wave of national relief when the soldiers were freed by announcing that Fijian peacekeepers would in the future be better equipped with Russian weapons and kit.
The lack of transparency around the deal has led to some extraordinary and unhelpful comments being made in Fijian and foreign media. These include Tikoca claiming that the weapons deal will enable Bainimarama to control the south-west Pacific. Other analysts have suggested that the weapons, being dual usage, could also be used as crowd control on the local population. The recent delivery from Korea of riot control gear, including tear gas and anti-riot weaponry, to the Fijian Police and prisons has led to some confusion between the two consignments and further fed concerns about internal security.
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