Sun, Nov 28, 2004 - Page 6 News List

Russia flip-flops over Dalai visa

WEAKNESS First the foreign ministry said that it had decided to grant the Tibetan leader a visa, then said the decision had to be reconsidered out of deference to China


A spokesman for the Russian Foreign Ministry said it had decided to grant the Dalai Lama a visa, but hours later said that the decision could be reconsidered -- the uncertainty apparently reflecting Moscow's fear of angering China.

Moscow had rejected previous requests three times, saying it considers Tibet to be "an inalienable part of China," and has refrained from any official contacts with the Dalai Lama.

But Alexander Yakovenko, the top Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman, said in a statement Friday that the Dalai Lama would be allowed to travel to the majority-Buddhist Kalmykia republic and his visit would be of a "solely confessional character."

"We relate with respect to the desire of the more than 1 million Buddhists in our country who have appealed more than once for a pastoral visit by the Dalai Lama," Yakovenko said.

"Bearing that in mind, and also taking into account the fact that the church is divided from the state in the Russian Federation, it was decided to give the Dalai Lama a visa to visit the Kalmyk Republic," Yakovenko said.

But hours later, Yakovenko told reporters that the "unnecessary uproar being created around the Dalai Lama's possible trip to Kalmykia raises doubts about its excessively pastoral character," the Interfax news agency reported. "Because of that, the issue of the dates of the visit and of issuing a visa to him remains open."

Earlier in the day, Yakovenko said the Dalai Lama was scheduled to sanctify a Buddhist temple in Elista, the Kalmyk capital, and that no meetings with Russian officials were planned.

The statement came after Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, the head of Russia's Kalmykia region -- where half of the 300,000 residents are Buddhists -- invited the Dalai Lama to visit this weekend.

Yakovenko stressed that Russia's position remained that Tibet was part of China.

"China is our strategic partner and we accord great significance to the development of Russian-Chinese relations," he said, adding that Tibet is an internal matter for China.

Since the 1991 Soviet collapse, China has developed friendly ties with Russia and has become the No. 1 customer for Russian arms manufacturers. In 2001, Russia and China signed a friendship treaty that included an article affirming Russia's support for China's territorial integrity.

China occupied Tibet in 1951 and claims the Himalayan region has been Chinese territory for centuries.

The Dalai Lama fled into exile in India after an aborted uprising against Chinese rule in 1959.

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