As Bangladesh gears up for its upcoming election, it has unexpectedly emerged as a critical battleground in the verbal jousting between the United States and Russia.
The contention arose after Russia alleged that the US and its allies aimed to influence the country’s domestic political process, purportedly under the guise of ensuring transparent and inclusive elections.
Scheduled for January 7, 2024, Bangladesh’s elections have become a focal point of international debate. Recently, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova accused US Ambassador to Bangladesh Peter Haas of orchestrating an anti-government rally in Dhaka.
In response, Washington dismissed these claims and labeled them a “deliberate mischaracterization” of its foreign policy concerning the upcoming elections in Bangladesh.
A spokesperson from the US State Department in Washington addressed Russia’s statement, highlighting awareness of Zakharova’s alleged misrepresentation of US foreign policy and Ambassador Haas’s engagements.
The US has been persistently pushing the Bangladeshi government for nearly two years to ensure the 12th parliamentary election occurs freely and fairly.
US officials noted their commitment to urging all stakeholders in Bangladesh—including the government, opposition, and civil society—to collaborate for the benefit of the Bangladeshi populace.
They clarified that the United States maintains a stance of impartiality, neither supporting nor favoring any political party in Bangladesh.
Despite these assurances from the US, Russia continued its claims. It asserted that the US ambassador pledged to provide information support in case authorities used force against participants in “peaceful demonstrations.”
The Russian spokesperson condemned the actions of the US ambassador and considered it as undue interference in the internal affairs of a sovereign state by “Washington and its allies.”
She emphasized that on Russia’s part, Moscow holds no doubts about the Bangladeshi authorities’ competence to conduct the parliamentary elections scheduled for January 7, 2024.
Moscow believes that the elections will be carried out independently and in full compliance with national legislation without the assistance of overseas well-wishers.
US, Russia Compete For Dominance In Bangladesh
The disagreement sheds light on Dhaka’s precarious position between two staunch rivals vying for influence. The US, a crucial trade ally that strongly emphasizes human rights standards, stands in contrast to Russia, a less economically significant player willing to acknowledge the robustness of Bangladesh’s democracy.
This diplomatic tension is not unprecedented, as both superpowers have previously traded allegations, particularly concerning their diplomats’ activities in Bangladesh.
On December 14 last year, US Ambassador Peter Haas encountered protests while visiting the home of a missing leader of the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) in Dhaka.
At the time, the Russian Foreign Ministry argued in a statement that this incident was a predictable outcome of the actions of an American diplomat. According to Russia, there’s a gradual attempt to amplify American influence in Bangladesh’s domestic politics under the guise of safeguarding the interests of its people.
Furthermore, the Russian Embassy in Bangladesh reiterated its steadfast commitment to non-interference in the internal affairs of all nations, including Bangladesh.
In response, the US Embassy took to Twitter, sharing the statement from the Russian Embassy and questioning its applicability in the case of Ukraine. This issue sparked a series of tweets and counter-tweets between the embassies of both countries in Dhaka.
Overall, the two superpowers are in contention over the upcoming election, with the US consistently highlighting the need for Bangladesh to conduct a free and fair election.
Bangladesh’s current Prime Minister, Sheikh Hasina, came to power in 2009 through an election held under a caretaker government supported by the military. Despite being elected twice since, Hasina and her government have come under US criticism regarding the electoral process.
Furthermore, the ruling Bangladesh Awami League (BAL) enacted laws that have become a bone of contention in domestic politics, notably the 2018 Digital Security Act. Opposition parties, particularly the BNP, faced significant challenges, with its leader, Khaleda Zia, convicted in 2018 and under house arrest. Bangladesh’s domestic politics garnered limited international attention until late 2021.
In December 2021, the US Treasury Department imposed sanctions on the Rapid Action Battalion and officials for human rights violations, while the State Department targeted two high-ranking police officials.
Continuing this trend, US officials consistently urged Bangladesh to create a conducive election environment. In May 2023, the US implemented a Visa Policy to Promote Democratic Elections, denying visas to those undermining the democratic process. By September, the United States had taken tangible steps to enforce this policy.
However, the Bangladeshi government criticized US statements and considered them interference in domestic politics. On the other hand, China, India, and Russia, close allies of the Hasina government, aligned themselves with her government.
The South Asian nation is keen on maintaining amicable relations with Moscow, especially given Russia’s assistance in constructing a US$12.65 billion (1.3 trillion taka) nuclear power plant in Dhaka.
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina regards Russia as one of her strongest allies, with ties dating back to Bangladesh’s war of independence in 1971, staunchly supported by the Soviet Union.
In a significant historical episode, a notable encounter between two superpowers over Bangladesh unfolded in December 1971. During this period, the US Seventh Fleet received orders to dispatch Task Force 74 to the Bay of Bengal to support the Pakistani army.
However, the task force, spearheaded by the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise, encountered interference from a Soviet naval task force hailing from Vladivostok, commanded by Admiral Vladimir Kruglyakov. This Soviet force included a cruiser, a destroyer, and two attack submarines.
This event marked a tense Cold War standoff, with Kruglyakov later describing the Soviet task force’s actions in a TV interview.