The Russian Ambassador to Tunis, Sergey Nikolaev to Russia’s Sputnik news last week that Russia was ready to up its bilateral security cooperation with Tunisia. Telling the Russian news website: “taking into account Russia and Tunisia’s long-standing relations and the common threats they face, Russia is willing to contribute to the Tunisian authorities’ counter-terrorism efforts.” adding “We discussed deepening cooperation, military relations, when I met Tunisia’s Defense Minister Farhat Horchani in September.”
The meeting in September 2015, has been followed by a series of meetings and measures in early 2016 aimed at improving bilateral economic and security ties between Russia and Tunisia. Tunisia’s new Minister of Foreign Affairs , Khemaies Jhinaoui appointed in January, had previously served as the ambassador to Moscow from 2008 to 2011.
At a meeting in Moscow, in early January, the Tunisian ambassador to Russia, Ali Goutali, announced that Tunisair would look into restoring direct flights between Tunis and Moscow, in an effort to boost both Tunisian exports to Russia and attempt to draw Russian tourists to Tunisia.
While in Tunis, on the same date in January, Minister of Trade Mohsen Hassan, met with representatives from the Russian Federal Customs Services and the Russia-Tunisia Business Council. Hassan stated there was a Tunisian “imperative to develop the Tunisian exports towards Russia, which are about 36 million dollars and made essentially of agricultural products and food industry against imports worth 1,7 billion dollars.”
The following day, January 16, Russia announced it would lower tariffs on Tunisian exports by 25%.
Potentially reducing Tunisia’s trade deficit with Russia.
Tunisia’s Minister of Transport, Anis Ghedira, then confirmed on Thursday, January 28, that Tunisair would begin flying three weekly direct flights to Moscow as of May 2016.
The Tunis and Moscow meetings in January were held ahead of a sixth annual Intergovernmental Joint Commission between Russia and Tunisia which is due to be held in Moscow at the end of March.
Tunisia is seeking to have its exports fill the void left by a Russian imposed ban on European food imports and a freeze in Turkish-Russian relations. Tunisian exports, particularly citrus and other agricultural products would seek to sit where similar Turkish products once were on Russian grocery store shelves.
While Tunisia hopes to woo Russian tourists, looking for new destinations after Egypt and Turkey were ruled out as destinations in 2015, Tunisia is unlikely to see any short term relief from Russian tourists who are unlikely to abandon familiar closer ‘risky destinations’ for unfamiliar further ones.
Russia imposed restrictions on travel to Egypt after a plane carrying Russian tourists from Sharm el Sheikh to St. Petersburg exploded over Egypt’s Sinai peninsula in October killing all 238 passengers, Islamic State claimed responsibility. Russia also imposed a ban on charter flights to Turkey, heavily utilized by tourists, after Turkey shot down a Russian jet along the Turkish Syrian border in November.
Russian tourists are well aware of the Bardo and Sousse attacks which targeted tourists in 2015. As the Russian Ambassador Sergey Nikolaev told Sputnik:
“The number of Russian tourists in Tunisia decreased from 250,000 in 2014 to 53,000 in 2015, that is a terrible drop,”
If the security situation in Tunisia improves, or more importantly is perceived abroad as having improved. Tunisia could eventually become an alternative destination for Russian tourists, and the rapprochement of 2016 appears to be laying the groundwork for Tunisia as a future tourist destination for Russians.