MANILA: Each year, Russians celebrate National Unity Day on November 4 to commemorate Moscow’s liberation from Polish invaders in 1612.
This year, the day also marked a milestone in the history of the Philippines-Russia relations: For the first time the prestigious Russian Order of Friendship was conferred on a Filipino.
Armi Lopez Garcia, who serves as the honorary consul of Russia in the Philippines, was awarded with the Russian state decoration by President Vladimir Putin during the celebrations at the Kremlin Palace in Moscow.
Established on March 2, 1994, the Order of Friendship is given to Russians and foreign nationals who have made outstanding contributions in strengthening friendship and cooperation with Russia and its people.
At a reception hosted by the Russian ambassador to Manila, Igor Khovaev, at his residence in Makati City last week, Garcia said she still feels ecstatic about receiving the recognition from the Russian Federation
“I am really very happy and very honored. I think this is very timely,” Garcia told reporters at the reception. She pointed out that the “relationship between our two countries (today) is at its peak and the relationship President Rodrigo Duterte and President Vladimir Putin is very, very good.”
“I think this is a signal that we have to move forward,” she said.
Garcia, a Cebu-based entrepreneur who is chair of the Philippine-Russian Business Assembly, was appointed honorary consul in 2007. Back then, she said a lot of people, including her friends, asked her: “Why Russia?”. Her answer would always be, “why not?”
Garcia said that since 1996, long before her designation as honorary consul, she was involved in activities such as cultural events to promote friendship between the two countries. In fact, she was instrumental in the signing of the sisterhood agreement between the cities of Cebu and Vladivostok.
Garcia noticed that many Filipinos had a negative perception about the Russian people, which they apparently based only on movies that often depict Russians as villains. So, it dawned on her that she had to do something.
“The Russians are really very warm people, very educated and their values are like ours . . . In fact there are so many similarities between the Filipino values and the Russian values, and they are also practicing Christians. I feel that it is unfair that not too many people know about this,” she said.
Khovaev congratulated Garcia and said that “Filipinos have every reason to be proud of her” for making tangible contributions to make the two nations closer to each other.
“It’s a very significant, a really important event because she is the first Filipino to receive a high-level Russian state award in the Kremlin,” the ambassador said.
“She (Garcia) has made a great contribution to the strengthening of friendship and partnership of our two countries. She helped many Filipinos discover Russia, to understand that Russians and Filipinos have a lot in common. She did a lot to promote Russian culture. At the same time she helped many Russians . . . to understand better your country and culture, the mentality, the psychology of your people, your lifestyle,” Khovaev said.
The Russian envoy described Garcia as “a wonderful bridge connecting our two nations.”
“She’s doing a lot . . . in culture, education, and many other fields. So for us, Madam Garcia, she is our very, very close, very good friend, and our sister,” he said.
The conferment of the state award “is very symbolic.”
“It’s a very good signal, a clear message to all Filipinos that Russia is a friendly country. . . Russia wants to be a close friend and reliable partner of your country,” he said.
Khovaev said the decision to award such high-level state honor “is an exclusive right of the president of the Russian Federation.”
Philippine and Russia diplomatic ties were forged in 1976, but bilateral engagement was still “at a nascent stage in practically all areas of cooperation.” Relations, according to a foreign affairs official, could be best described as cordial albeit modest in scope and depth.
Experts say the reason for Manila’s cool relations with Moscow was because the Philippines is the United States’ oldest Asian ally and staunchest partner in the region.
But in 2016, when Duterte came into office, the tough-talking president announced his administration’s independent foreign policy that sought to broaden the horizons of friendship and cooperation with non-traditional partners. This opened a new chapter in the history of Philippines-Russia relations.
In October, during his second visit to Moscow, Duterte reaffirmed the Philippines’ strong commitment to building a robust and comprehensive partnership with Russia as both countries sowed the seeds of greater cooperation encouraged by his first Russia trip two years ago.
“In 2017, during my first visit to Russia, we successfully set the foundation for a closer bilateral cooperation,” Duterte said. He noted that since then, “we have seen remarkable progress in our engagement” and “have made historic firsts” in key strategic areas such as economic, defense and security, and military technical cooperation.
He cited the port visit of BRP Tarlac to Vladivostok in 2018, the first by a Philippine navy ship.
Also in 2018, the Philippines sent Col. Dennis Pastor to be its defense attaché to Russia — the first such appointment in more than 40 years of diplomatic relations between the two states.
This year, Moscow installed Col. Dmitry Nikitin as its first defense attaché to Manila.
Following Duterte’s trip to Russia in October, Khovaev announced that Putin had accepted the Philippine leader’s invitation for him to come to Manila.
While details have yet to be disclosed, it would be another milestone in Philippine-Russia relations.
During his meeting with Duterte last month, Putin described the Philippines as “a very important partner of Russia.”