As Cambodia and Russia prepare to mark the 60th anniversary of their diplomatic relations, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev is visiting Cambodia. Despite close ties in the past, prior to the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia has not been deeply involved in Cambodian affairs.
“There has been a significant decline of relations with Cambodia,” Deth Sok Udom, dean of Zaman University in Phnom Penh and a historian, told VOA Khmer. “But Cambodia wasn’t alone, since [Russia] applied the same to the whole region … Russia didn’t really want to do so, but it had to.”
Phay Siphan, a spokesman for the Cambodian government, shared a different view. He said there betters ties between Moscow and Phnom Penh have accumulated over the years, with the Cambodian government “always practicing its independent, neutral, and non-aligned foreign policy.”
“We can see a state visit to Cambodia this time by the Russian prime minister as evidence to prove good relations and cooperation between Russia and Cambodia,” he said.
The former Soviet Union donated many resources to feed the Vietnamese-backed government, following the fall of the Khmer Rouge, in 1979. That support helped the government fend off a resurgence of the Khmer Rouge, which had the backing of China, as well as a take-over from other forces at the Thai border.
Deth Sok Udom said the Soviet Union backed the Vietnamese occupation in order to block influence from Beijing, its geopolitical rival. “It wasn’t just a civil war between Cambodia’s conflicting political sides, but also a war between Vietnam and [Southeast Asia] and between the US and the Soviet Union,” he said.
The Soviet Union provided military aid, as well as a place for advanced education—for more than 8,000 Cambodian students, starting from 1979. That Soviet education helped many who are currently in government, including Education Minister Hang Chuon Naron and Finance Minister Aun Porn Moniroth.
The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989 precipitated the withdrawal of Vietnam from Cambodia, which in turn brought about a peace deal in 1991.
“Without the [fall] of the Soviet Union, we might be able to conclude that the Cold War would have continued, and we would still see the presence of Vietnamese troops fighting in Cambodia,” Death Sok Udom said.
In the decade of aid from the Soviet Union, Cambodia borrowed about $1.5 billion. Cambodia has many times requested debt relief, including during a recent visit of Foreign Minister Hor Namhong to the newly appointed Russian ambassador, Dmitry Tsvetkov.
Ou Virak, head of the think tank Future Forum, said Cambodia is likely to raise that issue again with the visit of Medvedev.
“Russia will never give up its loan without some exchange,” he said. “I think the exchange Russia wants is to get Cambodia close with Moscow and standing far from the US or the West. That’s a dangerous exchange, and I think we should internationally advocate a write-off of both blood loans not only from Russia, but also from the US.”
Phay Siphan would not discuss the debt issue, saying only: “Russia has shown a strong partnership in helping progress in Cambodia, both in the economic sector and social affairs.”
The influx of Russian investment and tourists into Cambodia in recent years has meanwhile pushed the need for new legislation on the protection of investments, recently approved by the Senate.
Both Deth Sok Udom and Ou Virak said closer tourism and investment ties with Russia would be helpful to Cambodia.
However, Ou Virak cautioned against strengthening security or military ties, “since that’s replaying this Cold War game, by tag-teaming with China against the US on the international stage, which is hugely dangerous for a small country like Cambodia.”