ASEAN Centre in MGIMO-University the MFA of Russia

Центр АСЕАН при МГИМО

The complicated history of Russia-Cambodian relations

The complicated history of Russia-Cambodian relations

04.06.2021

The history of Russian-Cambodian relations over the past 65 years has passed through several stages.

The first stage, which can be defined from 1955 to 1970, is linked with the name of Prince Norodom Sihanouk and his politics. Sihanouk, as an outstanding political figure in Cambodia, was fully aware of the extremely precarious situation of his country, which was at the center of political conflicts in Indochina, when civil conflicts and military operations began in neighboring Vietnam and to the north in Laos. Sihanouk's goal was to maneuver between all the parties of the conflict in Indochina and keep Cambodia as an island of peace and tranquility in the raging sea around it. The most important element of this policy was the rapprochement with the USSR, in which Sihanouk hoped to see one of the main guarantors of independence and peace in the country. Already in 1955, he visited Russia and signed many cooperation agreements. In response, the USSR actively helped him in national construction by opening a hospital and technological institute, implementing several businesses projects and teaching students from Cambodia in the Soviet universities.

Such friendly and warm relations persisted for quite a long time, but gradually deteriorated, as Sihanouk, who clearly saw the threat of pro-communist forces coming to power in the country, more and more actively opposed them, and accused not only China, but also other communist countries of supporting his political opponents. At that time they switched to the tactics of an armed uprising in 1967 after the events in Samlaut and then to the tactics of the civil war. In Moscow, the opinion that Sihanouk will not be able to hold power on prevailed. Soviet leaders began to pay more attention to his political opponents on the right, who for some reason were seen as a political force capable of maintaining a balanced policy and were loyal to the USSR. Sihanouk felt these changes very strongly and in turn stated that Soviets are looking for a lackey in Cambodia, and “I'm not your lackey” – as he said when Moscow offered to postpone his planned visit in 1965.

The closeness of Soviet diplomats with Sim Var, one of the main political opponents of Sihanouk and one of the future leaders of the March 1970 coup, played a cruel joke with Cambodian-Soviet relations – the coup against Sihanouk was actually supported in Moscow and until 1973 the USSR maintained diplomatic relations with the government of Lon Nol. Moreover, until 1975, there were employees in the Soviet embassy, who then miraculously escaped when the "Khmer Rouge" came to power.

The events that took place in Moscow in March 1970 and related to Moscow's refusal to grant temporary asylum to Sihanouk, since a military coup took place in the country on the eve of his return, mark the beginning of the second stage of the Soviet-Cambodian relations.

It was characterized by an almost complete break, when not only the "Khmer Rouge", who in 1965 did not receive assistance from Moscow, but also Sihanouk personally were extremely hostile to the USSR. All attempts of the Soviet diplomats to restore these relations, promises of help and support did not have any effect, and the Soviet representatives learned about what was happening inside the revolutionary movement of Cambodia from conversations with their Vietnamese colleagues, who also by this time had largely lost the levers of influence on their Cambodian "brothers". During the period of Pol Pot's rule the USSR was seen as an obvious enemy, there was no relationship between the two states, but many prisoners of the regime were executed as Soviet spies or KGB agents.

The next third period in the history of Cambodian-Soviet relations began in 1979, when the Soviet Union together with Vietnam overthrew the Khmer Rouge regime and brought its political opponents to power.

The formation of the United Front for National Salvation of Cambodia and the new government of the country in 1979 became the starting point for the most active period of cooperation between the USSR and Cambodia. Huge supplies of food, fabrics, petroleum products, the arrival of numerous advisers and specialists, the training of new managers in the USSR – all this became the main signs of this time. The atmosphere in the mutual relations was so friendly and trusting that at this time many Cambodian leaders even came to the Soviet embassy to play volleyball. I was in Cambodia at the time and had the opportunity to closely observe this close and quite trusting relationship.

However nothing lasts forever under the moon. The beginning of a deep crisis in the USSR and Mikhail Gorbachev's attempts to solve it by capitulating to the West together with the Soviet allies, including Cambodian ones, caused an extremely painful reaction in the leadership of the PRK. Gorbachev, in order to improve relations with China, sought to fulfill three conditions of Beijing as soon as possible. Among them were the withdrawal of Vietnamese troops from Cambodia and a peaceful settlement with the participation of the opposition led by Sihanouk and the Khmer Rouge.

In 1988, At a meeting with the official leader of the PRK Kheng Samrin Soviet representatives and Gorbachev himself forced him to make concessions and agree to a power-sharing with the opposition, behind which the United States, China and the ASEAN countries were standing. Such a policy of pressure could not but have a negative affect on the attitude towards the USSR and Russia as its successor from the part of the leaders of the PRK. As a response there was a certain distrust, and then obvious indifference from Russia, which, after the collapse of the USSR, for some time in general, seemed to retreat from everything that was happening in Cambodia and even in Indochina.

Today, we can confidently say that after a period of cooling relations, when contacts were minimal, the situation has been gradually improving. It is clear that serious prejudice and some distrust of Russian politics remain, that can be explained by the history. But there are also some drivers and mutual interests that form a new reality in the Cambodian-Russian relations. Naturally, today they are not as close as in the 1980s, economic ties are extremely limited, but undoubtedly one can see a huge potential for their growth. In the complex and contradictory situation in Southeast Asia, where the rivalry between China and the United States is particularly visible, small countries are extremely interested in having strong friends in order to find a proper balance.

For Cambodia, Russia can act as one of the counterbalances of the tendency to depend on one or another great power. By the way, the meeting of the Prime Minister Hun Sen with the President of Russia in May 2016 during the Russia-ASEAN summit only confirms this conclusion. Their agreements in various spheres open a new stage in this complex long history.

Dr. Dmitry MOSYAKOV,
Head of the Center for Southeast Asia, Australia and Oceania,
Institute of Oriental Studies, Russian Academy of Sciences