Russia to send observers to Cambodia’s 2018 election, agrees to discuss debt

Prime Minister Hun Sen shakes hands with his Russian counterpart Dmitry Medvedev after a session yesterday at the ongoing Asean Summit in Philippines.
Prime Minister Hun Sen shakes hands with his Russian counterpart Dmitry Medvedev after a session yesterday at the ongoing Asean Summit in Philippines. Facebook

Russia will send observers to the Kingdom for the upcoming national elections and has pledged to sit down to discuss Cambodia’s outstanding debt, a move that analysts yesterday saw as a sign of solidarity between two governments increasingly out of favour with the West.

During a meeting with Prime Minister Hun Sen, on the sidelines of the 31st Asean Summit in Manila on Sunday, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev promised that Russia would provide support for next year’s election and would prepare to deploy a team of observers to monitor the polls, according to a video on the premier’s Facebook page summarising the meeting.

Several officials at the Russian Embassy in Phnom Penh declined to comment, but Hang Puthea, spokesman for the National Election Committee, confirmed that Russia would supply a team of observers.

“Both sides have not set the final meeting to determine how much aid [will be provided] and how many people will be . . . sent to Cambodia,” Puthea said.

The pledge comes just days before Cambodia’s highest court makes a decision on whether to dissolve the main opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party, and as its leader, Kem Sokha, languishes in jail on “treason” charges, which have been widely decried.

The political situation has drawn widespread international criticism, and observers have questioned the credibility of next year’s vote in the absence of the country’s largest opposition party.

That criticism prompted Hun Sen on Friday to say that he had no need for the international community to recognise the validity of next year’s vote.

Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division, said the Cambodian government is “looking left and right to find someone who will say they are right”.

“[Russia] are going to be basically rubber-stamping whatever the [Cambodian] government wants,” he said. “They can’t even get their elections right.”

Carl Thayer, a regional analyst, said increased partnership makes sense, given that “misery loves company”.

“Russia is somewhat isolated because of its involvement in Crimea and Ukraine,” he said. “Cambodia will become increasingly isolated as national elections in 2018 approach. Both sides benefit politically by having Russian observers in Cambodia for national elections.”

Alexander Korolev, a research fellow at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore, said the growing gulf between Cambodia and the United States opened the door for Russia. “[The] US’s threats to impose sanctions on Cambodia will only increase Russia’s willingness to enhance cooperation with Cambodia,” he said.

Russia’s attempts to reestablish its ties with Cambodia, he said, are part of the realisation of the country’s “reorientation to Asia” strategy, in place since 2013. “The core of the programme is the diversification of Russia’s external relations in Asia,” he said. “Moscow is trying to hedge its regional economic and security bets by establishing and reestablishing cooperation with as many Asian countries and multilateral organisations as possible.”

That cooperation also includes increased trade in recent years – by as much as 30 percent in 2016 from the year before, he said.

Also at the summit, Hun Sen repeated a request to his Russian counterpart to consider writing off Cambodia’s $1.5 billion of Soviet-era debt accumulated during the 1980s. Medvedev responded by saying that he would create a working group to study this issue at a later time, echoing a 2014 pledge to do the same.

“Given the aforementioned dynamics of Russia relations, it is very possible that Cambodia’s debt to Russia will at least be restructured, if not written off,” Korolev said.

Thayer, however, was less optimistic about any debt forgiveness. “I would say the chances of a write-off are not good,” he said. “Russia is amenable to payment by goods and services. If Moscow is seeking a toe hold in Cambodia, such as a port or special facilities for Russian tourists, it will offset Cambodia’s debt for these facilities and services.”

Meanwhile, Medvedev also committed to providing financial support to renovate the Khmer-Soviet Friendship Hospital.

Dr Ngy Meng, director of the hospital, yesterday confirmed that the Russian government will be providing funding for the renovation, but discussions were still ongoing. “How much we will get, we still don’t know,” he said.