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Russian debt emerges as billion-dollar question

Russian debt emerges as billion-dollar question

An unsettled, decades-old $1.5 billion loan from the then-Soviet Union to Cambodia’s Vietnam-backed 1980s government emerged as the key talking point during a meeting between Foreign Minister Hor Namhong and Russia’s new ambassador to Cambodia yesterday, a ministry spokesman said.

The meeting between Namhong and Russian Ambassador Dmitry Tsvetkov was held behind closed doors, and a Russian Embassy representative declined to comment on the context in which the debt was brought up, or which side was the first to mention it.

“The important issue [of the meeting] was that our government owed the former Soviet Union; both sides agreed to try to resolve [the issue] in a friendly spirit in the interest of both countries,” Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Koy Kuong told reporters after the meeting.

“The minister of economics and finance was invited to visit Russia to discuss the resolution of the [debt],” he added, noting that a date for the trip had not been set.

Cambodia borrowed the money from Moscow in the 1980s, and several requests in recent years to have the debt forgiven have failed. The Kingdom has similarly sought the forgiveness of a $460 million debt to the US incurred under the Lon Nol regime, also to no avail.

Lera Merkulova, secretary to the Russian ambassador, said in a message yesterday that the meeting “was a protocol visit of H.E. Mr. Dmitry Tsvetkov to H.E. Mr. Hor Namhong”.

“During the 30 minutes long meeting, the main topics of international relations agenda were discussed,” she said.

“The sides also gave close attention to the issues of bilateral cooperation in trade and economic, investment spheres, cultural and humanitarian cooperation.”

However, political analyst Sok Touch suggested that yesterday’s discussion could have had ulterior motives, coming at a time when Russia was seeking the support of other nations for its recent controversial annexation of the Crimea region of Ukraine.

“First, Russia wants Cambodia to have a foreign policy supporting them with the current crisis in Ukraine,” Touch said. “They want to know clearly what our foreign policy is towards Russia, because Cambodia used to be a strategic partner during the Cold War.”

“Second, they also clearly want to know how Cambodia is going to settle the [debt]. Does Cambodia want to settle it [by reclassifying it as] charitable aid, or what?” he continued.

Cambodia officially abstained from voting on a March 27 UN resolution rejecting Russia’s annexation of Crimea, and Touch said yesterday that Cambodia should continue to decline to take a stance on the issue, for fear of alienating international superpowers during a time of internal instability.

“In my point of view, Cambodia should stay [neutral], because Cambodia needs all the giant countries,” he said. “If we showed that we support anyone at a time when Cambodia is very fragile, we will have some problems with the West.”

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