Threatened with international isolation over his crackdown on democracy, Cambodian strongman Hun Sen has turned to Russia to help monitor upcoming national elections.
US Senator Ted Cruz has warned that it would be “impossible for the United States and our allies to recognise the legitimacy” of the 2018 national elections if opposition leader Kem Sokha remains in prison. Hun Sen last week fired back that no international recognition was required.
Meeting with Hun Sen on the sidelines of the 31st Asean Summit in Manila on Sunday, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev promised that Moscow would provide support and monitors for next year’s poll. Moscow also agreed to discuss Cambodia’s outstanding debt.
Hun Sen’s government faces mounting international pressure after charging opposition leader Kem Sokha with “treason” and initiating dissolution proceedings against his Cambodia National Rescue Party. The treason charge rests on an allegation the opposition is fomenting a “colour revolution”. Independent analysts say that the opposition’s campaigning is in line with democratic norms and that the case against Sokha is politically motivated. However, judges are expected to rule for dissolution of the opposition tomorrow.
Hun Sen has also ratcheted up pressure on NGOs, shuttered independent news outlets and forced the closure of the English-language newspaper the Cambodia Daily over a tax dispute.
Russia, say analysts, is offering support for his increasingly desperate bid to combat the opposition’s growing popularity ahead of next year’s election.
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 re-establish 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 re-establishing 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 per cent in 2016 from the year before, he added.
At Sunday’s 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 the issue.
“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.”