It was my second time in Russia after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. The first time was in July, 1992, as part of a mixed delegation led by then Thai Ambassador, Kasit Bhiromya, to explore trade and investment opportunities in Russia and Kazakhstan. We went to Moscow, Vladivostok and Almaty. At that time, Russia and Kazakhstan were beginning to open up and both sides were keen to talk business. While no deals were made, the trip made it possible for us to look at the new markets more realistically.
When I arrived in Moscow a year-and-a-half later, I could not decide whether the situation in Russia had improved or worsened. On the one hand, a large number of the population were facing hardship from the sudden and overwhelming changes the country was going through. On the other hand, many people seemed to have found ways and means of making money and living opulently. A new class of Russian entrepreneurs was growing out of the confusion and they began to attract the interest of the Thai private sector. Delegation after delegation would visit Moscow, looking for business opportunities. But it was not easy to reach trade deals, as the Russians were not yet familiar with capitalist ways.
I remember very well how hard the Embassy and the concerned Thai authorities, as well as the private sector bodies in Bangkok, tried to intervene and to facilitate trade between our two countries. Happily, in spite of all the problems, bilateral trade started to grow, with Thailand in deficit as it exported mainly agricultural and consumer products while importing costly items such as steel and machinery.
However, the trade imbalance was offset by a most interesting development in our bilateral relations during my three-year stay in Moscow. That was how Russians discovered Thailand. After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Russians and other citizens of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) were able to travel more freely and over just a couple of years, Thailand became one of the most attractive destinations for them. When I started my term, the number of Russian tourists issued entry visas had been a couple of thousand a year. By the end of 1996, the number of visas issued by the Embassy to CIS citizens was about 100,000. How did we cope with such an overwhelming demand?
In those days, Russians and CIS citizens would normally travel in group tours and often by chartered planes originating from all over the CIS. To facilitate their travel to Thailand, the Embassy, with permission from the Thai Foreign Ministry, quite early on allowed registered tour companies to submit applications for entry visas on behalf of their clients. It was a satisfactory solution for both sides, particularly for the Thai tourist sector.
Many tourists started so-called “shuttle trade” while enjoying the sun and sea of Thailand. Through them, Thai goods, such as textile products, were distributed all over Russia and other CIS countries. I believe this practice went on for a few years until regular trade was established. The Embassy also organised annual Thai fairs, which became quite popular. The Tourism Authority of Thailand was represented by its office in Frankfurt, and Thai Airways did not think there was sufficient traffic to warrant opening flights to Moscow. Nonetheless, the Embassy worked very closely with their representatives in Europe to promote Thailand in Russia and the other CIS countries to which I was accredited.
I cannot end my reminiscence of Russia without mentioning Saint Petersburg, the place where diplomatic relations between Siam and Russia started. I paid my first official visit to this beautiful historical city not long after I presented my credentials to President Boris Yeltsin in April, 1994. As part of my itinerary, I was privileged to be given an opportunity to look through files containing information regarding the visit of His Majesty King Rama V to Saint Petersburg in July, 1897, which were very well kept at the Russian State Archive. Reading the materials in Thai and English, I could sense the warm friendship that the monarchs of the two countries had. It was unfortunate that those close ties were disrupted for 70 years by opposing ideologies.
Bearing this historical tie in mind, the Thai Foreign Ministry decided to set up an Honorary Consulate of Thailand in Saint Petersburg and, in 1996, appointed Dr Valeri Kovalchuk, a prominent banker and businessman, as the first honorary consul there. He was subsequently promoted to honorary consul-general.
One of his tasks, apart from building good ties with Saint Petersburg, was to look after Thai students on behalf of the Embassy. At that time, there were only about 40 students there, some of whom had come to study under Soviet scholarships and others with private funding. Another important task was to advise and assist the embassy in the preparation for the centenary of diplomatic relations which was to take place in July, 1997. Deputy Foreign Minister Pracha Gunakasem presided over the opening of the Consulate, the first among Asean countries. Later in the year Foreign Minister Dr Amnuay Virawan also visited Saint Petersburg and laid the groundwork for the historic celebration.
Looking back at my time in Russia, I can only say that it was a real privilege to have been a part, however minute, in the development of close and friendly relations between our two countries.
Suchitra Hiranprueck was the Ambassador of the Kingdom of Thailand to the Russian Federation, 1994-1997.
Published : September 09, 2017
By : SUCHITRA HIRANPRUECK SPECIAL tO THE NATION