Rus­sia to send elec­tion ob­servers

The Phnom Penh Post - - FRONT PAGE - Soth Koem­soeun and Ye­se­nia Amaro

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 c o o p e r a t i o n a l s o 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 ac­cumu- l a t e d dur i ng t he 1 9 8 0 s. 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.

NA­TIONAL

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

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