A ringside view of the passing of the Soviet Era and the return of Russia
IHAVE OFTEN been asked when and how long my posting in Moscow was. My usual answer is about three years, from 1991 to early 1994 with a qualified clarification: one year of Gorbachev and two years of Yeltsin.
So I was in Moscow as we would now say “at the time of the regime change”.
It was a profound and drastic change: a political, social and economic transformation from the Soviet Communist Empire, one of the two world superpowers, to a Russian Federation and another 15 more or less ethnic or nationalist based independent republics with Mongolia as a sort of an additional liberated appendix.
I was fortunate to have had the opportunity to have visited the Soviet Union three or four times during the 1980s on official missions pertaining to cultural, economic, civil aviation and political–security bilateral relations. I was also on an advanced mission to prepare for the Thai Prime Minister General Prem Tinsulanonda’s official visit to Moscow (as well as to Helsinki and Vienna), during which the Thai delegation was notified of the impending withdrawal of Vietnamese forces from Cambodia. I was therefore familiar with the launching and initial implementation of the concepts of Glasnost and Perestroika.
I was also a believer in the spirit and meaning of those concepts, and especially in the genuine desire and sincerity of their initiator, President Gorbachev.
So I went to Moscow with enthusiasm and eagerness. I witnessed and learned about the transformation while playing my part to strengthen the linkages between the two countries and peoples, as well as with other nearly independent republics and Mongolia to which I was also accredited.
However, within the context of the Cold War, each country shared a mutual negative perception of the other based on different and opposing ideological beliefs, socio-political security and socio-economic outlook and conduct.
How to overcome this mutual perception of the other party as long-time “enemies” or “antagonists” was the question I pondered while venturing out to do my duty as the representative of the Kingdom of Thailand.
My main objective, therefore, was to make the Russians and other nationalities familiar with and appreciative of Thailand as much as possible.
I was able to convince the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to provide me with a budget to undertake various promotional activities.
The messages were: Thailand was a “must” as a tourist destination; Thailand was a source of consumer products; Thailand was a gateway to Southeast Asia. Also, Thailand was an example of an open society and Thailand was a Kingdom with a visionary and dedicated monarch.
But it was not a one-sided affair. Russia had excelled in science and technology, sports and cultural performances. So it was invited to share its knowledge and know-how regarding cooperative development activities their ideas for commercial exchanges.
We organised jazz concerts playing the late King Bhumibol’s compositions. We organised mobile exhibitions of tourist destinations and consumer products from one end of the Russian Federation (St Petersburg) to another (Vladivostok).
We also visited various capitals of the newly independent republics with our products and promotional materials. Incoming and outgoing trade missions were also sent. There was even a Thai energy delegation seeking opportunities for trade and investment in Russia and Central Asia.
In spite of political upheavals and a climate of uncertain national and international security, Thailand and the Soviet Union were able to conclude a rice trade deal of half a million tonnes.
Everyday existence in the emerging Russia was a bit dire due to the absence of basic consumer goods. However, diplomats could enjoy the open-air markets featuring arts, crafts and antiques, and even pets and exotic animals. In the evening, there were worldclass ballets and concerts. There was even a gypsy theatre.
I was privileged to have been invited to give a speech on economic development at the Kremlin. My advice to the gathering was for the federation to “import” foreign experts from developing countries, especially from the Indian sub-continent, to come and work hand-in-hand with Russian counterparts at all levels of business, industry and administrative activities. After all, Russia was still a “developing” country when it came to a market economy. Russia should have therefore learned from “fellow” developing countries.
In one of the sessions with Eduard Shevardnadze, the then-Soviet Foreign Minister at a working lunch with AsianPacific ambassadors, we were pointedly asking why there was no adequate planning and preparation for the transition from the Soviet system to a more liberal one. The reply was that both he and Gorbachev genuinely thought and believed that by granting freedoms and by opening up, things would have fallen into place and modernity would have happened instantly.
But in reality, the stronger took advantage of the weak and exploited wealth and resources until Vladimir Putin came on to the scene. The Russians are fun-loving and cultured, kind hearted with immense intellectual capacity. But throughout history, successive Russian and Soviet leaderships had been cruel and repressive.
To rebuild and to regain self-respect and international recognition as a Eurasian power, as well as to become a truly modern country, Russia and the Russian people have all the elements required to do so and the ability to achieve it.
The current leadership must believe in the ability and potential of Russians. Decentralisation, devolution, participation and empowerment should be the norm and the practice.
I wish Russia and her people well. I am optimistic for her bright future.
Kasit Piromya was Ambassador of Thailand to the Soviet Union and Russia from 1991-1994.