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.

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