Laos: To Russia, With Love

2001

Kathryn Sweet

Lao Foreign Minister Somsavath Lengsavat’s recent official visit to Russia is an apparent attempt to rebuild the relationship that began to unravel in the wake of the break up of the Soviet Union in 1991. While the state-run Lao media reported the visit in their usual, formulaic fashion, predicting discussions to cover the building of close ties and fraternal relations, the Russian media were more forthcoming. Itar-TASS and Pravda reported that cooperation in legal, military, education and economic spheres was on the agenda, as was the free movement of people between Lao PDR and Russia.

Both sides were making positive overtures in the Russian media about the visit. The Russian Foreign Ministry advised that there had been positive changes in Russian/Lao cooperation in recent years, while Somsavath announced at a press conference in Moscow that the Lao leadership attached great importance to the further development of friendship and cooperation with Russia.

During his four day visit to Moscow, from 26-29 August 2001, Somsavath met with his Russian counterpart, Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov, Moscow Mayor Yuriy Luzhkov and Deputy Speaker of the Russian upper house, Vladimir Platonov. He rounded off the visit with a short stop in Minsk, where he met with Belarussian Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister, Mikhail Khvostov.

The Russian media tipped that the Foreign Minister’s visit may be a forerunner to an imminent visit from Lao Prime Minister and Politburo member no. 6, Mr Bounnhang Vorachit. Certainly Somsavath’s visit, his first to Moscow since the 1994 signing of the treaty on the foundation of friendly relations, indicates that Lao/Russian relations are about to enter a new phase.

From 1976-1991 the former Soviet Union played a central role in the development of the fledgling, socialist state of Lao PDR. During this 15 year period the USSR was Lao PDR’s main development partner, providing concessional loans, grant aid, barter trade, technical advisers, and literally thousands of scholarships to Lao students.

Some of the more enduring Russian aid projects from this era include the construction of the 150 bed Friendship Hospital in Vientiane, the National Polytechnic, the Yuri Gagarin bridge over the Kading river at Pak Kading, and more whimsically, the National Circus Building, complete with its gold rooftop imitating that of a circus tent.

During the heyday of Lao/Russian relations, Vientiane was served by regular Aeroflot flights to and from Moscow, via Dubai and Rangoon. Vientiane was home to a Russian cultural centre, a large and imposing Russian embassy, and a thriving Russian language department at the then teachers college at Dong Dok.

However, the relationship moved down a few gears after the break up of the Soviet Union. The Lao government reportedly chartered aircraft to fly home the many Lao students stranded in the former Soviet republics that were variously erupting in violence and confusion, as they split from the former regime.

Lao/Russian trade turnover plummeted from US$ 50 million per year to next to nothing. The advisers returned home, Aeroflot ceased its services to Vientiane, and the Embassy began to look decidedly spacious for the shrinking Russian presence. Some say that Embassy representation was maintained only to negotiate collection of loan repayments still owed by the Lao government. The cultural centre finally closed its doors in the late 1990s, with occupation of the building passing to the now notorious Gem Mining Laos Company. And as Western donors moved to fill the aid gap left by the Soviets, the thousands of Lao government officials who had graduated in the USSR began learning English to communicate with their new partners in development.

But not all links with Russia and the former Soviet Union were lost, suggesting that the rebuilding of the bilateral relationship will not need to start from scratch. The Russian school continues to operate in Vientiane, and while Russian ceased to be taught at Dong Dok in 1994 and all the Russian teachers have now retrained as English teachers, the department is still known as the Russian Department!

Small expatriate communities exist in both countries. In Lao PDR, the community is centred in Vientiane around the handful of Russian wives who arrived with their returning student husbands in the 1980s and 1990s. In Russia, the communities, comprising Lao former students who never returned home, are dotted unexpectedly all over the place, like the community of 30 or so living in Irkutsk, Siberia. These communities consist of men who have married Russian women, men and women who have built up business interests, and others with neither marriage nor business links, who stay on indefinitely simply because they feel there is little awaiting them in Laos.

A final enduring, if somewhat faded, link is the public affection built up in the 15 year period when both countries shared socialist systems, and Russia represented the modernity, industrialisation and prosperity to which Lao PDR aspired. A young operator at Lao Telecom recently commented that when connecting international operator-assisted calls, he was still always assured of a friendly response from the Russian operators. They know where Laos is, he claimed, and they remember us with affection. This augurs well for the future of Lao/Russian relations.

WATCHPOINT: Postscript: The Lao President Mr Khamtay Siphandone sent an official message to the American President George W Bush, in which he condemned the tragic events of 11 September, and stated that his government’s unswerving policy is to extend close cooperation to the world community in combating international terrorism. He conveyed the condolences of the government and people of Lao PDR to the victims and their families.

 

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