So long, US; howdy, Russia

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Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen waves as he arrives at the airport in Manila on April 28, 2017, ahead of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit. Photo: AFP/Noel Celis

Much of the Western world lined up to admonish Cambodia’s Supreme Court’s ruling last month to dissolve the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), with the European Union and United States in the lead threatening punitive sanctions, including visa restrictions on complicit officials.

But Cambodia has found bonhomie among the world’s autocracies, with China quick to say that it supported Phnom Penh’s own path to development, which it has funded for years through generous aid packages and soft loans. Reports rightly noted that Chinese largesse has helped to underwrite Prime Minister Hun Sen’s ongoing crackdown on political opponents, independent media and civil society.

Less has been reported, however, on Russia’s role.

Weeks before the CNRP’s closure, Hun Sen met his Russian counterpart, Dmitry Medvedev, on the sidelines of a regional summit in Manila. Medvedev offered to send a team of observers to next year’s election, which many observers have said would be a sham without the CNRP’s participation.

While China supports the Cambodian government economically, by reducing Phnom Penh’s reliance on Western aid and loans Russia is offering to lend certain moral support for the clampdown. Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) has taken a sharp anti-Western line in recent weeks.

The ability of Moscow to affect global politics, including the US presidential election, through social media and Kremlin funded news stations is well-known. In this respect, Russian media has been conspicuously mute on the Cambodian situation.

A man tries on a VR goggles at the stand of Russia's state-controlled broadcaster RT during the 10th Russian Internet Week in Moscow on November 1, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / Kirill KUDRYAVTSEV

Russia’s state-controlled broadcaster RT has been quiet on Cambodia’s crackdown. Photo: AFP/Kirill Kudryavtsev

RT, a popular international news network financed by the Kremlin, has not published one article about the CNRP’s dissolution last month, despite the event garnering widespread international news coverage.

The only two articles published by RT on Cambodia in recent months are related to Phnom Penh ordering the closure of the National Democratic Institute, a US State Department-funded democracy promoting outfit.

Both articles on the issue feature a typically heavy anti-American tinge, with one headline quoting Hun Sen calling US democracy “bloody” and “brutal.” Moscow’s repressive tactics, on the other hand, have long been a source of inspiration and replication for other aspiring autocracies.

In September, when the Cambodian government moved to close the Cambodia Daily, an American-owned independent newspaper, it did so over taxation issues. Russia’s government has long used its Federal Tax Service to intimidate and shutter critical nongovernmental organizations and media.

Last month, Russia’s Parliament passed legislation that could demand foreign media organizations operating in the country to register as “foreign agents.” Cambodia’s crackdown on its independent media bears a striking resemblance.

A woman buys a copy of the final issue of The Cambodia Daily at a street stall in Phnom Penh on September 4, 2017. Photo: Reuters / Samrang Pring

A woman buys a copy of the final issue of The Cambodia Daily at a street stall in Phnom Penh on September 4, 2017. Photo: Reuters / Samrang Pring

In August, Phnom Penh went on the attack against Radio Free Asia (RFA) and Voice of America (VOA), two US Congress-funded news agencies which have long been accused by the CPP government of fomenting anti-government propaganda from overseas.

Over 20 radio stations that carried RFA and VOA news programs were closed in the provinces on the grounds they had abused their operating contracts. RFA closed its office in Cambodia in September.

Pa Nguon Teang, director of local radio station Voice of Democracy and founder of the Cambodian Center for Independent Media, was branded a “foreign agent” in August by Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan.

In 2012, Russia became one of the world’s first autocracies to pass a law requiring NGOs that receive funding from abroad to register themselves as “foreign agents,” a term that Moscow’s propaganda machine now considers as “spies.”

Some analysts believe the move gave inspiration to the likes of Egypt, Hungary and China to pass similar legislation.

Photo: Reuters/Dmitri Lovetsky

Russian leader Vladimir Putin in a file photo. Photo: Reuters/Dmitri Lovetsky

Cambodia’s Law on Associations and Non-Governmental Organizations (LANGO), passed amid controversy in 2015, contains no such requirement for NGOs to designate themselves as “foreign agents,” though it does require them to be “politically neutral,” a vague and broad term.

But the same narrative that foreign influence is equivalent to subversion underlines the government’s response to independent NGOs.

Last month, Hun Sen told the Interior Ministry to investigate and potentially close the Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR), a prominent NGO founded by jailed opposition leader Kem Sokha, because “they follow foreigners.” The CCHR has so far avoided closure.

It remains unclear whether Moscow has had any direct influence over Phnom Penh’s repressive strategies or if the Cambodian government is simply imitating its actions.

Nikolai Patrushev, a former director of the Russian Federal Security Service, the KGB’s successor, and now the Secretary of the Security Council of Russia, met with Hun Sen in February ostensibly to discuss anti-terrorism collaboration.

In retrospect, there are now suspicions that the two discussed other issues as Hun Sen may have been preparing his crackdown on the political opposition and foreign-backed NGOs.

Police officers stand guard near the Supreme Court of Phnom Penh, Cambodia, October 31, 2017. REUTERS/Samrang Pring

Police officers stand guard near the Supreme Court of Phnom Penh, Cambodia, October 31, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Samrang Pring

What is clear is that Phnom Penh now sees its future with China and Russia, not Western democracies. In a speech in September, Cambodian Foreign Minister Prak Sokhonn announced that the “the West has become weak” before praising Russian President Vladimir Putin’s leadership style.

The Phnom Penh Post reported that he also said “Cambodia’s foreign policy future lay with China and Russia.” Part of the incipient shift is likely due to Russia being one of the most vocal – and most hypocritical – proponents of non-interventionism.

Last month, Cambodia joined Russia and China in a ten-nation grouping that voted against a mild United Nations draft resolution on the ethnic cleansing of ethnic Rohingya in Myanmar which if passed would have called on Naypyidaw to protect the persecuted minority group’s rights.

“For us, the principle of no interference is a very big thing,” Hen Sen said after his country’s vote at the UN.

Some analysts put this down to the Association of Southeast Asian Nation’s (Asean) long history of non-interference in member states’ internal affairs. Four other Asean members – Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar and the Philippines – voted against the UN motion, meaning the bloc’s other five nations voted for it.

SOCHI, RUSSIA - MAY 20: Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) and Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen (L) shake hands during an official welcome ceremony for delegations heads within the ASEAN-Russia Commemorative Summit in Sochi, Russia on May 20, 2016. Host Photo Agency / Anadolu Agency

Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) and Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen (L) at an Asean-Russia summit on May 20, 2016. Photo: Anadolu Agency via AFP

A more likely explanation is that the non-interventionist doctrine, well-versed by Russia, has become a necessary defense mechanism for Phnom Penh against democratic nation criticism, including from the US and EU. Both are now weighing potentially crippling economic sanctions.

Moscow apparently sees that censure as an opportunity. There are already indications that Cambodia and Russia are trying to form a closer economic alliance. Foreign Minister Prak Sokhonn visited Moscow in August, where he spoke about boosting trade with Russia by 2020, including the possibility of creating a Cambodia-Russia Business Council.

Bilateral trade in goods was worth only about US$110 million in 2015, compared to the US$3.4 billion recorded between Cambodia and the US that year. In the second quarter of this year, total trade with Russia was worth US$34.1 million, up roughly 15% from the same period last year.

The ruble’s hard decline in 2014 undercut Russian tourism to Cambodia, though there are signs that numbers are picking up again. Earlier this year, Tourism Minister Thong Khon outlined a new strategy to boost Russian arrivals, including new direct flights from Russia and bilateral tourism forums.

Nuclear cooperation is also on the cards.

Last year, Russian and Cambodian government departments signed many memoranda to develop the latter’s nuclear energy sector, including the building of an Information Center for Atomic Energy in Phnom Penh. It will reportedly be advised by Rosatom, Russia’s state nuclear firm.

Another intergovernmental agreement was signed in September in Vienna to boost cooperation between the two nations for the development of nuclear energy for peaceful means.

A woman working at a money exchange shows 500 Cambodian riel notes to photographer in central Phnom Penh March 12, 2011. The much delayed stock exchange regulator Securities and Exchange Commission of Cambodia (SECC) said that all prices of securities will be quoted in local currency riel. Cambodia is highly dollarized and that many foreign investors want to see US dollars quoted in the upcoming bourse. REUTERS/Samrang Pring (CAMBODIA - Tags: POLITICS) - RTR2JSDU

A money changer in Phnom Penh. Photo: Reuters/Samrang Pring

Whether Russia is willing to buy influence in Cambodia will be seen if it decides to write-off or revise down the US$1.5 billion Soviet-era debt Cambodia incurred during the 1980s. Phnom Penh has long called on Moscow to cancel the debt.

America attracted Cambodia’s opprobrium earlier this year when Hun Sen revived the issue of a US$500 million debt Phnom Penh owes dating back to the 1970s. The US government has long said Cambodia must pay the debt incurred during a US-backed rightist regime which Hun Sen this year referred to “blood-stained” and “dirty.”

Russia seldom attracts criticism for maintaining its historic debt with Cambodia, worth three times as much as America’s.  When Hen Sen broached the subject with Medvedev last month, the Russian premier reportedly promised to establish a working group to study the issue.

Moscow made the same vow in 2014, but failed to propose a mutually agreed resolution.

Some analysts believe Moscow might restructure the debt, though probably not write it off, in a bid to deepen bilateral inroads. One scenario, they say, would give Russia special access to Cambodia’s ports and resource extraction contracts in exchange for a debt write-down.

Given that Cambodia’s total national debt was US$6.2 billion as of June this year, representing roughly 28% of GDP, any such gesture would be well-received in Phnom Penh at a time it braces for the pinch of US and EU sanctions imposed against its anti-democratic backsliding.

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