Old comrades try to rekindle flame

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 26 November, 1997, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 26 November, 1997, 12:00am

Hanoi and Moscow have long shared one of the region's most complex relationships, but as the new century approaches it is one in desperate need of a kick-start.

The visit this week of Russian Prime Minister Victor Chernomyrdin - the first premier to tour Vietnam since the downfall of Soviet-style communism seven years ago - has revealed just how far apart the two nations have moved.

His cavalcade roared by vast hammer-and-sickle flags and one of the last statues of Lenin still standing in a Hanoi still under firm Communist Party rule.

The huge institutions set up by Moscow in the heyday of its 'Big Brother' benevolence remain in place but barely function - all of the aid and most of the advisers having long since gone home.

The Soviet Union was Vietnam's most staunch ideological ally and the two shared a symbiotic friendship to counter a China cut from a different communist cloth.

Diplomats report little firm progress on key issues but insist this week is the start of a new era and point to a string of long-term co-operation commitments.

Mr Chernomyrdin yesterday met party chief Do Muoi, new President Tran Duc Luong and Prime Minister Phan Van Khai.

Discussions are moving on further energy co-operation and a new round of SU-27 jet-fighter purchases.

'We are starting from such a low base now, things can only improve,' one veteran Vietnamese diplomat said. 'Moscow never left completely and, while there were tensions and bitterness, there was never open animosity.' Russian Ambassador Victor Ivanov reflected the feeling, saying the relationship would be given a 'fresh impetus in every respect'.

Trade has suffered in the past few years, being slashed by more than half to about US$300 million (HK$2.31 billion) worth last year.

Analysts say the squabble over Vietnam's outstanding debt is holding back ties.

Moscow is demanding the repayment of US$17 billion worth of old rouble loans. When the loans were granted in the 1970s and 1980s, the rouble was artificially on a par with the dollar.

But at today's exchange rate, the debt would be about US$1.7 million, Vietnam claims.