The Love Boat: Cambodian Russian Diplomacy
I’m on a Russian submarine destroyer, docked at the port of Sihanoukville in Cambodia, and I’m trying not to drop a glass of vodka on the helicopter-landing pad, while the ship rolls beneath me in the middle of a tropical storm. There are Russian Navy officials and their Cambodian counterparts hobnobbing all around me, tinny Soviet-style music is playing from an AV system and all the sailor boys are getting drunk before they go off to fight Somali pirates, which is a good reason to be getting drunk. Someone is offering me a blini with an unidentifiable filling in it, and someone else is shoving yet another glass of vodka in my face; before I have managed to down the latest one. Everyone is studiously ignoring the storm outside.
The Russians are back in Cambodia, or at least they’re back for a little visit, a visit that might turn into more and more visits.
Why was I on a ship with a bunch of Russian sailors in the first place? I was there to cover the arrival of over 300 Russian Pacific fleet servicemen who were knocking off for a bit on Sihanoukville’s usually clement beaches before proceeding to the Bay of Aden to fight off Somali pirates, the whole lot of them pulling up in the evocatively named anti-submarine vessel, the Admiral Panteleev, accompanied by a salvage tug and a tanker. It was the 55th anniversary of Russia and Cambodia’s diplomatic relations, and no one from either side could quite remember when the last official Russian Federation Naval visit had been. This obviously called for a celebration.
As part of the six-day diplomatic love-in, the Russians were holding a cocktail fete for Cambodian and Russian Navy officials, diplomats, and other hanger-on’s who warranted the invite, and the media were welcome, too. The media, in a round-about way, included me.
Unfortunately for everyone involved, the Russian visit – and my own – coincided perfectly with the worst flooding that normally sunny and stoned-backpacker ridden Sihanoukville had seen in years.
I’d hoped to walk around town and look for Russian sailors getting up to all kinds of Slavic-tinted mischief with Snookie’s eternally friendly bar girls. I’d wanted to watch and take notes as the Navy boys staggered down the street singing war hymns to each other, and smashing vodka bottles on things, or whatever Russian guys do when they’re on a tear.
Instead, the whole town was holed up inside. No whoring, bar-tending, or just-plain working was going on—all of the town’s residents were attaching tarp to the gaping holes in their roof, rescuing pets, children, and cars from the deluge, and furiously bailing out their poorly-drained shops, houses, and restaurants.
I soon figured out that if there were Russians getting up to color-providing hijinks in town that day, I wasn’t going to find them unless I was willing to buy snorkeling equipment and run the distinct risk of contracting typhoid.
Why did I care about the Russians visit to Cambodia, anyway? Well, Russia and Cambodia have a special thing going, a relationship that began 55 years ago under the reign of the charismatic King Sihanouk and extends into the present day. The former USSR was one of the very few nations that stood beside Vietnam after it forced the Khmer Rouge out of power, and kept supporting the recovering nation when the 1991 Paris Peace Agreements handed sovereignty back to the Cambodian people—loyalty that the current Cambodian ruling class hasn’t forgotten.
When we arrived at the Admiral Panteleev, a Russian sailor in a prim white uniform took my hand and helped me onto the ship, which was wobbling in the typhoon and was streaked with lukewarm rain. I was very much regretting wearing spike heels, all of a sudden.
Russian sailors and Naval officials and Russian diplomats and press representatives were all there wearing their uniforms – military dress, if you had it, was specified on the invite – and so were their Cambodian counterparts. They all looked extremely dashing, which was probably the point, as they walked in front of a projector image displaying bucolic scenes of the Russian countryside on the side of the ship.
Soon after I arrived, I injected myself into the crowd, and was promptly introduced to Cambodian Minister of Defense Tea Banh, who I did not initially recognize, although he was polite about it. I was subsequently introduced to a lot of people, although it was a bit hard to hear much about names and professions over the wind and rain and the sound of Soviet-era ballroom music.
Everyone was going to have to deal with some political speeches before they were allowed into the booze and the cocktail snacks, so we stood politely, shifting with the movement of the boat, and listened as the Cambodian Defense Minister and the Russian ship captain made their statements, both operating through translators.
“I believe that this port of call will be the beginning of a new period of cooperation and interoperability between our countries,” said Russian Captain Andrey Saprikin in a short address, adding that he expected the visit would be the basis for improved relations between the two nations.
Raising his glass, Mr Saprikin implored the expectant crowd to “Drink all the drinks, to celebrate cooperation between our two nations.”
“The visit of the Russian vessels will improve the relationship and cooperation between the Navies of our two countries,” said Cambodian Defense Minister Tea Banh after Mr Saprikin’s speech, addressing a crowd of around 100 delegates in Russian through an interpreter. The Defense Minister pointed out to the crowd that Russia’s benevolent charity and help had made Cambodia’s armed forces better able to take part in UN peacekeeping missions and in the international community at large.
The Russians kept on offering the Minister vodka shots during pauses in his statement, waving the glasses under his nose. The Minister finally took a glass, gamely attempted to hold onto both it and his written speech as the boat rocked beneath him.
The speeches over, Captain Saprikin released the crowd towards the direction of the refreshments. “All the food has been prepared on board,” he added.
“Thank god there’s vodka,” my boyfriend muttered, moving to the bar as soon as the speech ended. The crowd moved with him, to tables that had been set up with vodka, wine, apple juice and incredibly difficult to identify Russian food.
The food, such as it was, was replenished through a hatch about equal with the ship’s deck, where you could see over-heated and buff young Russians working in a hot white kitchen.
I saw the Russian Diplomat to Cambodia hovering over a plate of rolled chicken and sidled up beside him, as is the way of my profession. “How is the visit going?” I asked.
The diplomat, who was wearing a tropical shirt and looked very contented, passed me some rolled chicken by way of politeness.
“It is going very well,” he said. “Maybe we’ll come more than once a year—it’s very good for the crew to come here, because they are going to the Somali Coast,” he said.
“What do the soldiers do here?” I asked him.
“I don’t know what they get up to,” the diplomat added, raising his eyebrows a bit, shooting me a meaningful gaze. “I do not want to know!” He laughed at this.
“And how are relations between Cambodia and Russia?” I asked him.
“The biggest problem is that they [the Cambodians] owe us $1.5 billion US dollars,” the diplomat said, in a speculative tone, serving me a piece of bread with some caviar on it.
“We are talking about this, which is not easy to settle. But some day, some day,” he said, perhaps envisioning a wealthy and developed Cambodian, like most of us eternal optimists.
It’s hard to deny that this vision of a wealthy and benevolent Cambodia was a major motivator behind the Russian’s friendly stop-off in the first place. Cambodia is economically on the up-and-up, as high-rises, gourmet restaurants and high-concept construction schemes sprout up like mushrooms around the capital city — a metropolis that’s a far cry from the war-torn hell-hole that was the Cambodia of the post-Khmer Rouge era.
The Sihanoukville Port is now accepting Norwegian Cruiseline ships full of only slightly terrified tourists, 34,000 Russian tourists visited Cambodia in 2010 and Russian expats in Sihanoukville have opened up a number of popular businesses in town, including a snake-themed restaurant and bar. Russian signs are visible in certain bits of Sihanoukville, and Russian restaurants can be found in both Snookie (as Sihanoukville is often called) and Phnom Penh.
Furthermore, when it comes to oligarchies—Cambodia is well on its way to building a truly magnificent specimen, and Russia is an expert in the field. Some people, far apart and culturally distinct as they are, just understand each other.
I spoke next to Colonel Nikolay Nikolayuk, who had helped me get to the party in the first place, and bless him for it.
“This visit, maybe not so good. It’s the first visit,” he said, referring in part to the rainy weather. “But maybe later visits will be better,” he added. He looked hopeful.
The Russian higher-ups were obviously in their element, chatting among themselves and with the Cambodian top-brass. Many older Cambodians in the armed forced speak Russian, having been trained in the former Soviet Union during Cambodia’s recovery years so it was time for them to reminisce a little.
The lower-level Cambodian Navy and political representatives huddled near the back of the boat, unsure of what it was exactly that they were supposed to do. Some of them had vodka glasses, but many had not touched anything, regarding the spread of cold chicken, fish eggs, and blinis with what looked like deep apprehension. They all left early.
The young Russian pirate fighters, appeared to be having a good time, those of them that had either dragged themselves away from town (battling the damp) or had been allowed above decks for the occasion.
One friendly young man kept on flirting with me as I wandered the decks in search of someone to talk to. I figured he was off to fight pirates in the squalid waters of the Bay of Aden and was looking to live a little, and humored him.
He did not understand the English for “boyfriend” and thought that my 6-foot-6 and increasingly irritated significant other, who was wearing glasses and an all-black suit, was my security guard.
After some emphatic miming, the sailor finally got it, and he placed his hand a ways above his head. “He is very – long?” the sailor said, pointing at my boyfriend, who had gone to fetch more vodka.
“Don’t tell him that,” I said, nodding to my other half.
Misunderstanding resolved, the three of us did vodka shots.
“From Russia…with love!” the young sailor shouted, a phrase which most of the other young Russians seemed to have dutifully and carefully memorized for occasions such as this.
An hour and a half or so had elapsed since the speeches had ended, and attendees were beginning to, with great tact and delicacy, sneak down the gangway towards somewhere less damp, somewhere with little less tinkling, incessant ballroom music. Diplomacy had been achieved and a show of friendliness had been made: the party’s goal had been accomplished and that goal wasn’t fun.
“Please, please, can we leave?” my boyfriend said, placing a hand on my shoulder.
“Everyone else is,” I conceded.
The morning brought a two hour long break in the weather. Russian soldiers were coming out of the port’s entry way in small packs, smiling and talking to each other about light things, looking forward to what might be a slightly-less damp day at the beach.
They were headed to the Bay of Aden, and had last night performed their diplomatic duty for their country. They were stewards of the long-standing and respectable relationship between Russia and Cambodia, and, before they went after machine-gun and machete wielding Bandits of the Sea, they were off to avail themselves in a healthy manner of all those tropical niceties the Kingdom has to offer, tropical niceties which the Tourism Board is eager to remind everybody of. It was that rarest of moments – a situation where everyone had pretty much won. They looked happy and I was happy for them, and hoped the weather would hold.
The Russian boys were all wearing tropical shirts.
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