Asian Allies Seek New Roles, Recast Strategies

IN a Vietnam clouded by the Soviet Union's collapse, Nguyen Ngoc Troung detects a silver lining.

"This is a time of experiment, and there are more questions than answers," says the political analyst who once studied in Moscow and now edits a Hanoi foreign policy journal.

"The collapse of the Soviet Union may have created some difficulties for us," he says. "But in the long term, it will be very good for Vietnam because we are changing old-fashioned thinking on international cooperation."

Orphaned economically and ideologically by the Soviet breakup, Moscow's one-time communist prots in Indochina are recasting their profiles in the region.

After the abrupt cutoff of Soviet assistance in 1991, Vietnam and Cambodia have opened to free market reforms, foreign investment, and expanding trade ties with once-belligerent neighbors.

The economic transition has been chaotic: Prices have risen sharply, essential commodities such as fuel and fertilizer, once supplied by the Soviet Union, have been difficult to get, dozens of Soviet economic and technical advisers have been withdrawn, and unemployment has soared as Vietnamese workers in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe have been forced to return home.

After years of lavishing economic, military, and diplomatic assistance on their Southeast Asian partners, the cash-strapped former Soviet states, analysts say, are owed 10 billion rubles ($1 billion) by Vietnam and 800 million rubles ($80 million) by the Cambodian regime in Phnom Penh.

"The debts are repayable, but neither country can afford it now," says a Soviet diplomat.

Politically, both of Moscow's former clients are adrift as the region that once hosted superpower proxy wars grasps for a new post-cold-war role.

The downfall of Soviet communism stunned Vietnam's aging communists who emulate China by preserving one-party rule and pursuing economic reforms. Last year, Vietnam and China normalized relations broken when the two countries fought a brief border war in 1979.

Soviet cuts in military aid have weakened Vietnam's military, which humiliated three of the world's strongest armies in the past four decades only to be forced to withdraw from a 10-year occupation of Cambodia. Vietnam invaded Cambodia in 1978 to overthrow the radical Marxist regime of the Khmer Rouge.

Russia is negotiating a pullback from the former United States military base at Cam Ranh Bay. Some Western analysts say Russia will maintain an intelligence-gathering presence at the facility.

"There still is a strong residue of bitterness toward the Soviet Union," says a Western diplomat in Hanoi.

In Cambodia, a Soviet disengagement helped bring a settlement of the 13-year civil war between the Phnom Penh government and a tripartite resistance dominated by the Chinese-backed Khmer Rouge. A United Nations-sponsored peace accord was signed last October.

As the UN launches a massive effort to administer Cambodia and disarm its rival armies in the run-up to national elections next year, the Soviet Union's one-time pervasive presence has faded.

"The Russians are more worried now about whether their salaries will come from Moscow than about their lack of influence in Cambodia," says a senior Eastern European diplomat in Phnom Penh.

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