National Assembly President Heng Samrin said Monday that he has asked the Russian government to forgive a $1.5 billion debt that Cambodia owes to Moscow.
Speaking to reporters outside the National Assembly, Heng Samrin said that during his visit to Russia, which ended Sunday, Russian officials also expressed an interest in exploring for oil in Cambodian waters.
“I have requested that the Russian [parliament] drop Cambodia’s debt to improve our economy and develop our country,” said Heng Samrin, who is also CPP honorary president.
“Russia wants to explore for oil in Cambodia. I welcomed the request because Russia has experience and techniques for exploring for oil,” he added.
Russia did not make any promises regarding the debt, but there will be meetings on the matter, Heng Samrin said of his request to Russian State Duma Speaker Boriz Gryzlov.
Heng Samrin did not specify how Cambodia had become so deeply in debt.
In addition to the debt and oil issues, Heng Samrin said he discussed opening direct flights from Moscow to Phnom Penh with Gryzlov. Sergei Mironov, chairman of Russia’s Federation Council, promised that Russia will provide military training to Cambodia, Heng Samrin added.
Government spokesman and Information Minister Khieu Kanharith said Cambodia incurred large debts to the then-Soviet Union to buy food and gasoline during economic sanctions imposed by the West on the communist-era People’s Republic of Kampuchea during the 1980s.
Khieu Kanharith added that Cambodia would welcome Russian investment in its nascent oil sector.
US-based Chevron, in partnership with Japanese firm Mitsui, has discovered oil and gas deposits in offshore Block A, located in the Gulf of Thailand off the coast of Sihanoukville.
Further exploration is necessary before official estimates of the amount of the deposit are made.
China National Offshore Oil Company has also been negotiating for the rights to explore neighboring Block B, petroleum officials have said.
A Russian Embassy official who declined to reveal his name said that the exact amount of the debt Cambodia owes Russia is still under negotiation, but $1.5 billion is the number “mentioned in the documents.”
Finance Ministry Secretary-General Hang Chuon Naron said the true amount that Cambodia owes to Russia is still subject to negotiations.
“We cannot say at the moment,” he added.
In December 2005, the International Monetary Fund forgave the $83 million Cambodia then owed the IMF.
Cambodia is also negotiating with the US for relief of its Lon Nol-era debts, which officials have put at anywhere from $80 million to $500 million.
Cambodia had also raked up $454 million in loan debts owed to the World Bank by 2005, but does not qualify for debt relief.
SRP lawmaker and National Assembly National Defense and Anti-Corruption Commission Chairman Yim Sovann said that Cambodia should refuse to pay the Russian debt.
“Some of the money was borrowed during the State of Cambodia which was used to wage war,” he said.
Any oil exploration by Russian firms should also be open to a fair and transparent bidding process, he added.
Russian investment interest in Cambodia has been expanding in the last year.
In 2006, a group of Russian investors led by tycoon Alexander Trofimov officially agreed to build a $278 million holiday resort on Sihanoukville’s Koh Pos island.
(Additional reporting by Erik Wasson.)