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As Western influence grows, Soviets lose favor with Vietnamese. OUT FROM SOVIET SHADOW

Urban teens in Vietnam wear Levi jeans. Traders use buffalo-head nickels and Roosevelt dimes. And many Vietnamese watch American videos (although Jane Fonda's Workout Tape has yet to hit Hanoi). ``Almost the only American thing missing in Vietnam is a `McNam' fast-food restaurant,'' one Western diplomat says.

So why is Vietnam still so close to the Soviet Union?

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Vietnamese themselves are asking the same question these days. In all but foreign policy, the Soviets appear to be losing favor with their closest Asian ally.

``I tell the Soviets, frankly, the Vietnamese youth are looking at other cultures,'' says Ha Quang Du, secretary of the Ho Chi Minh Youth Union. ``I once enjoyed Russian literature. But I need other kinds now.''

A diplomatic divorce, like Egypt's 1972 ouster of Soviet advisers, is hardly imminent between two countries locked together by history and mutual interests. Vietnam receives massive Soviet aid, while the Soviet Navy uses strategically located Cam Ranh Bay naval and air force base.

But small cracks in an otherwise solid alliance are appearing. ``Young people look more to the West than to the Soviet Union,'' says Vietnamese writer, Nguyen Khai.

Top leaders admit to some ``confusion'' on Vietnam's ties with other Communist-led nations. ``This confusion can [produce] policies which are not quite clear-sighted,'' said former Prime Minister Pham Van Dong in an interview with the Monitor.

In economics, Vietnam is going its own way. Conditions in China are ``similar'' to Vietnam, says Le Dang Doanh, a government adviser in Hanoi. ``Now we are making a deep study of the Chinese economic experience, which is more advanced than the Soviets' in using market forces.... I'm afraid there will be great strains on our ties with the Soviets, but for now we still need their help.''

Vietnamese officials describe a change in their Soviet relations as an attempt to broaden international relations, without breaking bonds with an old friend.

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Since 1986, open criticism of Soviet goods and aid has become common. The latest complaint came in November from the Army newspaper, which stated that Vietnamese workers in the Soviet Union receive 17 to 19 times less than South Koreans working in the Middle East. ``We should not allow the situation of unfairness to go on any longer,'' it added.

Vietnamese officials are also uncomfortable with Mr. Gorbachev's opening a debate on the Stalin period. ``You cannot implement economic reforms in the middle of a civil war,'' Mr. Doanh said. ``De-Stalinization can be destabilizing, a tragic deformation for socialism.''

Analysts in the West have long looked for Viet-Soviet differences and, lately, for evidence of pressure from Moscow on Hanoi for a quick pullout of Vietnamese troops from Cambodia. The major source of antagonism, however, has been Gorbachev's drive to lessen Soviet aid to Vietnam by demanding less corruption, more efficient use of aid, and economic arrangements with ``mutual benefit.'' Some 1,300 Vietnamese officials are being sent to Soviet management schools.

The Soviets, in turn, appear worried that the coming generation of Vietnamese leaders may become too Western-oriented, and have been lately inviting the younger, outspoken ones to Moscow, a Western analyst says.

``The Vietnamese don't know what to make of Gorbachev,'' says University of California professor Douglas Pike. ``He has his own priorities and wishes them well. But with the Vietnamese, you have to be 110 percent for them or you're against them.''

Gorbachev appeared to irk Vietnam in September by explicitly offering to trade Soviet use of Cam Ranh Bay for American use of Philippine military bases. Hanoi's frosty reaction was to remind Moscow that the bases are Vietnam's to trade.

Vietnam accommodates most Soviet wishes. Party leaders with close links to Moscow, for instance, were recently chosen as prime minister and president. But with the US-Soviet warming, and the chance of a Sino-Soviet summit in 1989, Vietnam may be preparing to reposition itself among the big powers.

Seeking US recognition, Hanoi has sped up release of political prisoners, an ``orderly'' departure program for Vietnamese seeking to leave, and the search for American soldiers missing in action.

``Our foreign policy must reflect world conditions,'' says Ha Xuan Truong, editor of the party's theoretical journal.

In November, Moscow and Hanoi celebrated the 10th anniversary of a treaty of friendship. Diplomats said the celebration was ``correct, but cool.''

Vietnam appears worried that a Gorbachev-Deng summit might strike a deal on Cambodia (Kampuchea) over the heads of leaders in Hanoi. ``If the Chinese would like to solve the question of Kampuchea, with whom should they negotiate?'' asks Vietnamese Foreign Minister Nguyen Co Thach. ``Not with the Soviet Union.''

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