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WORLD REPORT EXTRA: The Coup and Beyond : World View : Holding Out for Hammer and Sickle : There are still several orthodox Communist states in the world. Their reaction to the sudden fall--and return--of Mikhail Gorbachev. : VIETNAM : Hanoi Goes Its Own Way

August 23, 1991|CHARLES P. WALLACE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BANGKOK, Thailand — Once regarded as the Soviet Union's closest ally in Asia, Vietnam has been growing increasingly distant from its former benefactor ever since Mikhail Gorbachev started talking about political freedom several years ago.

The coup attempt against Gorbachev produced no gloating comments from Vietnam's habitually cautious leaders, but it must have provoked a few knowing thoughts of "I told you so." Likewise, Gorbachev's survival seems to stiffen Hanoi's resolve to go its own way.

Vietnam has two significant complaints with Moscow. Gorbachev's consent to create a multi-party system in the Soviet Union is regarded as nothing short of heresy by Vietnam's orthodox Communists. And the Soviet Union's ensuing economic slide has had a powerful resonance in Vietnam as an estimated $1.5 billion a year in annual subsidies from Moscow were switched off last January with catastrophic effect.

At a congress of Vietnam's Communist Party in June, the outgoing party leader, Nguyen Van Linh, reaffirmed that Vietnam would remain a one-party Communist state.

Linh's successor as party general secretary, Do Muoi, emphasized the need for reform, particularly to continue the economic reform started in 1986. But he added that "our party and our people have the unshakable resolve to follow the socialist path, the path that president Ho Chi Minh, our party and our people have chosen. That is the only correct path."

Vietnam's decision to distance itself from Moscow and Eastern Europe have inevitably pushed the government closer to China, an historic adversary with which it fought a brief war in 1979.

One side benefit of Vietnam's warming with China is that it has helped clear away a decade of animosity over Cambodia, where Hanoi and Beijing fought a proxy war.

One aspect of the Moscow crisis that is hard to measure is how popular opinion in Vietnam might have been swayed by the spectacle of democracy triumphant in the streets of the Soviet Union.

A legacy of the past is that Moscow television is widely available in Vietnam and Cambodia and many people in both countries speak enough Russian to follow the news.

After watching Boris Yeltsin man the barricades around the Russian Parliament building, it is an open question whether the Vietnamese will remain content with limited reform.

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