Soviet Policy in Indonesia during the “Liberal Democracy” Period, 1950-1959
On August 17, 1945 Indonesia proclaimed its independence from the Netherlands, which had maintained colonial domination over the Indonesian Archipelago for more than three and a half centuries.
Up to 1949 the new republic was forced to withstand the former metropolis’s efforts to restore its colonial regime in the country. The main tasks of the newly sovereign state in the years 1945 to 1949 were to defend its independence, to strengthen its sovereignty and to achieve international recognition. Western powers, the USA and Great Britain, were inclined to directly and indirectly support the Netherlands’ efforts to reestablish its dominant influence on the Archipelago. The Indonesian leaders used the framework of the “cold war” while appealing to the Western powers to put pressure on the Netherlands to stop its military aggression against the new republic, while at the same time they were trying to get support from the newly independent countries of Asia and Africa as well as from the USSR and the socialist camp. Under Soviet initiative the “Indonesian question” was put on the agenda of the UN Security Council. During this period the Indonesian Republic was officially and unofficially recognized by many countries, including Western powers. In 1947 Indonesia signed a Friendship Agreement with Egypt, which marked a great success for the young Republic’s diplomacy. The Republic also took steps towards closer relations with the countries of the socialist camp, firstly with the USSR.
On January 26, 1948, a Soviet Chargé d’Affaires in Czechoslovakia reported to his Ministry that he had received a letter from the Special Envoy and Minister Plenipotentiary of the Republic of Indonesia, Soerpino, containing a proposition to establish diplomatic relations between the USSR and Indonesia. On May 22, 1948 in the Soviet Embassy in Prague Soeripno and the Soviet Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary Ambassador to Prague exchanged notes about the establishment of consular relations and the mutual exchange of consuls. Yet under Dutch military and political pressure the Indonesian government failed to ratify this agreement.
Late in 1949 Indonesia and the Netherlands met at the Round Table Conference and reached a number of agreements. The Netherlands recognized the sovereignty of Indonesia but reserved important positions in political, economic and military spheres. Indonesia was divided into 16 semi-independent states among which the Republic of Indonesia was the strongest. It proved impossible to agree about the future of West New Guinea (West Irian). The Indonesian delegation insisted that this area was part of Indonesia, but the Netherlands was determined to maintain its position there. Eventually the Indonesian side conceded that the status quo should prevail, with the stipulation that the area’s political status would be determined through negotiations between the Netherlands and Indonesia in the course of the next year.
Sovereignty was officially transferred on December 27, 1949. On January 25, 1950, after some hesitation, the Soviet Union officially recognized Indonesia upon request from the Netherlands. On February 3, 1950 the Indonesian Prime Minister sent a return telegram confirming the receipt of the Soviet telegram of recognition. This date is considered the official date of the establishment of diplomatic relations between the USSR and Indonesia.
In 1950 under the influence of Indonesian nationalism all semi-independent states united with the Republic of Indonesia into the unitary state. This period of Indonesian history from 1950 till 1959 is usually described as the period of “liberal democracy.”
On April 1950 a high level Indonesian delegation arrived in Moscow to hold talks about an exchange of diplomatic missions. In 1950 the USSR supported Indonesia’s membership in the UN, but no practical steps were taken towards the exchange of diplomatic missions and the development of Soviet-Indonesian relations in the years 1950 to 1954.
Until 1952 the Indonesian governments were headed by leaders of right-wing parties who maintained a pro-Western foreign policy. Nevertheless, despite US pressure, in April 1950 Indonesia established diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China and the first Chinese ambassador arrived in Djakarta in August 1950.
A new stage in Soviet-Indonesian relations began in 1952 when the direction of Indonesian domestic politics changed. Leadership positions were gradually taken by centrist and leftist forces of the Indonesian Nationalist Party (PNI). They were inclined to dismiss openly pro-Western foreign policy in favor of a more balanced, truly independent and active course. The possibility of exchanging diplomatic missions with the USSR was put on the agenda once more. After Ali Sastroamidjojo, a leftist leader of the PNI, came to power in March 1954 the long awaited exchange of embassies between the USSR and the Republic of Indonesia at last took place. The first Indonesian ambassador Subandrio arrived in Moscow and the first Soviet ambassador D.A. Zhukov opened the Soviet diplomatic mission in Djakarta. Zhukov, an experienced Soviet diplomat, started to establish friendly personal ties with ruling leaders of the Indonesian state and influential persons in Indonesian political and social circles. To this end he used not only diplomats of the Soviet embassy but also representatives of Soviet culture and art [See, for example, Document 2].
The establishment of full diplomatic relations gave impetus to the broad development of active mutual contacts in the fields of science, culture, literature, art and sport. These contacts were meant to serve as propaganda by showing the superiority of socialism over capitalism. Many declarations were made of the peaceful intentions of the Soviet people and peaceful character of the Soviet foreign policy. For this purpose the Soviet government widely used the specially created Soviet Peace Committee headed by N.S. Tikhonov, a well-known poet in the USSR [See Document 3 & Document 4].
The Soviet leadership was very interested in weakening Western influence over Indonesia. So the USSR promoted increasing and strengthening relations between Indonesia and the PRC as well as with countries in Asia and Africa that were friendly to the USSR.
This same period also featured a breakthrough in Indonesian-Chinese relations. The PRC was very interested in developing ties with Indonesia as well. Close friendly ties between the USSR and China still existed, so the Soviet ambassador was always ready to give friendly advice and a helping hand to the less experienced Chinese ambassador [See, for example, Document 1]. In their turn, Chinese diplomats were glad to share with Soviet comrades important information acquired from Indonesians and other sources.
Ali Sastroamidjojo’s government markedly switched policy in favor of strengthening ties with Afro-Asian countries. In 1954 Indonesia took part in two conferences of Asian Prime Ministers, along with India, Burma, Ceylon and Pakistan; the first held in April 1954 in Colombo and the second in December 1954 in Bogor. As a result of these meetings the first Conference of 29 Asian and African countries was held in Bandung in April 1955. Indonesia hosted the conference despite the remnants of the radical Islamic group Darul Islam still active in its territory [See Document 4]. The main themes of the conference were the strengthening of Afro-Asian solidarity in the struggle against imperialism and peaceful coexistence in the face of the Cold War. The USSR, the majority of which is situated in Asia, made every effort to get an invitation to the conference but to no avail. Despite this the Soviet Union considered it to be of great value for diminishing Western positions in Asia and Africa, and highly praised the conference itself and widely propagated its decisions, especially the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence or “Panchsheel.”
With great concern the Soviet Union followed the Western powers’ efforts to create the Southeast Asian political-military bloc SEATO, which was aimed against leftist forces and national-liberation movements in the region. The USSR highly praised Indonesia for refusing to join the bloc and supported Indonesia’s intention to take the course of non-alignment [See Document 2].
Indonesia’s closer cooperation with the USSR, the PRC and other socialist countries consolidated its position in relations with the Western powers. In 1956 the Indonesian government unilaterally abrogated the still existing Round Table agreements with the Netherlands. But the West Irian problem remained unsolved. While all previous Indonesian governments had tried to settle the question through direct negotiations with the Netherlands, Ali Sastroamidjojo’s government brought the West Irian question to the UN. The USSR unconditionally supported Indonesia in its efforts, but they were unsuccessful. So instead Indonesia decided to take the solution of the West Irian problem into her own hands.
A new and strong impetus for the development of Soviet-Indonesian relations was given by the mutual state visits of President Sukarno to the USSR in the summer 1956 and the Head of the Presidium of the Supreme Council of the USSR K.E Voroshilov to Indonesia in May 1957. The rate and volume of mutual trade were markedly growing and various forms of economic cooperation were fast developing. In August 1956 the first Trade agreement between the Soviet Union and Indonesia was signed, and in September the first General Agreement on Economic and Technical Cooperation was concluded. The USSR granted Indonesia a loan of USD 100 million on favorable terms and extended technical assistance in constructing a superphosphate plant, a highway, rice plantations on Kalimantan and other projects. In January 1959 a Protocol to the General Agreement was signed which specified the details.
But not all Indonesian leaders and influential groups approved of Soviet-Indonesian rapprochement. Some circles tried to undermine the USSR’s role in the strengthening Asian and African solidarity movement, insisting that the USSR was not an Asian country.
The consolidation of leftist forces inside Indonesia had provoked a number of military mutinies in different parts of the country. These uprisings were supported by rightist circles in the capital. In response, in February 1957 Indonesian President Sukarno declared the end of the “liberal democracy” model and transitioned to a new political system which he called “guided democracy,” in which he took upon the role of the main political authority. President Sukarno got support from the military forces headed by General Nasution. On March 14, 1957 martial law was proclaimed in the Republic of Indonesia.
The Indonesian leadership’s departure from the principles of “liberal democracy” and the concentration of state power in the hands of President Sukarno provoked a highly negative reaction in Western countries. This attitude forced Indonesia to look for moral and political support from the USSR. In 1958 a new Soviet ambassador B.M. Volkov arrived in Djakarta. Indonesian leaders were eager to explain to the Soviet side their political maneuvers; referring to a number of military coup d’états which were taking place at that time in Asian countries. Indonesian leaders expressed their great concern about the establishment of dictatorial military regimes of in neighboring Thailand and Burma [See Document 6]. Indonesia pointed out its highly negative attitude to the deployment of foreign military forces and bases on its own and nearby territories and hoped for Soviet support in this matter [See Document 7].
The exchange of high level visits greatly intensified, and the economic, military and technical cooperation broadened [See, for example, the invitation to Djuanda in Document 7 and economic cooperation discussed in Document 9]. In September 1958 the USSR confirmed its agreement to deliver military equipment and arms to Indonesia. The Soviet Union and other socialist countries started to send Indonesia both civil and military aircrafts and ships.
On July 5, 1959 Indonesian President Sukarno, supported by the military leadership, declared a return to the 1945 Constitution. A new historical period began in Indonesia - the period of “guided democracy,” when Soviet-Indonesian ties continued to widen and strengthen with renewed intensity, especially in the military sphere.
Larisa M. Efimova is a Professor at Moscow State Institute of International Relations (University), where she lectures on the history and politics of Southeast Asia and Islam. Her current main fields of research are on Islam and politics, religion and politics in Indonesia and Malaysia, and ecology and Islam. Her published works include Religious Traditions in Indonesian Politics (Moscow, 1992), Stalin and Indonesia: Soviet Policy towards Indonesia, 1945-1953 (Moscow: MGIMO, 2004), and “Dari Moscow ke Madiun?” Stalin-PKI dan Hubungan Diplomatik Uni Soviet-Indonesia, 1947-1953 (Syarikat, Indonesia: Kelopak Semata, 2010).
 See L. M. Efimova, “Towards the Establishment of Diplomatic Relations between the USSR and the Republic of Indonesia, 1947-48”, Indonesia and the Malay World, v. 26, no. 76 (November 1998), London, pp. 184-194.
 L. M. Efimova, “New Evidence on the Establishment of Soviet-Indonesian Diplomatic Relations (1949-53),” Indonesia and the Malay World, v. 29. no. 85 (November 2001), London, pp. 215-233.
Documents obtained by James Hershberg, then director of CWIHP, from the Archive of Foreign Policy of the Russian Federation (AVP RF) during a June 1996 visit to Moscow. Translated for CWIHP by Daniel Rozas.
Select the links below to read the documents in CWIHP's online Digital Archive.
Journal entry from D.A. Zhukov, the Soviet ambassador to Indonesia, on a March 14, 1955 visit from Huang Zhen, the PRC's ambassador to Indonesia. Zhen relayed to Zhukov that he had been visited by the Egyptian ambassador to Indonesia, Ali Fahmi Al-Amroussi, and that the Egyptians were upset that the PRC was reportedly considering trade with Israel. Zhen sought Zhukov's advice on whether or not to meet with the Egyptians.
This journal entry from Zhukov describes a visit he paid to Sunario, the Indonesian Minister of Foreign Affairs, on March 24, 1955. He informs Sunario that a Soviet film about Indonesia, "Around Indonesia," has been completed and he would like to arrange a viewing of the film for Sunario and other political figures, including President Sukarno. Sunario agrees and a showing is arranged. Talk then shifts to the upcoming African-Asian Conference and Indonesia's position towards SEATO.
Journal Entry of Ambassador Zhukov. This journal entry recounts the arrival in Jakarta of the Soviet author N.S. Tikhonov on March 28, 1955. A "large group" of Indonesians, including Prijono (an Indonesian politician and academic who had recently been awarded the Stalin Peace Prize) had gathered at the airport to hear a speech from Tikhonov. Tikhonov addressed the Indonesian crowd and thanked them and offered hopes for further positive Soviet-Indonesian relations.
This journal entry from Zhukov describes the breakfast that was given by Huang Zhen in honor of Soviet author N.S. Tikhonov on March 31, 1955. Zhen and Tikhonov exchanged "short greetings." Zhen then informed Zhukov that numerous newspaper reports stating that Ho Chi Minh will head the North Vietnamese delegation at the upcoming Bandung Conference are incorrect. Mao Shen, the Chinese military attache, also relayed to Zhukov his concern over security issues at the upcoming African-Asian Conference.
This journal entry from Zhukov describes a visit from Huang Zhen, the PRC Ambassador to Indonesia, on April 6, 1955. The two discuss the composition of the Chinese delegation to the upcoming Africa-Asian Conference. The Chinese delegation will include a Muslim member, which Zhukov cites as being of "great significance." Zhukov asks about what steps the Indonesian government is taking to ensure security for conference participants, particularly since Zhou Enlai will be attending. Later, Zhen tells Zhukov about some villas that the Chinese embassy has rented in a mountainous location that possess amenities not easily found in Jakarta.
A journal entry from B.M. Volkov, the Soviet Ambassador to Indonesia, about a meeting with Subandrio, the Indonesian Minister of Foreign Affairs, on October 22, 1958. Over the course of about an hour, they discussed several issues of Indonesian internal and foreign affairs, including concerns about unrest in Thailand and interference from the West, tension with Australia over possession of West Irian (Indonesian New Guinea), Sukarno's upcoming visit to Latin America and Subandrio's upcoming visit to the Soviet Union.
Notes from the journal of B.M. Volkov, Soviet Ambassador to Indonesia, on a meeting with Djuanda Kartawidjaja, the Prime Minister of Indonesia, on November 20, 1958. Volkov relays an invitation from Khrushchev to Djuanda to visit the Soviet Union and the two discuss details of the visit. They also discuss the establishment of a United Nations armed forces and work on a Soviet-Indonesian economic delegation.
Notes from the journal of B.M. Volkov, Soviet Ambassador to Indonesia, on a meeting with Subandrio, Indonesian Minister of Foreign Affairs, on December 15, 1958. The two discussed Soviet displeasure with Indonesian actions connected to the Africa-Asia Conference that had occurred a week prior. Subandrio "expressed regret" for the situation and replied that the newspaper that had reported the "unfriendly" situation had been shut down. Subandrio said that the Indonesian government had also ordered an investigation of the delegation that was at the heart of the controversy.
Notes from the journal of B.M. Volkov, Soviet Ambassador to Indonesia, on a meeting with Subandrio, Indonesian Minister of Foreign Affairs, on December 26, 1958. The two discussed Soviet-Indonesian economic cooperation, Subandrio's request for the Soviets to assist the Indonesian delegation to the Soviet Union, Indonesia's interest in acquiring a cruiser from the Soviets, a visit of Soviet military ships to Indonesia, a new candidate for Indonesian military attaché, and Sukarno's interest in visiting the Soviet Union.