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Tiny Republic of Congo eyes its giant neighbor warily

In this story: May 24, 1997
Web posted at: 11:27 p.m. EDT (0327 GMT)
Brazzaville photo

From Correspondent Catherine Bond

BRAZZAVILLE, Republic of Congo (CNN) -- The Republic of Congo has watched with great interest the changes across the river in Kinshasa in the newly renamed Democratic Republic of Congo.

Once a socialist country with close ties to France, the Republic of Congo has only 3 million people. It maintained good relations with its giant neighbor when it was called Zaire and run by the dictatorial President Mobutu Sese Seko.

Now that its neighbor has changed its name, its government and its leader, people in Brazzaville have taken a wary, pragmatic view of the proceedings.


"We are condemned to have good relations with whatever government is established in Kinshasa," said Deftin-Arsene Tsaty-Boungou, minister of foreign affairs. "The problem is not whether we like it or not, that's not the problem for the Congo."

"Most of the population of the two Congos intermarry among themselves and trade from one river bank to the other without visas, without procedures, without customs, as a matter of course," said Clement Massengo, deputy editor of the La Rue Muert newspaper in Brazzaville.

Name changes are nothing new

Commercial ties have been affected, however, at least in the short term. Brazzaville markets are normally jammed with traders from Kinshasa, but the crowds have been light and the pace desultory since Kabila ordered his country's borders closed.

market photo

In a sense, the change of a country's name is nothing new in these parts. During the colonial era, the two countries were called the French Congo and the Belgian Congo. It wasn't until 1971 that Mobutu changed the Belgian Congo to Zaire.

The people on the Republic of Congo side of the river would like to see a shift toward freedom, too, but so far it has proved elusive. In 1993, an uprising seeking democracy was ruthlessly repressed by the military.

So it is not surprising that people on the Brazzaville side of the river like what they see going on in Kinshasa.

damage photo

"In general whether they like Kabila or not, many people go for change," said Gaston Loumingou, a teacher. "They like change, and I think Mr. Mobutu was there for too long, so change is good."

Brazzaville wants to oust Rwandan refugees

One thing the Republic of Congo government does not like are the 10,000 Rwandan refugees who have fled to their country to escape Kabila's troops.

Officials in Brazzaville say the refugees must leave, fearing they may try to establish a base and destabilize Kabila's government. The last thing anyone in the Republic of Congo wants is to antagonize their neighbors, especially one with more resources and an able army.

"It's for that reason the government decision was taken in a Cabinet meeting, so as no refugees are going to stay on Congolese soil," Tsaty-Boungou said.

Jammed against its large neighbor, the Republic of Congo feels vulnerable.

refugees photo

During the Cold War, the Soviet Union backed it against U.S. influence in Zaire. Now, unrepentantly Francophile, the Republic finds itself seemingly in one camp while Kabila has received help from the Anglophone world -- the United States, Britain, Uganda and Rwanda.

All of which is to say that no matter how things may change in the big country across the river, the more they stay the same in the tiny Republic of Congo.

Zaire section
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