After the collapse of the Soviet empire, Russia has steadily shown interest in many spheres, ranging from political consultations through business and economic cooperation to culture with African countries. Of a special focus, Russia attaches significance to deepening trade and investment cooperation with Africa.
It is encouraging that more Russian companies, being aware of the prospects that are opening in the large market of the continent, are working actively in such fields as nuclear energy, hydrocarbon and metallurgy industries. Russia also pursues a pragmatic policy aimed at enhancing multidimensional ties with the countries of the continent on the bilateral and multilateral basis.
In this exclusive interview, Professor Irina Abramova, newly-appointed Director of the Institute for African Studies under the Russian Academy of Sciences, spoke recently to Kester Kenn Klomegah, an independent research writer on Russia-African affairs, about some aspects of Russia-African relations, economic cooperation, cultural dimensions and some future prospects.
In the first place, how would you describe Russia’s position towards Africa? And the position towards Africa from the Kremlin?
The events that occurred relating to the military conflict in Ukraine, the introduction of economic sanctions and countersanctions, deteriorating conditions in the energy market, show that the restructuring of the Russian economy is a strategic task of ensuring national security. The transition to the active import substitution should encourage the rapid development of high-tech industries, as well as the modernization of the industry that, in the end, will provide a transition from raw material orientation of the Russian economy to more innovative ways of development.
The task of Russian researchers is to offer theoretically rationale, innovative solutions for the RF to overcome the crisis, which could give significant positive results in the short term. Africa could be one of such effective and breakthrough solutions. It is a compact, comprehensible and relevant to our capabilities possible object of economic expansion in a number of sectors, for products which are closed for western markets, as well as a promising supplier of agricultural and commodities which are necessary for the Russian consumers.
One of the results of rethinking of foreign policy priorities of Russia on the basis of President Vladimir Putin’s initiative was, in particular, a definite shift in Russian foreign policy in the direction of the axis of the East. Nothing new has been revealed regarding the Ukrainian crisis. It served as a new impetus for further development of mutually beneficial cooperation outside of the Euro-Atlantic partners. At the same time, due to the attempts by Western countries to isolate Russia, the growing list of promising new economic partners becomes particularly important and Russian foreign policy rotates the vector, not only to the East but also to the South, in the direction of the African continent. For Africans, Russia still appears as the most likely ally in defending its interests in the world arena as a natural counterweight to the hegemonic aspirations of one or a group of world powers.
As a Director of the Institute for African Studies, what would you say about the development of the current relations between Russia and Africa?
In the eyes of the Russian political establishment and business community, Africa is still viewed as a continent of poverty, endless wars and epidemics, stuck in the pre-industrial stage of development, and surviving only thanks to international aid. Meanwhile, there is a different Africa – Africa with rapid economic growth (5% or more per year for the last twenty years), dynamic formation of democratic management systems, modern structures and institutions of a market economy, a major player in the market of natural and human resources, a key source of growth in global demands, profitable spheres of investment operations.
In recent years, Russia’s relations with Africa is a new trend. It is deepening and becomes a more active political dialogue, activated economic, humanitarian and cultural cooperation. This is facilitated by negotiations at the highest level. Relations develop with leading regional associations, including the African Union. We regularly take part as guests and active participants in the discussions, including on the sidelines of international summits and conferences, and in many African capitals. Relations with African countries and regional associations in the field of security and counter-terrorism.
Building mutually beneficial cooperation remains one of the main priorities of Russia. The foreign trade turnover with the countries of sub-Saharan Africa for the period from January to December 2015 was estimated at US$ 3.3 billion. A lot or a little? If we compare with the European Union – US$ 340 billion, China – about US$ 200 billion, well, somewhere close to the United States – US$ 14 billion. Expected by the end of last year, the decline of this indicator compared to 2014 year due to the general financial and economic instability in the world and the limited resources investing in large and expensive projects, the fall in world prices of most commodities.
If we consider our foreign trade it is less than 1%. At the same time Russian business holds a leading position in the exploration, mining (bauxite, gold, and copper, and cobalt, and diamonds, and many more). In the future, we see the participation of domestic companies in a number of African countries, such as Egypt, South Africa, in nuclear power projects. Constant interest in the African market is maintained and major Russian oil and gas operators. An important area of work in this regard is the improvement of the legal framework of our relations with the African states. On the agenda of an agreement with the African partners on economic and trade cooperation in order to avoid double taxation and protection of intellectual property. All these questions are, of course, of great importance for the representatives of our business because they provide a solid foundation for future cooperation.
Yet, it must be noted that a number of Russian companies’ results of the development of the African market does not unfortunately correspond to any of our export opportunities or resources of the vast continent, which has huge reserves. As before, we cannot deny the insufficient knowledge of the Russian business structures specificity of Africa, its requirements, and other parameters.
On the other hand, Africans are poorly informed about the possibilities of Russian partnership. Interest in quality enhancing economic ties, including a line of private enterprise, of course, there is a tendency of growth. To do this, first of all, to establish an effective exchange of information in the investment potential of the business, to focus efforts on expanding partnerships, increasing the return on existing cooperation mechanisms and implementation of the most complete and effective projects. In recent decades, marked by a noticeable re-activation of the whole complex of relations between Russia and Africa. At all levels, the attention to this continent in our country increases. It is important that in the process contacts between people expand. More and more of our fellow citizens visit African states, familiarize with their ancient history and culture.
Do you think Russia should transfer its technology to economic sectors such as agriculture, health and manufacturing in Africa?
Russian technology can be quite successfully promoted in Africa, especially today in the context of the weakening of the Russian currency, which makes exports advantages of the Russian Federation. It’s not just about these industries, which you mentioned, but also the exploration, transportation, infrastructure, energy, in particular, the construction of nuclear power plants.
In your view, have Russian authorities supported strongly Russian companies to invest in Africa? Are Russian financial institutions interested in viable corporate projects in Africa?
State support, including investment insurance, is offered mostly to large companies. Meanwhile, the most important task – the support of the middle, including regional, business, and those willing to work on the continent, is more flexible and mobile. This support at the state level is still lacking. As for the Russian small business, it cannot compete with the Chinese and Africans.
What challenges are there for Russia returning to Africa now? Does it face any competition from other foreign players in Africa?
Russia-African relations have a significant and growing resource which is promoting Russia towards achieving national priorities. This includes expanding cooperation with Africa in the international arena in terms of coincidence or closeness of positions on the formation of a new international order, another key international problem, which increases the possibility of consolidating Russia’s position as an independent and influential center of world politics. The presence in the African markets favorable conditions for the implementation of the continuing competitive advantage (for example price) of Russian industrial goods, engineering products, products of the defense-industrial complex, the expansion of opportunities for the implementation of Russian innovative technologies, scientific and technological, educational, health and other services can contribute successful implementation to the import of Russian politics.
At the same time, the development of Russia-African economic and trade cooperation is an effective tool for solving the problems of the Russian industry to ensure scarce and financially the least expensive types of mineral raw material reserves of many species of which Africa is a monopoly in favor of the world level. Russia may be involved in the implementation of projects aimed at achieving energy security in Africa with the use of atomic energy. It has extensive experience in the construction of nuclear power plants, modern technology with exhaust of the post Fukushima generation of safety systems. And finally, in a Russian counter sanctions condition, trade with Africa today is an important source of new demand generated due to changes in the structure of the Russian consumer market. Africa is, indeed, an important and promising partner for Russian business. But, it is a highly competitive market and there are already too many foreign players.
Tell us about some efforts, such as the creation of African Business Initiative, have become so important this time? Would you encourage such private initiatives?
The Institute for African Studies is one of the founders of the initiative. It is a direct challenge – to move from declarations to deeds by bringing together government, diplomatic, scientific, economic and financial resources in order to promote Russian business on the continent. All previous initiatives have not led to the desired results because it didnot have a complex character.
Why Russia’s soft power is softer compared to Soviet days? Can media play any role here?
During the Soviet era, Africa was among our political and economic priorities. In the 1990s, after the collapse of the USSR, Russia has largely reoriented to western states. Currently, the Russian Federation does not have a comparable economic potential of the USSR to promote its influence in Africa. However, with existing resources, it is possible to succeed in this business, if you focus on the right directions and actively develop cultural ties with African countries, to provide scholarships to African students, to promote the Russian language and to carry out humanitarian projects. A great contribution to the improvement of Russia’s authority in Africa has made the development of Russian scientists against Ebola vaccine. RF also actively supports all initiatives of African States to establish a more fair world order. In the past few months, as a result of the successful operation in Syria the Russian Federation sharply increased its prestige in Africa. The media should more actively inform Russians about the prospects for the development of the African continent, its history and culture. Unfortunately, the Russian man in the street does not know much about Africa. For Africans, so far Russia is associated with the Soviet Union, the majority of Africans still have very warm feelings towards Russia. But in general, and the Russian Federation in Africa, and Africa in the Russian Federation are very poorly represented in the media.
In this case, what else should be done about investment and business to “catch up” with other foreign players such as China, India, Europe and United States that are very active on the continent?
I think and will strongly suggest that Russia should take the lead in preserving the balance of interests on the African continent in the system…”Russia is a country of the West – the new players (China, India, Brazil)” and to seek cooperation on the full range of African issues, taking into account the national interests of each party.
And finally what should be done to encourage African presence both in terms of economic and culture in the Russian Federation? In this direction, what are your expert recommendations?
It is necessary to organize business forum Russia-Africa, which should be held, at least, one time per year (that is yearly), as well as the organization of African cultural festivals, the festival of African cinema in Russia, art exhibitions and concerts of popular African artists. Creation of a special transmission of Russian television, entirely dedicated to Africa. And all these can be organized in close cooperation with the African diplomatic corps. Increase the number of scholarships to Russian universities for Africans. Active work with the African Diaspora in the Russian Federation.