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Russia-Africa: The Realities And The Truths

Kester Kenn Klomegah

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As already well-known, since Soviet days, Russia has pursued a pragmatic policy aimed at enhancing multidimensional ties with the countries of the continent on the bilateral and multilateral basis. Experts say while building mutually beneficial cooperation remains one of the main priorities of Russia, its economic cooperation with Africa has hit stumbling blocks, for example, trade turnover with the countries of sub-Saharan Africa for the period from January to December 2015 was estimated at US$ 3.3 billion.

Ahead of the St. Petersburg international economic forum scheduled from June 16 to 18, policy experts have offered their views on the current Russia-Africa relations in separate interviews. Over the last decade, forum has become a leading international platform for the discussion of the key economic issues facing Russia, emerging markets and the world as a whole.

It attracts over 10,000 foreign and Russian participants, including government and business leaders from the emerging economic powers, as well as leading global voices from academia, the media, and civil society. Under the topic “Russia-Africa: Advancing New Frontiers” for this year, the panelists at the business round table will attempt answering the question: How can Russia accelerate its economic ties with the continent and what sectors are likely to be successful first movers?

Here are some views from policy experts:

Nataliya Zaiser, who is a Public Policy Advisor at Squire Patton Boggs Moscow office covering Russia, the Eurasian Union and Africa, and also the Head of the Africa Business Initiative under the Institute for African Studies explained in an interview that over the past few years, Russia’s efforts have achieved little success because “times have changed significantly, for example, new economic and political environment, new challenges, new competitive conditions, new bases for cooperation.”

She added that “people are different, minds are different, technologies are different. In all that, you have to find absolutely different approaches to building business relationships and strategy. What remains the same is a will, a very loyal mutual attitude between Russia and African countries and strong desire to push forward these mutual efforts.”

She explained further that advancing new frontiers in the relations is a very good sign that first time in the history of the Forum “Africa-Russia” round table is officially included into the main program. This Forum is international that aims at getting together business community, government officials and others to bring on board and discuss the most up-to-date topics, to find solutions within the international community circle. Each country in the world has something to bring on the agenda. New frontiers here should be read as “new opportunities”, “new approaches” and “new perspectives”.

“To my mind – future in any case stands for international cooperation that should be based on a very strong and transparent legal, economic and social background. On the one hand it will help to join efforts on working with Africa and develop the continent; on another hand it will allow to diversify economic and geopolitical presence on the continent so as to avoid monopolies and possession attempts,” Zaiser added.

She concluded that “this is a much more beneficial approach for everybody both for African countries as well as for their international partners. Professional sophisticated partnership – is a good phrase which may be used to describe our way.”

Since March 2016, Zaiser has been the Head of Africa Business Initiative, created with the support of the business as a platform for the humanitarian, economic and legal expertise, aimed at the reconstruction and strengthening of relations between Russia and Africa.

The main goal of this organization – to unite the efforts in promoting and supporting the interests of Russian business in the framework of broader international cooperation on the territory of the African continent.

The Institute for African Studies (IAS) is one of the founders of the Africa Business Initiative (ABI). It is a direct challenge – to move from declarations (Memorandum of Understanding) to deeds by bringing together government, diplomatic, scientific, economic and financial resources in order to promote Russian business on the continent.

Quite recently, Russian authorities have made relentless efforts toward raising Russia’s political influence and economic cooperation in some African countries. Thus, discussions at the forthcoming forum will undoubtedly focus on reviewing the past and the present as well as proposing practical ways to facilitate investment activities and that might include promising areas such as infrastructure, energy and many other sectors in Africa.

Professor Irina Abramova, newly-appointed Director of the Institute for African Studies under the Russian Academy of Sciences, has acknowledged that “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.”

On her part, Alexandra Arkhangelskaya, a Senior Researcher at the Institute of African Studies under the Russian Academy of Sciences and a Staff Lecturer at the Moscow High School of Economics said in an interview that Russia and Africa needed each other – “Russia is a vast market not only for African minerals, but for various other goods and products produced by African countries.”

The signs for Russian-African relations are impressive – declarations of intentions have been made, important bilateral agreements signed – now it remains to be seen how these intentions and agreements will be implemented in practice, she pointed out in the interview.

The revival of Russia-Africa relations should be enhanced in all fields. Obstacles to the broadening of Russian-Africa relations should be addressed. These include in particular the lack of knowledge in Russia about the situation in Africa, and vice versa, suggested Arkhangelskaya.

Russia and Africa are gearing up efforts in raising the level of trade and business, Andrey Efimenko, an Expert at the Russian Chamber of Commerce and Industry (CCI) said in an exclusive interview with me, emphasizing unreservedly the importance of increasing business and economic cooperation with the African countries.

“Unfortunately,” Efimenko regrettably pointed out, “some large Russian companies operating on the African market, has managed to establish itself negatively in a number of countries. This is primarily due to ignorance of cultural peculiarities of the region, the lack of social responsibility, failure to fulfill contractual obligations. These cases damage the image of Russia and Russian companies with further entering the African market.”

In conditions of high competition on the African market from China, European Union and the United States, Efimenko suggested that forming public-private partnership with the coordinating and steering role of the state is at this stage the key to success and the best form of development of cooperation of Russia with African countries.

“What seems to irk the Russians, in particular, is that very few initiatives go beyond the symbolism, pomp and circumstance of high level opening moves. It is also still not clear how South Africa sees Russia’s willingness (and intention) to step up its role in Africa, especially with China becoming more visible and assertive on the continent,” said Professor Gerrit Olivier from the Department of Political Sciences, University of Pretoria in South Africa.

Today Russian influence in Africa, despite efforts towards resuscitation, remains marginal. While, given its global status, it ought to be active in Africa as Western Europe, the European Union, America and China are, it is all but absent, playing a negligible role, according to the views of the retired diplomat who served previously as South African Ambassador to the Russian Federation,

“Russia, of course, is not satisfied with this state of affairs. At present diplomacy dominates its approach: a plethora of agreements are being entered into with South Africa and various other states in Africa, official visits from Moscow proliferate apace, but the outcomes remain hardly discernible. Be that as it may, the Kremlin has revived its interest in the African continent and it will be realistic to expect that the spade work it is putting in now will at some stage show more tangible results.” Professor Olivier wrote from Pretoria.

Both Russian and African policy experts, however, suggested that the existing Memorandum of Understanding (MoUs) Russia has signed with many African countries and together with various economic agreements reached by the joint business councils over the past few years provide solid framework for raising vigorously its economic influence as well as strengthening relations to an appreciable levels between Russia and Africa.

Kester Kenn Klomegah is an independent researcher and writer on African affairs in the EurAsian region and former Soviet republics. He wrote previously for African Press Agency, African Executive and Inter Press Service. Earlier, he had worked for The Moscow Times, a reputable English newspaper. Klomegah taught part-time at the Moscow Institute of Modern Journalism. He studied international journalism and mass communication, and later spent a year at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations. He co-authored a book “AIDS/HIV and Men: Taking Risk or Taking Responsibility” published by the London-based Panos Institute. In 2004 and again in 2009, he won the Golden Word Prize for a series of analytical articles on Russia's economic cooperation with African countries.

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Future of Russia’s “Breakaway Empire”

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As the West-Russia tensions have grown over the past years, one theater of Russian foreign policy, namely management of breakaway regions, has largely fallen out of analysts’ works. Where, in the first years following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia had to manage breakaway conflicts in small and poor Georgia and Moldova, by early 2019, Moscow’s responsibilities have increased exponentially. In a way Nagorno-Karabakh was also under the Russian geopolitical influence, although the Russians were not directly involved.

Following the Ukraine crisis, Crimea, Donetsk and Luhansk were added to Russia’s “Breakaway Empire”. This means that at a time when economic problems are looming large within Russia, Moscow has to spend more on multiple actors across the former Soviet space. This means that Russia’s broader strategy of managing breakaway conflicts, though not very much visible, could be coming under increasing stress. Where Russia previously used the conflicts in Moldova, Georgia and Ukraine to limit the ability of those countries to enter the EU/NATO, now Moscow is losing its ability to maneuver in so many diverse conflicts simultaneously. At times, various players are trying to play their own game independently from Moscow. In Transnistria, the geopolitical situation is troublesome for Moscow as Kiev and Chisinau at times consider constraining the breakaway territory, and Moscow can do little as it has no direct land or air route. In Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Russian forces watch as NATO exercises take place on Georgian soil, which suggests that, despite the Russian military footprint in the region, Western countries are continuing to expand their support for Georgia.

Without doubt, Russia will remain a dominant military power in the region and the breakaway territories will stay dependent on Moscow’s support. Yet, it will be increasingly difficult for Moscow to successfully pull the strings in several different theaters at once, particularly as the Russia is facing its own financial problems, increased Western efforts to confront its foreign policy, and “disobedience” from various separatist leaders.

Bad, but Still a Strategy

If Russia has any notion of a grand strategy in its recent foreign policy, it is certainly the purposeful creation of conflict zones and their management across the post-Soviet space. The fall of the Soviet Union was indeed a colossal geopolitical setback for Moscow as the country instantly lost portions of land on a scale rarely, if ever, seen in recorded history. But maintaining 11 buffer states (except for the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania) around Russia has remained a cornerstone of the Kremlin’s foreign policy against Western military and economic encroachment. Russians knew that because of their own country’s low economic potential, the South Caucasus states would inevitably turn to Europe. The same would happen on Russia’s western frontier with Moldova and Ukraine, which have been more susceptible to Western economic and military potential because of geographic proximity and historical interconnections with Europe.

In a way, geopolitical trends also point towards the conclusion that Russia’s usage of breakaway territories to stop Western expansion in the former Soviet space is not working. True that Moscow needed, be it Abkhazia or Donetsk, to stop the countries in its “immediate neighborhood” from joining the EU/NATO. And to the Russians’ credit, it has worked: the West is hesitant to quickly make Georgia, Ukraine and Moldova the members of the EU/NATO groupings. But there are also signs that the Russian gambit that those very breakaway regions would undermine the integrity of Georgia and Ukraine has largely failed. Only Moldova might be regarded as a success for the Russians, as the country has still failed to unite around its geopolitical choice.

The point here is that although there are breakaway territories, Western expansion into Georgia and Ukraine continues through various means, importing a much “deadlier” weapon – economic influence – against that of traditional Russian military and religious influence.

Author’s note: First published in Georgia Today

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Russia: Open, hospitable, only in short-term for Africans

Kester Kenn Klomegah

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The Russian Interior Ministry has reiterated that the legislation that allows special 2018 FIFA visa-free entry to Russia for the foreign visitors ended on Dec 31.

“In accordance with the legislation of the Russian Federation, foreign citizens who visited the 2018 FIFA World Cup matches as spectators and who have Fan IDs will not be able to enter the Russian Federation after December 31, 2018,” the source said.

The World Cup attracted only hundreds of football fans from many African countries while thousands arrived from the United States, Europe and Asia to Russia. According some statistics, about five million foreigners visited the country over this period from June 14 through July 15, the highest number among foreigners were fans from the United States, Brazil and Germany.

It set a new record of audience in the history of world football championships as over half of the world’s population watched the matches on televisions at home and on digital platforms.

Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said in remarks while opening the Russia-Africa Social Forum on October 22 that he considered it (the sport event) necessary to maximise the potential of public and cultural diplomacy in the interests of strengthening and expanding the traditionally friendly and mutually beneficial ties between Russia and African countries.

“It is hard to overestimate the role of this in strengthening friendship, trust and mutual understanding between nations. For example, many Africans have in fact discovered Russia for themselves while visiting Russia as fans during the 2018 FIFA World Cup,” he said.

Foreign Ministry’s Spokesperson Maria Zakharova, during her weekly media briefing, also expressed great satisfaction and added that the MFA continued receiving messages about the enthusiasm regarding the organisation of the World Cup, the atmosphere surrounding the event, infrastructure and the country in general.

According to her, Russia in its role as the host of the World Cup had demonstrated yet again that it deserved the highest marks for the tournament. It has left an indelible impression on the memory of numerous foreign fans who arrived in the country from all over the world to support their football squads.

Commenting on Russia’s image abroad, specifically in Africa, Ambassador of Zimbabwe, Major General (rtd) Nicholas Mike Sango, told me in an interview that the Sochi International Olympics and the FIFA international football extravaganza surprised many Africans on the level of development of the Russian Federation.

“There is a dearth of information about the country. Russia-Africa issues are reported by third parties and often not in good light. As a result, Africa’s media should find space to operate in Russia. In spite of the limited resources, Russia should make it easier for African journalists to operate on her territory and consistently promote the positive changes and emerging opportunities to the African public,” Mike Sango suggested.

According to official reports released by the Presidential Press Service and the Presidential Executive Office, the initiative was crafted to promote public diplomacy and raise Russia’s image abroad.

Significant to recall here that at the opening of the World Cup, Putin said: “We prepared responsibly for this major event and did our best so that fans could immerse themselves in the atmosphere of a magnificent football festival and, of course, enjoy their stay in Russia – open, hospitable, friendly Russia – and find new friends, new like-minded people.”

FIFA World Cup ran from June 14 to July 15 in 10 different cities in Russia. The foreign fans who received Fan IDs and purchased tickets for the matches went to Russia without visas. After the end of the World Cup, the Russian president declared that the Fan ID holders would have the right to visit repeatedly visa-free until the end of 2018.

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China: Russia’s Source of Hope & Fears

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The current crisis between Russia and the West is the product of many fundamental geopolitical differences in both the former Soviet space and elsewhere. All trends in bilateral relations lead to a likely conclusion that fundamental differences between Russia and the West will remain stalled well into the future. The successful western expansion into what was always considered the “Russian backyard” halted Moscow’s projection of power and diminished its reach into the north of Eurasia – between fast-developing China, Japan, and other Asian countries, and the technologically modern European landmass.

What is interesting is that as a result of this geopolitical setback on the country’s western border, the Russian political elite started to think over Russia’s position in Eurasia. Politicians and analysts discuss the country’s belonging to either Western or Asian civilization or representing a symbiosis – the Eurasian world.

As many trends in Russian history are cyclic so is the process of defining Russia’s position and its attachment to Asia or Europe. This quest usually follows geopolitical shifts to Russia’s disadvantage.

In the 19th century, following a disastrous defeat in the Crimean War (1853-1856) from Great Britain and France, the Russian intellectuals began thinking over how solely European Russia was. Almost the same thing happened following the dissolution of the Russian Empire in 1917 and break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991. Though in each case the Russians were reacting to European military or economic expansion with discussions, the reality was that a turn to the East was impossible as most developed territories were in the European parts of the Russian state. Back then, the Russians, when looking to the East, saw the empty lands in Siberia and the Russian Far East.

What is crucial nowadays is that Russia’s pull to the East is now happening due to the presence of powerful China bordering Siberia. This very difference is fundamental when discussing Russia’s modern quest for their position in Eurasia.

Today, Europe is a source of technological progress, as are Japan and China. Never in Russian history has there been such an opportunity to develop Siberia and transform it into a power base of the world’s economy.

Russia’s geographical position is unique and will remain so for another several decades, as the ice cap in the Arctic Ocean is set to diminish significantly. The Arctic Ocean will be transformed into an ocean of commercial highways, giving Russia a historic opportunity to become a sea power.

Chinese and Japanese human and technological resources in the Russian Far East, and European resources in the Russian west, can transform it into a land of opportunity.

Russia’s geographical position should be kept in mind when analyzing Moscow’s position vis-à-vis the China-US competition. However, apart from the purely economic and geographical pull that the developed Asia-Pacific has on Russia’s eastern provinces, the Russian political elite sees the nascent US-China confrontation as a chance to enhance its weakening geopolitical position throughout the former Soviet space. Russians are right to think that both Washington and Beijing will dearly need Russian support, and this logic is driving Moscow’s noncommittal approach towards Beijing and Washington. As a matter of cold-blooded international affairs, Russia wishes to position itself such that the US and China are strongly competing with one another to win its favor.

In allying itself with China, Russia would expect to increase its influence in Central Asia, where Chinese power has grown exponentially since the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991. Although Moscow has never voiced official concerns about this matter, that is not to deny the existence of such concerns within the Russian political elite.

However, if Moscow chooses the US side, the American concessions could be more significant than the Chinese. Ukraine and the South Caucasus would be the biggest prizes, while NATO expansion into the Russian “backyard” would be stalled. The Middle East might be another sticking point where Moscow gets fundamental concessions – for example in Syria, should that conflict continue.

Beyond grand strategic thinking, this decision will also be a civilizational choice for the Russians molded in the perennial debate about whether the country is European, Asiatic, or Eurasian (a mixture of the two). Geography inexorably pulls Russia towards the East, but culture pulls it towards the west. While decisions of this nature are usually expected to be based on geopolitical calculations, cultural affinity also plays a role.

Tied into the cultural aspect is the Russians’ fear that they (like the rest of the world) do not know how the world would look under Chinese leadership. The US might represent a threat to Russia, but it is still a “known” for the Russian political elite. A China-led Eurasia could be more challenging for the Russians considering the extent to which Russian frontiers and provinces are open to large Chinese segments of the population.

The Russian approach to the nascent US-China confrontation is likely to be opportunistic. Its choice between them will be based on which side offers more to help Moscow resolve its problems across the former Soviet space.

Author’s note: first published at Georgia Today

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