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The Nexus Religion/Nationalism in Today’s Russia: Are the Roots Buried in Dostoevsky’s Novels?

Emanuel L. Paparella, Ph.D.

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“Only one nation is ‘god-bearing,’ that’s the Russian people, and… and…. and can you think me such a fool, Stavrogin, he yelled frantically all at once, that I can’t distinguish whether my words at this moment are the rotten old commonplaces that have been ground out in all the Slavophil mills in Moscow, or a perfectly new saying, the last word, the sole word of renewal and resurrection!”   -Shatov in Dostoevsky’s The Possessed

[yt_dropcap type=”square” font=”” size=”14″ color=”#000″ background=”#fff” ] I [/yt_dropcap]’d like to begin this reflection on the nexus between religion and nationalism in a rather prosaic mode, so to speak, with the empirical facts, as announced by Pew researchers on the subject: roughly a quarter of a century after the fall of the Soviet Union, religion has been resurrected in Russia, as well as 17 other countries formerly under its fist.

Overall, 86 percent of 25,000 respondents interviewed between June 2015 and July 2016 said they believe in God; 59 percent believe in a heaven and 54 percent believe in hell. Just 14 percent fall within the atheists or agnostics category.

In many countries formerly under Soviet rule, religion and national identity are inextricably tied. In Russia, the Orthodox Church is heavily favored, while Polish believers are overwhelmingly Roman Catholic.

Overall, 70 percent of poll respondents in those countries where Orthodoxy is predominant said their national identity was tied to their faith; for Roman Catholics, the percentage was 57.

However, identification with faith does not necessarily translate to strong church attendance. Few respondents to this poll regularly attend worship services; 25 percent of Roman Catholics said they attend weekly Mass, while only 10 percent of Orthodox adherents attend worship at least once a week.

Those statistics strongly imply that three-quarters of a century of official state atheism in the former Soviet Union and its Central and Eastern European satellite nations (from 1917 till 1989) has all but evaporated in a sudden resurgence of faith since the fall of the Iron Curtain.

From 1917, when Vladimir Lenin’s Bolsheviks took power in Russia, until 1991, when the USSR crumbled, religious faith — though technically constitutionally protected — was treated with ambivalence and often persecuted as incompatible with Marxist ideology.

In various ways, the state oppressed religion, Christian and non-Christian alike. Believers often found themselves dismissed from their jobs, clergy imprisoned and sometimes executed or doomed to gulags for perceived disloyalty. This persecution encouraged the emergence of new officially atheistic generations which replaced the believers of old.

This may at first look like a positive development, at least for freedom of religion. But on further analysis one discovers that there is a problem in this rosy social scenario: the entanglement between nationalism as expressed by the State with the official state religion seems to have become all but inextricable. What the US founding fathers dubbed “the separation of Church and State” is also evaporating fast.

Perhaps ironically, Orthodox Christians today see Russia as playing a role in protecting — rather than persecuting — their faith. And most former East bloc, predominantly Orthodox nations agree that “a strong Russia is necessary to balance the influence of the West.” So, it appears that religion (Russian Orthodoxy, in particular) has become a political tool in the hands of Putin’s strategy of “divide and conquer,” another tool, like cyber-war and disinformation, by which to oppose the West alleged to be greedy and corrupt, devoid of moral underpinnings.

In Russia, the same above mentioned poll shows, 85 percent support the idea of their nation being a buffer against the immorality of the West, with that opinion echoed to varying degrees elsewhere in former Iron Curtain countries — from 52 percent in Romania and Georgia to 80 percent and 83 percent in Armenia and Serbia, respectively. The sole exception, as might be expected given current strained relations with Russia, is Ukraine with just 22 percent support for the concept of Orthodoxy as a defense against a corrupt West.

But, staying within the parameters of religion/nationalism, another conundrum surfaces: the resurgence of Russian Orthodoxy, has also brought on the stage increasing resistance to faiths imported from the West. Russian President Vladimir Putin — under the official impetus of cracking down on terrorism — has approved tight restrictions on missionary activity and evangelism by other non-Orthodox faiths. In other words, he does not consider Christianity a universal religion practiced by different denominations and different cultures. In that respect he is violating (like Trump in America) the constitutional violation of equal treatment of all religions.

Hit particularly hard are Pentecostals and evangelical Christians, as well as Latter-day Saints and Jehovah’s Witnesses, believers who consider themselves Christians and who often have been forced to conduct low-key meetings in homes. Mormon missionaries are now called “volunteers” in order to better downplay their proselytizing motives. Persecution is the air. It is a selective kind of Christianity that is propagandized by the State.

What is conveniently forgotten by this pseudo-religious posture, which amounts to a stealthy cover-up, is that the essential political struggle between Russia and the Atlantic Alliance in the West may have little to do with the struggle between atheism and religion, or between morality and corruption, or secularism against the sacred, but rather between democracy and tyranny.

I’ve already written extensively on this topic of the democratic deficit which may eventually doom both political blocks, with or without religion. What I’d like to do here is to explore the roots of the kernel of truth that exists in the concept that Russia is a substantially different from the corrupt West; that is not invented by Putin’s propaganda machine. Indeed, iIf those roots exist, one will not uncover them by merely listening and following Putin’s nationalistic rhetoric, but by reading the novels of Dostoyevsky, particularly two from which I will quote extensively in this article: The Possessed, and The Brothers Karamozov.

As an intriguing aside, one wonders how many people noticed that while the London Olympics opened up with an image of a train coming down the rail, spewing pollution into the atmosphere to glorify the industrial revolution and the British Empire of old nostalgically resurrected, while Shakespeare was not even mentioned, the Moscow Olympics did not neglect to prominently mention and display Dostoevsky’s picture, as well as that of Tolstoy, as glories of Russia.

Be that as it may, let us begin with an extensive quote from The Possessed. When I first read the novel in college in the 60s it was translated as The Devils. We shall see further down why that translation also makes eminent sense. The quote is the following:

Science and reason have, from the beginning of time, played a secondary and subordinate part in the life of nations; so it will be till the end of time.[underlining mine]. Nations are built up and moved by another force which sways and dominates them, the origin of which is unknown and inexplicable: that force is the force of an insatiable desire to go on to the end, though at the same time it denies that end. It is the force of the persistent assertion of one’s own existence, and a denial of death. It’s the spirit of life, as the Scriptures call it, “the river of living water,” the drying up of which is threatened in the Apocalypse. It’s the aesthetic principle, as the philosophers call it, the ethical principle with which they identify it, “the seeking of God,” as I call it more simply. The object of every national movement, in every people and at every period of its existence is only the seeking for its god, who must be its own god, and the faith in Him as the only true god. God is the synthetic personality of the whole people, taken from its beginning to its end….

You reduce God to a simple attribute of nationality…

I reduce God to the attribute of nationality? cried Shatov. On the contrary, I raise the people to God. And has it ever been otherwise? The people is the body of God. Every people is only a people so long as it has its own god and excludes all other gods on earth irreconcilably…. Such from the beginning of time has been the belief of all great nations, all, anyway, who have been specially remarkable, all who have been leaders of humanity…. The Jews lived only to await the coming of the true God and left the world the true God. The Greeks deified nature and bequeathed the idea of the State to the nations… If a great people does not believe that the truth is only to be found in itself alone (in itself alone and exclusively); if it does not believe that it alone is fit and destined to raise up and save all the rest by its truth, it would at once sink into being ethnographical material, and not a great people…. But there is only one truth, and therefore only a single out of the nations can have the true God, even though other nations may have great gods of their own. Only one nation is “god-bearing,” that’s the Russian people, and… and…. and can you think me such a fool, Stavrogin,’ he yelled frantically all at once, that I can’t distinguish whether my words at this moment are the rotten old commonplaces that have been ground out in all the Slavophil mills in Moscow, or a perfectly new saying, the last word, the sole word of renewal and resurrection!

Is Dostoevsky saying, via the conversation between Shatov and Stavrogin that for man to be saved and fulfill his final destiny he needs to believe in a Russian God? This line of thinking may appear preposterous to the “enlightened” secular intelligence of Western Europe, but notice please that, from the outset, science and reason are declared a secondary and subordinate part of the life of nations. In other words, the rational preoccupations of the age of Enlightenment are not the focus here; they are subordinate to a more encompassing idea; the idea of the search for the ultimate destiny of man.

As Rebecca West has aptly expressed, this is “the inquiry that looks over the shoulder of the man of science at every experiment; it is the preoccupation that sits like a judge in every artist’s brain. The discoveries of science and philosophy have opened such magic casements out of the world of appearances that they have attracted men of imagination, whose impulse it is to find out the beauty and significance of material, as strongly as they have repelled those who have staked their existence on the finality of the Christian revelation. And thus it is that the history of the research for redemption is written not in the liturgies but in literature.” Which is to say, the task may be less theological, of linking with a Greek Orthodox Church (from which derives the Russian Orthodox Church) and more philosophical and literary. And yet, Dostoevsky has that Church in mind, a church that had indeed preserved the kindness of the early church but can also be a calculating institution as many religious institutions indeed are. Just take a good look at the photograph below the title of this article.

As the title of the book The Possessed more than adequately suggests, the near-obsession with the theme of the meaning and final destiny of man’s life, was stimulated by some of the events going on at the time at the hands of the so called Nihilists. Who were the Nihilists in 19th century Russia? They were the likes of Stravogin and Shatov in the Possessed. They do not believe in the God who lives within the shining frames of the Greek icons, or the Orthodox liturgy intoned in a dialect spoken a thousand years ago in a remote corner of Macedonia. There is a strange faith, a difficult faith. At one point of the narration this exchange occurs: “I want to ask you,” asked Stavrogin coldly, “do you believe in God, yourself?” “I believe in Russia,” muttered Shatov frantically, “I believe in her orthodoxy…. I believe in the body of Christ…. I believe that the new advent will take place in Russia…. I believe…” “And in God?” pressed Stavrogin, “in God?” “I… I will believe in God….”

One is tempted to ask: has Dostoevsky too joined in spirit those disordered minds of the time called Nihilists or “disordered saints of the mind”? Those who reasserted with Schopenhauer, that there is a will-to-live which universally guides humanity with a blind sort of genius, and then with Nietzsche doctrine of egotism preached that not only men but entire collectives, entire nations could be strong, super-nations, so to speak, sinless like the angels. Those types called the possessed had become intimately involved in the eternal struggle between the proud and the humble, the original genius and the academic protocol that loves tradition, the militarist nations organized for war and obedience and the pacifist nations which leave themselves open to chaos for the sake of freedom.

Another tempting question: had Dostoevsky allied himself with the proud? The question is prompted by his book The Brothers Karamazov which relates how Christ came to Seville and is condemned to death by the Grand Inquisitor lest he should restore free will to humankind. That would explain his hatred of everything Catholic, a church which preached salvation by the subjection of the will to ecclesiastical authority, what he calls, not unlike Nietzsche, a communion of cowards rather than a communion of saints.

Again, to quote Rebecca West once again: “Dostoevsky hated the materialism of his age, which declared, in the phrase that jangles like a cracked bell through The Possessed, that “the rattle of the carts bringing bread to humanity is more important than the Sistine Madonna,” because it understated the magnificent greeds and appetites of the human animal. He loved Christianity because the willingness for sacrifice is brave, and in the words, “Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit,” rings such a call to adventure as no other religion has dared to take upon its lips. It behooved a man to be so proud of life that he would honor its young strength in little children; that he would welcome any deed that would make it sweeter, even if it were performed by the clumsy hands of an old man; that he would rejoice at every word that made its meaning clearer, even though it were hiccupped by a drunken convict. It behooved a man to remember that he was part of a nation crowned with the destiny of saving mankind, and to bear himself proudly and busily as one of its ambassadors. So he might be saved.”

And so we arrive at Dostoevsky’s nationalism, which some have misunderstood and confused with that of Putin and his ilk. It has nothing to do with the repression of intelligence and liberty, with the aggressive nationalism of a modern Italy or Germany, or aggressiveness and arrogance in international affairs, or the Machiavellian principles that “might makes right” or “the end justifies the means.”

Then what exactly is Dostoevsky’s brand of nationalism? It might be nothing more than the ancient Greek’s advice to create a society that aims at common good and creates an environment that is suited to the cultivation of the soul and the pursuit of perfection. If mother Russia wanted to be an example to the rest of the world it had to create those conditions.

Dostoevsky seems to imply in The Possessed that tradition is the enemy of science, or vice versa; but all he might be saying is that if one deprives an individual of his heritage and tradition the end result will be the deprivation of the total of human relationships wherein he may learn love, which strengthens the will to live. He will be in effect be robbed of that network which is necessary to remain human and above the restrictions of mere ethnicity or worse, tribal loyalty or exclusion of the other.

The problem is that in The Possessed and in The Brothers Karamazov this nationalism seems to come across as an angry kind of nationalism, one that suggests xenophobia and seems to support the nefarious attacks of the state bureaucracy against its own people. Perhaps Dostoevsky was too obsessed with his hunger for salvation and could not reflect more serenely on this crucial issue. As Rebecca West renders it “it’s like standing in the darkness outside a lighted house to which one has no key. If Dostoevsky sometimes lost himself in rage as he beat on the doors, it was because he had in his heart such a wonderful dream of the light.” Be that as it may, the path to the fulfillment of that dream will not be found in the advice of those who are pursuing another nefarious Machiavellian path and covering it up with the appearance of piety. Those people are like wolves in sheep’s clothing. Their core belief is “knowledge is power.” That slogan, come to think of it, was proffered by one of the fathers of the Western Enlightenment: Francis Bacon. Perhaps it needs a revisiting.

Professor Paparella has earned a Ph.D. in Italian Humanism, with a dissertation on the philosopher of history Giambattista Vico, from Yale University. He is a scholar interested in current relevant philosophical, political and cultural issues; the author of numerous essays and books on the EU cultural identity among which A New Europe in search of its Soul, and Europa: An Idea and a Journey. Presently he teaches philosophy and humanities at Barry University, Miami, Florida. He is a prolific writer and has written hundreds of essays for both traditional academic and on-line magazines among which Metanexus and Ovi. One of his current works in progress is a book dealing with the issue of cultural identity within the phenomenon of “the neo-immigrant” exhibited by an international global economy strong on positivism and utilitarianism and weak on humanism and ideals.

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Leaders of Russia: A Hidden Russian Program that should not be hidden

Dr. Matthew Crosston

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My experience and commitment to the study of Russia and the Post-Soviet space extends far beyond more than half of my life. It encapsulates my entire adult working life, with more than eight years living, studying, and researching throughout the area and it is the product of more than 100 publications. I have also prided myself on not following conventional wisdom about Russia or falling victim to the propaganda that has always flowed freely from both sides, American and Russian. I am comfortable criticizing Russia as much as I am motivated to objectively observe and analyze its progressive development in various dimensions and degrees. Most of all, I have never allowed some empty instinctive American reflex-patriotism to blind me from the ability to dispassionately and accurately review a situation as it truly is. Unfortunately, this analytical capacity has become quite endangered when it comes to American scholars and so-called Russian experts. This matters because it is now difficult to find American analyses of Russia that does not run their ultimate conclusions through this lens of subjective patriotism.

Which is a true shame when it comes to Western recognition of a unique program like “Leaders of Russia,” for it is inarguably a symbol of successful impartiality and progressive advancement in Russia. Without doubt, it is the first of its kind in Russia: a positive and pro-active example to give access to the people across every single region of Russia and potentially earn a well-deserved recognition and push into the future leadership cadres of the country. Most importantly, this push is entirely transparent in its judging and completely open to all people. To be completely honest, when one looks at all of the political, social, and economic problems that have been afflicting the contemporary American scene, where leaders seem to be constantly recycled and no innovation or new blood seems ready to emerge on the scene, then it becomes quite apparent how desperately America could use just such a competition.

Politicians across America and Western Europe have long prided themselves on how open their societies and political systems are. The “American Dream,” where anyone has the chance to make something of themselves, no matter where they come from and no matter how dire their beginnings, has long been part of Western mythology. But despite this concept of being able to justly pull yourself up by your own bootstraps, there is overwhelming data today that shows how for many people that reality simply doesn’t exist: rising up and achieving the summit of success, no matter how ambitious and talented, can sometimes seem almost impossible. This reality has led to such a serious pessimism that some even discuss a genuine societal depression damaging America today, especially among its young people.

Perhaps worse than the supposed problem of elitism in America, an opposite phenomenon called “Post-Truth” now runs rampant across Western society. Post-truth politics is a political culture in which debate is framed largely by appeals to emotion disconnected from the details of policy, and by the repeated assertion of talking points to which factual rebuttals are ignored. Post-truth has become so pervasive that many fear that at least when it concerns American politics that we are witnessing the death of intellectualism and the end of respect for profundity. What all of this means is that whether we were talking about the original scourge of elitism and the new dilemma of post-truth, the end result is possibly the same: politics in the West is no more ‘open’ as anywhere else and in fact may be just as much of a ‘closed club’ as any authoritarian non-Western regime. One only need look at the newest scandal raging across America, where elites in business and in Hollywood openly bribed university officials across some of the country’s most elite institutions, trying to basically buy a place for their children to study, whether they were worthy of it or not. In other words, we are facing the existence of a system of advancement, of new leadership grooming, that is completely not based on effort, ambition, and talent. The best are not getting rewarded, only the connected. Against this dark backdrop, programs like Leaders of Russia de facto end up serving as a light against such world tendencies.

Thus perhaps it should be seen as rather ironic that Russia, the country that so many Westerners eagerly criticize for an authoritarian (or at least semi-authoritarian) political regime, for the ‘closed’ nature of its societal-political system overall, for its hostility toward grassroots development, is in actuality the one to develop, foster, and build an unprecedented program of leadership development. A program completely devoid of the above Western criticisms. In the short time of its existence, Leaders of Russia as a program has literally selected citizens from every individual region of Russia, regardless of ethnic makeup or geographical proximity to the capitol. Previous participants/winners of the program (there are 100 officially recognized every year) have gone on to incredible levels of success: Deputy Ministers in the Russian government; Governors of various regions of the Russian Federation; heads of major international businesses and many different societal organizations supporting the improved functioning of Russia overall.

 Most importantly of all, to date there has not been a single sniff of impropriety or corruption plaguing the program. What matters in Leaders of Russia is not who knows whom but rather who is the most worthy, with each winner selected via an open, data-verified mechanism. The spirit of the program also matters: it is not just a stepping-stone for personal enrichment and individual acclaim. Each winner is expected to pursue a life of service dedicated to the elevation and improvement of the lives of all Russian citizens. The concept of giving back to your country, to the people, is at the heart of the Leaders of Russia program, rather than just being an exercise in egoism and noveau riche elitism. The idea of combining a governmentally-sponsored program, fully-funded and guaranteed, with an ethic of giving and selfless leadership is exactly what is lacking in today’s self-obsessed world, especially in the countries famous for supposedly being more developed, more open, and more ‘democratic.’

Finally, after all of the above is considered, some remaining questions are left begging to be asked. If such programs are typically considered a sign of successful and dynamic societal-political development, of fully-functioning societal participation in the work of the state, in its future, then why is Russia never given any credit for being the founder and supporter of just such a program? This is not to say Russia is blameless and faultless. It is not to say Russia can do no wrong. But that is quite different from trying to make people understand that it is unfair to portray Russia as a country that can do no right. Why would such a laudable program like Leaders of Russia, that deserves global recognition and at least a piece of the international spotlight, instead remains basically anonymous outside of Russia? Why would a program that could show the positive evolution and future beneficial prospects of Russia remain in the international shadows? To whom is such hiding advantageous and to what end is this shadowing? Figuring these questions out might not just elevate the global prestige of Leaders of Russia. It might actually create an opportunity for better relations between Russia and the West. And if that becomes the case, then Leaders of Russia will have proven itself to be one of the most important programs in the world. 

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Russia’s Policy, Africa and the Female Drivers

Kester Kenn Klomegah

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Gambia's Ambassador Jainaba Bah and Ghana's Ambassador Lesley Akyaa Opoku Ware

International Women’s Day, observed worldwide on March 8, is primarily to recognize and highlight women’s role, achievements and challenges in society. A number of Russian women have been on the frontline, driving some significant aspects of Russia’s foreign policy with Africa.

These efforts, stretching from academic research through consultation of business and investment to culture directions have helped shape the current diplomatic relationship with the region, and have had considerable positive impact from East to West, from Algeria to Zimbabwe.

In an exclusive interview, Professor Irina Abramova, Director of the Institute for African Studies under the Russian Academy of Sciences, spoke highly how Russia has steadily raised its profile from abnormally low level after Soviet collapse in 1991.

Abramova was appointed as the first female director in 2016. Under her directorship and guidance, the Institute for African Studies (IAS) has provided the necessary research in many spheres that formed the basis for formulating strategic policy implemented in Africa.

This role also includes forging cooperation with Africa in the international arena that means establishing closeness of positions on the formation of a new international order, the possibility of consolidating Russia’s position as an influential center of world politics.

“There is currently a different Africa – Africa with rapid economic growth and profitable spheres of investment operations. As a result, building mutually beneficial cooperation remains one of the main priorities of Russia. An important area of work in this regard is the improvement of the legal framework of our relations with the African states,” she told me during the interview discussion.

With regard to challenges, Abramova noted that Africans have been poorly informed about the possibilities of Russian partnership. “It is necessary to establish an effective exchange of information on the investment potential of the business and on how to focus efforts on expanding partnerships with Africa.”

The media should more actively inform Russians about the prospects for the development of the African continent, its history and culture. For majority of Africans, Russia is associated with the Soviet Union, although they still have very warm feelings towards Russia.

In general, the Russian Federation in Africa and Africa in the Russian Federation are very poorly presented in the media.

In her views, Russian technology can be successfully promoted in Africa. It’s not just about industries but also exploration, transportation, infrastructure, energy and the construction of nuclear power plants.

For her role as a female director, who is partly involved in pushing for an admirable relationship between Russia and Africa, amounts to the role of a mother or curator, the essence of recognizing women and March 8.

Men have historically view women with high skepticism, often interpreting their roles synonymously with childcare at home. But women are now at the frontline fighting for equality – equal roles with men and social status.

According to Nataliya Zaiser, Head of Africa Business Initiative (ABI) – a business lobbying NGO, March 8 solidifies women’s energy and brings them closer to work with their men counterparts in unison, create a better society.

Since March 2016, Zaiser has been the Head of Africa Business Initiative (ABI), created with the support of Russian businesses as a platform for the humanitarian, economic and legal expertise, and it also aimed at strengthening relations between Russia and Africa. The main goal of this organization – to unite the efforts in promoting and supporting the interests of Russian businesses within the framework of broader international cooperation on the territory of the African continent.

“Times have changed significantly. There is a new economic and political environment providing different opportunities for women to take up roles in developing relations between Russia and Africa. 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 told me during an interview.

On Russia and Africa relationship, she noted that Russia has developed a number of business councils for cooperation both with individual African countries as well as with its own regions and with its neighbors.

For Africa in particular, the Africa Business Initiative (ABI) offers the chance of a consolidated approach, and as an independent organization, it can work with the business community in Russia and at the same time combine the interests of the state, the diplomatic community, the academic institutions and the African business diaspora.

“In my view, Russia is open. Africa has much to offer Russia, which is a large country and has excellent prospects in the regions, many of which are developing very rapidly and are ready to accept new partnerships, and discuss forms of cooperation,” Nataliya Zaiser said while stressing her previous efforts and huge-accumulated experience working in this direction as a female policy decision-maker.

Russian women in the regions are also on the frontline. Polina Slyusarchuk, Head of Intexpertise (St. Petersburg-based African focused Consultancy Group), questioned whether Russia has a broader Africa policy or long-term strategy in there. “Today, Russia wants to deepen its understanding of the business climate and explore trade and partnership opportunities in Africa,” she underlined.

While meetings organised between Russia and Africa have to discuss thoroughly how to trade, efforts should be made to remove or lessen some of the barriers for mutual benefits. Now Russia’s main goal is to decide what it can offer that foreign players haven’t yet been made available in the African market.

Acknowledging the huge untapped economic potentials in the relations between Russia and Africa, Ekaterina Dyachenko founded the B2B Export Group of Companies.

Kenya-based Dyachenko has more than 10 years of tremendous experience working and facilitating Russian business issues in Africa. After the previous Russia-African Forums (RAF) that were successfully organized in South Africa and East Africa, the B2B Group of Companies has received positive responses from African business community indicating enormous interest in goods and services Russian companies can offer and export to Africa.

Her dream was to make the Russian-African Forum (RAF) as one of the effective platforms for building an efficient business-to-business dialogue between Russia and Sub-Saharan Africa.

Dyachenko last held her RAF in July as part of the INNOPROM-2016 international industrial trade fair in Yekaterinburg (Urals), that business gathering has attempted to outline diversified ways for strengthening economic cooperation between Russia and Africa.

According to the organizing committee, the Yekaterinburg forum attracted delegations from different countries including Algeria, Burkina Faso, Burundi, Namibia, Rwanda, Senegal, Cameroon, Chad, Kenya, Ghana, Nigeria, Egypt, Mozambique, Zimbabwe and South Africa.

In addition to above efforts by women, Lyubov Demidova, Deputy Chairperson of the Regional Chamber of Commerce and Industry in Moscow Region, has created the Regional Council for the Development of Relations with African countries (abbreviated RCDRAC) which serves as a good platform for the development of fruitful cooperation in various fields between Russia and Africa.

The primary task of RCDRAC is to make the cooperation as comfortable, convenient and safe for both parties. It all depends not only on Russia but also on African States, and for its part, the RCDRAC has been making efforts to establish large-scale, long-term and mutually beneficial cooperation, and there would be some positive results on the part of African States.

In some areas would cooperate fast enough, and in some other areas require years of hard work to get effective and positive results, according to Demidova.

There are key challenges and problems facing Russian companies and investors that wanted business in Africa. The obstacle is insufficient knowledge of the economic potential on the part of Russian entrepreneurs, the needs and business opportunities in the African region. The RCDRAC plans to help members of the business community of all countries to address issues for effective and mutual economic cooperation.

She reassured thus: “I think African companies in Russia face the same problems similar to that of the Russian companies face in Africa. On the question of activities, we hope that our future advice will help to build business confidence for the African entrepreneurs and potential exporters to the Russian market.”

In the Russian Federation, there are female African Ambassadors from Gabon, Gambia, Ghana, Burundi, Rwanda and South Africa. As top female diplomats, their presence vividly exemplifies women role in such high-level positions, and a reminder of equal rights for women as we celebrate March 8th, International Women’s Day. In conclusion, International Women’s Day has a clear simple message: the global struggle to make sure that women are consistently offered the opportunity to play significant roles in the society.

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Putin’s African Dream and the New Dawn

Kester Kenn Klomegah

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In a February decree posted to the official portal of legal information, Russian President Vladimir Putin has appointed his aide Yuri Ushakov to chair the organizing committee paving the way for the first Russia-Africa summit that Moscow plans to host in Sochi. The Russian government is to ensure financing of the expenditures related to hosting the summit and the decree has further assigned Roscongress, a major organizer of international conventions, exhibitions and public events, the task performer.

The idea to hold a Russia-Africa forum was initiated by President Putin at the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) summit in Johannesburg in July 2018. This first Russia-Africa summit will definitely enhance mutual multifaceted ties, reshape diplomatic relationship and significantly to roll-out ways to increase effectiveness of cooperation between Russia and Africa.

Policy experts have suggested, however, that Kremlin has to substantiate its future African policy agenda with consistency, activeness and support, and enhance its participation in the economic development of Africa.

“Indeed, through the summit, Russia has to discover specific expectations, new directions and how to deal with Africa. The games there have completely changed, many global players have also adopted investment strategies more appealing and acceptable for Africans,” Dr. Kelvin Dewey Stubborn, South African based Senior Analyst on BRICS and African policy, told me by email from South Africa.

To that end, he suggested that “the Russia-Africa summit has to focus discussions on new development-oriented thinking and how to transfer Russian technology to industry and agriculture more collaboratively, and a lot more cooperation on employment creation across sectors. That’s the best way to sustain peace and eradicate conflicts in Africa.”

South African business tycoon, Sello Rasethaba, questioned how Russia was going to establish a thriving trade relationship with Africa for the benefit all and sundry. In reality and effective practical terms, how Russia wants to reposition itself in relation with Africa. With business relationship, Russia has to consider practical strategies in consultation with African countries. The fact that the middle class is growing in leaps and bounds in Africa makes this market even more attractive and opens more opportunities also for Russian businesses.

“The current investment and business engagement by foreign players with Africa is on the increase. There are so many unknowns up there in Russia, it’s crucial that Russia has a clear vision of the relationship it wants with Africa. Russia together with African countries must setup sovereign wealth funds using the resources power of those countries,” he said.

There are similar views and sentiments. Rex Essenowo, Member of the Board of Trustees of Nigerians in Diaspora Europe and Senior Executive of Asian Africa Trade, a Moscow based business lobbying NGO, said it was unfortunate that some people consistently undermine Africa’s strategic interest, that is infrastructural development and lifting its vast population out of poverty in Africa. Playing the conflict card is strategically destructive because the warring parties want to present Africa as unsafe for investments.

“It is for African leaders to remain focused on the right direction, resolute in conflict management and as well rolling out new implementable policies oriented towards building infrastructure, modernizing agriculture, investment in manufacturing and industry – these will offer employment for the youth. Meanwhile, we are not even using one tenth of our capacities on investment promotion at the international platforms,” he added.

Essenowo further argued that the future of Russia-Africa relations has to take into cognizance the true meaning of building a platform for civil, media and cultural as well as people-to-people interaction, helping to change the attitudes and mentality, remove old stereotypes, – these are important steps for improving business cooperation.

In addition, Russia could help to deepen understanding through regular dialogue with the civil society and governments, as basis for economic growth, development, as well as motivation for confidence among Russian investors in the region.

Despite its global status, Russia lacks assertiveness towards practical implementation of essential development projects in Africa. Zimbabwe’s Ambassador to Russia, Major General (rtd) Nicholas Mike Sango, told me in an interview discussions that, “For a long time, Russia’s foreign policy on Africa has failed to pronounce itself in practical terms as evidenced by the countable forays into Africa by Russian officials. The Russian Federation has the capacity and ability to assist Africa overcome these challenges leveraging on Africa’s vast resources.”

Mike Sango further expressed his views as follows: “Africa’s expectation is that Russia, while largely in the extractive industry, will steadily transfer technologies for local processing of raw materials as a catalyst for Africa’s development.”

Many former Ambassadors, mostly from Southern African region, have also tasked African leaders to prioritize concrete development projects and reminded them that it was necessary to make rational choices, push for “African solutions to African problems” within the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) when they finally gather at the forthcoming October summit in Sochi.

The summit sessions have to discuss thoroughly “the whole range of development issues that will ultimately form the future African agenda” and analyze them through the prism of rivalry and competition among foreign players on the continent, according to a summarized separate media interviews with the former African envoys who served in the Russian Federation.

In addition, they unreservedly underscored Russia’s commitment to strengthening political contacts, but these have not reflected on the level of economic engagement as compared to its globally praised status. Now, looking objectively at the situation as it develops on the continent, Africa finds itself in an excellent compelling position of having many suitors – each offering something it needs for its development, they acknowledged.

The 15-member UN’s Security Council unanimously adopted a resolution welcoming the AU’s initiative and pledging support for “African solutions to African problems” to achieve Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Former Envoys observed in their interview discussions with me that many African countries have failed to substantially reduce abject poverty, rising unemployment, marginalization of social groups and widening inequality (the primary root causes of conflicts) in many regions of Africa.

Admittedly and in their objective assessment, Africa’s economy has remained largely based on subsistence agriculture with little development of the industrial or services sectors. The huge infrastructure deficit could be business for Russian investors. These development issues, among others, are what Russia-Africa platform has to genuinely deal with African leaders in Sochi.

Quite recently, Vyacheslav Volodin, the Chairman of the State Duma, told an instant meeting held with the Ambassadors of African countries in the Russian Federation, that Russia would take adequate steps to deliver on pledges and promises with Africa countries. “We propose to move from intentions to concrete steps,” Volodin reassured.

On the summit, Foreign Affairs Minister Sergey Lavrov has explained earlier that arranging an event on such a large-scale with the participation of over fifty heads of state and government required most careful preparation, including in terms of its substantive content and equally important was African businesspeople who have been looking to work on the Russian market.

“The economic component of the summit has a special significance as it would be of practical interest for all the parties. As such, specific Russian participants in bilateral or multilateral cooperation should be identified, which are not only committed to long-term cooperation but are also ready for large-scale investments in the African markets with account of possible risks and high competition,” Minister Lavrov noted in an interview posted to his official website.

For decades, Russia has been looking for effective ways to promote multifaceted ties and new strategies for cooperation in energy, oil and gas, trade and industry, agriculture and other economic areas in Africa.

President Vladimir Putin noted at the VTB Capital’s Russia Calling Forum, that many countries had been “stepping up their activities on the African continent” but added that Russia could not cooperate with Africa “as it was in the Soviet period, for political reasons.”

In his opinion, cooperation with African countries could be developed on a bilateral basis as well as on a multilateral basis, through the framework of BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa).

But so far, Russia has not pledged adequate funds toward implementing its business projects and other policy objectives in Africa. Russia’s investment efforts in the region have been limited thus far which some experts attributed to lack of a system of financing policy projects. While Russia government is very cautious about making financial commitments, Russia’s financial institutions are not closely involved in foreign policy initiatives in Africa.

As publicly known in recent years, China has offered $60 billion, Japan $32 billion, and India $25 billion, while large cutting-edge investment funds have also come from the United States and European Union, all towards realizing the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in Africa.

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