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Russia and Mauritius: Improving economic cooperation and diplomatic ties

Kester Kenn Klomegah

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In an attempt to strengthen economic cooperation and diplomatic ties between Russia and Mauritius, the Mauritius, Minister of Foreign Affairs, Regional Integration and International Trade, Seetanah Lutchmeenaraido, has held talks with his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov.

On their first working day, of the four day meeting, both foreign ministers stressed the high level of traditional friendly relations between their two countries and confirmed the mutual understanding of Moscow and Port Louis on stepping up political dialogue, building mutually-beneficial cooperation in trade, economic, investment, and promoting long-term partnership in high technology, transport, fishing and tourism.

Lutchmeenaraido told both the local and foreign media that there were good prospects in the economic sphere. “We have found projects suitable for implementation in areas such as information technology, power generation, maritime transport, fishing and infrastructure and have agreed that the governments of Russia and Mauritius will assist business circles in establishing mutually beneficial direct contacts,” he said.

In March 2018, Mauritius will celebrate its 50th Independence anniversary and will also mark the 50th anniversary of its diplomatic relations with Russia. The key reasons for the delegation’s visit were to showcase the transition of Mauritius from an offshore financial centre to a full fledge regional financial hub of repute and fully compliant to OECD standards, to promote investment opportunities across various sectors and as a strategic platform for structuring investments and managing operations in Africa.

Further, the visit was to present Mauritian products and services that can be exported to the Russian market and across Eastern Europe and finally to present VISION 2030 of the Mauritius Government, the Mauritius-Africa Strategy and the expansion of Mauritius Asia-Africa corridor by Air Mauritius.

Later, the delegation attended the business forum that was organized jointly by the Council for investments of the Republic of Mauritius and Russian Chamber of Industry and Commerce. The Russian-Mauritian economic and trade cooperation and development cooperation to establish business contacts with the African continent were discussed at a bilateral business forum.

The Russian Chamber of Industry and Commerce Vice-President, Vladimir Padalko, in his speech noted that Mauritius is a promising partner for the Russian business. It is a country with dynamically growing economy, high living standards and favorable conditions for doing business. The World Bank report in 2016, said Mauritius occupied the first place among African countries South of the Sahara on the business climate.

However, he also stressed that entrepreneurs of both countries did not yet have sufficient knowledge about the current capabilities of each other, as evidenced by the low volume of mutual trade.

Yury Morozov, Head of the Division for International Cooperation of the Moscow Chamber of Commerce and Industry; Harvesh Seegolam, Chief Executive of the Mauritius Financial Services Commission; Vinay Guddye, Head of Africa Centre of Excellence and Outward Investment; Ashwin Cahoolessur, Mauritius Tourism Promotion Authority gave informative presentations and that was followed by a video clip titled “Mauritius: Your Platform for Africa” shown to the admiration of the participants.

Of particular interest among the conference speakers was the presentation by Dmitry Suchkov, Executive Secretary of the Coordinating Committee on Economic Cooperation with African countries south of Saharan Africa (Afrocom) which was created under the auspices of the Russian Chamber of Industry and Commerce. He not only discussed about the structure and various activities of the Committee, but also shared with the audience, his vision of the development of interaction with the African continent.

In the middle of zero years, the first time in the history of the continent’s total investments exceeded the volume of official aid. Another important factor of growth was the rapid urbanization. At 40% of the urban population of Africa is more urbanized than India (30%), and almost catching up with China (45%). There is also a growing middle class. Africa is on the verge of consumer revolution.

The above trends stimulate the growth of the interest of Russian companies for access to African markets for export and investment projects. Currently, in Africa successfully operate such companies as “ALROSA” (Angola), Renova group (South Africa), “RUSAL” (Guinea), Rosatom (South Africa, Nigeria, Tanzania, etc.), “GPB Neftegaz Services B. V.” (Niger), “Severstal” – “Nord Gold” (Burkina Faso), group of companies “Delfin Aqua” (Madagascar, Burkina Faso and Cameroon).

Suchkov noted in his presentation that “Africa is developing very fast, not gradually as Europe or the US, and jumping over a few steps. Africa has tremendous potential for intensive development, and Russian business unique opportunity to carry out technological support for African countries in Russian technologies. The rapid development of technology will enable African countries if well-managed, to achieve a qualitative leap in technology and infrastructure development.”

Russia as a state with a high level of technological development is, first and foremost, to share techniques, technologies and developments in the field of mining, the building of transport infrastructure, in the energy sector, including nuclear, information technology and agriculture.

In giving natural resources background of Africa, he undoubtedly pointed out that 60% of the world’s resources of uncultivated arable land are in Africa, which opens up good prospects for cooperation in agriculture. In all these areas, Russia is ready to compete and has something to offer to African countries. There are many areas of cooperation such as education and health. Many African countries do not know Russia’s capabilities in these areas since the days of the Soviet Union. 

Suchkov says Africa does not lose its attractiveness for Russian companies as a potential consumer of Russian goods and services. But, Russia is lagging behind in development of trade-economic ties of many key players on the continent. However, Russia has a number of competitive advantages in Africa compared to other countries:

– Russia has no colonial past;

– Russian companies send highly qualified experts and create viable projects that offer guaranteed jobs;

– investing in the process of implementing other forms of economic cooperation, Russia does not interfere in internal affairs and does not condition its economic presence the need to change the political course of one or another country.

There are still some problems, for example, insufficient knowledge of the Russian business structures of the building, the actual situation and specific partners in Africa and, consequently, poor awareness of Africans about the possibilities of Russian partners. In correcting this situation, is the importance of the creation of the Coordinating Committee on Economic Cooperation with African countries (Afrocom).

Afrocom was founded in 2009 as an umbrella structure which brings together the Russian state and private organizations and companies to coordinate their activities to Africa. As of November 2017, its members include over 120 organizations and companies. It is also composed of three Business Councils, which operate on a bilateral basis: Russia-South Africa, Russia-Nigeria, and Russia-Sudan. Tellingly, Afrocom, in Suchkov’s objective opinion, can be used as the bridge for establishing contacts with Mauritius business and other regions of 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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