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Russia’s key to Africa

Kester Kenn Klomegah

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On July 14, Russian President Vladimir Putin warmly received two African leaders, Gabonese Ali Bongo Ondimba and Sudanese Omar al-Bashir, within the framework of the 2018 FIFA World Cup.

The two were on a three-day working visit part of which was to attend in the FIFA World Cup final match between France and Croatia at Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow. Together 12 presidents, prime ministers and many high-ranking representatives of foreign states attended the final match.

While meeting them separately in the Kremlin, Putin reaffirmed Russia’s role in and support for solving endless conflicts specifically in Central African Republic (CAR) and in Sudan, and other regional conflicts in parts of Africa. The meetings were also to consolidate the existing diplomatic relations.

Despite its significant mineral deposits and other resources, such as uranium reserves, crude oil, gold, diamonds, cobalt, lumber and as well as significantly large arable land, the CAR is among the ten poorest countries in the world.

Nearly 90% is among the most impoverished of the estimated population of around 4.6 million as of 2016. CAR has been engulfed in political and ethnic conflict.

“There is naturally a lot of work to do for us, including the regional settlement in Central Africa. We know that Gabon takes the most active part in this, making a significant contribution to this joint work,” he stressed at the meeting with Ali Bongo.

In this context, Gabon is now chairing the Economic Community of Central African States and this community or regional organization is directly involved in settling the conflict in the Central African Republic.

Gabon bordered by Equitorial Guinea to the west, Cameroon to the north and Republic of Congo on the east and south, and the Gulf of Guinea to the west. Since its independence from France in 1960, Gabon has had three presidents.

Abundant petroleum and foreign private investment have helped make Gabon one of the most prosperous countries in sub-Sahara Africa. Gabon’s economy is dominated by oil. Oil revenues constitute roughly 46% of the government’s budget, 43% of the gross domestic product (GDP), and 81% of exports.

During the meeting, Ali Bongo argued that “Russia is a huge country, which has enormous capabilities and which can, of course, contribute a lot to the continent. Everyone talks about Africa today, from most various angles. The continent is rich in resources, and we observe how many major states fight each other to gain access to these resources.”

From above statement, Ali Bongo was encouraging the Kremlin authorities, flex muscles to face risks and high competition, in order to raise Russia’s economic profile on the continent to match with its global status. As already known, African countries have seriously adopted “economic diplomacy” and are looking to find pragmatic solutions to issues relating to infrastructure development, foreign trade and investment cooperation.

The transcript posted to Kremlin official website did not say anything about oil business, but understandably, Russia seeks to cooperate in this sphere.

The Kremlin press service said that trade between Russia and Gabon doubled in 2017 to $47.7 (from $29.1 in 2016). Last October, Russia’s oil giant Rosneft signed a profile protocol of understanding with Gabon’s Oil and Hydrocarbon Ministry.

In June 2017, Zarubezhneft and the Gabonese oil company signed a Memorandum of Understanding – a framework agreement on key aspects of cooperation, including joint exploration of deposits and construction of oil and gas facilities in Gabon.

In his discussion with Putin, Al-Bashir noted that Russia and Sudan relations really demonstrated positive dynamics.

“As for the economic sphere, we are developing a programme to share information and opinions on how we can develop these relations. Russian companies, including those producing mineral resources, actively work in Sudan. There will also be a meeting devoted to the agricultural sphere in September,” the Sudanese leader said.

Sudanese leader hopes to start tourist exchanges soon. He also encourages the participation of Russian oil and gas companies so that they would work in Sudan.

There are positive shifts in the military-technical sphere and in military cooperation. “We see big exchanges between specialists of Russia and Sudan. A big number of Russian specialists work in our country and this is why we highly praise the role that your country plays in preparing Sudanese military personnel,” Al-Bashir told Putin.

In fact, Putin and Al-Bashir last met and had a comprehensive business discussion November 2017 in Sochi. According to Kremlin website, the two sides have signed agreements and memos of understanding in the field of oil, gold mining, the peaceful use of nuclear power, higher education, external relations and agriculture.

In Sochi, Al-Bashir affirmed that Sudan is opening its doors for all countries and companies to invest in the country, indicating that Russian, Chinese and Arab companies are now operating in Sudan.

Interestingly, Al-Bashir has offered to help Russia in Africa. “Sudan has extensive ties in Africa and can help Russia develop relations with African countries. Sudan may become Russian’s key to Africa. We are a member of the African Union,” he promised Putin.

“We have great relations with all African nations and we are ready to help. We are also interested in developing relations with BRICS,” he concluded assertively. The BRICS group of emerging economies comprises Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa. South Africa will host a summit of BRICS countries on July 26-27.

Despite the fact that bilateral relations between Russia and with both Gabon and Sudan still below expectation, the three leaders Putin, Ali Bongo and Al-Bashir in their separate discussions expressed high optimism to take practical effective steps working towards its growth and sustainability.

It is worthy to note that Africa, indeed, has emerged as a playground for foreign powers especially Asian powers including China, India and Japan; each with its economic interests in the region and trying to expand its influence in strategic ways. In principle, all three leaders (Putin, Ali Bongo and Al-Bashir) have agreed that relations, in anyway, be developed in all directions between their individual states and Russia.

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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Russia Postpones BRICS Summit to Later Date

Kester Kenn Klomegah

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The summits of the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) and Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) member states have been postponed from July to a later date, due to the coronavirus pandemic, the Kremlin press service said on May 27.

The Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), established in 2001, brings together China, India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Afghanistan, Belarus, Iran and Mongolia are SCO observers, while Azerbaijan, Armenia, Cambodia, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Turkey are dialogue partners.

“In light of the global pandemic and the temporary restrictions linked to it, the Organizing Committee for the preparation and securement of the chairmanship of the Russian Federation in the SCO in 2019-2020 and BRICS in 2020 has made a decision to postpone the meeting of the BRICS leaders and the session of the SCO Heads of State Council earlier scheduled for July 21-23 in St. Petersburg to a later date,” the press service said in a statement.

The new dates for the summits will be determined depending on the further development of the epidemiological situation in the member states and in the world in general, the statement said.

As part of the events, Foreign Ministers from BRICS held their meeting online late April while the Ministers of Health held theirs in May. BRICS members were, particularly, looking for ways to step up cooperation within the bloc to contain coronavirus pandemic, as well as to revive the economies that have received a major blow due to the travel restrictions and lockdown imposed in most countries to curb the spread of coronavirus. 

Throughout 2020, – under the theme “BRICS Partnership for Global Stability, Shared Security and Innovative Growth” – Russia holds the BRICS pro tempore presidency.

The emphasis of the Russian presidency is on promoting science, technology and innovation and digital economy and health, and strengthening cooperation in the fight against transnational crimes.

In addition to those, dozens of academic, sporting, cultural and artistic events planned for the year. St Petersburg was chosen as the venue in accordance with the Presidential Executive Order No. 380 of 15 August 2019.

BRICS is the group composed by the five major emerging countries – Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa, – which together represent about 42% of the population, 23% of Gross Domestic Product (GDP), 30% of the territory and 18% of the global trade.

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Russia vs China

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Cooperation between Russia and China has deep historical roots, and its earliest manifestations can be found already during the Chinese civil war. It seems that both countries should be most united by their communist ideology, but the ambitions of their leaders and the willingness to be the first and the most powerful was in fact the dominating force. Relations between these nations have seen times of flourishing, as well as times of military conflict.

The relationship between both countries are currently presented as friendly, but it is difficult to call them truly friendly. Even in the past, relations between the USSR and China were based on each nation’s calculations and attempts to play the leading role, and it doesn’t seem like something has changed at the present, although China has become a “smarter” and resource-wise richer player than Russia.

We will now look at the “similarities” between China and Russia, the ways they are cooperating and future prospects for both of them.

Russia is a semi-presidential federative republic, while China is a socialist nation ruled by the secretary general of its Communist Party.

Already we can see formal differences, but if we dive deeper both countries essentially feel like Siamese twins. There are more than one party in Russia, but only one party decides everything that takes places in the country – United Russia. Russia isn’t even attempting to hide the aim of establishing the said party, which is to support the course taken by Russian President Vladimir Putin.

China, too, has nine parties, but only one of them is allowed to rule and it is the Communist Party of China which answers to the secretary general who is also the president of the state.

Therefore, there is a single ruling party both in Russia and China, and this party is responsible for implementing and executing whatever the president wishes, meaning that both countries are ruled by a rather narrow circle of people. Forecasting election results in Russia and China is as difficult as being able to tell that the day after Monday is Tuesday. To write this piece, I spent a lot of time reading about the history of China and Russia and the current events taking place in these countries, and for this reason I figured that we also have to look at the meaning of the word “totalitarianism”.

Totalitarianism is a political system in which a country is governed without the participation of its people and decisions are made without the agreement of the majority of the people; in a totalitarian regime the most important social, economic and political affairs are controlled by the state. It is a type of dictatorship where the regime restricts its people in all of the imaginable aspects of life.

Notable characteristics:

Power is held by a small group of people – a clique;

Opposition is suppressed and general terror is a tool for governing the state;

All aspects of life are subordinate to the interests of the state and the dominating ideology;

The public is mobilized using a personality cult of the leader, mass movements, propaganda and other similar means;

Aggressive and expansionist foreign policy;

Total control over public life.

Are China and Russia truly totalitarian states? Formally, no, but if we look at the essence of it we see a completely different picture. We will look at all of the signs of totalitarianism in China and Russia, but we will not delve too deep into events and occurrences that most of us are already familiar with.

Can we say that the majority of Russian and Chinese citizens are engaged in decision making? Formally, sort of, because elections do take place in these countries, but can we really call them “elections”? It would be impossible to list all the video footage or articles that reveal how polling stations operate in order to provide the required election results. Therefore, we can say that the general public is involved in making decisions, it’s just that the results are always determined by those in power.

The last paragraph brings us to the first point: power is held by a small group of people – a clique. Both nations are ruled by presidents who appoint whoever they wish and dismiss whoever they wish. This is power held by a small group of people. The next point – suppressing the opposition and using general terror to govern the state. Media outlets have written enough about suppressing the opposition in both countries, and everyone has seen at least a video or two on this topic. To stop their political opponents and any events organized by them Russia and China use not only their police forces, but the army as well. From time to time, information appears that an opposition activist has been murdered in either of the countries, and these murders are never solved. We will not even begin talking about criminal cases and administrative arrests of opposition activists. We can say that the point in question is completely true. Regarding all of the aspects of life being subordinate to the state and ideology – is there anyone who isn’t convinced by this? If Russia is engaged in restricting and “teaching” its citizens quite inconspicuously, China has no time for ceremony – the Communist Party of China has published new guidelines on improving the “moral quality” of its citizens, and this touches upon all of the imaginable aspects of one’s private life – from organizing wedding ceremonies to dressing appropriately.3 Is the public in Russia and China mobilized using the cult of personality, mass movements, propaganda and other means? We can look at 9 May celebrations in Russia and all of the surrounding rhetoric, and the events dedicated to the anniversary of founding the People’s Republic of China. I’m sorry, but it feels like I’m watching some Stalin and Hitler era montage but in a more modern fashion, and instead of Stalin and Hitler there are some new faces. What is left? Of course, aggressive and expansionist foreign policy. China has been very active in the South China Sea for many years now, which has aggravated tensions among the armed forces of its neighbors – Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam.

China is continuing to physically seize, artificially build and arm islands far from its shores. And in the recent years China has been particularly aggressive towards Taiwan, which the regime sees as being rightfully theirs. China is also willing to impose sanctions against those nations who intend to sell arms to Taiwan.

However, when it comes to armed aggression China pales in comparison to Russia, which isn’t shy to use armed aggression against its close and far neighbors in order to reach its goals. Russia’s aggression goes hand in hand with its nihilism. I am sure I don’t have to remind you about the events in Georgia, Ukraine and previously in Chechnya as well. Russia will use every opportunity to show everyone its great weaponry, and this also includes directly or covertly engaging in different military conflicts.

Maybe some of you will disagree, but as I see it China and Russia currently are totalitarian states in their essence.

History has shown us that up to a certain point even two totalitarian countries are able to cooperate. Let’s remember the “friendship” between Nazi Germany and the USSR, but let’s also not forget what this friendship resulted in.

It is also true that the economic sanctions imposed against Russia have pushed it to be more friendly with China, but it seems that China will come out as the winner of this relationship.

According to data from the Chinese Ministry of Commerce, in 2018 the Chinese economy received 56.6 million USD in direct investments from Russia (+ 137.4%), meaning that by the end of 2018 the amount of direct investments from Russia reached 1,066.9 million USD.

In 2018, the Russian economy received 720 million USD in direct investments from China, resulting in a total of 10,960 million USD in direct investments from China by the end of 2018.

The main spheres of Chinese investments in Russia are energy, agriculture and forestry, construction and construction materials, trade, light industry, textiles, household electric goods, services, etc.

The main spheres of Russian investments in China are production, construction and transportation.5 We can see from the amount of investments that in this “friendship” China has far exceeded Russia. We also cannot ignore the fact that China has launched more large-scale investment projects in other nations than Russia has.

It should be noted that China’s procurement of military equipment has allowed Russian armaments programs to exist. Russia sold modern armaments to China, despite the concerns that China will be able to “copy” the received armaments and then improve them. But the need for money was much greater to worry about such things. As a result, in early 2020 it was concluded that China has surpassed Russia in producing and selling armaments.

If we look at the ways Russia and China are attempting to shape public opinion in the long term, we can see some differences. Russia tries to do this using publications, demonstrative activities and attempts for its compatriots to become citizens of their country of residence while maintaining their cultural identity in order to establish an intellectual, economic and spiritually-cultural resource in global politics. China, in addition to all of this, has established Confucius Institutes that are subordinate to the Chinese Ministry of Education. There are a total of 5,418 Confucius Institutes or classes around the world. These institutes, named after the most known Chinese philosopher, have drawn sharp criticism globally for its foreign policy views – ones that avoid discussing human rights or believe that Taiwan or Tibet are inseparable parts of China. These institutes have been accused of espionage and restricting academic freedom.

“The Confucius Institutes are an attractive brand for our culture to spread abroad,” representative of the Communist Party’s Politburo Li Changchun said in 2011. “They have always been an important investment in expanding our soft power. The brand name “Confucius” is quite attractive. By using language tuition as a cover, everything looks logical and acceptable from the outside.” The leadership of the Communist Party calls these institutes a crucial part of its propaganda toolset abroad, and it is estimated that over the past 12 years China has spent roughly two billion USD on them. The constitution of these institutes9 stipulates that their leadership, personnel, guidelines, tuition materials and most of their funding is ensured by the Hanban institution which is under the Chinese Ministry of Education.

Both Russian and Chinese citizens either buy or rent property abroad. Russians do this so they have somewhere to go in case the necessity arises.

Chinese citizens and companies slowly rent or purchase large swathes of land in in the Russian Far East. There is no precise estimate of the amount of land handed over to the Chinese, but it is said it could range between 1–1.5 billion hectares.

What can we conclude from all of this? China and Russia are, in essence, totalitarian states with bloated ambitions. If Russia tries to reach its ambitions in an openly aggressive and shameless manner, then China is doing the same with caution and thought. If Russia often uses military means to reach its goals, China will most likely use financial ones. If Russia attempts to fulfill its ambitions arrogantly, then China achieves the same result with seeming kindness and humility.

Which country has gotten closer to its goal? I believe it is definitely not Russia. In addition, just as the USSR, Russia too believes it is better than China. But for those observing from the sidelines, it is evident that in many areas China has far succeeded Russia and is now even acquiring Russian land.

This brings us back to history – what happens when two totalitarian states share a border? One of them eventually disappears. For now, it seems that China has done everything in its power to stay on the world map.

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COVID-19 Presents Both Opportunities and Threats to Russia’s Foreign Policy

Dr. Andrey KORTUNOV

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Like every major global crisis, the coronavirus pandemic both generates additional risks, challenges and threats to every state’s foreign policy and opens up new opportunities and prospects. Russia is no exception in this. The specific nature of Russia’s case lies, we believe, in its opportunities being mostly tactical and situational, while the threats it faces are strategic and systemic. The balance of opportunities and threats depends on many variables but primarily on how Russia ultimately copes with COVID-19 compared to other states, particularly its international opponents. Any comparative advantage that Moscow has in fighting the virus, be it the numbers infected and lost to COVID-19 or the relative scale of economic losses will somehow expand Moscow’s range of opportunities in the post-virus world. Any failure will increase foreign policy threats and curtail opportunities. Let us compile a preliminary list of these opportunities and threats.

Opportunities

Confirming Russia’s Perspective of the World

Over recent years, Russia’s leadership has insistently advanced its own “Westphalian” picture of international relations, emphasizing the priority of national states and the importance of sovereignty, questioning the stability of Western solidarity and the effectiveness of Western multilateral diplomacy. Thus far, the epidemiological crisis is bearing out the Russian perspective: the crisis is bolstering national states, demonstrating the helplessness of international organizations and generating doubts as to whether the West does, indeed, follow its own declared values and principles. This development both opens up a huge number of additional opportunities for Russia’s domestic and foreign propaganda and justifies the Kremlin’s ambition to be one of the principal architects of the post-crisis world order.

The Possibility of the West Adjusting its International Priorities

The global pandemic that has delivered a particularly grievous (at the moment!) blow to the leading western states may well result in them revising their hierarchy of external threats and, accordingly, adjusting their system of foreign political priorities. In recent years, the established idea of Russia has come to be that of the “main problem” in global politics and the “main threat’ to the interests of the West, while COVID-19 is rapidly eroding this. Such a mental shift is unlikely to result immediately in practical positive shifts in Moscow’s relations with its western partners, but we do believe that it will open up opportunities for a “mini-reset” of these relations. At the very least, we might expect increasing pressure from the West on Moscow, as well as further escalation of the confrontation, to be averted.

The Expanding Global “Power Vacuum”

Proposals for curbing international commitments were popular in developed states, primarily the US, long before the COVID-19 pandemic. The pandemic will, however, apparently be a powerful catalyst to such sentiments, which will have an increased effect on foreign political practices. This development will manifest itself, in particular, in a possible curtailing of bilateral and multilateral financial and economic aid programmes for the global South and in reduced military and political commitments to developing partner states. The expanding “power vacuum” in the Middle East, Africa, South Asia and the post-Soviet space can create additional opportunities for Russia’s foreign policy.

Threats

Russia’s Global Economic Standing Deteriorating

The experience of the last global financial and economic crisis in 2008–2009 allows us to conjecture that, in the new upheaval, Russia will be hit harder than other countries. The prospects of even a partial recovery of global oil prices are dubious, accumulated financial reserves will be shrinking rapidly, the timeframe for Russia’s economy returning to the global average growth rate will be revised, and the threat of Russia being pushed on to the periphery of the global economy will remain. Accordingly, there is an emerging threat of Russia’s defence and foreign policy resource base shrinking, and that includes support for Russia’s allies and partners, funding for international organizations, and Russia’s participation in cost-intensive multilateral initiatives (such as implementing the Paris Climate Agreement). If the country’s current socio-economic model remains unchanged in the post-crisis world, the consequences for the “national brand” will be no less significant.

The Rise of Isolationism in Russia

Russian society’s initial reaction to Moscow’s efforts to assist several foreign states (from Italy to Venezuela) was mixed. In general, however, the pandemic is certainly boosting isolationist sentiments and reducing public support for an active and energetic foreign policy. Previously, the public saw demonstration of Russia’s presence in the Middle East, Africa, and Latin America as an affirmation of it as a “superpower”, which was perceived in a solely positive light. Now, this presence is, with increasing frequency, viewed as an unfounded waste of shrinking resources. It may be concluded that, given the pandemic, the so-called “Crimean consensus” is becoming entirely ineffective, and it is becoming harder and harder to justify Russia’s foreign policy in the eyes of the country’s population.

The Harsh Bipolarity of the Post-Virus World

The COVID-19 pandemic has evidently accelerated the shaping of the new US-China bipolarity. The recently-launched electoral campaign in the US is marked by Trump and Biden outdoing each other in demonstrating their harsh attitude toward Beijing. The confrontation between the two states is undermining the effectiveness of the UN Security Council, the WHO, G20 and other international organizations. The emerging rigid bipolarity carries systemic risks for all participants in global relations; Russia, additionally, faces other specific threats. The growing asymmetry between the Moscow and Beijing potentials is becoming increasingly visible and cooperation with China’s real or potential opponents (such as India, Vietnam or even Japan) more and more problematic.

P.S.

“Never waste a good crisis”: this paradoxical adage credited to Winston Churchill is relevant today as never before. Neither Russia nor other states should waste the systemic global crisis triggered by the coronavirus pandemic. A crisis does not give anyone grounds for crossing out their past mistakes or forgetting their past achievements. Yet a crisis is not just a convenient pretext but also a solid reason for shaking up one’s old foreign political “wardrobe.” Close scrutiny is certain to reveal things that are moth-eaten, no longer fit, or are simply no longer fashionable.

From our partner RIAC

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