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Russia and Italy: No Breakthroughs

Elena Alekseenkova

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The official visit of Russian President Vladimir Putin to Italy on July 4, 2019, the first in the past four years, became yet another confirmation of the “special relationship” between Rome and Moscow, but did not, however, signal a breakthrough. For Italy, the meeting came as another attempt to restore its role of a “protagonist” on the international scene, a role the country has been dreaming of playing for over two decades. It was not by chance that Guiseppe Conte, during his recent visit to Moscow, “rebuked” Vladimir Putin for not paying sufficient attention to the Italian people. In Italy, this lack of attention is seen as a sign that the country is not coping well with its role of a “protagonist” and a “bridge” between the West and the East. For Russia, a dialogue with Italy is more than just a conversation with a partner who is willing to listen and establish relations based on mutual trust — it is an opportunity to convey Russian opinions on key issues related to cooperation between Russia and countries of the Euro-Atlantic bloc.

The visit of Guiseppe Conte to Moscow in October 2018, and now Vladimir Putin’s visit to Rome, the “friendly” meetings of Guiseppe Conte and Donald Trump in July 2018 during a period of acute tension in the Euro-Atlantic bloc, Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini’s visit to Washington in June 2019, and the signing of a memorandum of cooperation under the Belt and Road Initiative reached with Xi Jinping all testify to Rome’s ambitions for a more independent and autonomous foreign policy. Italy, under the leadership of the new “government of change,” is trying to play its own foreign policy game, guided by the principles of national sovereignty and national interests. However, at the moment, the hands of the yellow-green coalition are tied by the threat of sanctions from the European Commission for non-compliance with financial discipline. Naturally, this imposes significant restrictions on the potential of Italian foreign policy. In addition, the elections to the European Parliament in May 2019 and the subsequent distribution of top posts in the EU testify to Italy losing a significant share of its say in relations between Russia and the EU. In this context, the visit served as a confirmation of the two parties’ intentions but did not produce any practical solutions to problems of mutual concern.

Bilateral political dialogue: dreams and reality

Improving relations with Russia is a separate clause of the “government contract” concluded between the two parties that form the governing coalition in Italy. This is the first time that such an agenda is set at such a high level. Generally speaking, this is evidence of the consistency of Italian foreign policy which was formed in the post-war years,the purpose of which is to fulfill the role of a “bridge” between the North and the South, the West and the East. Perhaps, the historical peak of this strategy occurred when Italy carried out active mediation to establish the Russia-NATO Council in 2002. Nevertheless, the Italian foreign policy is still following this strategy.

According to experts, the status of “privileged partnership”, which was repeatedly voiced at the level of heads of state and by official representatives of Russia and Italy, does not match the real level of relations. A more realistic description of relations between Russia and Italy is “the best among the worst” compared to other partners in the EU, or a pragmatic cooperation that is still a problem to implement at the European level. This time, the leaders of the two states, speaking of existing relations, used such epithets as “excellent”, “constructive” and “businesslike”, and several times addressed each other using the word “friends”.

Meanwhile, we can be confident that a political dialogue between Russia and Italy is gradually regaining strength after the crisis of 2014–2015, particularly following the arrival of the yellow-green coalition in Italy. In October 2018, the Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte visited Moscow. On the eve of his visit, Deputy Prime Minister and leader of the League Party, Matteo Salvini, arrived in Moscow too to meet with representatives of Italian businesses working in Russia. In 2019, Vladimir Putin and Giuseppe Conte met at the “One Belt – One Road” forum, and also at the G20 summit in Osaka. Bilateral contacts are gradually being restored between the defense and interior ministries, consultations are under way on international information security, and an inter-parliamentary dialogue is back on track too.

Even though Moscow highly values Russian-Italian relations, Russian leaders regularly emphasize that Italy could do more in the EU to improve relations with Russia. In a report on Russian-Italian relations, which was recently released by the Russian International Affairs Committee of the Federation Council, Italy is systematically criticized for following the general course of the Euro-Atlantic partnership, be it NATO’s bombings in Yugoslavia in 1999, the U.S. operation and coalition in Iraq in 2003, the bombing of Libya in 2011, or the adoption of anti-Russian resolutions on Crimea. In all these cases, the report says, Italy, even though it is not completely in agreement with the United States and other European leaders, did not come out actively against them. Similarly, in 2015, Italy did not protest against the lowering of the status of Russia-EU relations, which had previously been known as a “strategic partnership”. In addition, Italy, whose political leaders often publicly speak in favor of the lifting of sanctions, has never used its right of veto when voting in the EU to extend sanctions.

In particular, Russia points out that, having burned its fingers on the situation in Libya in 2011 and still paying for hasty decisions back then, Italy has been acting more carefully in Middle Eastern conflicts. It refused to participate in ground operations in Syria. Instead, it opted for providing humanitarian and logistical support. In Libya, Rome is actively trying to establish a dialogue between key warring parties, including with the help of Russia. In November 2018, Italy invited Russia to a conference on Libya in Naples, hoping to win the support of the Russian leadership, who at that time had better negotiating positions with Marshal Haftar than their Italian counterparts. On the issue of refugees, the Italian leadership took a number of independent measures and decisions to restrict migrants’ access to the territory of Italy (“porti chiusi”, or closed ports), and adopted a security law changing the rules for granting refugee status. This triggered criticism not only in Brussels, but also in the UN. Italy refused to recognize self-proclaimed Juan Guaido as the new president of Venezuela, thereby making it difficult for the EU to strike a common approach on this issue. On March 23, 2019, during Xi Jinping’s visit, Italy and the People’s Republic of China signed a memorandum of cooperation within the One Belt One Road Initiative, despite the numerous warnings against the move from Brussels. Such “independence” of the Italian leadership in foreign policy shows that Italy is at the epicenter of the conflict of national and supranational sovereignty in the EU, articulating this conflict as clearly and consistently as possible.

Italy-EU-Russia: not a love triangle

Such independence on the part of Italian leadership and their desire to assume some of the decision-making has triggered controversy domestically in Italy. On the one hand, these moves contribute to the status of Italy, both within the EU and on the international scene. On the other hand, some Italian experts say there is the risk of the country becoming isolated within the EU. Brussels, Paris and Berlin tend to view Rome’s moves in a negative way – as detrimental to European solidarity and hindering the development of further supranational integration.

The EU systematically criticizes Russia for prioritizing bilateral relations above dialogue with Brussels. As for Italy, the situation is aggravated by the fact that, from the point of view of Brussels, the “anti-system” forces have developed a special liking for the Russian leader, while Russia, in turn, uses them as agents of influence in the EU. In February 2019 the leader of the “League” Matteo Salvini was reported to have received 3 million euros from the Kremlin for running the election campaign in the European Parliament. Therefore, on the eve of his visit, Vladimir Putin said in an interview with Italian news agency Corriere della Sera that Russia is ready for dialogue with any political forces that come to power by legitimate means, “regardless of their political affiliations.” However, after Vladimir Putin’s interview with The Financial Times, one cannot but notice that the Russian president’s criticism of liberalism, being addressed, above all, to U.S. president Donald Trump, echoes the rhetoric of the Italian “government of change”. Both in matters of migration management and in terms of governments’ ability to respond to people’s needs, the views of the Russian and Italian leadership are fairly close. In this context, Vladimir Putin’s visit to Italy should certainly be considered not only as a bilateral dialogue, but also as an attempt to get across to leaders of the Western world the need to establish a dialogue with those political forces that express a different point of view on further socio-political and economic development in Europe and the United States.

The recent developments in the EU show, however, that the political mainstream is not prepared to heed alternative political groups. After the May 26, 2019 elections, Matteo Salvini, together with representatives of the “sovereignists” of Poland, France and a number of other countries, succeeded in building the largest coalition of “populists” in the entire history of the European Parliament – 73 deputies. This, however, did not provide them with enough say to affect the choice of candidates for key posts in the EU. The results of the EU summit on July 2, 2019, in which appointments to senior positions were made, testifies to Rome losing its influence in the EU. Unlike before, when representatives of Italy had occupied three key posts in the EU (Antonio Tajani – President of the European Parliament, Mario Draghi – Chairman of the ECB, Federica Mogherini – High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy), now only one Italian – a representative of the opposition Democratic Party Divid Sassol – is part of the EU top management, having been given the position of President of the European Parliament. This yet again demonstrates that Paris, Berlin and Brussels are not ready for a serious dialogue with representatives of the yellow-green coalition of “sovereignists” and continue to rely on center-leftists.

In addition, the appointment of Ursula von der Leyen, German Minister of Defense with extensive experience in foreign policy and defense, as President of the European Commission is likely to lead to attempts at greater EU integration in the sphere of foreign policy, which may narrow the window of opportunity for more independent foreign policy initiatives of EU countries, including Italy.

What also restricts Italy in its efforts is the looming threat of EU sanctions for breaching fiscal discipline and exceeding the budget deficit. After the EU summit on June 2, Giuseppe Conte said that he had reached an agreement that sanctions would not be applied if Italy cut down the previously planned budget expenditures. However, the threat of sanctions is still there, and this is likely to be one of the most effective instruments of influence from Brussels on the country’s position on many issues, including relations with Russia. Any harsh statements during the visit of Vladimir Putin or any so-called “big deals” would certainly cause even more irritation in Brussels, which means they could lead to a tougher policy towards Italy. Therefore, Vladimir Putin’s visit was, of course, an important confirmation of Italy’s proactive foreign policy but was not a breakthrough, since Italy is connected with the EU not only by the historical bonds of Euro-Atlantic solidarity, but also by tangible economic mechanisms that allow the EU to impose sanctions against the Italian economy.

The economy depends on politics

The economic dialogue between Russia and Italy does not correspond to the declared high level of bilateral relations. In 2017, after a three-year decline (from 2014 to 2016), bilateral trade regained momentum but is still far from the pre-crisis level ($ 27 billion in 2018 against 54 billion in 2013). Russia maintains a clear lead in Italian exports, being the fifth among top importers. The Italian presence is felt in almost all sectors of the Russian economy. About 500 Italian companies operate in Russia, which, however, holds no candle to Germany (4.7 thousand). Even though about 100 Russian-Italian joint ventures were set up during the period of sanctions as part of a program to move Italian production to Russia (“made with Italy”), this figure does not yet correspond to the existing potential. As for an economic dialogue, Italy is considerably behind Germany and France. While in Germany and France there have been functioning “Petersburg Dialogue” and “Trianon Dialogue” respectively, and the Sochi Dialogue has recently been launched with Austria, the Russian-Italian economic dialogue has yet to acquire an appropriate status. The Council for Economic, Industrial, Monetary and Financial Cooperation, which last gathered in Rome in December 2018, is still little known to both countries’ general public. The “Russian-Italian Forum-Dialogue on Civil Society”, which Vladimir Putin and Guiseppe Conte attended in course of the visit, has not received support from the Italian authorities since 2014. Only now is it approaching a new level of development. In addition, during the visit, the two parties agreed that the Russian Export Center and Vnesheconombank (VEB) would set up a bureau to support Russian exporters in Italy. Thus, the economic dialogue, which for a long time needed a new impetus, has finally received it following Vladimir Putin’s visit to Rome. It is worth noting that the Italian leadership is acutely concerned about competition with Germany and France in two vast markets – Russia and China.

Russia, however, is waiting for more decisive steps from Italy to secure the lifting of the sanctions. However, according to Pasquale Terraciano, Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the Italian Republic to Russia, “Italy has never considered sanctions a smart decision, but Italy is part of the Western bloc and cannot stand against it alone.”[1]. Italy’s agenda, he said, is to change the EU’s opinion through the use of consistent steps. At the same time, as a practical measure aimed at expanding economic cooperation, Italy proposes to unfreeze the funding of small and medium-sized enterprises at the level of the EBRD and the European Investment Bank. As he addressed a press conference after the meeting, Giuseppe Conte pointed out that Italy is ready to assume the role of a consistent promoter of the idea of ​​lifting the sanctions but the conditions for this lifting had to be “ripe”.

Energy is a major area of ​​cooperation between Italy and Russia. Russia is the fourth most important supplier of oil and the first of natural gas to Italy. Supplies from Moscow account for more than 40% of the total gas consumption. However, as Italian experts remark, Italy expects an increase in prices in connection with the construction of the Nordstream 2 gas pipeline, which will make Germany the number one transit country for Russian gas in Europe, bypassing Ukraine. Therefore, negotiations on the development of southern transportation routes are more than relevant for Italy. The meeting, however, yielded no breakthroughs on this issue either.

Regional cooperation: identifying problems, lack of solutions

Italy, just like Russia, sees a great potential for dialogue not only on issues related to bilateral cooperation, but also on those of the regional and global agenda. The priority for Italy is the Mediterranean, which produces the greatest number of challenges and threats to the country’s national security. Simultaneously, Italy is fully aware of the fact that the country will not be able to cope with these challenges alone, although it is taking independent measures, in particular, in matters of migration. Quite recently, Matteo Salvini held talks with the Libyan leadership in Tripoli to curtail illegal migration. However, Rome knows only too well that the solution to the problem lies not so much in reaching agreements with specific countries as in assisting the development of countries the migrants come from and in settling regional conflicts. Italy greatly appreciates the role of Russia as a non-regional player whose influence has increased significantly in recent years. During a press conference following the elections, Vladimir Putin, however, said that Russia is not ready to plunge head-on into resolving the Libyan crisis, and that forces that destroyed Libya’s statehood during the armed operation in 2011 should be involved;that is, NATO and the EU coalition. In solidarity with the Russian president, the Italian Prime Minister emphasized that Italy had warned from the very beginning that a military solution would not lead to peace. Under current conditions, the parties have indicated their readiness to participate in fostering a dialogue between all political forces in Libya.

As for Ukraine, Italy’s official position should be in line with the EU policy providing for no new opportunities to change the situation. In an interview before Vladimir Putin’s visit to Italy, Giuseppe Conte directly linked the issue of lifting of the sanctions with the observance of the Minsk agreements, implicitly suggesting that Russia is a party to the conflict and urging both sides to demonstrate more understanding. In an interview with Corriere della Sera, and during a press conference following the meeting, President Putin reiterated that the new leadership of Ukraine should fulfill its election promises and enter a direct dialogue with representatives of the Donetsk People’s Republic and Lugansk People’s Republic. Guiseppe Conte repeatedly pointed out that, although Italy is not part of the Normandy format (a negotiation apparatus designed to resolve the Ukrainian conflict), it is nevertheless ready to play a role in resolving the conflict if necessary, which once again confirms the country’s willingness to play a greater role on the international scene.

The Russian president and the Italian prime minister also hold similar views on the situation in Venezuela, expressing concerns over foreign interference, which in their opinions will only aggravate the situation inside the country.

On the whole, it is essential to emphasize that Vladimir Putin’s visit to Italy did not bring any breakthroughs, either in bilateral relations or in formulating common positions on issues of regional and global concern. Although the parties demonstrated identical views on the causes and nature of some of the issues on the international agenda, they proved unprepared to suggest concrete practical solutions. For Italy, the meeting provided yet another opportunity to identify its own national interests in promoting relations with Russia and to demonstrate its readiness to act as a “bridge” in the development of a dialogue between Russia and the Euro-Atlantic bloc. At the same time, it has revealed limitations in Italian foreign policy, linked to the economic situation in the country and the weak positions of the current leadership in the renewed European institutions.

1. Speech by the Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the Italian Republic to the Russian Federation Pasquale Terracciano at the conference, at the Institute of Europe RAS, June 19, 2019

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PhD in Political Science, RIAC Program Manager, Research Fellow at Centre for Global Problems Studies, MGIMO-University

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Russia, Africa and the Debts

Kester Kenn Klomegah

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Long seen as a strategic partner, Russia has opened a new chapter and started building better relations with Africa, and most significantly made its move by writing off Africa’s debts accumulated from Soviet era. After the Soviet collapse, Russia first attempted at collecting its debts. Indeed, these Soviet-leaning debt-trapped African countries were unable to pay them (these debts) back to Russia.

During the Soviet era, Moscow forged alliances with African countries, especially those that supported its communist idealogy, and supplied them with military equipment and offered technical assistance on bilateral basis. In particular, supplied arms  went to Angola, Algeria, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Ethiopia, Namibia, Mozambique, Morocco and South Africa. That Soviet-era form of diplomatic engagement left many African countries indebted to an amount of US$20 billion, according to official documents.

In an interview with TASS, Russian State News Agency, ahead of the first Russia-Africa Summit, Russian President Vladimir Putin explained Soviet’s role in the liberation of the continent, support for the struggle of its peoples against colonialism, racism and apartheid. In addition, the enormous help offered Africans to protect their independence and sovereignty, gain statehood, support for national economies, and created capable armed forces for Africa.

“Our African agenda is positive and future-oriented. We do not ally with someone against someone else; and we strongly oppose any geo-political ‘games’ involving Africa,” he said during the interview before referring the debts write-off to Africa. “Let me point out that in the post-Soviet period, at the end of the 20th century, Russia cancelled US$20 billion of African countries’ debts to the Soviet Union. This was both an act of generosity and a pragmatic step, because many of the African states were unable to service those debts. We, therefore, decided that it would be best for everyone to start our cooperation from scratch,” said President Putin during that interview.

On October 23, 2019, President Vladimir Putin and President of the Arab Republic of Egypt, African Union Chairman and Co-Chairman of the Russia-Africa Summit Abdel Fattah el-Sisi took part in the Russia-Africa Economic Forum. During the plenary session held under the theme “Russia and Africa: Uncovering the Potential for Cooperation” and attended by top officials, politicians and business leaders, and almost 2,000 Russian and foreign companies, the debts write-off as as basis for economic growth and for developing long-tern relations featured prominently.

“Economic issues are an integral part and a priority of Russia’s relations with African countries. Developing close business ties serves our common interest, contributes to the sustainable growth, helps to improve quality of life and solve numerous social problems,” President Putin said, and then added, “Russia provides systematic assistance to developing the African continent. Our country is participating in an initiative to ease the African countries’ debt burden. To date, the total amount of write-offs stands at over US$20 billion. Joint programmes have been launched with a number of countries involving the use of debts to finance national economic growth projects.”

On September 5, 2017, President Vladimir Putin attended a meeting of BRICS leaders with delegation heads from invited states, including the Heads of State and Government of Egypt, Tajikistan, Mexico, Guinea and Thailand. The meeting discussed the implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and prospects for further developing their partner relations. Before the meeting, the BRICS leaders and delegation heads form invited states had a joint photo session, President Putin informed that “Russia has been working actively to implement the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. We have written off over US$20 billion of African countries’ debts through the Heavily Indebted Poor Countries Initiative.”

On January 30, 2015, President Putin sent his greetings to the 24th Ordinary Session of the Assembly of the African Union Heads of State and Government. The message stated in part: The Russian Federation’s relations with our African partners are developing positively. We have established a substantial political dialogue and work actively together in international affairs. Russia’s decision to write off much of African countries’ debt and the preferential conditions we offer the majority of Africa’s traditional export goods open up new possibilities for trade, economic and investment cooperation.

On March 27, 2013,in Durban, South Africa, in a speech at meeting with Heads of African states, President Putin explicitly noted “Over the course of many decades, Russia has provided direct assistance to the African continent. I would like to note that we have written off over 20 billion dollars in debt; we have written off far more than any other G8 nation. We plan to take additional measures to ease the debt burden.”

According to the Russian leader, the BRICS group’s companies are working actively in the African market; there is a growing influx of investments into various sectors in Africa’s economies, from traditional mineral extraction and farming to high technologies and banking. He added BRICS countries are championing the rights and interests of Africa and other nations with emerging economies, speaking out in favour of increasing their role and influence in the global governance system, particularly international financial and economic organizations.

On June 28, 2002, in Kananaskis, Canada, there was a media conference after the G8 Summit. There was one specific question regarding Africa. The G8 approached the plan submitted by African countries in a creative way. What can be Russia’s role and place in addressing the global problem of combating poverty?

President Vladimir Putin answered: “As regards Russia, it has traditionally had very good relations with the African continent. We are very perceptive of the problems on the African continent. I must say that Russia has been making a very tangible contribution to solving Africa’s problems. Suffice it to say Russia is making a big contribution to the initiative adopted here, a multi-lateral initiative, including the writing off part of African debts. Of all the African debts that are to be written-off, 20% are debts to the Russian Federation. That is US$26 billion.”

On May 21, 2007, The Kremlin made available Excerpts of the Transcript of the Cabinet Meeting. Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin on the meeting of G8 finance ministers. The issue about supporting and helping African countries. Minister Kudrin told the cabinet meeting; “We discussed the implementation of a number of initiatives that should improve the management and transparency of public finances in those countries, including by better employing revenues from the extraction of mineral resources in Africa to fight against poverty.”

“We discussed responsible lending and relations with countries that have benefited from debt relief. We are writing off debt, reducing these countries’ debt burden, and meanwhile their opportunity to incur new debts is increasing simultaneously. And a number of countries are starting to make huge loans to these countries, taking advantage of the fact that they are no longer in debt and lending to them at such a rate that these countries will once again require help. These instances exist. In fact, this practice is liable to be perceived in a negative way. A number of leading countries in the world are engaged in this practice,” he said.

At Sochi summit, Putin’s announcement about “debt write-off” was, therefore, nothing new. The Africa’s debts write-off debt has been played for years. It featured in Foreign Minister Lavrov speeches, at least between 2007 and 2015, as indicated here from the official website of the Foreign Affairs Ministry.

Remarks by Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov at the UN Summit for the Adoption of the Post-2015 Development Agenda, New York, September 27, 2015 (1814-27-09-2015).

He said: “Russian development assistance is invariably aimed at solving the most pressing challenges faced by the countries in need. In these efforts, we are neither trying to lecture our partners on how they should build their lives, nor impose political models and values. Poverty eradication is the key objective of Russia’s state policy in the area of international development assistance at the global level.”

Debt relief is an effective tool in this regard. Under the Heavily Indebted Poor Countries Initiative (HIPC), our country has written off over 20 bn US dollars of the principal debt owed by African countries alone.Russia also contributes to reducing the debt burden of the poorest countries beyond the HIPC through debt-for-aid swaps. We also take other steps towards the settlement of debt owed to Russia, both within multilateral and bilateral formats, he added.

Speech by the Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov at the reception on the occasion of Africa Day, Moscow, 22 May 2014 (1243-22-05-2014). As it is known, Russia has written off over 20 billion US dollar debt of African states. We are undertaking steps to further ease the debt burden of Africans, including through conclusion of agreements based on the scheme “debt in exchange for development” according to the Foreign Minister.

In April, 2014, the President of the Russian Federation, Vladimir Putin, approved the new State policy concept of the Russian Federation in the area of contribution to international development. Its practical implementation will contribute to the build-up of our participation in the area of assistance to the development of states of the African continent, Lavrov said in the report posted to the website.

Transcript of Remarks by Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation Sergey Lavrov at Reception on Occasion of Africa Day, Moscow, May 26, 2008 (751-26-05-2008). “Russia has done a great deal to alleviate the debt burden, particularly in the framework of the Enhanced Heavily Indebted Poor Countries Initiative, and in writing off multilateral debts to the IMF and the International Development Association. The overall amount of the African countries’ indebtedness cancelled by us, including on a bilateral basis, exceeds 20 billion dollars, of which about one-half in the last two years,” Lavrov told the gathering on Africa Day in 2008.

As far back as May 2007, the Foreign Ministry showed interest in Africa’s debts. “We are helping our African partners reduce the burden of foreign debt. We have written off African debt within the framework of the initiative to reduce the indebtedness of the poorest nations,” Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said at May 25 gathering of a group of ambassadors, diplomats and ministry officials marking Africa Day.

The move signaled Russia’s intention to fulfill its commitments made at that time Group of Eight (G8) meetings as well as paving the way to increased trade with the African continent. It was then, signed into law March 10 ratifying the agreement between Russia and African countries it aided during the Soviet era. Russia continued discussions on a full debt write-off on bilateral basis, African countries owed nearly US$20 billion. The debt was primarily through weapon deliveries, according to the official transcript.

“The most important aspect of economic cooperation in our foreign policy is to encourage African countries to trade with us and to not only depend on development aid. Always looking for aid makes these countries less productive and funds for projects end up in foreign banks at the expense of the suffering population,” Lavrov said.

In March 2019, President Vladimir Putin chaired a meeting of the Commission for Military-Technical Cooperation with Foreign States and Kremlin’s website transcript pointed to the geographic reach of military-technical cooperation as constantly expanding, with the number of partners already in more than 100 countries worldwide.

Since then, President Putin has repeatedly called for renewed efforts, not only, in preserving, but also, in strengthening Russia’s leading position on the global arms market, primarily in the high-tech sector, amid tough competition. He further called for reliance on the rich experience in this sphere and building up consistently military technology cooperation with foreign states.

“We strictly observe international norms and principles in this area. We supply weapons and military equipment solely in the interests of security, defence and anti-terrorism efforts. In each case, we thoroughly assess the situation and try to predict the developments in the specific region. There are no bilateral contracts ever targeted against third countries, against their security interests,” he explained.

According to the Kremlin website, Russia targeted global export contracts worth 50 billion dollars in 2018. Russia’s export priority is to expand its scope and strengthen its position on the market.

Over the past years, strengthening military-technical cooperation has been a strong part of the foreign policy of the Russian Federation. Russia has signed bilateral military-technical cooperation agreements with many African countries. On the other hand, Moscow’s post-Cold War relations with Africa, undoubtedly, lean toward military support and arms trade. Analysis by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) indicates that between 2014 and 2018, Russia accounted for 49% of arms imports to North Africa and 28% to Sub-Saharan Africa.

Africa has started accumulating fresh debts. For example, Johan Burger’s article details crucial information in relation to Russia’s military interests in Africa. Russia has established or intends to establish military bases in Sudan along the Red Sea Coast, Somaliland, and Egypt. Another publication highlights Russia’s military bases in Madagascar, Mozambique, and Guinea. Lately, the Central African Republic intends to host a Russian military base.

Last October, President of the Arab Republic of Egypt, African Union Chairman and Co-Chairman of the Russia-Africa Summit, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, noted in his speech at the plenary session of the Russia-Africa Economic Forum: “Africa welcomes the efforts to encourage an open door policy and cooperation with its partners with a view to making a breakthrough in developing its economy. Russia and other foreign countries as well as international financial organizations have to develop cooperation and invest in Africa.”

Further, the Egyptian leader urged international and regional financial organizations to take part in funding Africa’s economic growth and to give it financial guarantees on consolidating its economic potential. This would help promote trade and investment. Further urged foreign countries to grant African states generous terms for their projects and development programmes, which will help Africa reach its dream – to embark on the road of progress, modernization and sustainable development.

Before concluding his speech, President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi emphasized that cooperation with Africa must be based on common interests, on the protection of African property, which would allow Africa to promote comprehensive sustainable development by carrying out three major goals.

First, it is necessary to accelerate economic reforms and create a businesslike atmosphere by establishing close partnership with the private sector. Second, it is essential to implement social justice principles with the broad participation of society. Third, it is necessary to consolidate peace and stability in accordance with the African Union’s Agenda 2063 and Sustainable Development Goals 2030.

Significantly noting that African Union officials have repeatedly urged African leaders to prioritize Africa’s Agenda 2063 – a strategic framework for delivering on Africa’s goal for inclusive and sustainable development – and the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The 15-member UN Security Council has unanimously adopted a resolution welcoming AU initiatives for infrastructure development and pledging support for “African solutions to African problems” in an attempt to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)..

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Sergey Lavrov: Violations of journalistic rights and discrimination against media are increasingly evident

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Restrictions imposed by legislative and executive authorities may negatively impact the work done by journalists in Russia. The OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, Harlem Désir, raised this concern during the OSCE conference on media freedom in Russia and in the OSCE area, held in Moscow earlier this month. He also drew attention to the problem of the security of journalists and the impunity of those, who commit crimes against them. 

Harlem Désir singled out as the most dangerous laws on insulting powers-that-be, fake news, the law on “sovereign Internet,” as well as the abuse of the law on countering extremism and the law on foreign agents, particularly in the case of Deutsche Welle. Mr. Désir added that since Russia had voluntarily committed to abide by OSCE standards, it is called upon to protect media freedom, just like any other OSCE member, which he always appeals to in cases of entry bans and obstruction of accreditation for Russian journalists.

While acknowledging the seriousness of the above trends, Harlem Désir still emphasized that the very fact that journalism remains an unsafe profession is an overarching problem that needs to be addressed. He recalled the killings of Anna Politkovskaya in Russia, of Pavel Sheremet in Ukraine and of the Maltese journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia, all of which have gone unpunished, as well as incidents of rough treatment of journalists during the recent protests in Moscow. He welcomed the release of Ivan Golunov, Kirill Vyshinsky and Igor Rudkov, all of whom took part in the conference as speakers. He expressed concern about the fate of the recently detained Svetlana Prokopyeva, and singled out the case of Kirill Vyshinsky as highly important as it involved two OSCE countries, and also the release of Ukrainian citizens Roman Sushchenko and Oleg Sentsov. Kirill Vyshinsky thanked the OSCE representative for his active participation and handed him a list of journalists currently being prosecuted in Ukraine.

The Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov is concerned about the non-inclusive and opaque nature of projects that are implemented in circumvention of multilateral platforms, such as the Conference on Media Freedom in London, which Russian journalists were not allowed to be present at. Russian media were likewise barred from attending last year’s OSCE conference in Kiev (while anyone could be freely accredited at Moscow’s conference, Lavrov noted). Sergey Lavrov also criticized the “Journalism Trust Initiative” media questionnaire proposed and organized by Reporters without Borders.

“This is not just an initiative by this particular non-governmental journalistic organization – it is endorsed by the French government,” Lavrov said.

“Each time someone wants to find information on a particular topic, modern technology will dish out for him exactly what Reporters Without Borders thinks is right,” he added. Lavrov said there was a link between the current trends to constraint freedom of speech and discriminate against the media to the West’s desire to reduce the “Russian-language area” in the world and its “fear of fair competition in the information space.”

Sergey Lavrov criticized attempts to deny accreditation for Deutsche Welle, as well as any other media outlet in a clear reference to calls earlier made to this effect by the State Duma lower house of the Russian parliament to recognize the German news agency as a foreign agent. Lavrov added that DW journalists had been summoned to the Foreign Ministry for a meeting with the deputy director of the Ministry’s Department of Information and Press where they admitted as “incorrect” their coverage of the summer protests in Moscow. Maria Zakharova explained that Deutsche Welle published routes of unauthorized marches, which she said could be construed as political agitation.

Commenting on the laws adopted in Russia, which can hamper the work of the media, Sergey Lavrov noted that they are fully in line with the provisions of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which allows certain restrictions of free speech in cases when it violates state laws concerning protection of morality and national security.

“We will protect our culture and values, including by legislative means,” Sergei Lavrov emphasized. He proposed to reassert the commitments to safeguarding freedom of speech and access to information made by the OSCE countries during the 1990s at the forthcoming meeting of the OSCE foreign ministers in Bratislava, and to hold a roundtable within the OSCE framework where journalists could agree how best to draw a line between quality journalism and propaganda.

From our partner International Affairs

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Global protests: Russia and China risk ending up on the wrong side of history

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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Widespread perceptions see Russia together with China as the rising powers in the Middle East as a result of America’s flip flops in Syria and US president Donald J. Trump’s transactional approach towards foreign policy as well as Russian and Chinese support for regimes irrespective of how non-performing and/or repressive they may be.

Russia has sought to capitalize in other parts of the world, particularly Africa, on its newly found credibility in the Middle East as part of its projection of itself as a world power on par with the United States and China.

African leaders gathered in late October in the Black Sea resort of Sochi for the first ever Russian African summit chaired by president Vladimir Putin. China has hosted similar regional summits.

Mr. Putin has proven adept at playing a weak hand well and for now, Russia alongside China, that has the financial and trading muscle that Moscow lacks, are basking in their glory.

Yet, Russia and China could find themselves in tricky situations with protests across the globe from Latin America to Hong Kong threatening to put the two powers on the wrong side of history.

Iran, Russia’s partner in supporting Syrian president Bashar al-Assad and a strategic node in China’s Belt and Road initiative, is already struggling to come to grips with being in the bull’s eye of protesters.

Protesters in Iraq have denounced Iranian influence in the country while Iran’s Lebanese Shiite ally, Hezbollah, is part of the elite that protesters hold responsible for their country’s economic malaise.

Russia and China are well aware of the risk. Not only because of the resilience of protest in Hong Kong but also because of past popular revolts in former Soviet republics that constitute Russia’s soft underbelly and in some cases border on the strategically important but troubled Chinese north-western province of Xinjiang.

Recent protests in Kazakhstan were as much about domestic governance issues as they were about Chinese influence in the country and the crackdown on Turkic Muslims, including ethnic Kazakhs in Xinjiang.

Central Asia, moreover, is potentially for China a black swan. It is together with Southeast Asian nations Laos and Cambodia, home to countries most indebted to China.

A recent study by scholars at Harvard University’s Kennedy School, the University of Munich and the Kiel Institute for the World Economy concluded that about half of Chinese overseas lending remained unrecorded leaving Central Asian and other nations with no precise oversight of their debt.

“These hidden overseas debts pose serious challenges for country risk analysis and bond pricing,” the study warned.

The risk of ending up on the wrong side of history looms even larger with Russia seeing prevention and/or countering of popular revolts as one of its goals in attempting to stabilize the Middle East, a region wracked by conflict and wars.

Russia, as part of its stabilization effort in the wake of its intervention in Syria, has proposed replacing the US defense umbrella in the Gulf with a multilateral security arrangement.

“Russia is seeking stability which includes preventing colour revolutions,” said Maxim Grigoryev, director of the Moscow-based Foundation for the Study of Democracy, using the term employed to describe popular revolts in countries that once were part of the Soviet Union.

Echoing Kremlin policy, Mr. Grigoryev said Syria was “a model of stabilizing a regime and countering terrorism.”

Russian military intervention in Syria has helped president Bashar al-Assad gain the upper hand in a more than eight-year long brutal war in which the Syrian government has been accused of committing crimes against humanity.

Russia has denied allegations that its air force has repeatedly targeted hospitals and other civil institutions.

Russia’s definition of stability with Syria as its model is unlikely to go down well with youth-driven protests that have already affected twelve of the Arab League’s 22 members.

In some of the most dramatic incidents, this year’s popular revolts forced the leaders of Algeria, Sudan and Lebanon to resign. Iraqi prime minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi is next in line.

Latin America and Africa, like the Middle East and Central Asia, home to often poorly governed, resource-rich countries with youthful populations, are in many ways not that different.

Some Latin American leaders, including Argentine Foreign Minister Jorge Faurie and Luis Almagro, the secretary-general of the Organization of American States, have denounced what they see as interference in protests in Chile, Ecuador, Bolivia and Haiti by two Russia and China-backed countries, Venezuela and Cuba.

Ecuador’s interior minister, María Paula Romo, said last month that authorities had arrested 17 people at an airport,  “most of them Venezuelans . . . carrying information about the protests.”

Policy analysts Moisés Naím and Brian Winter argued that irrespective of whether Venezuela and Cuba have sought to exploit continental discontent, “Latin America was already primed to combust.”

Messrs. Naim and Winter attribute popular anger to disappointing economic growth, stagnating wages, rising costs of living, mounting inequality, and corruption on the back of a commodity boom that significantly raised expectations.

Russian and Chinese support for embattled regimes at the risk of alienating protesters, who have proven in among others Chile, Iraq and Hong Kong undeterred by repressive efforts to squash their protests, will have paid off if it helps engineer the kind of stability Mr. Grigoryev is advocating.

Russian and Chinese leaders may be banking on a development akin to what Messrs. Moses and Winter describe as the emergence of repressive Latin American regimes in the 1970s and 1980s as a result of leaders’ failure to tackle slowing economic growth. The failure fuelled a decline of faith in democracy and the rise of populists.

“The same gears may churn toward mayhem and division, sown from within Latin American countries and without. Venezuela and Cuba may not be the main reason for the current protests. But if the region continues down its current path, it will be vulnerable to the next conspiracy, whether from Havana, Caracas, or somewhere else,” Messrs. Moses and Winter warned.

Events elsewhere in the world may well unfold differently. Yet, Russia and China could ultimately find themselves on the wrong side of history in an era of global breakdown of popular confidence in political systems and incumbent leadership and increasingly uncompromising, determined and resourceful protests.

Said Timothy Kaldas, a senior fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, commenting on the protests in the Middle East: “This isn’t a revolution against a prime minister or a president. It’s an uprising demanding the departure of the entire ruling class,” the very people Russia and China would like to see remain in place.

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