After nearly three decades of extremely low political, economic and cultural engagement, Russia is indeed returning to Africa. For obvious reasons, Russia’s relations with Africa turned extremely worse as some diplomatic representations were unexpectedly cut, all cultural centers closed, and many projects were suspended. Of course, relations with many foreign countries have faded into the background compared with the challenges the country had to deal with in order to preserve its statehood.
Understandably, Russia has had to struggle with its post-Soviet internal and external problems especially during the first decade, from 1991 till 2000, which has been described by policy experts as the “Lost Decade on Africa”.
Still the second decade, 2000 to 2010, saw the reawakening with decades among the Kremlin, Government officials and academic researchers debated consistently whether “Russia needs Africa or Africa needs Russia” while African leaders were already turned towards Asian and the Gulf regions especially China and often asked why wake up the “Sleeping Giant Bear”. China became the best development suitor in Africa.
During this period, Russia seems to have attained relative political and economic stability. “As we regained our statehood and control over the country, and the economy and the social sphere began to develop, Russian businesses began to look at promising projects abroad, and we began to return to Africa,” noted Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov early September when he addressed students and staff of Moscow State Institute for International Relations.
This process has been ongoing for the past 15 years. The return is now taking the form of resuming a very close political dialogue, which has always been at a strategic and friendly level, and now moving to a vigorous economic cooperation.
To reflect and consolidate these trends and in order to draw up plans for expanding consolidated partnerships with the African countries, President Putin initiated the Russia-Africa Summit last year during the BRICS summit in Johannesburg. The initiative was strongly supported. This October, it will be implemented under the co-chairmanship of the heads of Russia and Egypt, since this year Egypt is heading the African Union.
Further, from my research and monitoring, it is interesting to recall here that during the BRICS summit in Durban, on March 26-27, 2013, BRICS countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) discussed, among other topics, “BRICS and Africa: Partnership for Development, Integration and Industrialization.”
The BRICS membership gives an additional competitive advantage. Firstly, none of the members of this association is tainted with a colonial past on the African continent, and second, the BRICS member countries as a matter of principle do not interfere in the internal affairs of African countries. None of the BRICS member countries spread democracy in Africa by force or impose their values with the help of expeditionary corps and air strikes.
The U.S. and the European Union (EU) monopoly in African countries is steadily coming to an end, as new players have come to the African continent, namely the BRICS countries. Russia is now the new force. Russia’s renewed interest in Africa is due to a desire to restore its previous influence and to build allies as it experiences growing criticism by Western countries.
During my long years of research has shown me that Africa is a huge continent that still requires economic development. Its active demographic growth and abundance of natural resources are creating conditions for the emergence of probably the world’s biggest market in the next few decades.
Today, Africa moves towards raising its social, economic, scientific and technological development, and is playing a significant role in international affairs. African states are strengthening mutually beneficial integration processes within the African Union (AU) and other regional and sub‑regional organizations across the continent.
Furthermore, African leaders keep in mind other key questions such as rising unemployment, healthcare problems and poor infrastructure development. That is, they now focus on measures toward realizing the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
So, in the contemporary period, Russia and Africa have to, both at a bilateral level and in various multilateral formats, take significant new steps forward in new joint projects in extractive industries, agriculture, healthcare, and education. Besides, there are aspects of the diplomacy that really need focus, for example cultural and social spheres as well as the use of soft power. Indeed, the forthcoming Russia-Africa Summit on October 23-24 should lay the necessary foundation for improving all these for a stronger partnership.
Quite recently, Foreign Affairs Minister Lavrov assertively acknowledged “Africa is one of our priorities. Our political ties in particular are developing dynamically. But economic cooperation is not as far advanced as our political ties. We believe that we should promote joint activity in order to make broader use of the huge potential of Russian-African trade and investment cooperation.”
Political dialogue: Russia has intensified promoting political dialogue, including the exchange of visits at the top levels. Interaction between foreign ministries is expanding. Last year, 12 African foreign ministers visited Russia. According to my calculation, Sergey Lavrov and his deputy Minister, Mikhail Bogdanov, have held talks with nearly 100 African politicians including ministers, deputies between January and September 2019. Bogdanov has interacted with all African ambassadors in Moscow.
Lavrov conducted bilateral dialogue with African countries at the UN in New York, between September 24 and 30, 2019. Lavrov held talks with Foreign Minister of Algeria Sabri Boukadoum, Foreign Minister of Morocco Nasser Bourita and Prime Minister of Sudan Abdallah Hamdouk among others.
During their conversation on the sidelines of the 74th Session of the UN General Assembly, all the sides discussed matters concerning the further expansion of multifaceted partnership, foreign policy collaboration in regional and international affairs.
With other questions such as the practice of democracy, Russia does support whatever regime is in power. While this makes its policy predictable, it does not encourage good governance and democratic practices in those countries that are severely challenged in these areas. Many other countries follow this practice and even countries like the United States, which often do speak out forcefully on behalf of good governance, are not always consistent.
Economic and investment cooperation: Africa truly is a continent of new opportunities and there is huge potential here for developing economic ties. Many see Africa’s growth primarily not because of aid, it is because of businesses and entrepreneurship, consistent efforts at creating wealth and employment. Africa in the 21st century does not need charity but wants to be an economic partner. African countries are not lacking the resources to boost the relationship, but the will power has always been put on hold or totally ignored.
Russia has shown strength in Africa in niche sectors such as nuclear power development, launching African satellites, and constructing energy and mining projects. It has been seeking to exploit conventional gas and oil fields in Africa; part of its long-term energy strategy is to use Russian companies to create new streams of energy supply. With regard to other economic areas, it may have to identify more sectors like this rather than compete head-to-head in a wide range of sectors with European Union countries, China, the United States, India, and others.
But U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration said recently that “Russia has bolstered its influence with increased military cooperation including donations of arms, with which it has gained access to markets and mineral extraction rights. With minimal investment, Russia leverages private military contracts, such as the Wagner Group, and in return receives political and economic influence beneficial to them.”
While Russians are aware of the equal competitive conditions in the continent, Africans on the other hand view Russia as another fairly large trading partner and, probably a stabilizing and balancing factor to other foreign players. In terms of stringency of strategic outlook and activeness on economic engagement, the country is seriously lagging behind China, U.S., EU, the Gulf States, India and Brazil.
Trade: Russian aid, trade, and investment in Africa, especially Sub-Saharan Africa, are modest. Russian exports to Africa have been growing modestly and reached $18.5 billion in 2017. Russian imports from Africa have been flat and totaled only $2.1 billion in 2017. This was well below Turkey’s trade with Africa in 2017.
Russian trade is heavily concentrated in North Africa, especially with Egypt. Noticeably, Russia’s relationship with North Africa is more significant. Nevertheless, Russia apparently wants to maximize the business relationship rather than the aid relationship. The problem is that Africa has little that Russia wants to buy.
It is, however, necessary to raise trade and economic ties to a high level of political cooperation. Russia and Africa have to show not only an exceptional commitment to long-term cooperation but also readiness for large-scale investments in the African markets taking into account possible risks and high competition.
Equally important are African businesspeople who are looking to work on the Russian market. Definitely, time is needed to solve all these issues including identifying and removing obstacles to mutual bilateral trade and investment.
Weapons and arms diplomacy: After the collapse of the Soviet era, Africa owed US$20 billion, later written off. This debt was due to weapon and arms delivery to Soviet allies including Ethiopia, Angola, Zimbabwe, Mozambique and a few other African countries. Now, Russia is the largest seller of arms to Africa and is willing to sell to any country. This gives it a certain advantage as many Western countries prohibit arms sales to a few countries.
More recently, Russia has made significant arms deals with Angola and Algeria. Egypt, Tanzania, Somalia, Mali, Sudan and Libya have also bought arms from Russia. The Russians also provide military training and support.
In Africa, Russia seeks to guarantee security. In the classical sense, security guarantees imply something different. Russia has very warm, historically developed relations since their decolonization. This forms the theme for the Sochi summit: “For Peace, Security, and Development” which organizers explained would serve as the foundation of the final joint declaration.
Soft power interplay: Experts and members of the Valdai Discussion Club noted that soft power has never been a strong side of Russian policy in the post-Soviet era. Federation Council and State Duma, both houses of legislators, enacted a law that banned foreign NGOs from operating in the Russian Federation. As a result, African NGOs that could promote people-to-people diplomacy and support cultural initiatives as well to push for good image, is non-existent.
On education and culture. Simply cultural cooperation could be described as catastrophic. With education, Russia now offers a few state scholarships. Official figures from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs pegged it at 15,000 students, only one-third of this receives Russian grants. The remaining two-thirds are fee-paying clients. The Ministry of Higher Education told me last month during interview discussions that there are nearly 21,000 African students while some in the far regions are still undocumented. This also means that African elite and the middle class pay approximately US$75 million annually to Russian educational institutions. Average tuition is US$5,000 per year.
Over the years, one of the key challenges and problems facing Russian companies and investors has been insufficient knowledge of the economic potential, on the part of Russian entrepreneurs, the needs and business opportunities of the African region. Africa needs broader coverage in Russian media. Leading Russian media agencies should release more topical news items and quality analytical articles about the continent in order to adequately collaborate with African partners and attract Russian business to Africa. The media can, and indeed must be a decisive factor in building effective ties.
After several years of consistently constructive criticisms, Russian authorities have ignored media cooperation. Russia could use its media resources available to support its foreign policy, promote its positive image, disseminate useful information about its current achievements and emerging economic opportunities especially for the African public.
Russian media resources here, which are largely not prominent in Africa, include Rossiya Sevogdnya (RIA Novosti, Voice of Russia, Sputnik News and Russia Today), Itar-Tass News Agency and Interfax Information Service. Besides, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs could use its accreditation opportunities to allow African media to work in Russia. While the Foreign Ministry has accredited foreign media from Latin America, the United States, Europe and Asian countries, none came from sub-Saharan Africa. Instead of prioritizing media cooperation with Africa, high-ranking Russian officials most often talk about the spread of anti-Russian propaganda by western and European media in Africa.
Professor Vladimir Shubin, Deputy Director of the Institute for African Studies under the Russian Academy of Sciences, reiterated: “Russia is not doing enough to communicate to the broad public, particularly in Africa, true information about its domestic and foreign policies as well as the accomplishments about Russian culture, the economy, science and technology in order to form a positive perception of Russia abroad and a friendly attitude towards it as stated by the new Concept of the Foreign Policy.”
Russia-Africa Summit: Russia holds its first summit in October. Through this, Russia and Africa aim jointly at advancing relations to a fundamentally new level and a wider dimension. Of course, Africa is not fully satisfied with Russia due to its “diplomatic niceties” and largely unfulfilled pledges and promises. Russia already has a plethora of post-Soviet bilateral agreements that it is now implementing, with some degree of limitations, in various African countries. It’s clear that Russia might not make any public financial commitment as many foreign countries have done over the years. But Russia needs to demonstrate that it has a plan to engage Africa in a significantly greater way than it has in recent years.
According to my investigations, Russia would sign 23 new bilateral agreements with a number of African countries and issue a joint declaration that would lay down a comprehensive strategic roadmap for future Russia-African relations.
Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, while addressing the Russia-Africa Economic forum in July also added his voice for strengthening cooperation in all fronts. “We must take advantage of all things without fail. It is also important that we implement as many projects as possible, that encompass new venues and, of course, new countries,” he said.
Medvedev stressed: “It is important to have a sincere desire. Russia and African countries now have this sincere desire. We simply need to know each other better and be more open to one another. I am sure all of us will succeed if we work this way. Even if some things seem impossible, this situation persists only until it has been accomplished. It was Nelson Mandela who made this absolutely true statement.”
In July, President Vladimir Putin took part on third day of the International Parliamentarian Forum that also brought African legislators, emphasized that “the modern world needs an open and free exchange of views, confidence building and search for mutual understanding”.
Indeed, judging from the above discussions about the changing geopolitical relations, after the first Russia-Africa Summit, there has to be a well-functioning system and mutual willingness in the spirit of reciprocity to achieve a more practical and comprehensive results from the new relations between Russia and Africa. [Find more from the Geopolitical Handbook titled “Putin’s African Dream and The New Dawn: Challenges and Emerging Opportunities” devoted to the first Russia-Africa Summit 2019.]