As Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov begins his four African nations tour, Russia’s future is what matters the most especially in the emerging multipolar world. Russia continues to enlist African leaders’ support for its ‘special military operation’ in the former Soviet republic of Ukraine, expresses overwhelming support against the growing neo-colonial tendencies in Africa and, at least, intensifying efforts to strengthen its hyperbolic political dialogue with Africa.
Minister Sergey Lavrov visited Egypt, Congo-Brazzaville, Uganda and Ethiopia last year and attempted to justify Russia’s correctness of waging war on Ukraine. As he embarks on another round of lecturing tour to Southern Africa (South Africa, Eswatini, Botswana and Angola), the popular focused themes include geopolitical changes, growing neo-colonialism and creating multipolar world order. After Southern Africa, Lavrov would return to North Africa in February to visit Tunisia, Mauritania, Algeria and Morocco.
Since his appointment on 9 March 2004 by President Vladimir Putin, Lavrov has occupied this position for nearly two decades (20 years). Throughout these several years of his official working visits to Africa, unlike his Chinese counterparts Lavrov hardly cut ribbons marking the completion of development projects in Africa. Most of his trips were characterized by impressive policy rhetorics full of many pledges and countless initiatives, and geopolitical lectures.
During his marathon three-hour media conference, summing up foreign policy achievements and way forward on 18 January, Africa only appeared at the bottom of the discussions. And yet Africa is considered as a priority in Russia’s policy. Lavrov made little response, reminding of the forthcoming summit planned for late July 2023. He mentioned that there were drafted documents to reset cooperation mechanisms in this environment of sanctions and threats, and in the context of geopolitical changes.
“There will be new trade and investment cooperation tools, logistics chains and payment arrangements. The change to transactions in national currencies is under way. This process is not a rapid one, but it is in progress and gaining momentum,” he told the gathering in closing the media conference that day.
Nevertheless, African leaders are consistently asked for support for Ukraine. Since the symbolic October 2019 gathering in Sochi, extremely little has happened. With high optimism and a high desire to strengthen its geopolitical influence, Russia has engaged in trading slogans, and many of its signed bilateral agreements have not been implemented, including all those from the first Russia-Africa summit. The fact-files show that 92 agreements and contracts worth a total of $12.5 billion were signed, and before that several pledges and promises still undelivered.
Since his appointment in 2004 as Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation, Sergey Lavrov has succeeded in building high-level political dialogues in Africa. He will, during the first quarter 2023, engage in his geopolitical rhetoric and anti-Western slogans, often unremittingly smearing and attacking other countries especially the United States and France. His political lectures have largely overshadowed Russia’s achievements in Africa.
These three decades, hardly Lavrov cuts white-ribbons marking the handing over or completion of concrete development projects in Africa. Of course, Russia could choose to maintain its state-centric approach since it is also an admirable foreign policy instrument to push for influence in Africa. While currently, Russia seems to be soliciting the support of Africa to lead the emerging new multipolar world, Russia does not still recognize that it needs to adopt more public outreach policies to win the minds and hearts of Africans. Its economic footprint on the continent is comparatively weak.
Historically Africa has attained its political independence and currently need to transform its economy to provide a better living conditions for the estimated 1.3 billion population. That’s the factual situation now for Africa. The fight against growing neo-colonialism requires investing in the critical sectors, building needed infrastructures, modernize agriculture, production facilities for manufacturing, and add a bit of value to products by industrializing. That’s the main reason and the conditions necessitated the creation of single continental market.
Our monitoring shows that the Russian business community hardly pays attention to the significance to, and makes little efforts in leveraging unto the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) which provides a unique and valuable platform for businesses to access an integrated African market of over 1.3 billion people. Nevertheless, Russia brings little to the continent especially in the economic sectors that badly need investment. Undeniable fact is that many external players have also had long-term relations and continue bolstering political, economic and social ties in the continent.
Almost all African countries are looking for building and creating new incorporated economic situation that takes care of the growing young generation. These further involve the availability and accessibility to necessary technologies and innovations. In order to realize these novel transformations, African leaders need credible external partners with funds to invest, external partners to support large-scale projects in the continent. Days of political sloganeering are long ago gone.
It has taken three decades to finally make its return journey back to Africa. It is still at the crossroad, and worse thinking indecisively which way to turn in order to reach its the final destination. At the crossroad, there are truly four options: turn left, move ahead, choose right or go back especially this time, in the context of dramatic geopolitical changes.
Russia has to concretely design its comprehensive policy with Africa. It has to show, in practical terms, its great confidence, powering strength and clean determination in various ways to support economic sectors, to win the minds and hearts of Africans. Multipolar in its basic meaning, is creating an integrative conditions. Today’s Russia is a closed country in the world. For years, Africans have heard of ‘neo-colonialism’ and ‘Soviet-era assistance’ through lectures, speeches and official statements from Russia’s officialdom. These are archaic playing gamecards.
Russian International Affairs Council, non-government organization and policy think tank, published an opinion article authored by Kirill Babaev, Director of the Institute of Far Eastern Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, Professor at the Financial University. He made an excellent analysis of the relations between Russia and Africa. The article highlighted future perspectives based on the existing successes cloaked in building political dialogues during the previous years. On the other hand, he exposes for serious consideration by authorities some existing obstacles and weaknesses.
Going forward, Russian officials have to note: Russia’s return to Africa has been discussed in the media and at various levels of power for two decades. That the African elites, especially those who studied at Soviet institutes and universities, still have memories of the struggle for the freedom of Africa.
During the Soviet times, at the height of fighting against Western colonialism, there were economic offerings of the Soviet era. However, all these cards are a matter of the past, while in the present it has been difficult for Russia to offer Africa anything of value that could compete with large-scale Western investment or Chinese infrastructure projects (until recently), Professor Kirill Babaev wrote in his article.
Going forward, Russian officials have to note: That in another publication headlined “Russian Business in Africa: Missed Opportunities and Prospects” in the journal Russia in Global Affairs, Professor Alexei Vasilyev, former Special Representative of the Russian Federation to African Countries and Director of the Institute for African Studies, wrote in that article that Russian companies are pursuing their various economic interests in Africa.
But, Africa still accounts for just 1.5% of Russia’s investment which is a drop in the ocean. It must be admitted that Russia’s economic policy grossly lacks dynamism in Africa. “African countries have been waiting for us for far too long, we lost our positions in post-apartheid Africa and have largely missed new opportunities. Currently, Russia lags behind leading foreign countries in most economic parameters in this region,” he underlined in the article.
Going forward, Russian officials have to note: Federation Council Deputy Speaker Konstantin Kosachev said Russia’s Western opponents are trying to prevent African states from taking part in the second Russia-Africa summit, scheduled to take place in July 2023 in Russia’s second largest city of St. Petersburg.
Moreover in Senator Kosachev’s opinion, the first Russia-Africa summit held three years ago was successful, “but, in many respects, its results remained within the dimension of politics” and were not translated into additional projects in trade, economic, scientific or humanitarian cooperation. “I’m sure it will be a very serious miscalculation on our part if the next year’s summit is not prepared in a drastically different fashion, providing each of its participants with a concise roadmap of our bilateral relations, with clear incentives to participate and conclude practical agreements,” argued Senator Kosachev.
In November 2021, the ‘Situation Analytical Report’ compiled by 25 Russian policy experts vividly highlighted some spectacular pitfalls and shortcomings in Russia’s approach towards Africa. The report noted Russia’s consistent failure in honouring its bilateral agreements and several pledges over the years. It decried the increased number of bilateral and high-level meetings that yield little or bring to the fore no definitive results. In addition, insufficient and disorganized lobbying combined with a lack of “information hygiene” at all levels of public speaking.
The South African Institute of International Affairs has published its latest policy report on Russia-African relations. In the introductory chapter, Steven Gruzd, Samuel Ramani and Cayley Clifford – have summarized various aspects of the developments between between Russia and Africa over the past few years and finally questioned the impact of Russia’s policy on Africa.
According to Steven Gruzd, Samuel Ramani and Cayley Clifford, Russia has been struggling to make inroads into Africa these three decades, the only symbolic event was the first Russia-Africa Summit held in Sochi, which fêted heads of state from 43 African countries and showcased Moscow’s great power ambitions.
Russia’s expanding influence in Africa are compelling, but a closer examination further reveals a murkier picture. The authors further wrote that “Russia’s growing assertiveness in Africa is a driver of instability and that its approach to governance encourages pernicious practices, such as kleptocracy and autocracy promotion, the dearth of scholarship on Moscow’s post-1991 activities in Africa is striking.”
Now Russia’s main tactics to expand its influence, such as debt forgiveness, arms contracts to fragile states and resistance to US unilateralism, come from its transition-era playbook and are not simply throw-backs to its Soviet-era superpower status. On the other hand, Russian public diplomacy in Africa explores the targeted use of historical ties, existing anti-Western narratives, state-centric approach and educational programmes to enhance Moscow’s ‘soft power’ on the continent.
In the context of a multipolar geopolitical order, Russia’s image of cooperation could be seen as highly enticing, but it is also based on illusions. Better still, Russia’s posture in a clash between illusions and reality. Russia, it appears, is a neo-colonial power dressed in anti-colonial clothes. Russia looks more like a ‘virtual great power’ than a genuine challenger to European, American and Chinese influence.
The new scramble for Africa is gaining momentum. Russians have to face the new geopolitical realities and its practical existing challenges. With flexed-muscles sloganeering and ear-deafening noises relating to ‘neo-colonialism’ and ‘Soviet-era assistance’ should be addressed by investing in competitive sectors and economic spheres. Russia’s priority should include building public perceptions through social and cultural activities in Africa. The reality is that African leaders await practical investments proposals from potential credible Russian investors and to take advantage of the immense untapped resources.
This time raising economic cooperation to a qualitatively new level and ultimately contribute to the building of sustainable relations be the focus with Africa. After all, the 1.3 billion Africans would prefer living and working with one heart and one mind in United Africa. The slogan ‘Africa We Want’ is now propagated by the African Union. Therefore, Russians must strongly remember that Africa’s roadmap is the African Union Agenda 2063.