Reassessing Russia’s Engagement with Zimbabwe

As most often reiterated, Russia and Zimbabwe have had an excellent bilateral relations, dating from the time of Zimbabwe's struggle for political independence.

As most often reiterated, Russia and Zimbabwe have had an excellent bilateral relations, dating from the time of Zimbabwe’s struggle for political independence. Soviet Union supported with military equipment, training specialists and offered humanitarian supplies, and until today Zimbabwe is still looking for such bilateral relations. A comprehensive analysis indicates that not much is visible on the landscape of Zimbabwe, except frequent shuttling visits of government officials between Harare and Moscow.

The list of those official visits could be found on government websites. Of course, not all have been documented there such as those dealing with military-technical cooperation and intelligence services. But it can also be recalled here in 2022, Speaker of the National Assembly of the Republic of Zimbabwe Jacob Mudenda and his delegation paid a reciprocal working visit late September to Moscow, held separate meetings with Russian Upper House Speaker Valentina Matviyenko and Chairman of the State Duma Vyacheslav Volodin, and finally addressed the plenary session of the State Duma.

Volodin’s resonating assurances that Kremlin would take adequate steps to re-examine dynamics of the contemporary relations, and deliver promptly on pledges and promises, and on several outstanding bilateral agreements with Africa countries. “We propose to move from intentions to concrete steps,” he emphasized back in April 2019, when brain-storming ideas in preparation for the first Russia-Africa summit.

Upper Chamber Senator Matviyenko and Lower Chamber Legislator Volodin, both have similar unique declaratory statement emphasizing the fact that Russia considers cooperation with African countries to be a foreign policy priority. And that Zimbabwe is Russia’s priority in southern African region.

Upper House Speaker Valentina Matviyenko visited and donated, as Zimbabweans expected from Moscow, huge gifts in June 2022. During her conversation with the head of the charitable foundation and First Lady of the Republic of Zimbabwe Auxilia Mnangagwa with Matviyenko noted mutual understanding that has developed in Russian-Zimbabwean relations. She, in addition, drew attention to the fact that the Angels of Hope charity fund coordinates the selection of candidates from low-income families for higher education in Russia under the quota of the Government of the Russian Federation.

“We highly appreciate it that the Zimbabwean leadership remains committed to the development of bilateral relations and mutually beneficial cooperation with Russia. And that Zimbabwe is resolutely resisting the unprecedented pressure of the collective West led by the United States, their open attempts to dictate their will,” Matviyenko said.

Besides the above charity, Russia-Zimbabwe Intergovernmental Commission on Economic, Scientific and Technical Cooperation has held series of meetings in Harare and Moscow. Several agreements have been signed down the years to engage seriously in economic sectors, just mention them, infrastructure development, transport, agriculture, industry  nuclear technology et cetera. An increasing interest points to the Russian business community in building a beneficial partnership with Zimbabwe. For these to materialize, frequent interactions have been made possible, based on decades of strong ties of friendship and cooperation since the days of Zimbabwean Robert Mugabe.

One major landmark was Zimbabwe and Ethiopia, among African countries, have signed agreements with Russia to cooperate on the peaceful use of nuclear technology on the sidelines of the Russia-Africa Economic and Humanitarian Forum in St Petersburg, in July 2023. Rosatom has offices in Cairo and Pretoria with the responsibility of managing the nuclear projects in Africa.

For decades, Rosatom has signed (and resigned) agreements with African countries for the construction of nuclear plants for civilian purposes. Today, African countries face major challenges in ensuring energy security. Experts believe that nuclear technologies can become a driver for socio-economic development and a comprehensive solution to the systemic continent-wide problems. In addition, nuclear, of course, offers long-term sustainability and diversity away from solar and hydro.

This unique steps seemingly suggests a pragmatic approach prioritizing Africa’s energy security, on one hand. It is interesting to note, on the other hand, that Russia’s nuclear agreements with 28 African countries, none has been fully undertaken and completed primarily due to lack of finance. The key hindrance is the cost of producing nuclear energy and how best to deal with nuclear waste so as to maintain safe environment, the risk that it poses from poor handling and management. After the first Russia-Africa summit held 2019, Russia has, as an exceptional case, granted $29 billion loan for the nuclear plants construction in Egypt based on its strategic bilateral relations. The nuclear agreement was signed as far back in 2015.

President of the Republic of Zimbabwe, Emmerson Dambudzo Mnangagwa, since the beginning of the Russia-Ukraine war, has utterly rejected the United States appeal to support sanctions against Russia. It has, therefore, won Russia’s sympathy as a ‘friendly’ African ally. In return, Zimbabwe was given in late 2023 what was termed ‘delivery at no-cost’ grains and fertilizers, these were in addition to supplies of military equipment and training of Zimbabwean citizens on state budget at educational institutions in the Russian Federation. According the official statistics, there are currently 400 Zimbabwean citizens studying in the Russian Federation.

Mnangagwa, while visiting as a guest speaker at the 27th St. Petersburg International Economic Forum (SPIEF) and his special meeting with President Vladimir Putin in June 2024, was excited at winning favours by explaining, at length, how the United States has been supporting neighbouring southern African countries. Ultimately, Mnangagwa was to get better treatment for a broader supply of arms and weaponry, and food to feed the impoverished population. He did not negotiate for investment in agriculture, he did not suggest the construction of, at least, a kilometer road or a local school in any of the rural regions in Zimbabwe.

What was important for Zimbabwe, Mnangagwa asked for the chance to enhance bilateral cooperation, and that Zimbabwe is “one of the few countries in southern Africa that is regarded as anti-West” so there is the concrete basis for pursuing a more consolidated relations to escape being further isolated in southern Africa. “And there is a lot more that we can open for the Russian Federation to participate in our economy, especially in the mining sector and agriculture,” he stressed in his discussion. 

Russia’s perspectives on the struggle against growing neo-colonialism and Western-style tendencies, most probably, has to do with pushing for large-scale development programmes, supports for attaining economic sovereignty. If that is the case, then Russia needs to borrow a single page from China. Zimbabwe has the full-fledged confidence to opt for hosting the third Russia-Africa Summit in Harare simply because China has given that country a new parliamentary village with modern facilities for large conferences. That compared, Russia has not constructed a single one-kilometer road in the transport sector in Zimbabwe consistently claims having under its umbrella an excellent relations from the Soviet times.

The new parliament building is located in Mount Hampden, approximately 25 kilometres northwest of Harare. The parliamentary chambers can accommodate up to 650 legislators, their offices, conference rooms and meeting spaces. The engineering, procurement and construction (EPC) contract was awarded to Shanghai Construction Group, who erected the building between December 2018 and April 2022. The building complex was officially handed over by a Chinese government delegation to the government of Zimbabwe on 26 October 2023. The construction was fully funded at the cost of nearly $200 million by the Government of China, according to reports by Zimbabwean media.

Perhaps generally, Russia aspires positioning itself as a leader in Africa, it thus far remains with its aspirations in the media headlines. Uprooting neo-colonialism requires investment in building economic sectors designed to improve the living standards of the impoverished population, creating employment for the youth. Russia’s footprints, such as providing infrastructure in agriculture, industry, transport and other sectors, are really invisible in the continent. The fundamental conservative assessment indicates that Africa is largely at the bottom position in terms of overall development in the southern hemisphere, what is now called the Global South.

Russia is gathering the Global South as a force against the United States and western Europe. Africa has been  give all kinds of descriptions, one being having “unparalleled natural wealth and boundless potentials,” and by this definition, Russia has to determine its proposed commitment for driving economic diversification, transformation and development across the African continent. That however, its rhetoric has reached the highest peak of the African mountains.

Zimbabwe has the world’s second-largest platinum reserves after South Africa. Russia declared interest in the development of a platinum deposit in Darwendale. Several reports later confirmed that Russians have abandoned their lucrative platinum project contract that was signed for $3 billion in September 2014, the platinum mine in the sun-scorched location about 50 km northwest of Harare, the Zimbabwean capital. With great pomp and pageantry, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov launched the $3 billion Russian project back in 2014, after years of negotiations, with the hope of raising its economic profile in Zimbabwe.

Reports also indicated that the project was expected to involve a consortium consisting of the Rostekhnologii State Corporation, Vneshekonombank and Vi Holding in a joint venture with some private Zimbabwe investors as well as the Zimbabwean government. Until today, Sergey Lavrov and Zimbabwean officials desisted from mentioning this Darwendale project in their speeches. It has been one decade – 2014 to 2024. And that is Russia’s economic influence in Africa.

At that time, Zimbabwe’s Ambassador to Russia, Major General Nicholas Mike Sango, told me in an extraordinary interview that, “For a long time, Russia’s foreign policy on Africa has failed to pronounce itself in practical terms as evidenced by the countable forays into Africa by Russian officials. The Russian Federation has the capacity and ability to assist Africa overcome multiple challenges and leverage onto Africa’s vast resources.”

Sango further expressed his views as follows: “Africa’s expectation is that Russia, while largely in the extractive industry, will steadily transfer technologies for local processing of raw materials as a catalyst for Africa’s development.”

According to Sango, Zimbabwe was open to investment in energy and transport, including the construction of railways and highways, and was looking to attract and secure foreign investment and cooperation to transform the country’s economy. Zimbabwe’s key priorities summarized as follows (in order of priority):

Energy: For industry and commerce to thrive there has to be sufficient power. Presently, Zimbabwe has a power deficit of 750 MW. The most reliable source is the 750 MW Hydro power plant which has been affected by low water levels due to two years of drought. The country is relying on power imports.

Agriculture Support: Agriculture is the economic mainstay and provides 15% of GDP. Water harnessing through dam construction, irrigation mechanization, and agricultural machinery are key areas.

Infrastructure Development: Although the country has a fairly well-developed infrastructure, the road and rail infrastructure need refurbishment and expansion to take trade volumes for the country as well as its neighbours to the north.

Mining: Zimbabwe is endowed with abundant untapped resources.

Manufacturing: Zimbabwe’s manufacturing sector has been hit hard by illegal economic sanctions. Most industries have outdated and expensive to run machinery. They are in dire need of retooling, refurbishment and funding.

Tourism: Zimbabwe hosts one of the wonders of the world, the Victoria Falls. Investment in infrastructure development in the hotels would complement the opening by larger airports to accommodate larger body aircrafts.

The principle for engagement and re-engagement is open to all the countries in the world. Zimbabwe is ready to cooperate in development and business with external countries and for the benefit of the people. Mnangagwa has reiterated that Zimbabwe is open for business.

According to the government handbook, mineral exports and gold, agriculture and tourism are the main revenue earing sources. The mining sector remains very lucrative. Its commercial farming sector is traditionally another source of exports and foreign exchange. In southern African region, it is the biggest trading partner of South Africa. Zimbabwe, a landlocked country, is one of the 16-members of the Southern African Development Community (SADC).

Mnangagwa has been committed to opening up Zimbabwe’s economy to the rest of the world in order to attract the much-needed foreign direct investment to revive the ailing economy and make maximum use of the opportunities for bolstering and implementing a number of large projects in the country. That Zimbabwe would undergo a “painful” reform process to achieve transformation and modernization of the economy.

Zimbabwe has various potential investment sectors besides mining. There is a possibility of greater participation of Russian economic operators in the development processes in Zimbabwe, and southern Africa. But Russians need to move away from too much rhetoric and to make concrete economic engagement over the forthcoming years. Zimbabwe, a landlocked country in southern Africa, shares a 200-kilometre border on the south with South Africa, bounded on the southwest and west by Botswana, on the north by Zambia and on the northeast and east by Mozambique. Zimbabwe is a member of the Southern African Development Community (SADC). 

Kester Kenn Klomegah
Kester Kenn Klomegah
MD Africa Editor 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.