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Reflections on Russian-African relations and the 2019 Russia-Africa Summit

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Egyptian President Abdelfattah Alsisi (L) and Russia's President Vladimir Putin make statements for the media summing up the 2019 Russia-Africa Summit at the Sirius Park of Science and Art in Sochi, Russia, 24 October 2019. Mikhail Metzel/TASS Host Photo Agency

From the fall of the USSR until very recently, Africa has been viewed in Russia through the lens of Afro-pessimism. In the context of international development, this means an extremely high level of political risk for any joint ventures, low investment attractiveness, high epidemic risk, a black market for illegal drugs and arms, and human trafficking.

Throughout the whole period of Soviet-African cooperation, Africa was in virtually permanent debt. The mass cancellations of debt that occurred regularly during that period were merely symbolic gestures. During the Russia-Africa Summit in Sochi in October 2019, Putin pointed out that during the post-Soviet period Russia has forgiven African countries’ debts totalling some 20 billion dollars—this was also a symbolic gesture and met with mixed reactions both in Russia and internationally.

A different attitude to the continent reigns in Moscow nowadays—after all, Africa is home to some of the world’s fastest-growing economies. According to the IMF, in 2018 the five leading African nations in terms of economic growth were Ethiopia (with a 7.5 percent increase in GDP), Cote d’Ivoire (7.4 percent), Rwanda (7.2 percent), Senegal (7 percent), and Ghana (6.3 percent).

Vladimir Shubin, PhD, is the Leading Research Fellow of the Institute of African Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences and a Research Fellow of the Centre for Military Studies at Stellenbosch University (the Republic of South Africa). The content of this publication is the sole responsibility of the author and does not necessarily reflect the position of Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung. Translated for Gegensatz Translation Collective by Mei Zarnitsyna with assistance from Marc Hiatt.

Russia’s sphere of influence in Africa has been broadening, a fact that many find disquieting. Washington maintains 34 military bases in Africa and conducts several hundreds of billions of dollars in trade on the continent. China’s trade volume with Africa runs to 170 billion US dollars. This forces Russia to seek segments of the market that are not already occupied.

There are three Russian key actors in the African market: Rosatom, Rosneft, and Rosoboronexport. These state-owned companies hold firm positions in North Africa, but are also expanding southwards. Russian interests in Africa include the mining of precious metals, oil and gas extraction, and the construction of nuclear power stations. The Russian Federation also offers its new partners military equipment and repairs to the used military machinery supplied during the Soviet period. Although natural resources are currently at the forefront, in the long term it is socially significant mutual and multi-country projects, as well as construction projects (including roads), medicine, and education that may become significant.

President Putin has begun to discuss Russia’s preparedness to take part in a civilized competition for opportunities to cooperate with Africa, as well as Russia’s intolerance for attempts to take back former colonies under a new guise and reap excess profits, to exploit the continent without regard for its population or for environmental and other risks. Africa does not need other countries to repartition the continent’s wealth, but rather to engage in a healthy competition to cooperate with it.

What lies ahead? “The return of Russia” or new elements of a hybrid war of all against all?

“For Peace, Security and Development”

On 24 October, on the shores of the Black Sea, Russia’s so-called southern capital, Sochi, hosted the first ever Russia-Africa Summit. The Summit was organized under the banner “For Peace, Security, and Development” and ran parallel to the Economic Forum that had begun a day earlier. It was co-chaired by two presidents, Vladimir Putin and Abdel Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt, acting chair of the African Union.

The term “return” is often used to characterize Moscow’s activity on the continent. However, this term is imprecise. After the fall of the USSR, mutual relations between Russia and Africa did indeed suffer significant damage. In addition to a number of Russian embassies and consulates, most trade missions as well as 13 of 20 cultural centres in Africa were shut down. Additionally, most of the development projects supported by the USSR in the 1990s and almost all regular airline routes served by Russian airlines were cancelled. Despite this, Russia kept the majority of its embassies in Africa.

So why did this happen? In organizing its summit with Africa, why did Russia lag behind other players on the continent, both old and new?

Let us recall that the Soviet Union cooperated productively with Africa in various domains. It provided decisive aid to national liberation movements, especially those in the continent’s south. I am reminded of a remark the then-future president of South Africa, Nelson Mandela, made to me in July 1991 during the first national conference of the African National Congress after the ban on that organization had been lifted: “Without your support, we would never be where we are now.”

However, soon after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the beginning of capitalist restauration in Russia, the situation worsened dramatically. The essence of the events that followed was forecast in 1993 by Ken Livingstone, the famous British left politician and former mayor of London, when he wrote in the Morning Star: “Even a capitalist modernized Russia would be a powerful rival to the US and Western Europe. The IMF proposals are backed by the West because they would produce a weaker enfeebled Russia for the rest of this century and into the next one.”

And indeed, by following the course set out by the IMF, Russia’s leadership led its economy into a catastrophe. According to the late Yevgeny Primakov, writing in the Rossiskaya Gazeta in 2008, “The total losses of the Russian economy during the liberal reforms of 1992-98 were more than double the losses of the Soviet economy during the Second World War.”

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The sharp decrease in the nation’s economic capabilities was coupled with a deliberately one-sided foreign policy and fruitless attempts to acquire favourable credit and technology from the West, alongside a weakening of ties with the Global South. Psychological factors also played an important role when Soviet aid to Africa was used by those in power as a scapegoat for Russia’s internal problems, leading to xenophobia and racism.

Positive developments in Russia’s foreign policy began long ago, when Yeltsin’s first Minister of Foreign Affairs, Andrey Kozyrev (who now lives in Miami, where he calls on the West to expand its sanctions against Russia), was replaced by Yevgeny Primakov. Apart from subjective factors, there were also objective ones: making use of its accumulation of large gold and foreign currency reserves and having paid most of its national debt, Russia freed itself from foreign financial control and gained the opportunity to implement a truly independent foreign policy.

Gradually, an understanding has emerged that Russia and Africa need one another. Indeed, from a political standpoint the commonalities of their approaches are obvious: not wanting to quarrel with anybody, Russians, like Africans, value their independence and resist foreign pressure. Moscow is also mindful of the fact that 54 African nations constitute a strong bloc in the UN and other international organizations.

Russia in Africa

Much has been written recently about the “new scramble for Africa”. Many ask whether Russian expansion will replace China’s expansion in Africa. Russia’s position with respect to this question was clearly set out by President Putin even before the summit in Sochi. He emphasized that Russia was “ready, not to repartition the continent’s wealth, but to compete to cooperate with Africa. The main thing is that the competition should be civilized and developed in compliance with the law. We have something to offer our African friends … Our African agenda has a positive, future-oriented character. We do not ally with one party against another and absolutely reject any sort of geopolitical games involving Africa.” Africans were also clearly pleased by the Russian president’s words at the opening of the summit in Sochi: “We hold fast to the principle ‘African solutions to African problems’”.

Russia’s cooperation with many African nations is developing successfully in several domains. For example, at present 4,000 of the 17,000 African students in Russia are financed by the Russian government. Additionally, cooperation in strengthening the military defence and security of African nations has picked up significantly. For example, in the last five years more than 2,500 military personnel from African nations have graduated from the military academies of Russia’s Ministry of Defence, and every year peacekeeping police are trained by the Russian Ministry of Internal Affairs at its facility not far from Moscow.

However, mutual economic relations are still nowhere near ideal. Moscow has attempted to create favourable conditions for African countries, having forgiven 20 billion dollars in debt in the last 20 years and created a system of preferential treatment for traditional African export goods. However, even though Russian-African trade has more than doubled in the last five years, it is still rather limited, at about 20 billion dollars a year, and less than a quarter of this trade is with sub-Saharan Africa. According to the African Development Bank, Russian investment in Africa reached a maximum of 20 billion dollars in 2008, but the flow of investments is far from stable. Moreover, it is not unilateral: for example, South African-based Naspers has invested approximately 5 billion dollars in Russia.

Unfortunately, the recent sanctions against Russia have served to limit this sphere of activity, even though Russia’s economy is not, as Barack Obama described it, “in tatters”. On the contrary, the Russian economy is successfully meeting the challenges the sanctions pose. Still, another and more significant barrier to developing mutual economic ties is the absence of objective information about Russia in Africa and about Africa in Russia. We can realize the potential of our relationship only when both sides shed stereotypes imposed from outside and develop mutually beneficial cooperation that is grounded in reality.

This makes the summit of leaders, and the forum in general, which attracted businesspeople and others, particularly important. Let us examine the numbers. Representatives of all 54 African nations were present at the Summit and the Economic Forum. 45 of these countries were represented by heads of state and governments. In total, over 6,000 people participated in the forum (including mass media representatives from Russia and 104 other nations and territories). Of those 6,000, over 1,100 represented foreign business, about 1,400 represented Russian business, more than 1,900 represented official foreign delegations, and over 300 represented Russian delegations.

Especially notable was the role played by academics in preparing and organizing the Economic Forum, particularly the Institute for African Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences. In the words of director I. O. Abramova (who moderated the forum’s plenary session and introduced the Russian and the Egyptian president), the Institute expended great effort to bring this Forum to fruition and to foster understanding within both the government and the business sector in Russia of the future of economic ties with Africa.

As a result of the summit, Russian and African leaders adopted a summary declaration that contains mutually agreed-upon goals and aims for the further development of Russian-African cooperation in all dimensions: politics, security, economy, science and technology, and the cultural-humanitarian sphere. Given the international situation, the most important intention expressed in the declaration is “to work together to counter political dictatorship and financial blackmail in international trade and economic cooperation, prevent individual countries from obtaining the exclusive right to determine the appropriateness and permissible parameters of legal collaboration between other countries; avoid manipulating requirements of the global non-proliferation regime for exerting pressure on unwelcome countries and competing unfairly”.

Importantly, the declaration sets out a new framework for dialogue—the Russia-Africa Partnership Forum—which will convene summits every three years and hold annual political consultations for Russian and African Foreign Ministers. The next summit is set to take place in Addis Ababa, the seat of the headquarters of the African Union.

However, the value of the meeting in Sochi was certainly not limited to political discussion and the adopted declaration—concrete problems were also solved. Some numbers: there were 31 sessions comprising 268 presentations, as well as 569 business meetings addressing three themes: “The Development of Economic Ties”, “Creating Cooperative Projects”, and “Cooperation in the Humanitarian and Social Sphere”.

Additionally, 92 agreements, contracts, and memoranda (not counting those which are commercially confidential) totalling 1,004 trillion roubles were signed in Sochi. During the plenary session, Russian Minister of Economic Development M. S. Oreshkin introduced Russia’s competency map for Africa, which includes 39 products in seven categories: medicine, natural resource management, the digital state, education, transport infrastructure, energy, and agriculture.

The work of the forum and the summit was covered by 800 representatives of mass media (500 Russian and 250 from 43 foreign countries). It is no accident that, on the eve of the meeting in Sochi, an anti-Russian campaign distorting the politics and actions of Russia in Africa ramped up—foremost in the West. The official representative of Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Maria Zakharova, mentioned an overwhelming number of anti-Russian publications, in particular in American media, right before the Russia-Africa summit. This, of course, is an unprecedented event—we understand that somebody is orchestrating it.

But what is really interesting is that the intensity of this anti-Russian campaign decreased after the summit, and it is possible that this was due not only to the high calibre, the breadth, and the outcomes of the meeting, which were difficult to downplay, but also to Sochi’s warm, sunny atmosphere. At the end, Putin called the summit “a business meeting, but at the same time it was very friendly, perhaps even cordial”. Allow me to disagree: “cordial” is positively the right word.

It appears that both the results of the summit and the potential ties between Russia and Africa were well-expressed by the president of South Africa, Cyril Ramaphosa. Saying that the meeting “exceeded his expectations”, he thanked Russia for the support that it had offered African nations in their fight against colonialism and apartheid and likened the Russia-Africa forum to a second wave of support from Russia—this time directed towards Africa’s economic development.