By Nina Bachkatov and Andrew Wilson
On 23-24 October, President Putin opens the first Russia-Africa Economic Forum in Sochi as part of the Russia-Africa summit. More than 50 African heads of state have been invited, which is why it was described as the signal of Russia’s return to Africa.
Indeed, Russia’s interest for Africa has increased sharply during recent years since the very vague reference to Africa in the first foreign policy doctrine of president Putin in Jun 2000. In it he said that “Russia will develop its interaction with African countries and help to settle as quickly as possible African regional military conflicts… It is also necessary to develop a political dialogue with the Organisation of African Unity and with sub-regional organisations, and to use their capacities to allow Russia’s participation in economic development projects on the continent”.
Step by step
Despite the lack of precision in the formulation, this can be regarded as the basis of what will become Russia’s involvement in Africa, each step depending of the internal situation of Russia and its economic development. But it will stay coherent with the will of Putin’s regime to be present all through the world, in which as then foreign minister Igor Ivanov said “Africa is not less important that other regions”.
During all these years, Russia articulated its policies around countries that were “friends” of the Soviet Union, notably Angola, South Africa, Egypt and Algeria, and then extended it by larger and larger circles – reaching new territories in Western Africa. In September 2006, president Putin made a visit already qualified as “historic” to South Africa, Egypt, Algeria and Morocco – the first time a Russian leader ventured south of the equator. He declared that Russia was returning to a region where it had always had geopolitical interests and that its interest included all the continent. The message was repeated in February 2013, when foreign minister Lavrov crisscrossed the continent from Algeria to South Africa, with stops in Mozambique and Guinea. At the time, Russia’s political and economic priority on the African continent included Angola, Namibia, Congo, Ghana, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Mali, Guinea, Tanzania, Nigeria, Ethiopia and South Africa.
If one remembers that, on the top of that, a dozen of African leaders visited Moscow since 2017, one can hardly see the Forum as a surprise and even less as a return of Russian to Africa.
This does not mean its presence has been a full success. Its approach is very mercantile, with a priority given to countries rich in natural resources (diamond, extraction sites, oil, uranium) and in agricultural resources (coffee, tea, cocoa, maritime productions) that can compensate for shortages of the Russia sites or their reduced potential.
Energy co-operation is central, as well as military co-operation, and they are often interlinked. Russia has been shamelessly offering arms and training to any government ready to pay. It also provides spare parts and modernisation programmes to countries equipped with old Soviet material. But to prevent the stigma of increasing the debts of already indebted countries, Russia tends to propose co-operation in fields it is interested such as fishing rights or access to management of mineral resources
On the eve of the Forum, it is difficult not to see it as a counter to Washington’s US-Africa Summit, China’s Forum on China-Africa Cooperation, and Japan’s Ticad conferences, as well as the EU’s Europe-Africa meetings.
This is only a part of the answer. Russia is aware that it cannot compete with other countries because it came late, and with limited financial capacities. For instance, its 20bn$ trade with Africa is about a tenth of China’s. It is also very cautious not to profile itself as competitor with other countries, notably Western Europeans, well established in different African countries.
In short, Russia’s African policy is coherent with its global strategy consisting in the capacity to project itself on all continents, the most important being to be present, even in a junior position. It has been able to take profit of the vacuum left by countries affected by an “African fatigue” and of the inefficiency of many cooperation or aide programmes. And in return it gained support at the United Nations where African leaders play a larger role than earlier.
To African leaders, and part of the African population, Moscow offers two specifics making it attractive: it has no colonial past on the continent nor links with slavery; it provides unconditional cooperation; and it works with the regime in place whatever sympathy it may have or not with it, contrary to former colonial powers and the US. It is also a stable and predictable partner.
In the meantime, Russia’s penetration in African suffers from a limited understanding of the African world compared with other regions such as, for instance, the Middle East.