Photo credit: Roscongress Foundation | Danila Vorobyov - Photo: 2019

A Glimpse of Russian Policy of Writing Off African Debts

By Kester Kenn Klomegah

MOSCOW (IDN) – President Vladimir Putin hosted the first Russia-Africa summit on October 23-24 in the greatest display of Moscow’s efforts to restore its geopolitical foothold on the continent after the historical collapse of the Soviet era.

Russia had played rather a crucial role in the continent during the Soviet era, supporting independence movements and training government leaders in former Soviet client states such as Angola, Ethiopia and a few others. Moscow’s relations with Africa deteriorated after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, with China taking over as the continent’s key foreign business partner.

In a grandiose style, Moscow indeed attracted high-powered political and business representatives, among others, from the 54 African countries to Sochi, the Black Sea city of Russia. The two-day event saw more than 3,000 delegates from across Russia and Africa to discuss an array of topics from nuclear energy to mineral extraction, according to official reports.

While the summit is considered a significant development for Russia’s power-wielding ambitions on the global stage, the country largely lags far behind its geopolitical competitors on many frontiers, especially social and cultural spheres, trade and investment, and sustainable development infrastructure. But Putin has pledged to change all these, and further made a focused promise to double trade.

“We currently export to Africa $25 billion worth of food – which is more than we export in arms, at $15 billion. In the next four to five years, I think we should be able to double this trade, at least,” Putin said, and added that “Joint projects are underway in extractive industries, agriculture, healthcare and education”.

Putin pointed to the post-Soviet period, at the end of the 20th century, Russia wrote off $20 billions of African countries’ debts to the Soviet Union. That was both an act of generosity and pragmatism because many of the African states were unable to service those debts. Russia, therefore, decided that it would be best for everyone just to start cooperation from scratch.

What is noteworthy here is Moscow’s decision to write off African debts that were accumulated mostly through weapons and arms delivery to a number of African countries during the Soviet era. Now, Russia plans to send $4 billion worth of weapons to African countries by the end of 2019, the state arms exporter said during the Russia-Africa Summit. It shows that African countries have begun piling up debts similar to Soviet times.

The politics of Africa’s debt write-offs has had historical chronology. As far back as 2007, in preparing for the Group of Eight (G8) summit in Moscow, the then Russian Finance Minister Aleksey Kudrin announced that his country was to write off 100 percent of the debt owed to Russia, most of it in Africa, RIA Novosti, the State News Agency, reported. Russia also plans a large repayment of its own debt to the Paris Club of creditor nations, recommending these funds be used to write off even more African debts.

The initiative “mainly involves African states,” he said. Some 16 very poor countries would see their debt to Russia totally written off. These countries include Angola, Zimbabwe, Ethiopia, Benin, Tanzania and Zambia.

“The main condition for writing off the debt would be these countries’ agreement to fulfill certain requirements for transparency of their finances, for budget expenditures, for activities connected with the fight against poverty. The money that these poorest countries would have paid us will be spent on fighting poverty, on improving public health and education systems in these countries,” Kudrin was quoted by RIA Novosti.

In the same year as Alexey Kudrin, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said, at a May 25 gathering of a group of ambassadors, diplomats and ministry officials marking Africa Day: “We are helping our African partners reduce the burden of foreign debt. We have written off African debts in the framework of the initiative to reduce the indebtedness of the poorest nations”.

A pact was then signed into law on March 10 ratifying an agreement between Russia and African countries it aided during the Soviet era on trade, economic and financial relations as well as provisions on settling Africa’s debt to Russia. The aid was primarily through weapon deliveries, African countries owed nearly $20 billion.

“The most important aspect of economic cooperation in our foreign policy is to encourage African countries to trade with us and to not only depend on development aid. Always looking for aid makes these countries less productive and funds for projects end up in foreign banks at the expense of the suffering population,” he said.

The move signaled Russia’s intention to fulfill its commitments made at the G8 meetings as well as paving the way to increased trade with the African continent.

In October 2012, the Voice of Russia (VoR) also reported that Russia had written off more than $20 billion worth of Africa’s debts. These debts were accumulated through arms and weaponry supplied during the Soviet era, the VoR quoted the Director of the Department of International Organizations at the Foreign Affairs Ministry, Vladimir Sergeev.

In an interview with the Hommes d’Afrique magazine on March 5, 2018, in connection with his five-nation tour of Angola, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Namibia and Ethiopia, Lavrov reiterated the debt write-off while noting the need for Russia’s commitment not only to long-term cooperation but also readiness for large-scale investments in the African markets with account of possible risks and high competition there.

Professor Irina Filatova at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa and also at the Higher School of Economics of the National Research University in Moscow and author of the book titled The Hidden Thread: Russia and South Africa in the Soviet Era, offered this comment: “Undoubtedly, much of Russia’s exports to Africa consists of military equipment. Russia has not found a market for many of its other exports in Africa.”

She added :“This is obviously a solid source of funds for Rosoboronexport, the State Arms Exporer, and ultimately for Russia’s budget. From my point of view, this is not a very good allocation of funds by African counties, but if this is what they want, there is a reason for Russia to satisfy their wishes and to make money out of it as an arms producer in the world.”

As Anna Borshchevskaya, an Ira Weiner Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, explicitly observes, military has been part of the foreign policy of the Russian Federation, and Russian authorities have been strengthening military-technical cooperation with a number of African countries.

“A major driver for Moscow’s push into Africa is military cooperation more broadly. These often include officer training and the sale of military equipment, though the details are rarely publicly available,” she acknowledges in her discussion for Indepth media report.

Professor Dmitri Bondarenko, Deputy Director of the Institute for African Studies (IAS) under the Russian Academy of Sciences, told me: “With African countries, the primary aim now for Russian business is to regain a competitive edge in the global arms trade, and what’s interesting is that the approach is not ideological but very pragmatic – you pay, we ship. It’s simply business and nothing more.”

Ana Christina Alves, a Senior Researcher at the Global Powers and Africa Programme, South African Institute of International Affairs (SAIIA), explained in an emailed comment that “military equipment is undoubtedly the largest and most profitable side of Russia’s trade with Africa, the figures unfortunately don’t feature in official bilateral trade data. If these were included, the bilateral trade volume would appear much more impressive.

This is perhaps the strongest dimension of Russia’s dealings in Africa at present, but because of the nature of the business very little is known outside military circles, so hard to get the actual picture, according to the researcher.

But for historical reasons, Alves concluded that the provision of military equipment and arms (as well as related services and maintenance) remain a critical dimension of Russia and will continue generally to be so in the foreseeable future in Russia’s relations with Africa.

Quite recently, Russia has made significant arms deals with Angola and Algeria. Reports show that Egypt, Uganda, Tanzania, Somalia, Mali, Sudan and Libya have also bought arms from Russia. Small countries such as Burundi, Botswana, and Rwanda, with distinctively impoverished populations and budgetary limitations, have signed agreements. The Russians also provide military training and support.

Russia offered nuclear power plants, fighter jets and missile defense systems to African countries during the first-ever Russia-Africa Summit in Sochi. The Kremlin says $12.5 billion worth of deals were struck, however, the majority were memorandums of understanding. Russia has defence orders worth $14 billion from African countries, its state-run arms export agency said at the summit. Russia has trained more than 2,500 African servicemen at Russian Defense Ministry schools in the past five years

Why the world should care: Summarized views from experts indicated that African countries are heading toward another debt trap, a replica from Soviet era, with increased purchases from Russia. With weapons and arms, African leaders become dictatorial as opposition could be suppressed by military force. But, Putin’s foreign policy goal is to secure a level of influence for modern Russia in Africa that was once enjoyed by the Soviet Union. And, for now, Russia is ready and willing to spend money to achieve this.

In Africa, Russia seeks to guarantee security. This forms the theme for the Sochi summit: “For Peace, Security, and Development” which organizers explained serves as the foundation of the final joint declaration. In recent years, dialogue have intensified and are developing in various directions. Invariably, and not playing with words but in practice, Russia assertively supports the principle formulated by the African countries – African solutions to African problems.

As stated in their joint declaration, both parties will make efforts to continue close cooperation to resolve and prevent conflicts in Africa as part of Silencing the Guns by 2020 Initiative launched by the African Union. The principle African solutions to African problems should continue to serve as a basis for conflict resolution.

Russia and Africa have further expressed firm intention to fully contribute to achieving international peace and security and to building a more just and equitable system of international relations based on the principles of respect for sovereignty, territorial integrity, non-interference in internal affairs of States, preservation of national identity and civilizational diversity. [IDN-InDepthNews, 28 October 2019]

Please click here for Kester Kenn Klomegah’s previous articles on IDN

Photo credit: Roscongress Foundation | Danila Vorobyov

IDN is flagship agency of the International Press Syndicate. –

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