By Kester Kenn Klomegah
MOSCOW (IDN) – Russia is now the new foreign player in Africa. Russia’s renewed interest in and ‘final great return’ to Africa is primarily due to the desire to restore its previous influence, to halt economic exploitation and western dominance, and to build allies as it experiences growing criticism by Western countries.
While Russians are aware of the competitive conditions on the African continent, Africans view Russia as another fairly large trading partner and probably a stabilizing and balancing factor in the face of other foreign players. Interestingly, Russia’s return has sparked debates around the world. Russians are very sensitive toward the usage of the word “return” in business meetings, academic discussions and public speeches.
Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov answered questions during the Valdai International Discussion Club‘s panel in Sochi on October 2. He agreed that Russia has never left Africa; it has maintained diplomatic relations and continues to train specialists for those countries and building various facilities in Africa.
In fact, Africans are aware that Russia’s presence on the continent is a guarantor of security not only in the region, but also around the world. Russia has never been against other players in Africa and favors similar conditions for cooperation where all players complement each other, and their interaction is for the benefit of the peoples of Africa.
“In Africa, it seems to me that Russia guarantees security. In the classical sense, security guarantees imply something different. Russia has very warm, historically developed relations since their decolonization,” Lavrov said at the Valdai forum.
During the academic program at the Moscow State Institute for International Affairs (MGIMO) attended by the students and staff, Lavrov told his audience “as we regained our statehood and control over the country, and the economy and the social sphere began to develop, Russian businesses began to look at promising projects abroad, and we began to return to Africa”.
The return journey has been long and meandering, he added, “this process has been ongoing for the past 15 years. The return is taking the form of resuming a very close political dialogue, which has always been at a strategic and friendly level, deepening economic cooperation as well as resuming people-to-people, cultural and educational ties.”
The Valdai Discussion Club was established in 2004. The club’s goal is to promote dialogue between Russian and international intellectual elite, and to make an independent, unbiased scientific analysis of political, economic and social events in Russia and the rest of the world.
On December 19, 2018, the Valdai Discussion Club hosted an expert discussion titled “Russia’s Return to Africa: Interests, Challenges, Prospects”. The discussion demonstrated that there is no need for “Russia’s return” since its interaction with Africa was established in the Soviet times and has not disappeared after Soviet collapse. The only question is what Russia wants to and can do in Africa.
“I would like to begin my speech with the words of Foreign Minister [Sergey Lavrov], who said, referring to the current situation: ‘No more fairy tales,’” joked Oleg Ozerov, Deputy Director of the Africa Department at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Russia.
Over the past two years, contacts between Russia and Africa have expanded. Ozerov said that, in 2018 alone, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov met with 26 African leaders, who represent almost half of all African countries. At the same time, this was also due to the African countries’ interest in Russia.
Natalia Zaiser, Chairperson of the Board of the African Business Initiative, stressed that economic cooperation with African countries is not only a Russian initiative, but also a response to request from African partners. “In the situation of active presence of China and India, the African colleagues need to diversify their interaction,” the expert said.
“A balance is needed here, because the African countries understand that a dominant position of one country, especially with powerful funding institutions, will be akin to the colonial past. Russia, a long-time friend and partner of Africa, is capable to change this picture.” At the same time, cooperation must be mutually beneficial, since Russia also seeks to enter African markets and export more goods there.
According to experts, interaction at the civil society level is of particular importance, as well as joint work between non-governmental organizations that are capable of accomplishing tasks that baffle state institutions. They further understand that Federation Council and the State Duma, both houses of parliament, enacted laws that banned foreign NGOs and consequently no African NGO can work to support foreign policy in the Russian Federation.
Nearly all the experts who participated in the discussions, however, agreed that much of the entire relations would have to be built from scratch, especially cultural and social relations, for example, people-to-people ties that had developed during the Soviet era were disrupted after the collapse of the Soviet Union and Russia’s withdrawal from Africa.
Deputy Director and Chief Researcher at the Institute for African Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, Professor Vladimir Shubin, also noted Africa’s “dependence on external forces syndrome” – a negative trend which, in his opinion, is even more dangerous than the legacy of colonialism.
Russia is, indeed, returning to Africa, but Russia is not seeking to compete in Africa with the West, Europe and Asian states such as China, says Presidential Spokesman Dmitry Peskov.
“This is not about competition but about mutually beneficial cooperation. Russia has always been present in Africa, as it is a very important continent. Russia has a lot to offer to African countries in terms of mutually beneficial cooperation. Russia traditionally maintains very close relations with many of these countries,” he explained.
In an interview with the Daily Nation, Russia’s Ambassador to the Republic of Kenya, Dmitri Maksimychev vehemently rejects “latecomer” tag often given to Russia in Africa.
“We are open to ideas of cooperation that meet the needs of Africans and Russians. We have never viewed our relations with the continent from the perspective of competition, let alone confrontation. What we want is harmonious cooperation,” he stressed.
The political role of Africa on world affairs is rising. Africa is the continent of the future. The decision to have a summit came naturally, it reflects the desire to expand and enhance cooperation for the benefit of the people. It opens door for opportunities, builds partnerships and helps identify new areas and forms of cooperation, Maksimychev explains in the interview for the Daily Nation.
Many academics and experts have acknowledged that Russia is back to Africa, Africa truly is a continent of opportunities and there is huge potential here for developing economic ties. Similarly, some analysts say it’s too soon to be speaking of a major Russian presence across the continent. “There is a real difference between the masterfully promoted narrative and the reality,” French geopolitical analyst Arnaud Kalika said.
In a research paper for the French Institute of International Relations, Kalika said Russia’s return to Africa was more modest than Moscow would want the world to believe. “Russia needs Africa now more than Africa needs Russia,” he concluded.
Russian Presidential Aide Yury Ushakov, noted at the meeting called to finalize preparations for the first Russia-Africa Summit, reiterated how monumental and important the events in the Russia-Africa format are. “The organization is a serious first step towards our economic and political return to Africa, but it is essential that this return produces an economic effect, among other things,” he said.
According to reports, Russia would sign 23 new bilateral agreements with a number of African countries and issue a joint declaration that would lay down a comprehensive strategic roadmap for future Russia-African relations.
The Summit on October 23–24 in Sochi is considered as the largest event in the history of Russian-African. Kremlin hopes, at least, it becomes a regular event and helps to maintain a constant social, political and business dialogue, and will further develop mutually beneficial cooperation between Russia and the African countries. [IDN-InDepthNews, 23 October 2019]
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Photo source: Valdai Club
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