Beyond China and Africa: a focus on Russia

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LogoIn the last of our ‘Beyond China and Africa’ series, Danielle Johnson analyses the ‘warming ties’ between Russia and the continent. She asks whether a more comprehensive agenda might emerge from the ad hoc projects in which political and economic leaders are currently engaged, and explores how domestic concerns are shaping Russia’s foreign policy. Danielle has a PhD in Politics and International Relations from the University of Oxford. She is a Fellow of the Alfa Fellowship Program in Moscow, Russia.

Russia is usually not the first country that comes to mind when thinking about African foreign relations. There is much more interest in China’s role in Africa, not least because of its relentless pursuit of natural resources in the continent. Unlike China, Russia has significant natural resources of its own, but there are numerous examples of Russian-African cooperation in a variety of spheres. Russian authorities have written off billions of dollars of African debt and routinely sell arms to African governments. Russian companies conduct mining operations, drill oil wells, build railways, engage in residential land development, and supply energy resources and expertise throughout the continent. In 2009, then-President Dmitry Medvedev took the most extensive tour of Africa since the collapse of the Soviet Union, showing interest in African oil, gas, diamond, and uranium industries. He later appointed Mikhail Margelov, chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the upper house of the Russian parliament, as a Special Envoy for African Affairs. Most recently, President Vladimir Putin has presided over the warming of ties with South Africa.  During the March 2013 BRICs summit in Durban, Putin and South African President Jacob Zuma signed multiple agreements including a joint memorandum to create a partnership to regulate the oversupply of platinum resources. Zuma has already visited Sochi in Russia since the BRICs summit and the two leaders will meet again in St. Petersburg in September during the G20 forum.

However, there is a general consensus that Russia is late to the game in Africa. Trade between the two remains negligible (although Russian-South African ties have increased substantially). Unlike its counterparts in China or the U.S., the Russian government has not taken a strategic, comprehensive approach to developing partnerships with African countries. Despite the examples described above, there is little evidence of any solid diplomatic or business agenda towards Africa emanating from the highest levels of the Russian state. Although Russia is increasingly aware of the economic incentives for engaging more systematically with African countries, thus far its approaches have been predominantly ad hoc and individual companies have been responsible for many existing initiatives. On the other hand, there is also a sense that many African governments and businesses are unsure of how to take advantage of potential opportunities for cooperation with Russia, in part because of a lack of understanding about how to break into Russian markets and navigate Russian culture in the post-Cold War era.

During the Cold War, the Soviet Union had a strong presence on the African continent and concrete ideological objectives for its engagement with particular countries. Soviet authorities supported left-leaning regimes in countries such as Angola, Ethiopia, and Mozambique as they sought to spread communism more widely and counter American influence in the continent. The abruptness of the collapse of the Soviet Union was deeply disorienting for those regimes that had been benefiting from Soviet support, and the new Russia that emerged from the ruins of the Soviet system has never made a concerted effort to rebuild those relationships. Nonetheless, whilst Margelov claims no member of the BRICs are ‘tainted by a colonialist past’ in Africa, Cold War perceptions are still influential. A rather extreme example comes from Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni, who commented on an official visit to Moscow in December 2012 that:

‘I came to Russia to express my gratitude for the support that we have been receiving since the time of the Soviet Union…Moscow is a center that encourages and helps liberation movements. It is a great pity that the Soviet Union had problems when we needed each other most. Nevertheless, Russia has recovered. We welcome the position of Russia and China in the struggle against imperialist hegemony. Progressive forces in Africa, working with Russia, China, Brazil and so on, have an opportunity to contribute to world peace.’

Despite the provocative tone, Museveni’s comments could resonate in Russia, where Soviet nostalgia remains and anti-Western sentiments have been on the rise in official rhetoric.

More than two decades after the collapse of the Soviet Union, there may be even broader geopolitical implications to Russia’s re-emerging interest in Africa. The Russian Federation is a relatively new country, and it is still struggling to determine its national identity and define its role in international affairs. The BRICs forum is potentially important in this regard, although Russia must be careful not to channel its policies towards Africa primarily through South Africa. More broadly, Russian authorities are faced with a strategic choice about how to behave as a member of such multilateral forums and it remains unclear to what extent they will embrace the concept of multilateralism itself. However, as Margelov has suggested, many African countries are looking to balance Chinese and U.S. influence on the continent. In this context, Russia could see a geopolitical advantage to becoming more deeply engaged in African affairs and forging a much-desired sensed of sovereignty and international authority.

Another way that Russia may be attempting to increase its presence in Africa is through an expanding scholarship policy. This quieter form of diplomacy, which is often overlooked, hearkens back to Soviet times, when many African students and scholars studied in Moscow. However, there is some irony in the attempt because Russian authorities have yet to adequately confront the serious problem of racism and xenophobia in Russia itself. Darker-skinned people from the Caucasus, Central Asia, and Africa are routinely harassed or attacked in the country, where an increasing number of laws focused on promoting “traditional” values and limiting outside influence are creating a nasty climate of intolerance and suspicion. While these policies emanate from Russian authorities’ deep-rooted fear of internal instability, they create a clear disconnect in the context of cultural exchange and expanding Russian-African relations .

While Africa can (and does) provide great opportunities for Russia, relationships within the continent will inevitably be shaped by its own troubled domestic politics and approach to foreign policy. In reality, domestic and foreign politics never evolve in isolation from one other, and this could explain reactions to warming ties with Russia in countries like Uganda. The danger is that both sides will view their cooperation primarily through the lens of anti-Western sentiment. While both Russia and African governments may have legitimate concerns about Western involvement abroad, this would be an ideologically convenient but ultimately insubstantial basis for foreign policymaking and economic development. It would undermine productive dialogue on mutually beneficial solutions to pressing problems and exclude the benefits that multilateralism could bring.

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