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  • Writer's pictureMichael Padilla-Pagan Pay

Russia's return to Africa, or new battle ground for Influence

The summit is done and as I sit on this airplane , I ponder what I have heard, and glad I was offered the chance to participate. I wanted to listen to how this Summit was going to present itself, as well as what I have experienced in working in Russia and working with Russian companies, as there are some serious obstacle to the development of comprehensive ties i have listed several of them, but one of them is the lack of objective information about Russia in Africa, and about Africa in Russia. The potential of relations can be realized only if both sides shed the stereotypes imposed from outside and develop mutually beneficial cooperation, grounded in reality.

In terms of Russia’s foreign policy, 2019 could be called the Year of Africa If all these plans materialize, this would signal Russia’s return to Africa. But as I have stated in this article look at the past and some of the challenges Russia will face.

Russian Return

Okay so the term “return” is often used to describe Moscow’s activities on the continent. Indeed, during Soviet times, Russia fruitfully collaborated with Africa in various fields. The USSR provided vital assistance to countries struggling to achieve independence and democracy in Africa, especially in the south of the continent. I recall the words that Nelson Mandela said to me in July 1991 during the first national conference of the ANC after the ban on this organization was lifted: “Without your support, we would not be where we are now.”

However, soon after radical political changes in Moscow, the situation sharply worsened. The Russian economy crashed: according to the late Yevgeny Primakov, a deeply respected statesman, the losses for the Russian economy as a result of the so-called “market reforms” in the 1990s exceeded by more than two-fold the losses witnessed during the Second World War. This colored Russia’s international relations; the Global South and especially Africa were sacrificed to fruitless attempts to obtain soft loans and technology from the West. This neglect clearly manifested itself in the closure of a number of Russian embassies and consulates, almost all trade missions, and 13 of Russia’s 20 cultural centers in Africa. Most of the development projects supported by the USSR in Africa were closed, and all regular flights of Russian airlines were cancelled.

In addition to the economic disaster of the 1990s, the psychological factor was also important; Soviet aid to Africa was used as a “scapegoat” in trying to justify the country’s problems, reinforcing xenophobia and racism. Thus, although it would be wrong to say that Russia left Africa, there were not so many muscles left on the skeleton of bilateral relations.

The return the bear

So, one should not be surprised that the first summit bringing together Russia and the leaders of African countries should take place after almost three decades. Of course, positive shifts in Russia’s foreign policy have been taking place for a long time, and the explanation commonly given is that the country got a new leader at the turn of 2000. The position of Russia strengthened over the following decade, is thanks to Russia’s accumulation of large gold and foreign exchange reserves and its repayment of most of its public debt.

But let us face it, Russia and Africa need each other. Moscow always remembers that the 54 African states represent a strong electoral bloc within the UN and other international organizations. Russians, like Africans, value their independence and resist foreign pressure; they value the growing role of Africa in the international arena.

The reality is there are several challenges for Russia’s African strategy.

1. Ensuring that Russian companies engaged in economic projects in Africa, primarily in raw materials extraction, act in the spirit of corporate social responsibility is good, but what about the corruption side of Russia? Russian companies need includes training local staff and offering career opportunities and social upward mobility. To make this work, Russian Companies must open corporate training centers in Africa similar to Russian vocational schools, as well as training Russian faculty and recruiting local teaching staff. Otherwise, Russia will inevitably face accusations of acting as a neo-colonialist power with the sole objective of controlling mineral resources.

2. Combining implementation of purely commercial projects with development assistance programs in African countries (both on state and business levels). In this sphere, Russia’s position is much weaker – at least, from the public relations point of view – than that of the West, or Gulf States, or China, or India. Development assistance makes up the major part of many African countries’ economies, and it is assistance projects of this kind that will form local public opinion on whether Russia has or has not contributed anything good to Africa.

3. Countering Western anti-Russia views that are spreading in Africa and shaping a narrative whereby only dictators and outcasts partner with the Russians. Therefore, efforts to improve Russia’s image must target not only the continent’s elite, but also a broader public opinion. Russia need to learn and understand the local markets and cultural issues not sure Russia has the capability to create and develop appropriate media tools to this effect.

4. Being receptive to the left-leaning liberation discourse that is common among Africa’s elites and public opinion at large. China’s success in Africa is largely attributable to the fact that the ideology of the Communist Party of China relies on the same discourse, which means that the Chinese and the Africans are guided by the same notions. It has to be taken into consideration, however, that a left-leaning discourse is far from prevalent in Russia’s domestic policy.

5. Displaying an attentive and caring attitude towards the African diaspora in Russia, including helping the victims of human trafficking who find themselves in Russia and disrupting human trafficking flows. Another objective is to overcome racist stereotypes that persist in marginal segments of Russian society, this is a huge task for Russia.

And so, with all that I have stated above one has to ask is Africa the new market for Russia or is it replacing China expansion of Africa? Russia’s position on this issue was clearly explained by President Putin on the eve of the Sochi summit. He emphasized that “we are not going to participate in a new reparation of the continent’s wealth; rather, we are ready to engage in competition for cooperation with Africa, provided that this competition is civilized and develops in compliance with the law. We have a lot to offer to our African friends.... Our Africa agenda is positive and future oriented. We do not ally with some against others; and we strongly oppose any geopolitical ‘games’ involving Africa.” Time will tell what is agenda of Russia but also what is Africa Agenda?

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