Sunday, April 18, 2021
Add this page to Blinklist Add this page to Add this page to Digg Add this page to Facebook Add this page to Furl Add this page to Google Add this page to Ma.Gnolia Add this page to Newsvine Add this page to Reddit Add this page to StumbleUpon Add this page to Technorati Add this page to Yahoo

ideas have consequences

You are here:Home>>Strategic Research & Analysis>>Russia ‘rediscovers’ Africa after a decade of neglect
Saturday, 18 May 2013 22:41

Russia ‘rediscovers’ Africa after a decade of neglect

Russian President Putin and South Africa President Zuma in Africa. (REUTERS) Russian President Putin and South Africa President Zuma in Africa. (REUTERS)

THE collapse of the Soviet Union, the demise of Soviet communism and the end of the Cold War in 1991 also brought an abrupt end to Moscow’s African involvement. This involvement of about 40 years left a mixed legacy. On the one hand, the Kremlin’s ideological objective to promote Marxism-Leninism as an alternative to western capitalism in Africa was a notable failure. On the other hand, counteracting western strategic designs, exporting revolution and helping to liberate Africans from colonialism and racism were of historical significance.


Adopting a nonaligned posture during the Cold War years, Africa found the Soviet Union a useful collaborator, reaping significant benefits in the form of diplomatic and military support, development aid, soft loans and grants. Oddly enough, however, there is hardly any evidence of Africa showing appreciation. In spite of all its efforts, the Russian Federation (the successor state of the Soviet Union), disappeared from Africa without leaving much of a footprint.


Marxist/Leninist/socialist practices failed and were mostly dumped by the African countries that tried them. No economic and cultural legacy of any consequence was left behind. However, a caveat is that, unlike the colonial powers, Russia has no chip on its shoulder from its past African involvement.


After almost a decade of absence and neglect, the Kremlin is "rediscovering" Africa. This time around, in contrast with the Soviet past, it is entering Africa without the driving force of an ideological obsession. Essentially, Russia wants to do business with Africa, although geopolitical/strategic considerations are no doubt also part of the game. These considerations form part of President Vladimir Putin’s resolve to restore Russian "dershavnost", or "great-powerness"; to rehabilitate the Rodina (motherland) after the feeble and humiliating implosion of the Soviet Union, to catch up in the global power-political pecking order and to play a meaningful role in reshaping the global economic and political architecture.


The Kremlin realises that, as a strategic, diplomatic and business partner, Africa can help it to get closer to this vision. It knows Africa can no longer simply be dismissed as the "hopeless continent", as The Economist so flippantly wrote not so long ago. Various African countries have emerged as economic success stories in an otherwise depressed global economy, becoming particularly attractive for business, trade and investment by powerful international players. Russia does not want to miss the boat in this new "scramble for Africa".


So things are on the move again between Russia and Africa. A moot question is, however, whether Russia has got what it takes to become a major player again on the African scene. What counts in its favour is that it is not burdened by the colonial albatross and has a common resentment with most African states towards western assertiveness and domination. But these sentiments alone will not be enough for Russia to join the league of China, among others, and become a major player. This will take time, effort and new and lucid strategic thinking.


Even so, some promising opening moves have been made. Punctuating Africa’s growing importance in the Kremlin’s world vision, there were official African visits by Putin in 2006 and Dmitry Medvedev in 2008, and about 12 big Russian companies have become active in selected African states.


Formal diplomatic ties have been established with most African states and Russia is not involved in any African controversy of note. In multilateral bodies, particularly the United Nations (UN), Russo-African co-operation is generally amicable.


But while formal relations are in good shape, the Kremlin realises it has a lot of catching up to do in other areas. For example, by 2010, Africa was responsible for only 1% of Russia’s total global trade. But to move forward from here, Russia should in the first place find a more dynamic and innovative way of doing business in Africa, modifying its general approach and style, which still come across as too staid and bureaucratic, if not quite "Soviet-like". It should specifically make a greater effort to become more visible as a positive, value-adding role player on the continent. In this respect, it could perhaps take note of the US’s Growth and Opportunity Act, which boosted trade with Africa by about 240% between 2000 and 2006, of China’s Africa reach-out, which saw bilateral trade rising from $11bn to $166bn in the past decade, as well as the liberal trade promotion policies of the European Union, Canada and Japan, aiming particularly to securing a niche in an African consumer market of 1-billion people (2-billion by 2050).


For the present, Russia is mainly focused on Africa’s huge reservoir of largely untapped natural resources. In 2009, oil and natural gas comprised 67.4% of total Russian exports, 30% of its gross domestic product (GDP) and 40% of government revenue. About 75% of its oil and gas exports went to Western Europe, creating a situation of dependence vulnerability on the part of the latter — a situation Russia is eager to maintain and perpetuate for strategic and economic reasons.


At the same time, it also wants to remain the world’s primary exporter of energy products (30% of its GDP and 64.7% of its total exports at present) for economic reasons and also in its quest towards "derzhavnost". But there are obstacles, mainly the escalating costs of accessing its domestic natural resources and fluctuating global markets.


In the Kremlin’s thinking, Africa offers attractive alternative options. A handful of Russian companies, notably Norilsk, Sintez, Lukoil, Rusal, Severstal, Gazprom, Alrosa, Rosatom, Arosa and Evras, are exploiting these options and opportunities.


Basically, they are in Africa to make money, although, as is the inimitable Russian way, their business interests are closely interlinked with Russian national interests, as defined by the Kremlin.


After resources, arms sales are Russia’s biggest money-spinner in Africa, worth $14bn last year and involving 14 African states. These are government sales. Notably, Russia abstained from voting in the recently adopted UN Arms Trade Treaty (154 states approving), raising doubts about whether it will forgo this lucrative market.


But as the UN vote shows, the international mood is changing and to ignore it by continuing to sell arms to African conflict areas characterises Russia as the villain of the piece and in the role of agent provocateur, as in Cold War times.


This form of engagement might also jeopardise positive aspects of its new African engagement, for example, the significant debt reductions it made to several African countries: $20bn last year, in addition to the $16bn written off in 2008. Such efforts, and changing its style, reaching out to African civil society and making more use of "soft power", could help Russia overcome its present recognition deficit in Africa.


Russia’s Brics (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) membership seems to offer an interesting new opportunity, acting in conjunction with South Africa, under the Brics umbrella, to reach out to Africa.


The Declaration of Strategic Partnership signed during Putin’s recent visit to South Africa could be an instrument to this effect, on condition, of course, that South Africa lives up to its posturing as a "gateway" to Africa.


• Olivier is a former South African ambassador to Russia and is an extraordinary professor in the Department of Political Sciences at the University of Pretoria.


Add comment