Russia yet to act on limitless potential of economic cooperation with African countries


For more than three decades, Russia has been trying to regain part of its Soviet-era economic influence in Africa, but such efforts have regularly hit stumbling blocks which policy experts attribute to pitfalls in its policy towards Africa. Now several reports have urged Russian authorities, first to move away from their illusionary dreams, and to adopt a more comprehensive sustainable development-oriented policies which meet the contemporary challenges facing African countries.

The latest report titled ‘Ways to Increase the Efficiency of Russia’s African Strategy under the Crisis of the Existing World Order’ co-authored by Professors Irina O. Abramova and Leonid L. Fituni castigated or reprimanded authorities who are squeezed between illusions and realities with policy ambitions in Africa. Against the backdrop of geopolitical challenges and in terms of great power competition, Russian authorities really need an insight into practical investment and economic possibilities in the continent.

The authors said that “it is time for Russia, which over the past 30 years has unsuccessfully sought to become part of the West, to abandon illusions and reconsider its foreign economic and foreign policy strategy, reorienting itself to states that are turning from outsiders into significant players in the international political and economic space and are willing to interact with our country on a mutually beneficial and equal basis”.

The report acknowledges the fact that African countries consider Russia as a reliable economic partner, and it is necessary interacting with African public and private businesses on a mutually beneficial basis. It notes, however, that the hopes of Africans to intensify cooperation with the Russian Federation should be supported by real steps in the economic and political spheres and not be limited to verbal declarations about the “return of Russia to Africa” especially after Sochi gathering which was described very symbolic.

“Today, we find ourselves in the same boat with Africans, and not only in terms of Western pressure on our political and economic agency and the desire to free ourselves from old and new forms of colonialism. We have common goals and objectives. We are mutually interested in the formation of a just multipolar world, where every country and people can find a worthy place”, according Professors Abramova and Fituni.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, which had viewed interaction with the African continent as a major component of its foreign policy, Russia, despite the colossal efforts and funds invested in the development of Africa, practically curtailed relations with African states. This was done clearly purposefully by the people who headed the foreign policy and foreign economic departments at that time, and were mainly oriented towards the West. In other words, in the 1990s, not only were the economic foundations destroyed, but so was the entire infrastructure of cooperation with Africa.

Both Abramova and Fituni, however, maintain that officials need analyse the strategies of old and new players on the African continent, and vis-avis with the current areas of Russian-African cooperation in the short, medium, and long term, and adopt practical mechanisms and tools necessary to intensify interaction, including informational and financial-economic levers.

According to the authors, these could become more attractive for African countries and contribute to the successful economic development of Russia may be the development of bilateral opportunities for technological partnerships. Their report also pointed to the fact that the key players of the non-Western world will actively advocate for multipolarity and independence from the West.

In practical terms, Russia when formulating its strategy, should consider the interests of African states formulated in the strategic document of the African Union – Agenda 2063, according to which Africa should turn into a prosperous continent with advanced infrastructure and industry and qualitatively new human potential. At the same time, it is necessary to understand clearly how interaction with Africa will contribute to the solution of Russia’s own development tasks, its economic and technological breakthrough, and ensuring national security against the backdrop of aggravated confrontation with the West.

Many other reports have argued that Russia’s policy have largely excluded non-public organizations and institutions. In other words, Russia policy focuses on state-centric approach, anything outside this is not within Russia’s designed gaols in Africa. Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov meets regularly African foreign ministers, has office-centered discussions and nothing more. He has not, not even at one-time, delivered public lecture in any educational establishment neither meet with groups of African entrepreneurs. Lavrov could also interact to share his multipolar views with distinctive youth and women groups inside Africa.

As it prepares to strengthen its overall corporate profile during the next African leaders summit, Russia’s economic presence is hardly seen across Africa. On the other side, anti-Western rhetoric and consistent political confrontation has become the main content of the foreign policy, instead of concentrating on its economic paradigms or directions within its capability to raise economic influence in the continent.

There have been several development-oriented initiatives over these years, without tangible results. Over the years, attempts have been made to understand Russia’s financial capabilities and inconsistent approach in implementing bilateral policy projects in Africa. As expected, these weaknesses were compiled and incorporated in the ‘Situation Analytical Report’ by 25 policy researchers headed Professor Sergey Karaganov, Faculty Dean at the Moscow’s High School of Economics. This 150-page report was presented in November 2021, which offers new directions and recommendations for improving policy methods and approaches with Africa.

That report further highlighted discussions on several issues of regional and international significance, and explored ways in which Russia can collaborate to drive effective development in the continent, examine carefully the challenges and opportunities in transitioning from political independence to economic stability, and this requires taking sustainable development-oriented policies toward transforming those huge untapped resources in the continent.

Nonetheless, it noted that development will require not only foreign investment but accountability, thus it is necessary to strengthen both public and private institutions. African countries are claiming ’sovereignty’ and recognition of their decisions as the bedrock for the new chosen path. That might be possible if they can wash out the corruption and change from colonial attitudes. African leadership will also need an informed population.

Some experts have similarly shared thoughts on policy setbacks and proposed useful recommendations. For instance, Keir Giles, an Associate Fellow (on the Russia and Eurasia Program) at Chatham House, London, wrote in an emailed query that lack of knowledge about investment opportunities was not the only factor holding back economic engagement. “The problem remains that there are whole sectors of the economy where Russia is simply irrelevant – to take the most obvious example, consumer goods – and so their engagement will always be dwarfed by China,” he wrote.

“The only exceptions are the traditional strengths of Russia (and the Soviet Union before it) – infrastructure, raw materials and energy. In effect, the lack of engagement is partly a consequence of the failure to develop and diversify since the end of the Soviet Union that is a fundamental challenge to the Russian economy,” the research associate wrote.

Giles added that the “economic collapse at the end of the Soviet Union affected Moscow’s engagement with Africa along with other regions. While Russia was finding its new place in the world, diplomatic representations abroad were cut back harshly and resources focused on those countries seen as essential.”

As a result, Russian expertise and engagement with Africa entered a hiatus, at exactly the same time as China started rapidly to increase investment and presence. Moscow’s recent efforts seek to redress this and catch up. Interestingly, Russia has nrealy 40 full-fledged diplomatic representations in Africa, and has fixed special trade missions to help facilitate trade and investment in a number of African countries. Despite this, economic engagement has faced difficulties over the years.

Since his appointment in 2004 as Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation, Sergey Lavrov has succeeded in building high-level political dialogues in Africa. But, his geopolitical lectures have largely overshadowed Russia’s achievements in Africa. Throughout these several years of his official working visits to Africa, unlike his Chinese counterparts, Lavrov hardly cuts ribbons marking the completion of development projects in Africa.

However, assurances made by Russian officials in their statements that Africa is “in the mainstream of Russia’s foreign policy” have not been substantiated by systematic practical activities, and the development of relations between Russia and Africa has so far been nothing to boast about. The policy content is starkly laced with anti-Western rhetoric and political confrontation.

The policy documents indicate that Moscow’s long term goals include developing investment cooperation with African countries, widening the presence of Russian companies in the African markets through increased deliveries of industrial and food products, and enhancing Russian participation in driving the economic development of Africa. At the same time, Russia needs to look at simplifying access to its market for African countries.

At least, top African diplomats in their bilateral discussions have also expressed their objective views, underscored potholes and setbacks in Russia’s policy towards Africa. Within the strategic framework, the diplomats often suggested suitable mechanisms for developing roadmaps and useful ways for effective economic interaction between Russia and Africa.

During one previous interview, former South African Ambassador, Mandisi Mpahlwa, told this article author that Sub-Saharan Africa has understandably been low on post-Soviet Russia’s list of priorities, given that Russia is not as dependent on Africa’s natural resources as most other major economies. The reason: Soviet and African relations, anchored as they were on the fight to push back the frontiers of colonialism, did not necessarily translate into trade, investment and economic ties, which would have continued seamlessly with post-Soviet Russia.

Of course, Russia’s objective of taking the bilateral relationship with Africa to the next level cannot be realized without close partnership with the private sector. Africa and Russia are close politically, but they are geographically distant, and the people-to-people ties are still rather under-developed. This translates into a low level of knowledge on both sides of what the other has to offer. There is perhaps also a measure of fear of the unknown or the unfamiliar in both countries,” according to Mpahlawa.

Afreximbank President and Chairman of the Board of Directors, Dr. Benedict Okey Oramah, says Russian officials “keep reminding us about Soviet era” but the emotional link has simply not been used in transforming relations. Oramah said one of Russia’s major advantages was the goodwill. He remarked that even young people in Africa knew how Russia helped African people fight for independence. “So an emotional link is there,” he told Itar-Tass News Agency.

The biggest development in Africa was the establishment of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA). That is a huge game-changer, and steps have been made lately in the African countries for creating better conditions for business development and shaping attractive investment climate. “Sometimes, it is difficult to understand why the Russians are not taking advantage of it? We have the Chinese, we have the Americans, we have the Germans who are operating projects…That is a very, very promising area,” Oramah said in his interview 2021 with TASS News Agency.

The South African Institute of International Affairs has published its latest policy report on Russia-African relations. In the introductory chapter, Steven Gruzd, Samuel Ramani and Cayley Clifford have summarized various aspects of the developments between between Russia and Africa over the past few years and finally questioned the impact of Russia’s policy on Africa.

According to Steven Gruzd, Samuel Ramani and Cayley Clifford, this special far-reaching policy report includes academic research from leading Russian, African and international scholars. It addresses the dimensions of Russian power projection in Africa, new frontiers of Russian influence and provides a roadmap towards understanding how Russia is perceived in Africa.

It highlights narratives about anti-colonialism and describes how these sources of solidarity are transmitted by Russian elites to their African public. For seeking long-term influence, Russian elites have oftentimes used elements of anti-colonialism as part of its current policy to control the perceptions of Africans and primarily as new tactics for power projection in Africa.

The reports delved into the historical fact that after the collapse of the Soviet era, already more than three decades, Russia is resurgent in Africa. While Russia has been struggling to make inroads into Africa these years, the only symbolic event was the first Russia-Africa Summit held in Sochi, which fêted heads of state from 43 African countries and showcased Moscow’s great power ambitions.

Nevertheless, African leaders are consistently asked to support Russia against Ukraine. With high optimism and a high desire to strengthen its geopolitical influence, Russians have engaged in trading slogans, and many of its signed bilateral agreements have not been implemented, including all those from the first Russia-Africa summit. The summit fact-files show that 92 agreements and contracts worth a total of $12.5 billion were signed, and before that several pledges and promises were still undelivered.

The war in Ukraine has elevated the level of scrutiny of Russia’s actions both in Europe and elsewhere in the world, including in Africa. Undeniably, Moscow is wooing African elites to serve its interests, African states are trying to play off Moscow, Washington, Brussels and Beijing for maximum advantage. While many complexities and nuances still remain in the entire relationships, it necessary not to over-generalize the unique features in the bilateral ties.

In the context of a multipolar geopolitical order, Russia’s image of cooperation could be seen as highly enticing, but it is also based on illusions. Better still, Russia’s posture is a clash between illusions and reality. Russia, it appears, is a neo-colonial power dressed in anti-colonial clothes,” says the SAIIA report.

Simply put, Moscow’s strategic incompetence and dominating opaque relations are adversely affecting sustainable developments in Africa. Thus far, Russia looks more like a ‘virtual great power’ than a genuine challenger to European, American and Chinese influence. The second Russia-Africa summit in July 2023 will provide an ideal opportunity to reflect on progress since the inaugural gathering in 2019, and attempt to separate bluster from the concrete facts on the ground. But, ‘who is courting whom’ in the current relations between Africa and Russia.


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