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Time to Clarify What African Leaders Want from Russia

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From various interpretations, Russia is taking advantage of the past Soviet-era connections, Africa’s growing dissatisfaction and disappointment with the Western world, but its economic influence remains marginal compared to other key foreign players. Despite the fact that Western and European are experiencing falling influence, they are still far ahead of Russia, especially considering its global status. China is the main player in the continent.

Russia has sought to convince African leaders, the elites and the middle class over the past years of the likely dangers of neocolonial tendencies perpetrated by the former colonial masters and the scramble for resources on the continent. Obviously, Russia has taken the most difficult task, reminiscent of the Cold War, particularly in the 1980s when East-West confrontation reached its heights leading finally to the collapse of Soviet in 1991.

Some international and African experts and even political leaders seriously argue that the best way to fight neocolonialism is to invest in order to jostle for economic influence. Russia has highly criticized foreign players, including the United States and European Union members. On the other side, Moscow believes that it is open to cooperation with everyone for mutual benefit, while it seemingly deepens differences there, which threatens African unity.

In practical terms, Russia’s policy largely has numerous setbacks and potholes, but officials have now began acknowledging them step by step. The most common attitude is too loud noise on its dream, characterized by anti-Western confrontations, of return to Africa. Results from policy initiatives are relatively little, invisible across Africa. Russia’s approach brings only little concrete results relating to badly needed economic development and its African partners.

Nevertheless, trying to understand whether Russia is a developing development-oriented policy towards Africa, it simply necessary to list development projects that it has undertaken and completed since Soviet collapse. Russia hoped to be part of Europe, and develop trade from Lisbon to Vladivostok, that has been the popular post-Soviet dream. It has even reflected in foreign travels within the spectrum of its population. Moscow today is still not a popular destination for Africa’s 380 million middle class.

The first such summit was held in Sochi from October 2019 under the motto “For Peace, Security and Development” which attracted a large number of African representatives. As Russia prepares to strengthen its overall corporate economic profile during the next African leaders summit in July 2023, many Russian policy experts are questioning bilateral agreements that were signed, many of them largely remained unimplemented, with various African countries.

At the prestigious Moscow-based Institute for African Studies, well-experienced policy researchers such as Professors Vladimir Shubin and Alexandra Arkhangelskaya have argued that Russia needs to be more strategic in aligning its interests and be more proactive with instruments and mechanisms in promoting economic cooperation in order to reap the benefits of a fully-fledged partnership.

“The most significant positive sign is that Russia has moved away from its low-key strategy to vigorous relations, and authorities are seriously showing readiness to compete with other foreign players. But, Russia needs to find a strategy that really reflects the practical interests of Russian business and African development needs,” said Arkhangelskaya, who is also a Senior Lecturer at the Moscow High School of Economics.

Currently, the signs for Russia-African relations are impressive – declarations of intentions have been made, a lot of important bilateral agreements signed – now it remains to be seen how these intentions and agreements entered into these years will be implemented in practice, she pointed out in an interview.

The revival of Russia-African relations have to be enhanced in all fields. Obstacles to the broadening of Russia-African relations have to be addressed more vigorously. These include, in particular, the lack of knowledge or information in Russia about the situation in Africa, and vice versa, suggested Arkhangelskaya.

It plans to hold the next African leaders summit in July, despite the fact that it has not implemented already signed 92 bilateral agreements and largely not delivered on its words concerning engagement in various economic sectors in African countries. 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.

Another policy 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 changes and great power competition, Russian authorities really need to have an insight understanding into the 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.“

In addition, the report underlined the fact that the Russian elite demonstrates a somewhat arrogant attitude towards Africa. High-ranking officials have often used the phrase ‘We (that is, Russia) are not Africa’ to oppose attempts to change the status quo, to change approach towards Africa. Despite the thoughtless imposition of the idea of Africa as the most backward and problematic region of the world in Russian public opinion, qualified Africanists, including Western experts, call Africa the continent of the 21st century, attributing this to the stable growth rates of the African economy over the past 20 years and the colossal resource and human potential of the African region.

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. In this regard, Russian initiatives should support by real steps and not be limited to verbal declarations about the “return of Russia to Africa” especially after Sochi gathering which was described very symbolic.

The authors, however warned that failure on Russian side to show financial commitment, African leaders and the elites from the Anglophone, Francophone and Lusophone will still be loyal and inseparably linked by nostalgic post-colonial master relationship. And relates to furtherance of economic investment and development, education and training – all to be controlled by the former colonial powers, as African leaders choose development partners with funds to invest in the economy.

In the wake of changing conditions and challenges in Africa, foreign partners are constantly reviewing their economic prospects and robustly investing in order tackle long-term sustainable development goals, while African countries are making their choices based on their development needs. The result is that observers and opinion-makers struggle to understand the nitty-gritty of who is playing at what, where and how.

Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has severally reminded that the African direction is one of Russia’s priorities, and further praised Africa for its contribution to the development of a fairer and more democratic polycentric (multipolar) world order and to the settlement of current problems. “Russia actively contributed to the independence of African countries and the development and strengthening of their states. Today, we maintain friendly relations that are spearheaded into the future,” he noted.

On taking partnership with Africa to a new level, he unreservedly said: “African countries play a prominent role in international affairs and take an active position in solving topical issues of modern world politics and economics. Progress in the economic and social spheres, improving the quality of life on the African continent contributes to this.”

In his view, “this new stage and this new quality of relations should be based on common values, support for values of justice, equality and respect for the rights of nations to independently choose their future. It is within this framework that Russia continues to coordinate positions at international platforms and makes joint efforts in the interests of stability on the African continent.

Unlike Western countries, European Union members and Asian countries which focus particularly on what they wanted to achieve with Africa, Russia places anti-colonial fight at the core of its policy. In short, Russia knows what it wants from the continent: access to markets, political support and general influence. Now it is time for African leaders to clarify what it wants from Russia in return, in the lead-up to the July 2023 Russia-Africa summit

Russia-African relations are based on long-standing traditions of friendship and solidarity created when the Soviet Union supported the struggle of the peoples of Africa against colonialism, racism, and apartheid, protected their independence and sovereignty, and helped establish statehood, and built the foundations of the national economy, according to historical archival documents.