A Russian-African Comeback?

Since the fall of the Soviet Union, the new Russian Federation has rarely looked towards Africa. Slow progress and increasing competition from China and other European countries has meant Russia still has a long way to catch up in terms of engagement.

Russia has been increasingly falling back to old habits of neglecting relations with countries that don’t directly border it. The two-headed eagle facing both East and West, long symbolic of Russia’s foreign policy (facing both Europe in the East and Asia the West), has re-emerged with the recent APEC (Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation) Forum being hosted in Vladivostok.

However, Russian foreign policy is increasingly gaining ground in Africa and the Arab world – ground that it lost in the 1990s. Alexander Rahr, a political scientist from Germany stated that “Moscow has become strong enough to play its own role in world politics.”

The Chinese Monopoly – Regaining Lost Ground

China has had a colossal head start in the African continent, winning hearts and minds through investment in infrastructure and making business deals where others set foot with caution. Whilst the Soviet Union did invest heavily in Africa, and shared huge ideological ground in certain areas, the New Russia has lost ground in economic and political cooperation. Africa as part of a general aim in Russian foreign policy was neglected in the Yeltsin years and only recently resurrected by the Kremlin.

China has, since Putin’s inauguration and recent re-inauguration, had countless visits and projects in the continent. This was marked by the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) where many bilateral agreements were made, political and economic, with African heads of state.

Mikhail Margelov reminds us that during the ’90s “Russia gave up practically all of its interests, freeing up the territory for the United States, the European Union and China,” which led to “strategic losses.” Margelov, who is a Russian presidential representative, led a delegation of the Russian government to a huge forum in Africa’s diplomatic capital (Addis Ababa). Margelov spoke of Russian expansion into Africa and boasted of the cost-quality ratio of Russian infrastructure development in front of hundreds of key African businessment, and government representatives from Ethiopia, Zimbabwe, Sudan, Niger, and Mali. (Rus. Source)

However, in the same city that Mikhail Margelov spoke in, China is already present in a huge amount of business. The very building in which the forum was held was built with Chinese money, as was the new headquarters of the African Union; all of these buildings are symbols of the Chinese relationship. In 2010, China did nearly $130bn of trade compared to less than $4bn for Russia. A state visit by Putin to Africa in 2008 was quoted as a way of “looking at Africa as an emerging market where Russian corporations can do business.”

So what are the solutions here? Namibian President Pohamba has previously called for Russia to free up Russia for African imports. To increase trade, Russia could offer favourable market access to African products as has been the case with the Chinese. It would be mutually beneficial, reducing prices for consumers in Russia and producers in Africa.

Landmines and Railroads – Russian Expertise

In the same delegation to Addis Ababa last year was a Russian Railroad company. Rail is needed in Africa for transportation of goods, among other things, and as Margelov said the cost-quality ratio that Russia can achieve is enviable.

Calls from Zambia and its bordering nations such as Angola have called for Russian assistance with landmines, which have stifled economic development. Zambia’s foreign affairs minister, Given Lubinda said that “Zambia’s quest to help her neighbours during the liberation struggle came at a great cost as we found landmines along our borderlines, and with Russia’s military expertise we hope you can extend this cooperation to help us de-mine the areas.” Russian science could improve growth hugely in Zambia, and was a feature of Lubinda’s message.

Russia’s military research has not gone unappreciated in terms of selling weaponry too, only last month was a large weapons show exhibited in South Africa. Deals with North Africa have brought in money and jobs to Russia and even cooperation in arms research (not just exports).

Experience in energy means that Russian expertise will be valued across the board, as oil  prospection missions across the continent begin. Russian companies such as Rosneft, Gazprom and Alrosa are already involved in Africa, Russia’s remaining domestic sources of energy are reasonably accessible compared to Africa’s – developing abroad could work out to be more profitable.

The Soviet Legacy and African Connection

Andreï Kemarski, head of Russian relations with Sub-Saharan Africa, is quoted saying:

“In comparison to other great Western powers we have no colonial history, … Our first relations with the continent started after the installation of the Soviet regime, which supported the anti-colonial movements and the African independence movements. Therefore, our relations were first and foremost ideological, and it was from there that we were later able to establish economic ties. Since the end of communism in Russia, we have sought to expand our scope by approaching countries like Malawi and Côte d’Ivoire, with whom we had never had any relationship. We perceive a stronger demand by the African states themselves, if only as a way of counter balancing the former colonial powers and, today, also China.”

The New Russia, New Shared Values

Less powerful players in the international sphere have long called for a stronger international society with stronger international law. Institutions such as the African union favour international law and multipolarity; broadly speaking, Russia does too. Lubinda says that countries such as Zambia shared similar ideals with Russia at international organisations such as the United Nations, where both countries were members.

As an alternative to hegemonic superpowers such as China, or the US – Russia could prove attractive to businessmen.


The Russian government has a duty to its own business to learn from China’s success; aggresive economic expansion means greater influence and trade in Africa. This strategy could also be successfully applied to Asia.

Past failures from Russia need to be learnt from as well, and lost ground regained. Communication, expansion, and co-operation are the right way forward. However, all of this requires action from both African countries and the Kremlin.

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