In the world we live in today, amid a scramble which is unfolding to gain control of the key natural resources we exploit and to shape the political world order of the 21st century, there are many areas where Africa and Russia have interests which overlap objectively. About 50-52% of the Earth’s natural resources are found in Russia and Africa, which means that Russia and countries on the African continent tend to have a shared perspective when it comes to questions of how the global economy should be organized. According to expert data, Africa has about 30% of the world’s remaining mineral reserves, and is where 83% of world platinum production takes place, 45% of world diamond production, 40% of the world’s gold mine production, 47% of its cobalt, 43% of its palladium, and 42% of the world’s chromium.
During the Cold War, Africa was one of the main arenas where the USSR and the United States struggled to expand their spheres of influence. There tended to be a stronger tilt towards Moscow on the African continent, as many Africans saw Russia as a friend and natural ally. Russia never colonized any part of Africa, and played a unique role in setting the stage to liberate and assist independent African states with the decolonization process after World War II. It was thanks to Moscow’s initiative and political support that the United Nations adopted its historic Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples in 1960. The USSR provided comprehensive assistance, including military support for national liberation movements in African countries to help newly-established governments defend their sovereignty.
During the post-colonial years on the African continent, the Soviet Union built more than 400 industrial facilities, 100 agricultural enterprises, 140 educational institutions, and trained over 100,000 specialists. This has made a very significant contribution to the GDP of individual African countries, especially when you consider that these were the enterprises and specialists that formed the backbone of the modern production sector in many African states.
Following the collapse of the USSR, Russia temporarily lost sight of Africa in its foreign policy. In the events which have unfolded over recent years however, it is clear that countries in Africa have not forgotten the support the USSR provided in their struggle to achieve national independence, which is of great benefit for Russia in implementing the current foreign policy with Africa.
There are currently 35 Russian embassies in Africa and 33 African embassies in Moscow. Russia’s trade with African countries has increased to 17 times of what it had been 15 years ago, and has reached 18.5 billion dollars. As much as 30% of this trade with Africa is in the agricultural sector. Partnerships are also being developing in areas where Russia clearly has an edge, such as nuclear energy. For instance, construction work has got underway to build Egypt’s largest nuclear power plant, and agreements have been signed with 11 African countries on the peaceful use of nuclear energy. More than 40% of Russian arms exports are currently supplied to Africa. Russia and countries in Africa are increasingly working together in science and engineering across a growing number of fields, and projects are being implemented to create shared research centers.
At the same time, the Russian Federation’s foreign policy has admittedly focused a rather modest amount of attention on Africa over the last two decades. Russia no longer plays a major role in supplying the complex of equipment needed for the construction of large industrial and power facilities. The number of students who travel to Russia to receive third-level education has fallen significantly: a total of about 15 thousand students from Africa are enrolled at Russian universities, 4 thousand of whom avail of scholarship grants provided by Russia’s federal budget.
In contrast, not only have Western countries markedly strengthened their positions in Africa — China has also entered the scene. China became Africa’s number-one trading partner in 2009, overtaking the United States. Today, China’s trade in Africa is in excess of 200 billion dollars. Other countries such as India, Scandinavian countries and the oil-producing Gulf states have also had considerable success working with countries in Africa.
In this environment, the question of how Russia might make a return to Africa is of great topical interest. There cannot of course be a return to the Soviet period, the influence the Soviets had in Africa cannot be repeated or copied. Russia is a different country with a completely different political system and a market economy. Africa has also changed, and has taken a great leap forward in recent decades. African countries now have other needs and would like to receive a different kind of assistance from foreign countries, including Russia.
That is why Russia intends to highlight the challenges that are facing the African continent and look for solutions to them during Russia’s term of UN Security Council Presidency in September this year. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov confirmed this intention in late August at joint press conference following talks with his Angolan counterpart Manuel Domingos Augusto. The Russian Foreign Minister also emphasized that “The cooperation between African states and BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) is an important aspect of modern international relations.” “We agreed that we will continue the practice that began in 2018, when representatives of leading subregional African organizations attended the BRICS summit,” added Lavrov.
The first Russia-Africa Economic Forum which will be held in Sochi on October 23-24, 2019 will be a strategically important step towards creating the optimal conditions for developing trade and economic relations and business partnerships between Russia and countries in Africa. The heads of almost every African state have confirmed their intention to attend the Forum. About 3,000 African business people will participate. The Forum will facilitate an inter-parliamentary conference, a meeting of Afreximbank shareholders, a Russia-Africa business dialog, and a digital forum. Russian President Vladimir Putin and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who is the 2019 Chairman of the African Union, are set to chair the Forum.
The Russia–Africa Summit and Economic Forum is not just a symbolic gesture towards Africa. It will provide a very real opportunity for Russian and African leaders to establish sustainable and mutually beneficial economic partnerships and to diversify the ways and areas where they can cooperate. From an economic perspective, Russia is preparing to unveil major plans for infrastructure, such as the construction of trans-African roads and railways which would connect the coast of the Red Sea with West Africa. Africa has been nurturing similar plans for a long time, but they have not been able to be implemented due to significant financial and political obstacles.
Valery Kulikov, expert politologist, exclusively for the online magazine ‘New Eastern Outlook’.