On October 23 and 24, the Black Sea town of Sochi, often called the southern capital of Russia, hosted the first-ever Russia-Africa summit. Held under the slogan “For peace, security and development”, the summit was combined with an economic forum and co-chaired by two presidents, Vladimir Putin and Abdel Fattah al-Sisi of Egypt, incumbent chairperson of the African Union. Forty-three heads of African states and the representatives of several African regional integration organizations took part in the summit. The summit led to a political declaration on the main areas of Russian-African cooperation, as well as a significant package of agreements on trade and investment.
The term “comeback” is often used when characterizing Moscow’s activities on the continent. Indeed, the Soviet Union had fruitful cooperation with many African countries in various fields. The USSR provided vital assistance to Africa's liberation struggle, in particular in South Africa. As Nelson Mandela said to the author in July 1991, during the first ANC national conference after the ban on it was lifted: “Without [Soviet] support, we would not be where we are now”.
However, the situation drastically deteriorated after the radical political changes that occurred in Moscow in the early 1990s. Neo-liberal reforms imposed by international financial institutions caused huge losses to the Russian economy. The economic output fell and poverty increased from 2% of the population to over 40%, while national institutions were dealing with a difficult transition. The political changes negatively affected Russia’s international relations as well, with the “Global South” and especially Africa having to be “sacrificed”. That neglect was vividly manifested in the closing down of a dozen Russian embassies and consulates in Africa, almost all trade missions and 13 of 20 cultural centres. Most of the development projects supported by the USSR in Africa were terminated as well as all regular flights by Russian airlines. Apart from the economic calamity of the 1990s, a psychological factor was important as well, when Soviet assistance to Africa was used as a scapegoat in the attempt to justify Russia’s own problems, boosting manifestations of xenophobia and racism. So, it would be wrong to say that Russia left Africa, but not many muscles remained on a skeleton of bilateral relations.
The shift in Russia’s foreign policy is often attributed to the replacement of Boris Yeltsin by Vladimir Putin on the eve of 2000. However, it actually began earlier, in January 1996, when Foreign Minister Andrey Kozyrev was replaced by Yevgeny Primakov, a leading expert on the Third World. Russia’s position was getting stronger, and it did so especially in the next decade with the accumulation of huge currency and gold reserves and the settling of most of its state debts.
Today, Russia and Africa need each other. Moscow always remembers that Africa’s 54 states represent a strong voting bloc within the UN and other international bodies, and also appreciates the growing role of Africa in the international arena in accordance with Russian promotion of multipolarism. According to minister of foreign affairs Sergey Lavrov, the continent is “consistently strengthening its positions as a major pillar of the polycentric architecture of the world order that is currently taking shape”.
On the other hand, African governments see Russia as a source of high-level technology in a number of spheres, particularly in its first-class defence industry. Despite objective problems, Russia’s economy managed to survive Western sanctions and is still attractive to many African states. The current presence of over 10,000 Africans studying in Russia, half of whose education is funded by the Russian government, is testimony to this interest. This investment in training and education cooperation is part of Moscow’s traditional approach to Africa.
Russia assists the majority of African countries in strengthening their defence and security. In particular, in the past five years alone, more than 2,500 service personnel from African countries completed studies at the military educational institutions of the Russian Defence Ministry.
However, bilateral economic relations are far from satisfactory. Russian authorities claim to have offered $20 billion in debt relief to Africa over the past two decades, in order to create a more favourable environment for Russian companies interested in participating in joint economic projects in Africa. Russia also introduced a preferential system for traditional African export commodities, but the trade turnover remains limited, less than 3% of Russia’s foreign trade.
According to the African Development Bank, Russian investments in Africa peaked at US$ 20 billion in 2008, although this inflow is hardly stable. This field is partly affected by Western sanctions, which hamper transactions between the banks in Russia and those in African countries.
Another and even more detrimental obstacle is the lack of objective information about Russia in Africa and vice-versa. The opportunities are there, but they can be realized only if both sides get rid of stereotypes and develop mutually beneficial cooperation based on the reality on the ground. Recently, a lot has been written about “a new scramble for Africa”. In particular, the Russian government accuses the West of carrying out an anti-Moscow campaign to discredit its involvement with the continent. Russia’s position on the issue was clearly stated by president Putin on the eve of the Sochi summit: “We are not going to participate in a new ‘repartition’ of the continent's wealth; rather, we are ready to engage in competition for cooperation with Africa, provided that this competition is civilised and develops in compliance with the law.”
Given the presence of other powerful players on the continent, it remains to be seen whether Russia will be a winner in this “competition for cooperation”. Yet the Sochi summit signals that Russia is ready to compete, even if it knows that it may not arrive first.