Russia Looks More Like A Virtual Great Power Than Genuine Development Partner for Africa

December 23, 2022
Deputy Speaker Konstantin Kosachev Russia Africa

By Kestér Kenn Klomegâh

In its quest to strengthen post-Soviet relations and especially in the context of the emerging new multipolar world, Russia has to focus on its agenda and strategies for implementing promptly expected commitments for Africa.

Long before the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit held in Washington, Russian officials had intensified their criticisms and confrontations in public statements. At this time, Russia has to frankly admit its policy weaknesses and the extremely low level of economic presence and review its social and cultural paradigms in Africa.

Criticisms came from the Kremlin administration to Federation Council and State Duma through the Foreign Affairs Ministry to Russian educational establishments and policy think tanks. Local Russian media regularly publishes such criticisms more than Russia’s visible achievements and unique success stories across Africa.

Instead of the slogans and ear-deafening noises relating to “neo-colonialism” that dominate the scene, Russians should then address the existing Western colonial tendencies by investing in competitive sectors and economic spheres in Africa. Building public perceptions through social and cultural activities with Africa. The reality is that African leaders await practical investment proposals from potential Russian investors.

While one school of thought has expressed little optimism that Russia can really recapture and make a huge recognizable economic impact compared to the Soviet era, the other school thinks that Russia can only make progress if the authorities make conscious efforts at least to deliver on their pledges and on those previous bilateral agreements promptly.

The new scramble for Africa is gaining momentum. While making beneficially-useful choices, African leaders are currently concerned about pushing for sustainable developments, building needed infrastructures and improving the welfare of the impoverished population. Understandably, infrastructure deficits and development questions present themselves as a brisk business for external players. Therefore, African leaders are consistently looking for partners with funds to invest and contribute towards transforming the economy.

At the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit, the overarching message was to focus on “deepening and expanding the long-term US-Africa partnership and advancing shared priorities, amplifying African voices to meet this era’s defining challenges collaboratively.” The United States has seriously indicated its overwhelming support for making the African Union a member of the G-20 and promised $55 billion to Africa over the next three years.

After studying the agenda and results of the deliberations thoroughly, the United States has an ambitious agenda backed by a $55 billion budget. It signalled that Africans want closer ties with the United States desire and aspire to “close-up gaps” and further build mutually-trusted relations with Africa. In fact, China and Russia were not the most significant or prominent focused themes during the discussions there.

“United States remarks at the summit with Africa show an inability to engage in equitable dialogue,” says one headline in a local Russian media. Russian Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said that the anti-Russian and anti-Chinese statements made at the U.S.-Africa summit show Washington is incapable of dialogue and fair competition.

“We have taken note of the numerous anti-Russian and anti-Chinese statements by US officials during the US-Africa summit. Once again, Washington has demonstrated it’s incapable of equal dialogue and decent competition, while its assurances that African countries have a freedom of choice testify to double standards,” the diplomat said.

Zakharova also mentioned important questions relating to basic political and economic freedoms, unfair competition, anti-Russian sanctions and Western agenda within the context of a multipolar world.

“Russia is united with its African friends that, despite enormous pressure from the West, including threats to withhold financial support, take an independent position, first of all, in the context of the situation around Ukraine,” she said.

Zakharova underlined the fact that Russia stands for the right of states to choose their political and economic partners, to follow their own values and the civilizational path of development. Russia offers honest, mutually beneficial and equal cooperation. And that Russia favours non-interference in the internal affairs of sovereign states.

Russian International Affairs Council, a non-government organization and policy think tank, also published an opinion article authored by Kirill Babaev, Director of the Institute of Far Eastern Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, Professor at the Financial University. He made an excellent analysis of the relations between Russia and Africa.

The article highlighted future perspectives based on the existing successes cloaked in building political dialogues during the previous years. On the other hand, he exposes for serious consideration by authorities some existing obstacles and weaknesses.

He wrote that Russia’s return to Africa had been discussed in the media and at various levels of power for two decades. However, the impetus given to Russian expansion to the African continent by the first Russia-Africa Summit in October 2019 made it the breakthrough event that made it possible to find an entry point for Russian business and Russia’s economic strategy on the continent, which today leads in terms of economic development.

That the African elites, especially those who studied at Soviet institutes and universities, still have memories of the struggle for the freedom of Africa. During the Soviet times, at the height of fighting against Western colonialism, there were economic offerings of the Soviet era.

However, all these cards are a matter of the past, while in the present, it has been difficult for Russia to offer Africa anything of value that could compete with large-scale Western investment or Chinese infrastructure projects (until recently), he wrote in his article.

Today the situation has changed radically, according to his expert assessment. “The main challenges for Russia in this regard are, first, the need to develop new, non-traditional sectors of economic cooperation, and second, an immense lack of personnel for successful work on the African continent and the promotion of this cooperation,” explained Professor Kirill Babaev.

In another publication headlined “Russian Business in Africa: Missed Opportunities and Prospects” appeared in the foreign policy journal Russia in Global Affairs, where Professor Alexei Vasilyev, former Special Representative of the Russian Federation to African Countries and Director of the Institute for African Studies, wrote in that article that Russian companies are pursuing their diverse interests in Africa.

The main reason is that Africa remains an enormous and large market for technology and manufacturing of consumer goods due to the increasing population and the growth of the middle class. Until recently, Russians have been looking at the mining industry, and economic cooperation is steadily expanding. But, Africa still accounts for just 1.5% of Russia’s investment which is a drop in the ocean. It must be admitted that Russia’s economic policy grossly lacks dynamism in Africa.

“African countries have been waiting for us for far too long; we lost our positions in post-apartheid Africa and have largely missed new opportunities. Currently, Russia lags behind leading foreign countries in most economic parameters in this region,” he pointed out in the article.

Consider another Russian media headline: “West seeks to dissuade African states from participating in Russia-Africa summit” which ran this December. Federation Council Deputy Speaker Konstantin Kosachev said Russia’s Western opponents are trying to prevent African states from taking part in the second Russia-Africa summit, scheduled to take place in July 2023 in Russia’s second-largest city of St. Petersburg.

“The second summit will be drastically different from the first one in terms of the atmosphere surrounding it. Our geopolitical rivals, primarily from the West, will do everything within their powers to prevent African partners from taking part in this meeting and to antithesize it to the Africa-US summit, which is currently taking place with wide participation of African states,” the Senator told a roundtable on Russia’s strategic interests in Africa.

In Senator Kosachev’s opinion, the first Russia-Africa summit held three years ago was successful, “but, in many respects, its results remained within the dimension of politics” and were not translated into additional projects in trade, economic, scientific or humanitarian cooperation.

“I’m sure it will be a very serious miscalculation on our part if the next year’s summit is not prepared in a drastically different fashion, providing each of its participants with a concise roadmap of our bilateral relations, with clear incentives to participate and conclude practical agreements,” the Deputy Speaker of Russia’s Upper Chamber said.

“Trade turnover speaks for itself. Roughly, the European Union’s trade with Africa stands at around $300 billion, China’s – at around $150 billion, and the United States – approximately $50-60 billion. Despite the tendency to grow, our current turnover is around $20 billion,” Senator Kosachev added, quoting trade figures to illustrate his argument.

In this sense, it can be expected that the second Russia-Africa summit, expected in July 2023 in St. Petersburg, will open the doors for many large investment projects on the continent.

Unlike Russia with poor relations with its trained professionals and specialists who graduated from Soviet and Russian educational establishments. At the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit, there was an explicit indication to strengthen Africans in the entire structure in the process of re-setting relations and moving it to the next stage. That is an irreversibly strong positive step.

Professor Kirill Babaev also pointed out the necessity of putting together experienced professionals in his article. However, Russia needs to be ready for them, and this requires people. There are still very few Africanists with knowledge of the languages, specifics, and business customs of the continent in the country, and amid the current conditions, the state should pay special attention to this problem. The most important thing is to make efforts more practical, more consistent and more effective with African countries.

But so far, Russia has not pledged funds toward implementing its business projects and other policy objectives in Africa. While the Russian government is very cautious about making financial commitments, Russia’s financial institutions are hardly interested in stepping up their activities and are not closely involved in foreign policy initiatives in Africa.

With the current geopolitical changes, it is, however, hoped that Russian officials will rather focus on addressing all the weaknesses and obstacles seriously in order to enhance practical cooperation and to make a noticeable impact in Africa, as suggested by Kirill Babaev, Director of the Institute of Far Eastern Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences.

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