No More Fairy Tales. Russia’s Goals and Interests in Africa
Valdai Discussion Club Conference Hall, Bolshaya Tatarskaya 42, Moscow, Russia

On December 19, 2018, the Valdai Club hosted an expert discussion titled “Russia’s Return to Africa: Interests, Challenges, Prospects.” The discussion demonstrated that there is no need for “Russia’s return”: its interaction with Africa was established in the Soviet times and has not disappeared ever since. The only question is what to do with this mutual “capital of trust”.

The issue of cooperation between Russia and African countries today became even more relevant because of the statements made by US Security Advisor John Bolton not so long ago. According to him, Africa has become a scene of America’s rivalry with Russia and China, which are said to aggressively promote their investments and influence there. As Oleg Barabanov, Programme director of the Valdai Discussion Club and the discussion moderator, said, “the situation is beyond the standard framework of the diplomatic dialogue”, which attracts additional attention.

“I would like to begin my speech with the words of Foreign Minister [Sergey Lavrov], who said, referring to the current situation: ‘No more fairy tales,’ joked Oleg Ozerov, Deputy Director of the Africa Department at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Russia. “He meant that the situation in the world is changing dramatically, and today we must act based on other messages.” This applies, among other things, to the goals of the United States in Africa, voiced by Bolton. However, according to Ozerov, the assessment made by the US security advisor about relations between Russia and Africa does not match reality. Unlike the US, Russia does not use such categories as “rivalry.” “There is no aggression, there is economic and political interest. We talk about it quite openly,” the speaker said. “For us, Africa is not a terra incognita: the USSR actively worked there, having diplomatic relations with 35 countries. In general, there are no turns, reversals or zigzags in our policy. There is a consistent development of relations with those countries of the continent that want this. ”

Ozerov said that in 2018 alone Russian President Vladimir Putin and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov met with 26 African leaders, who represent almost half of all African countries. At the same time, this rapprochement is also due to the African countries’ interest in Russia. It was triggered by the strengthening of its military-industrial potential, the growth of its international clout and success in the fight against terrorism, for example, in Syria. Over the past two years, contacts between Russia and Africa have expanded seriously, and a full-scale Russia-Africa summit is scheduled for the second half of 2019. According to Ozerov, public and parliamentary forums are being held as part of the summit preparation, where public, political and academic figures can be heard.

Natalia Zaiser, Chairperson of the Board of the African Business Initiative, stressed that economic cooperation with African countries is not only a Russian initiative, but also a response to request from partners. “In the situation of active presence of China and India, the African colleagues need to diversify their interaction,” the expert said. “A balance is needed here, because the African countries understand that a dominant position of one country, especially with powerful funding institutions, will be akin to the colonial past. Russia, a long-time friend and partner of Africa, is capable to change this picture.” At the same time, cooperation must be mutually beneficial, since Russia also seeks to enter African markets and export more goods there.

Despite this mutual interest and potentially fruitful projects, Natalia Zaiser said that there are still few really successful cases. Therefore, it is important to rely on the trust capital that Russia inherited from the USSR. At the same time, she stressed, that “we must look to the future, and then relations will be built, since Africa declares its desire to expand them – in a word, let us be friends”.

Andrei Maslov, coordinator of the work on the Russia Africa Shared Vision 2030 report, Integration Expertise Analytical Center, said that in comparison with the situation a decade ago, today Africa is not only the main initiator of dialogue with Russia, but also it is much more ready for it. If earlier the economic landscape of the continent was determined by Western companies with their colonial approaches, now Africa is ready to become an equal partner.

“Africa is gaining economic independence,” the expert said, “and the situation is that imports to Africa amount to more than $500 billion a year including $64 billion worth imports of food. Russia may occupy important niches, but this requires long-term strategies. ” However, there are problems: Maslov echoed Natalia Zaiser by saying that about 90% of the projects end in failure. In order to overcome this discord, the coordinating role of the state is needed, which, together with the private business, should prepare a roadmap and set targets for the development of various industries. The driver of economic cooperation, according to Maslov, can be private, rather than top-down initiatives.

Today, development is an absolute priority for Africa. The continent actively overcomes its past and is becoming a full-fledged partner – both politically and economically. Although it still needs financial assistance, these investments pay off and enable it to move to more extensive cooperation in the industrial, energy, agricultural and other sectors. And the less political quarrels of third parties on the way, the better.