Russia-Africa: Two Halves of the Planet’s Heart
Corinthia Hotel, 57 Nevsky Prospect, St.Petersburg, Russiag

Is it possible to conduct a political dialogue amid the wholesale reformatting of the global space? What is a natural partnership? How are Russia-Africa economic relations progressing? What is the fireproof safety net in Russia-Africa relations? Is it possible to transform the Soviet legacy into real policies? These issues were discussed by the participants in the Valdai Club Russia-Africa Conference held in St Petersburg on July 25, on the eve of the second Russia-Africa Summit.

The Valdai conference entitled “Russia and African Countries: Established Traditions of Interaction and Prospects for Cooperation in a New World” included four thematic sessions, two of which were open to the public. We will tell our audience about them in brief and in the right order.

Session I. Political dialogue between Russia and African countries: mutual understanding in a turbulent world

It is not so easy to develop political dialogue during the wholesale reformatting of the entire global space even with those who seek to maintain it. Despite powerful external pressure, Russia and African nations are doing this because they are “natural partners.” The participants in the Valdai conference are well aware of this, because they are themselves directly engaged in this dialogue, each in their own area. So what is “natural partnership?”

Speaking at the first session, Oleg Ozerov, Ambassador-at-Large of the Russian Foreign Ministry and Head of the Secretariat of the Russia-Africa Partnership Forum said:  “Russia and Africa have a rich and positive past and, I am sure, will have an even richer and more prosperous future.” He noted that Africa is increasingly gaining influence in international relations, talking in its own voice, and possesses vast potential, and that Russia has always supported equitable and mutually advantageous relations with African countries. Moscow is not trying to counter third countries or weaken Africa-Europe ties. It is merely helping African states to gain political status and sovereignty. It is also supporting Africa’s general striving to become a pole in the emerging multipolar world. The West is losing its positions in Africa at a disastrous pace – not only its economic status but primarily its moral authority due to the diktat, double standards and undisguised plunder of these states. Meanwhile, Russia is speaking the language of truth and justice. This is why it enjoys support in Africa and not at all because it is locked in battle with the West. By developing relations with Russia, Africa wants to reach a new level. In turn, the Russian leadership is doing all it can to make its Africa policy one of the strategic and breakthrough foreign policy directions.

Fyodor Lukyanov, the moderator of the session and Research Director of the Valdai Discussion Club, asked Mr Ozerov a somewhat provocative question that worries our African colleagues: Shouldn’t Russia organise blocs with the world majority, following the Western example? Mr Ozerov replied that bloc mentality is foreign to Russia. The Cold War mentality still exists and is manifest in Western actions today, in part, in Ukraine, where “a military bloc is being created under the banner of the struggle for democracy and against authoritarian rule.” But Russia suggests a completely different logic. It boils down to seeking points of overlap on the main political issues of the current agenda and creating mechanisms for resolving problems. This is multi-vector cooperation based on mutual respect rather than diktat.

Valence Maniragena, Senior Lecturer at the Department of African Studies of the Oriental Faculty of St Petersburg State University, a native of Rwanda, made a straightforward statement on the problems of dialogue. He said people in Russia learn about Africa mostly from Western sources. Likewise, Africa receives information about the situation in Russia from Western sources as well. It is necessary to know each other well in order to cooperate and direct dialogue is a must for this. Mr Maniragena recalled that there were many media offices, for instance TASS, in African countries, but this is not the case now and it is damaging relations. But a start has been made – forums are held and African and Russian leaders are meeting. So, there is hope that Russia-Africa cooperation will become fruitful and mutually enriching.

Mikatekiso Kubayi, Researcher at the Institute for Global Dialogue and Research Fellow at the Institute for Pan African Thought and Conversation (South Africa) confirmed that the West dictates much in the global information space. It imposes its Western narrative on the audience whereas the voice of Russia does not always reach local media. Russia’s cultural presence in South Africa is negligible. Many global news platforms have occupied anti-Russia positions. They believe they are on the right side of history although this is just one of its potential turns. But the internet exists and people have access to alternative information sources owing to the ongoing globalisation of news.

Mr Kubayi also noted the need to pay priority attention to development. Africa is striving to play an independent role in global relations. BRICS that will hold its regular summit in Johannesburg in late August is one of the instruments for reaching this goal. BRICS allows the Global South and Africa in particular to see that the situation can be different, that people can freely trade with each other without any restrictions. BRICS is giving the entire world an alternative, he said. In turn, Africa may give BRICS (including Russia) a market. And, although African nations are at different development levels, they have a common political will – Africa wants to talk in a single voice and act in a united front. It is a young continent and can offer many things to the world.

Aliu Tunkara, a member of the Malian Parliament and the former leader of the African Unity group of African diasporas in St Petersburg, said that as distinct from South Africa, cooperation with Russia is very visible in Mali. Of course, this is facilitated by the Soviet legacy to which the Valdai conference devoted a separate session, which will come later. The Malians remember the support rendered by the Soviet Union. It was not limited to investment but covered work with personnel as well – many Malians received education in Russia. “We know in Mali that Russia is part of our culture. It hasn’t just given us money but has also taught our people to work and built the infrastructure that created new jobs,” said Mr Tunkara, adding that he is also a graduate of the Peter the Great St Petersburg Polytechnic University. The role of education is enormous and it is necessary to develop interaction in this area: “Russia has always been close to Mali. It is helping Mali while demonstrating its characteristic respect for sovereignty. We have a positive cooperation experience. The Malian youth hopes this cooperation will continue.”

Mr Tunkara noted that today France is suggesting many initiatives, in part, on countering terrorism, but they are ineffective. “We had slavery – we worked for France without getting anything in return. Understandably, the attitude to the French in Mali is not very good. The only tangible things that remain in our country have been made by Russians whereas the French legacy is disappearing,” he said.

Speaking about the potential of Russia-Africa cooperation, Mr Tunkara mentioned a number of areas he considers promising – security, lawmaking to facilitate Russia-Africa cooperation, developing ties between businesses, student scholarships, joint research, cultural dialogue, diplomatic ties and direct communication between our societies rather than through the Western media prism.

Remarks by Ivan Timofeev, Programme Director of the Valdai Club and Director of the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC), summed up the striking, metaphorical results of the discussion on political dialogue. Mr Timofeev noted that Africa is rapidly becoming one of the poles of the multipolar world that has already taken shape to some extent. The resumption of Russia’s interest in Africa is certainly determined by the deep crisis in its relations with the West. However, this is only one of the reasons. Our state has clearly determined the vector of its development to the South and the East as a priority. This is not just a powerful statement but it will be matched by practical deeds.

But why should African countries be interested in developing business with Russia? If we compare foreign policy to an investment portfolio, it will certainly have shares, bonds and currency. But every investment portfolio should also have some insurance, some reliable safety net. This may be gold or real estate. “So, Russia is this safety net for the African countries in their foreign policy investment portfolio. It doesn’t occupy dominant positions in the portfolio but it saves the investor in the event of a crisis,” Mr Timofeev said.

What can Russia offer specifically? Sovereignty in short. That applies to diverse areas from artificial intelligence to green development. And, as distinct from the West, Russia does not encroach on the identity of its partners. It does not plant bugs in the competences that it shares with its partners, including in Africa.

Session 2. Economic Relations: Three Years’ Audit after the First Russia-Africa Summit

The second session of the Valdai Club conference, which was closed to the public, enabled its participants to engage in a frank discussion on all the issues of concern for them, so we will leave out the names and instead share the key takeaways.

During the 30-year economic lull in its African policy, Russia has nevertheless managed to maintain a good working relationship with the continent, which, in itself, can be viewed as an achievement. The 2019 summit was an attempt to put re-emerging ties in a global context, and Russia announcing its return to Africa was primarily a political step. The summit’s outcome Declaration is a largely political document, and economic matters are given short shrift. The upcoming second summit could serve as a starting point for practical cooperation.

Many factors can constrain relations between Russia and Africa. After all, the events that unfolded since 2019, including the pandemic and the special military operation, cannot fail to affect our present-day reality. What tool can we offer one another against this backdrop? Russia can offer mutually beneficial partnerships, as it has been saying from the outset. Human capital that will shape our economic relations is the only type of capital that is immune to restrictions.

Another speaker from Russia provided a progress report on the implementation of the resolutions and agreements dating back to the 2019 summit. There was more acerbity in his remarks when he said that the results have yet to materialise, but he added immediately that it is a good result. Between 2019 and 2023, Russian and several African countries came under immense pressure, while succeeding in maintaining a stable relationship, which can be viewed as a positive outcome.

We need to address objective challenges affecting economic relations. The fact that Russia’s presence in Africa remains invisible is one of them. While you can see products made in various other countries and carrying labels such as “Made in China” or “Made in Poland” – there is even a “Polish” coffee – the “Made in Russia” label is nowhere to be seen. However, Russia does supply Africa with its products, but no one knows where they come from. If people cannot see that the cooperation produces concrete results, they will not feel Russia’s presence on the continent. For example, Russia is a major grain exporter to the African continent, but if you ask consumers where their flour comes from, they will point to their respective states. Unlabelled, Russia’s presence remains unnoticed. There are also sectors where Russia’s presence is taken for granted such as the defence sector or minerals extraction.

We have lost some of the Soviet-era know-how in promoting trade and business initiatives, but nothing prevents us from reviving these practices. Russia must open more trade missions and restore information exchange in order to avoid situations when we learn about one another through our would-be partners in the West.

Our African colleagues from Egypt had a more optimistic perspective. Russia has quite a visible role in Africa. While it may promise less, it does more. In 2019, Russia cancelled $20 billion in African debt which literally freed the economy, overwhelmed as it is by debt. Instead of investing in making potato chips or expanding the McDonald’s fast food chain, Russia has been focusing on the essential sectors for the continent such as energy and infrastructure. Russia also said that it was ready to deliver fertilisers and wheat to Africa for free, but Western sanctions did cause some challenges in this regard. If what our Western partners want is to fan the flames of conflict in Africa, guided as they are by the principle of divide and conquer, Russia has opted for a different set of principles, including non-interference in domestic affairs, which helps the continent maintain its sovereignty and stability.

What can be done to make this relationship even more productive? First, we must devise a plan of action for the next three-year cycle, i.e., until the next summit, which could be drafted as a single document divided into country-specific subsections. Second, we must ensure our financial independence and free ourselves from the dominance the West exercises through the dollar and by controlling the SWIFT system. Promoting the Mir card would help expand our cooperation. Third, we must create hubs for handling Russian grain exports. Fourth, there is a need to develop the private sector. Economic independence is the cornerstone of the global economic order. It is instrumental in enabling Africa to secure its rightful place in the world. The colonial era is a thing of the past.

While we may have well put the colonial era behind us, the neo-colonial era is now at its peak. This was the message by a participant from Algeria. He said that Russia’s initiative to fight neo-colonialism has been its main breakthrough since the Sochi summit. No other country came forward with this agenda, while neo-colonialism is an urgent issue undermining Africa’s development.

The Soviet Union has been trying to help African countries get away from the “fatalism of colonisation” and dispel the myth of an invincible West or that it was to the West that they owed their existence. Still, very few African countries can enjoy genuine freedom these days. Few of them can afford to carry out a truly independent economic policy or to be independent political actors. The West benefits a lot from neo-colonialism. While people in Africa may no longer face invasions by colonial armies, neo-colonialist policies have proved much more effective in siphoning off resources from the continent. This is its goal.

A South African speaker weighed in to emphasise the non-linear development of economic relations. He characterised the problem of neo-colonialism in more graphic terms, saying that the world makes enough food to feed its seven-billion population, while the way this food is distributed is the problem. For this reason, ensuring equal access to what is called global public goods is essential to enable everyone to benefit from them.

Russia and Africa have been maintaining stable relations, but this does not mean that we can idealise the past. We need to keep questioning the present while seeking to understand how we got to where we are right now.

Session 3. Culture, Education and Human Dimension: How to Bring Russia and Africa Closer to Each Other?

The most frequently heard maxim at this session – the one that was also beyond the reach of strangers’ eyes and ears – was, arguably, the one expressed by diplomat Oleg Ozerov during the first round of discussion: “What matters are people-to-people contacts, without which trade will not develop.” In fact, this is true of all kinds of relations, not only trade.

As we know, there is never enough time to spare when culture is at issue. A participant in the culture and education session said jokingly that culture always came at the end of [television news programmes] before they moved on to sports and weather forecasts. However, culture is precisely the safety net in a relationship that Ivan Timofeyev mentioned earlier, although his words, as we remember, had a more global dimension.

The main problem in the development of cultural ties is, of course, insufficient funding but now there is the political will that can help remove this obstacle. Another problem is lack of communication: we know little about rich and ancient African culture and people in Africa know as little about Russian culture. Africa is a continent that is only awakening. It is no longer a conservative part of the world – it is dynamically developing in all areas. Cultural diffusion can serve as a basis for building many things that will underpin both the economy and politics in the future.  

When the issue of education was brought up, a participant from Africa said that one can invest in Africa as much as one wants but it is impossible to put these funds to good use without knowledge. That is why it is very important to foster interaction in this area.

Participants from Russia promptly reminded the audience that Russia and Africa have a good foundation in this field: the well-known Soviet legacy. Today’s Russia is increasing the number of grants it allocates to African students while the number of those who want to study here is growing. Since Africa’s academic potential is obviously growing, this should not be one-way traffic but rather go both ways.

The African participants, in particular, came up with a proposal to establish institutes in Russia to promote knowledge about Africa, so there is no need to rely on European sources for information about this continent.  

The Russians, in turn, proposed the idea that more Russian research and educational centres should be built in Africa – centres like this do exist there but they are scarce – which will help to resolve the problem with training top-notch specialists. A participant in the session recommended that attention be paid not only to higher education but to general education as well and that more Russian schools open in African countries, so that those who want to go on to study in Russia learn to speak Russian. Adaptation events also need to be held for potential university entrants before they go to Russia, including relevant courses at home. Of course, it would be great to create a database, which can help graduates of Soviet and Russian universities find one another – if there is two-way traffic, then it should have relevant infrastructure.

Session 4. The Soviet Legacy in Africa: From the Past into the Future

Many call the Soviet legacy the bedrock of Russia’s present-day relations with Africa. But how can this legacy translate into actual policy? Or could it be that this is just an illusion we have created for ourselves in Russia, while this mantra does not mean anything for Africa? Could it be that we idealise the Soviet legacy by treating it in the context of Russia’s relations with Africa as a paradise lost? These were the provocative questions posed by Oleg Barabanov, a professor at the Russian Academy of Sciences and Programme Director at the Valdai Club, to the participants in the final open session. It focused on the issue that was repeatedly raised by the participants in the preceding sessions.

Senior Research Fellow at the Russian Academy of Sciences Institute for African Studies Elena Kharitonova spoke in defence of the Soviet legacy in her remarks. She offered a detailed overview explaining why the global majority followed the Soviet Union and how the colonial system was dismantled. The Soviet Union reached its peak in terms of economic performance, international influence and security in 1928-1953. Strategic planning covering decades, the idea of a just future, the network model of governance based on communist parties, soft power – these were the main factors underpinning the USSR’s success. It is thanks to the popularity of communist parties in European countries that the UN adopted the relevant resolutions to dismantle the colonial system from within and bring about this result.

The Soviet Union deployed comprehensive efforts at three levels: in terms of worldview, including by offering a vision of the future, a set of values, a sense of identity, creating images of heroes or discrediting old ones; in financial and economic terms – the USSR opposed capitalism, while the West relied on an approach that involved extracting African resources, processing them and then selling to the Africans at inflated prices; in military terms, since the USSR was also there to help address Africa’s security challenges.

Ms Kharitonova concluded her remarks with a classic quote by Sun Tzu: “Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.” Ending her remarks, she recommended that Russia bolster its strategic vision.

Sherif Gad, President of Egyptian Association of Graduates from Russian and Soviet Universities, reminded the audience that Russia and Egypt mark the 80th anniversary of diplomatic relations in 2023. He said that Russia became a second homeland for those who graduated from Soviet universities. There are many mixed Russian-Egyptian families in Egypt where children speak both languages and know Russian culture. Public opinion in Egypt is also behind Russia despite Western pressure. Therefore, the Soviet legacy serves as a bridge connecting the two countries. In order to develop these bonds, we need to make sure that graduates from Russian universities take part in talks on major joint projects. These people speak Russian fluently, have advanced knowledge in the relevant fields and understand the Russian way of thinking.

On the contrary, Senior Research Fellow from South Africa’s Mapungubwe Institute for Strategic Reflection Na’eem Jeenah said that the past is dead. In this new world, we must revise the way we approach relations between Russia and Africa. Russia is not the Soviet Union, which means that appealing to the Soviet legacy over and over again does not make any sense. Is there anything in the Soviet legacy Russia can actually use today? During the Soviet era, it was ideology, common interests and values, as well as internationalist sentiments that defined these relations. The anti-colonial struggles were underway at that time, and the Soviet Union played a key role in this process. To what extent is Russia sincere in its commitment to fighting neo-colonialism today? The relations between the Soviet Union and Africa have little in common with those between the African countries and Russia today. Many Africans did study in the Soviet Union and in Russia, but we must focus on our own countries, Mr Jeenah went on to say. “Africa is rich in arable land – we must grow our own harvests instead of importing food. We must refrain from leasing the land out to foreigners. What we need to discuss are our interests instead of focusing on past cooperation… Whenever we engage in any partnership outside of Africa, we must stand to gain from it,” he pointed out, adding that BRICS should not be idealised either because this structure is no different from similar European or American frameworks and also pursues a capitalist agenda.

Senior Research Fellow at the Russian Academy of Science Institute for African Studies and Professor Honoris Causa at South Africa’s University of the Western Cape Vladimir Shubin agreed that indulging in wishful thinking is not an option. He pointed to the fact that both Russia and Africa do not like to be pressured. This is what is currently bringing the two closer together, he believes. As for the Soviet legacy, there was this notion of people’s friendship, and racism was publicly condemned back in the Soviet era. “We succeeded where others refused or failed to deliver. Egalitarianism as it existed in the Soviet Union set it apart from the Western countries,” the researcher pointed out.

Tatiana Tudvaseva, President of the GATINGO International Russia-Africa Association and AFROCOM Vice-President, said that Africa and Russia share a lot in common. We tend to speak of Africa as one thing even though it consists of many countries. Russia is also a huge country which is home to a diverse mix of ethnic groups. Therefore, Africa and Russia can be described as forming the two halves of the planet’s heart. It suffered a minor heart attack in the 1990s, but now it is time for us to once again march hand in hand since the planet’s body depends on whether this Russian-African heart stays healthy. “There is no future without the past, which is especially true for Africa,” Ms Tudvaseva said.

The first Russian-African Conference of the Valdai Discussion Club took place in St Petersburg on July 25 ahead of the Second Russia-Africa Summit. As Valdai Club Chairman Andrey Bystriskiy pointed out during the opening, the event brought together over 60 participants from 12 countries: Algeria, Ghana, Egypt, Kenya, Mali, Nigeria, Rwanda, Ethiopia, South Africa, as well as China, India and Russia. He stressed that it was more than a decade ago that the Valdai Club began to discuss Russia’s pivot to the East. “We interact constructively with our partners in Asia and Central Asia and now we are working with Africa hoping that the tradition of African conferences will continue,” he said. Research Director of the Valdai Discussion Club Fyodor Lukyanov opened the first session by saying that the Valdai Club has always kept a close eye on Africa but has never devoted a separate event to this continent. “It is our hope that this new African forum will become a recurring event alongside the Middle East Conference and the Central Asia Conference, and that Africa will take its rightful place among them,” he said.

So, stay tuned and follow the updates.