On June 27, the Valdai Club hosted an expert discussion on African crises. The participants considered Russia’s role in the Libya peace process, the significance of the upcoming Russia-Africa summit, potential tracks for developing Russia’s cooperation with African countries, a possible partnership with China in this area, and the general problems of Russian strategy on the African continent.
The year 2019 can be called the year of Africa in Russia. In October, the first ever Russia-Africa summit will be held in Sochi. Thus, Russia has sharply intensified its policy on the African track. What are the current state and general prospects of Russian economic, cultural and peacemaking projects in Africa?
Libya is one example of Russia’s active presence on the African continent. Speaking about the developments in that country, head of the Russian contact group for intra-Libyan settlement Lev Dengov described the situation after the events of 2011 as unstable, underscoring that Russia is building relations with all parties to the conflict and highlighting the mediating role of Head of the Chechen Republic Ramzan Kadyrov. Noting the failure of the negotiations sponsored by France and the United Arab Emirates, Dengov added that Russia could become a platform for a peaceful settlement, as it had never sided with either player against the others. Continued relationship-building with specific players will of course depend on further developments, according to Dengov, as Russia needs to figure out which of them is capable of becoming its main partner. At the moment, neither the government in Tripoli nor Marshal Khalifa Haftar can guarantee compliance with the agreements reached. Furthermore, according to the expert, external forces are strongly resisting the country’s stabilization.
Discussing the general situation in Africa, Dengov said that, with declining confidence in Western countries, African leaders are looking for partners they could work with while maintaining sovereignty. This gives Russia, which has no interest in African countries becoming dependent on it, a good chance to strengthen its foothold in Africa. Other experts also mentioned Russia’s disinterest in dominating. Nataliya Zaiser, Chair of the Board at the Africa Business Initiative Union, stressed that Russian-African cooperation should be viewed as a partnership and that the African side should be an equal participant in cooperative projects. Chief researcher at the Institute for African Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences Vladimir Shubin noted Africa’s “dependence on external forces syndrome” – a negative trend, which, in his opinion, is even more dangerous than the legacy of colonialism.
According to Nataliya Zaiser, the upcoming Russia-Africa summit and the business forum planned as part of it will be landmark events reflecting a revival of Russian-African relations. Listing the objectives of Russia's African strategy, she pointed out the need to shed the burden of the historical legacy. Although the cooperation traditions established during the Soviet times are undoubtedly important, we are now in a different era and development should rely on new realities, she said. Russia has much to offer its African partners – from digital economy projects to military-technical cooperation. Cooperation in the field of peace and security also continues.
Discussing what Africa can offer Russia apart from resources, she noted that Africa is now absorbing information technology and can serve as a platform for testing innovative products; that the value of the continent as an export market for goods and services will definitely grow; and that there are enormous opportunities for cooperation in healthcare and agriculture. According to the expert, interaction at the civil society level is of particular importance, as well as joint work between non-governmental organizations that are capable of accomplishing tasks that baffle state institutions. Unfortunately, her colleagues noted, much will have to be built from scratch on this track, since people-to-people ties that had developed during the Soviet era were disrupted after the collapse of the Soviet Union and Russia’s withdrawal from Africa.
The panelists also discussed the coverage of African news in the Russian media. Shubin complained about the low level of media activity resulting in a distorted and superficial picture of Africa and the failure to show how the continent actually lives, and other experts agreed with him. Nataliya Zaiser noted that the coming summit puts great responsibility on all parties. It is important to carefully approach the presentation of information on the Russian-African track, she stressed.
In the ensuing discussion, MGIMO University Professor Yury Dubinin raised the issue of possible Russia-China interaction on the African continent. Shubin was skeptical about such prospects because of the apparent inequality of opportunities. Dengov, on the other hand, noted that it is too early to talk about cooperation with China: before making any joint work proposals to that country, it is necessary first of all to become a strong and attractive partner for Africa. However, Zaiser agreed that building relations with China through developing economic cooperation in Africa makes sense. According to her, African partners find certain Russian technological solutions more attractive than Chinese ones, even despite their somewhat higher cost – and this might be the basis for synergy.Returning to the upcoming Russia-Africa summit, Vladimir Shubin pointed out that, for all its importance, it also matters what events follow up on the summit. The moderator of the discussion, Oleg Barabanov, Program Director of the Valdai Club, supported this idea, adding that the summit should not be a one-off and that the work it launches should continue on a regular basis.