The mere good memory of the Soviet legacy in Africa, as well as the mere desire to strengthen cooperation with the continent, caused by geopolitical conditions, may not be enough for Russia. Its African strategy, and, no less important, its subsequent day-to-day implementation, must be efficient and competitive, writes Valdai Club Programme Director Oleg Barabanov.
The Valdai Discussion Club is taking an active part in the development of expert cooperation between Russia and the African countries at the present stage of relations. On July 25, 2023, on the eve of the second Russia-Africa Summit, a conference of the Club will be held in St. Petersburg with the participation of representatives from a number of African countries. For this conference, a group of authors from among the Russian and African experts of the Club have prepared a special report titled “Russia and Africa: An Audit of Relations”. The report sums up the main results of the four years that have passed since the first Summit, and makes recommendations that, in the opinion of the Club’s experts, should be heeded for the further improvement of the Russian presence in Africa. This report continues the African theme in the activities of the Valdai Club, laid down by our previous report on this topic in 2019, which was later developed by a series of publications by Russian and African experts on the Club’s website in 2022-23.
The first Russia-Africa Summit, held four years ago, laid the foundation for an ambitious programme to expand Russia’s cooperation with the countries of the continent. However, during its planned implementation in the period between 2019 and 2023, understandable restrictions arose (the pandemic, the military operation in Ukraine, etc.). Nevertheless, in 2019-2022 Russia’s trade turnover with African countries increased from about $16.9 billion to $18 billion. The number of African countries where Russian Houses (cultural and educational centres) operate has increased from 8 to 11. The number of Russian trade missions has remained at the same low level as before (in 4 countries), although plans have been announced to increase this figure in the near future. The results of this four-year period, 2019-23, may seem smaller than expected.
Why this happened is analysed in detail in the chapters of the report. But speaking briefly, in the case of Africa, in our opinion, the same pattern has emerged as in relation to other regions of the world, which are sometimes perceived by Russian society and the business community as culturally and behaviourally exotic (in the neutral sense of the word); therefore they remain little understood, poorly known, and by no means at the top of the list of priorities.
For example, everything that is written in our report about the unpreparedness of Russian business or the Russian educational system to work with Africa, can also be said about India, China, and Latin America.
Naturally, this observation is by no means comprehensive. Russia has many business structures, universities, and civil organisations that have been successfully working with Africa for a long time and are deservedly trusted by their African partners.
However, all of them have a clearly expressed specialized interest in cooperation with the African continent. This is true for the other aforementioned countries and regions as well. Outside this specialized niche, the situation remained different. Today, those companies that have been there for at least 10 years are still active and relatively successful in Africa.
Unfortunately, they did not become locomotives and drivers for a new wave. As a result, a kind of paradox could sometimes be observed. At least until 2022, Russia, positioning itself as one of the leaders of the Non-West, in its daily economic, educational, civil and cultural contacts, essentially singled out the countries of the West, Europe and the USA as the main priority.
Now the situation has changed radically. There is no more West for Russia. Therefore, it has simply become a vital necessity for it to intensively develop the entire range of ties with the regions and countries of the Non-West, including Africa. Naturally, a lot of things have to be done quickly, sometimes immediately. It is clear that both risks and errors are possible. But it also gives hope that Africa will no longer be perceived in Russia as a residual area and will take its rightful place in its list of priorities.
Russia’s current heightened interest in Africa does not come out of nowhere. This was the case in 2019, and even more so. Over the past two years, many global summits and ministerial meetings have been held involving the continent, including US-Africa, EU-Africa, China-Africa, Turkey-Africa, and Japan-Africa. At each of them, large-scale economic and civil projects were offered to the countries of the continent. Naturally, experience shows that not everything that was announced at the summits is being implemented. This is also discussed in detail in our report. Nevertheless, we see a real increase in global competition for Africa, a kind of “race of billions” in cooperation programmes with it. This, by the way, gives the African countries themselves the opportunity to choose.
Four years ago, in the previous Valdai Club report, we emphasised that Russia’s African strategy does not aim to compete with other external forces in the region, but brings additional “added value” to Africa in the form of its projects. This is true even today, adjusted for geopolitical circumstances that are completely different for Russia. The real level of global competition for Africa has become so high that it is simply impossible not to take it into account. In addition, Russia’s geopolitical opponents are trying to put obstacles in the way of its African cooperation to a much more severe degree than before.
Russia, on the other hand, is likely to have financial limitations when it comes to further international cooperation programmes. This is caused both by sanctions pressure on Russian budget revenues and by the redistribution of budget spending priorities amid the special military operation. Therefore, Russia is unlikely to become the leader in the “race of billions” for Africa. But the available opportunities must be used as efficiently as possible.
To achieve this, it is necessary to take into account the already tested mechanisms and “best practices” from the formats of summits of other countries with Africa. These include the creation of working tools for the subsequent implementation of the decisions of the summits (the so-called follow-up mechanisms). This is important so that the summits do not turn into one-time events, and that their decisions are not forgotten the very next day after their completion — until the next summit.
Also, in other summits one can see many actors engage in the development of their own strategic documents on Africa. These are, for example, the corresponding strategies in the US and the EU, as well as the “10 Guiding Principles” with India. On the basis of these documents, the planning and implementation of work is carried out; clear KPIs are developed to achieve each item.
Russia has no such document. And in the new version of the Foreign Policy Concept adopted in 2023, there are not very many points devoted to cooperation with Africa. It is clear that it is not necessary to write another paper for the sake of just a paper. But if we build this new document into the mechanisms of implementation and control over the step-by-step achievement of strategic goals provided for by the federal law of the Russian Federation on strategic planning, then there could be real benefits both for overall efficiency and for responsibility within the Russian state apparatus for fulfilling the tasks of African cooperation. Many countries of the Non-West, including Africa, cannot but pay attention to this when deciding on their further contacts with Russia.
In order to determine the readiness of individual African countries to develop cooperation with Russia amid the current conditions, the report analyses the voting results of African countries on seven resolutions adopted by the UN General Assembly against Russia in 2022-23. With an understanding of the relativity of this criterion (voting against Russia does not always entail a complete rejection of practical cooperation), nevertheless, three groups of states can be distinguished among the African countries.
The first group (19 states) are those countries that have never voted for anti-Russian resolutions. These are Algeria, Burkina Faso, Burundi, Guinea, Zimbabwe, Cameroon, Republic of the Congo, Mali, Mozambique, Namibia, Sudan, Tanzania, Uganda, Central African Republic, Equatorial Guinea, Eritrea, Eswatini, Ethiopia, and South Africa. These countries make up the “core” for promoting the dialogue between Russia and Africa in the current conditions.
The second group (11 states) are the countries that voted for one to three among the seven 7 resolutions. As a rule, these were resolutions on territorial integrity (after the admission of four new constituent members to the Russian Federation) — the most acute and “sore” topic for many African countries; on the humanitarian aspects of the crisis; and respect for the principles of the UN Charter on the anniversary of the conflict. These are Angola, Botswana, Gabon, Guinea Bissau, Lesotho, Madagascar, Morocco, Sao Tome and Principe, Senegal, Togo and South Sudan. This is sort of the middle of the list, which may be open to certain aspects of cooperation with Russia, but for which geopolitical restrictions will matter.
The third group (24 states) are countries that voted for four or more resolutions out of seven, including, as a rule, those that, in addition to general condemnation of Russia, also proposed specific organisational measures: reparations or exclusion from the UN Council on Human Rights. These include Liberia, Malawi and Chad (which voted for all 7 resolutions), as well as Benin, Gambia, Ghana, Djibouti, Egypt, Zambia, Cape Verde, Kenya, Comoros, DR Congo, Côte d’Ivoire, Libya, Mauritius, Mauritania, Niger , Nigeria, Rwanda, the Seychelles, Somalia, Sierra Leone and Tunisia. When Russia builds interaction with these countries, the likelihood of political restrictions is most likely. These results, again with all the relativity of this criterion, introduce an additional and important nuance into the thesis that all of Africa is united in its distancing from the West in relation to Russia. At least from a formal point of view, it does not look like that.
Russia, over the past four years, has strengthened its position as a significant actor in the “security market” in a number of African countries. However, its activities in this area are now being subjected to extremely adverse pressure from Russia’s geopolitical opponents. Nevertheless, in the field of ensuring security, protection, combating terrorism and separatism, i. e. in tasks that are important for many African countries, Russia already has undoubted competencies and practical experience in working on the continent. If we talk about the results of the four years between the summits, then, perhaps, Russia’s activity in this area has been among the most effective. It is an understandable concern that these achieved results should not now turn out to be a victim of incidental circumstances.
Educational programmes are of key importance for the sustainable development of cooperation. It is no coincidence that the main element of the Soviet legacy in Africa that is still preserved is the community of graduates of Soviet universities. For the 2023/24 academic year, the quota for African students at Russian universities has been increased from 2,300 to 4,700 places, that is, more than twice. A number of Russian universities in 2022-2023 announced the signing of agreements with African universities, both on mutual academic mobility and the launch of joint study programmes.
However, there may also be limitations here. These include financial ones, which are discussed in detail in the report. Another constraint is related to the fact that in African countries the global trend is strengthening, that an increasing number of students prefer to receive a bachelor’s education at home, and go abroad for a master’s degree. In Russia, after the decision to abandon the Bologna system, plans were announced by the leadership of the educational sector for a possible reduction in the number of master’s programmes and a massive transition to a one-stage five-year scheme of higher education. Under these conditions, one should consider how to avoid the risk that in the medium term, Russia may self-limit the choice of master’s programmes that are attractive to African students.
Another constraint for medicine, traditionally one of the most sought-after specialties among African students in Russia, is that in a number of African countries Russian medical degrees are not automatically recognized. In order to confirm them, graduates of Russian universities need to take additional exams and then undergo retraining at home. This, of course, serves as a deterrent to increasing the influx of medical students to Russia.
Obviously, work is needed here at the state level to adapt Russian educational programmes in medicine to the requirements of African countries in order to correct this situation. Similar problems, although to a lesser extent, also arise for holders of Russian degrees in engineering and technical specialties.
An extremely important task for strengthening cooperation, both in terms of image and content, is to maintain effective feedback with the African diasporas in Russia. Taking into account their daily concerns and problems, and overcoming the vestiges of everyday xenophobia and discrimination in Russian society is an important state and civil task. Otherwise, it will be impossible to ensure the attractiveness of Russia as a partner for African countries.
Partly for this reason, representatives of the Arab countries of North Africa, Egypt and Morocco, for whom the discrimination factor based on skin colour is less significant, have predominated among African migrants in Russia over the past four years, both educational and otherwise. The number of students in Russia from sub-Saharan Africa is significantly lower.
Despite the problems and tasks to be solved in the report, the overall prospects for strengthening Russian-African cooperation remain optimistic. It is no coincidence that one of the African authors of our report proposed the concept of “Russafrica” as a comprehensive programme of Russian partnership with the countries of the continent. It singled out five reasons for the success of this synergy: historical, political, economic, scientific, educational and security-related. Russia and Africa have many common interests in all these areas, which constitutes a reliable basis for sustainable, mutually beneficial cooperation.
However, these factors alone, in the current global competition for Africa, will not lead to success. Therefore, the mere good memory of the Soviet legacy in Africa, as well as the mere desire to strengthen cooperation with the continent, caused by geopolitical conditions, may not be enough for Russia. Its African strategy, and, no less important, its subsequent day-to-day implementation, must be efficient and competitive.