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On the eve of his four-nation African tour in July 2022, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, shared reflections on the prospects for Russia-African relations within the context of the current geopolitical and economic changes. Long before that, Lavrov reiterated that Russia has a long time-tested relationship with Africa, and along the line suggested taking a chapter on the approach and methods adopted by China in Africa.
Lavrov expressed optimism that relations with Africa has brighter prospects, now that the African Union decided to establish the African Continental Free Trade Area. Specific criteria and tariffs for this area are being agreed upon, which will take some time. This will benefit Russia as Africa’s rising partner in terms of boosting trade and investment which are quite modest compared to the United States, China and the European Union.
Records show that Africa has a population over 1.3 billion people, which is comparable to China and India. This is a great portion of the modern world and probably the most promising consumer market. That is why external countries and foreign companies, with good vision, are building long-term business strategies with regard to Africa.
In terms of working with the African continent, Russian business leaders say the African continent remains little known in Russia. Much is really unknown due to the simple fact that there are few useful integrative and learning platforms for entrepreneurship. Even the few that are available, Russian officials find it necessary to engage in hyperbolic anti-Western themes more than concentrating on what concretely Russia could do in Africa.
Alexander Saltanov, former Deputy Foreign Affairs Minister and now Chairman of the Association of Economic Cooperation with African States (AECAS), acknowledged in St. Petersburg forum that African countries no longer know as much about Russia as they did about its predecessor, the Soviet Union. Notwithstanding the setbacks down these years, Saltanov referred to the most common complaints including inadequate support systems – both from the state and financial institutions.
Interestingly, Vladimir Putin, Sergey Lavrov, Mikhail Bogdanov and many of the various ministry officials hardly talk about the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA). If nothing at all, the AfCFTA could also serve as a platform to strengthen business ties between Russia and Africa. Worth noting that the African Continental Free Trade (AfCFTA) promises to create a single borderless market, it offers various opportunities for localization, production and marketing of consumables throughout Africa. This should, perhaps, be the strongest dimension of Russia’s dealings in Africa.
Experts who have researched Russia’s foreign policy in Africa, for instance, at the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Institute for African Studies have reiterated that Russia’s exports to Africa can be possible only after the country’s industrial-based experiences a more qualitative change and introduces tariff preferences for trade with African partners. As a reputable institute, it has played a considerable part in developing African studies in the Russian Federation.
“The situation in Russian-African foreign trade will change for the better if Russian industry undergoes technological modernization, the state provides Russian businessmen systematic and meaningful support, and small and medium businesses receive wider access to foreign economic cooperation with Africa,” according to Professor Aleksei Vasiliev, a member of the Russian Academy of Sciences, and Evgeny Korendyasov, an expert at the Institute for African Studies.
Back in 2019, Foreign Affairs Minister Sergey Lavrov explained that trade between Russia and Africa would grow as more and more African partners continued to show interest in having Russians in the economic sectors of Africa. Then four years later, Lavrov was in Pretoria in February 2023, mentioned trade, among several others, as promising areas of bilateral collaboration with South Africa.
Over the years, Pretoria traditionally expresses readiness to collaborate, but the question now is how to build a supply chain and financial services for collaborative projects in the face of Western sanctions imposed on Russia.
South Africa and Russia are members of BRICS, a grouping of major emerging economies, although they remain relatively insignificant markets for each other: Russia ranked as South Africa’s 33rd-largest trading partner in 2021, with two-way flows amounting to just $1.46 billion. In comparison, South Africa’s trade with the United States was $10.2 billion in 2021. South Africa has large exports to Europe.
High-positioned officials continue rattling statements about trade and investment…et cetera. Some believes that Russia’s increasing political dialogues have not been transformed into economic capabilities. Straddling as a strategic player and highly praised multipolar advocate, Russia’s business initiatives have inconsistently been followed across Africa.
Federation Council Deputy Speaker Konstantin Kosachev, quoting trade figures to illustrate his argument, clearly said that “the 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 – at approximately $50-60 billion. Despite the tendency to grow, our current turnover is around $20 billion.”
The United States, EU representatives, China, India, Turkey and even the Gulf States discuss Africa from different perspectives, but more importantly ways to establish their economic footprints on the continent. For instance, fresh from their previous EU-AU summit, both agreed on several infrastructure and investment projects. EU has already committed approx. €300 billion ($340 billion) for financing new investment initiatives – similar to China’s Belt and Road initiative – an investment programme the bloc claims would create links, not dependencies.
Reports also showed that Russia has started strengthening its economic cooperation by opening trade missions with the responsibility of providing sustainable business services and plans to facilitate import-export trade in a number of African countries. A simple calculation shows that already been more than a decade since the establishment of the Coordinating Committee on Economic Cooperation with Sub-Saharan Africa. There are also several Joint Commissions on Trade and Economic Cooperation, and of course, there are Trade and Economic councillors at nearly all of Russia’s diplomatic missions in Africa.
Senator Igor Morozov, Chairman of the Coordination Committee on Economic Cooperation with Africa, observes that conditions that are opening up for Russian business today are not the same as those for businessmen from France, the European Union, India or China. Senator Morozov has therefore called for improving Russia’s competitive edge and taking advantage of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA).
Dr Mohamed Chtatou, professor of Middle Eastern politics at the International University of Rabat (IUR) and Mohammed V University in Rabat, Morocco, told me in our discussion that African leaders have to focus largely on accelerating, advancing and sustaining decades-old dream of Africa’s unity, and this has to reflect especially on intra-African position relating to investment and trade.
According to him, proceeding with integration at a pace that is both ambitious and realistic. Achieving a balance between public and private sector economic initiatives is also important at this of geopolitical changes in the world. There are some steps that Africa can take to reduce the influence of developed world: African countries, with external players, should strive to attract foreign investment on their own terms, by negotiating fair and equitable deals that benefit both the investor and the host country.
Professor Fyodor Lukyanov, Chairman of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy, Research Director at the Valdai Discussion Club, and Editor-in-Chief of Russia in Global Affairs journal, explains with this author in an interview that Russia’s engagement depends largely on several factors. Notwithstanding all that, Africa has its strengths and weaknesses based on history, but the balance is positive in this emerging new world. Most of the potential success (especially transforming the economy and raising trade levels) depends on African countries themselves and their ability to build up relations with outside powers on a rational and calculated basis.
It is straddling back to regain influence, Russia has to be serious with policy initiatives. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, many other problems emerged and pushed cooperation with Africa into the background. Regrettably, much has been lost over this period, and further to that Western and European countries, China, Turkey, and India et cetera, have filled the vacuum that emerged after Russia’s sudden ‘retreat’ from Africa.
Currently Russia has come under series of Western and European sanctions due to its ‘special military operation’ in neighbouring Ukraine. As the sanctions bite, Russia continues stepping up to realign with Africa, steadily stemming its policy with mountainous pledges of helping with sustainable development, increasing trade through economic cooperation and strengthening relations.
Whether good or not, Russians have to face the new geopolitical realities and the practical challenges. The general expectations are that Lavrov needs to push for more detailed analysis of the current and future prospects of trade, economic, investment and technological ties, instead of being loud on skyrocketing anti-Western rhetoric. And one key aspect should be how to make Russia’s strategic efforts more practical and effective with its partnership and bilateral cooperation across Africa.
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