Russian President Vladimir Putin addresses the First Russia-Africa Summit in Sochi, Russia, on October 23 (XINHUA)
The Black Sea resort town of Sochi was the venue for the First Russia-Africa Summit held on October 23-24, with delegates from all 54 African countries in attendance, including 43 heads of state. Cohosted by Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Egyptian counterpart Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi, the meeting was the largest collaborative event between Russia and Africa since the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991.
Themed Russia-Africa: Uncovering the Potential for Cooperation, it was viewed as a turning point in Russia-Africa ties. During the summit, over 50 trade and economic agreements worth about $12.5 billion were signed. Russia also announced the establishment of a $5-billion fund to facilitate trade with Africa, and vowed to support the growth of African countries by providing preferential trade treatment and debt relief, and combating infectious diseases, among other things.
According to Putin, Russia is confident that it will double its trade with Africa in the coming four to five years.
The summit demonstrated Russia's determination and willingness to strengthen cooperation with Africa. It also signaled to the continent that Russia attaches great importance to bilateral ties.
Russia has a strong desire to join hands with African countries for many reasons rooted in both domestic and global interests. First, it conforms to Russia's pursuit of a multipolar international order and strategic global security. At the same time, it contributes to maintaining Russia's status as an international power. The role of African countries in various international organizations has been growing, especially the UN, where they account for a quarter of the vote. Therefore, closer ties with African countries are crucial for Russia to gain more international support.
Second, there is large untapped potential in bilateral trade and economic cooperation. Africa is a potential market for Russian industrial products, a source of minerals and a region with a relatively high return on investment. In terms of imports, Africa's tropical fruits and agricultural products can be an alternative to products from Western countries in response to economic sanctions imposed on Russia.
Third, Africa offers a window for Russia to break Western sanctions and diplomatic containment, which is the current focus of Russia's diplomacy. The country is trying to improve its ties with the non-Western world. Along with being actively involved in Middle East issues, Russia is turning to Africa again.
Lastly, the rapid economic growth on the continent has motivated Russia to put more value on bilateral cooperation. With the efforts of African countries and the international community, the continent is becoming a land of hope, stability and economic expansion. Its vital geo-economic status makes it a popular cooperation partner. Emerging major countries such as China and India have carried out close collaboration with the continent and have seen remarkable results, which is another factor driving Russia to pay more attention to Africa.
For its part, Africa hopes to strengthen ties with Russia to diversify its diplomacy. African countries are committed to independent development and national self-determination. The last thing they want to see is a major Western country come in and play a dominant role on the continent. Therefore, African countries are actively reinforcing their ties with Russia.
The Soviet Union played a significant role in the African independence movement, supporting the local peoples' struggle against colonialism, racism and apartheid. It also pursued economic cooperation and provided aid to many African countries. For example, important infrastructure facilities, hydroelectric plants, roads and industrial plants were built by the Soviet Union in Morocco, Egypt, Algeria, Zambia and many more.
Moreover, the close cooperation in education between the Soviet Union and Africa greatly boosted bilateral relations. The Soviet Union built dozens of universities and vocational colleges across Africa, where hundreds of thousands of people were educated and trained. In addition, many African political leaders studied in the Soviet Union, going on to hold important positions in their governments, non-governmental organizations and the business sector after independence.
Memories from this historical cooperation help Russia shape a sound national image in Africa. After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the relationship between Russia and African countries went stagnant at first. During the reign of President Boris Yeltsin from 1991 until 1999, Russia prioritized domestic political stability and did not focus much on cooperation with African countries. After assuming the presidency in 2000, Putin readjusted Russia's diplomatic strategy and set restoring Russia's great power status as a top goal. As part of Russia's economic recovery in his second term in 2004-08, Russia began to refocus on its relations with African countries.
Currently, Russia enjoys sound political ties with most of Africa, which has provided a basis for moving the collaboration to new heights. Russian leaders have stressed repeatedly that they want to develop mutually beneficial ties with Africa rather than to participate in a new repartition of the continent's wealth.
Potential and challenges
There is a lot of potential for more trade and economic cooperation with African countries, especially in Russia's advantageous areas, such as the defense, nuclear and mining industries.
Cooperation agreements signed at the Sochi summit mainly concentrated on these sectors. For example, Russian companies will offer automatic control systems, industrial robots, unmanned trucks and other machines to African mining companies to improve their productivity and boost revenue. Russian Railways, a state-owned company, signed memoranda of understanding on railway construction and locomotive assembly with Egypt, Nigeria and other countries.
Defense cooperation has long been active between Russia and African countries. According to statistics, one third of Russia's arms exports go to Africa every year. In 2014, Russia signed agreements with over 20 African countries, including for the export of fighter aircraft, armored vehicles, transport helicopters, anti-tank guided missiles and fighter engines. Russia's state-owned nuclear group Rosatom also signed nuclear cooperation deals with 18 African countries on the peaceful use of nuclear energy.
However, challenges coexist with these opportunities. Russia's current economic strength cannot support massive capital and technology investment in Africa, and its products are not all internationally competitive. Meanwhile, compared to other major countries which have been building their ties with Africa for a long time, Russia is a latecomer. The Russian Government and its companies should carefully consider how to turn this disadvantage into an advantage.
According to statistics from the Federal Customs Service of Russia, the trade volume between Russia and the 54 African countries was only $17 billion in 2017 and $20 billion in 2018. Meanwhile, Africa's trade with India and China totaled $70 billion and $200 billion, respectively.
The Sochi summit will contribute to increased Russia-Africa coordination and cooperation in various areas. But if Russia cannot honor its promises and implement the bilateral and multilateral agreements that were signed at the summit, Africa's confidence in its capabilities will be undermined. In that scenario, cooperation between Russia and African countries is likely to lose momentum.
Russia has to deal with these challenges cautiously and seize the opportunities for cooperation through enhancing its economic strength and improving its policies.
The author is an associate researcher with the Shanghai Institutes for International Studies
Copyedited by Rebeca Toledo
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