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Mikhail Bogdanov’s Passion For Africa And The Critical Russia’s Policy Debates – OpEd

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Russian Presidential Special Representative for Middle East and Africa, Mikhail Bogdanov, in an April interview to Interfax news agency, offered an insight into aspects of Russia’s policy objectives, initiatives and future prospects in Africa. He highlighted a few obstacles for Russian government’s inability in realizing its set goals and tasks during the past several years. But what is spectacularly interesting in the interview text concerns Soviet and Russian education for Africans.

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Bogdanov authoritatively told the interviewer, Ksenia Baygarova, that Africa has always been an important region from the point of view of foreign policy of the Russian Federation. “This cooperation is very multidimensional. For instance, how many Africans have studied at our universities? Back at the end of 1950s-1960s, the Soviet Union played the most important historical role for African peoples in getting their statehood and independence during their fight against colonial rule. Of course, these historical ties give a solid basis for cordial relationships. Many generations of politicians and diplomats have changed but it is good that continuity and solidarity between our country and Africa has been upheld,” he narrated and about the past historical records.

Understandably, now is time for creating the foundation for the restoration of Russia-African ties after a certain pause which was mainly linked to domestic problems in the country. After the collapse of the Soviet Union other problems emerged and they pushed cooperation with Africa into the background. “Some of our embassies in African countries were closed. Regrettably, much has been lost over this period, and as they say, nature abhors a vacuum. Others, western countries, China, Turkey, and India, filled the vacuum that emerged after our ‘retreat’ from Africa,” he convincingly explained.

Monitoring, researching and analyzing the post-Soviet developments with Africa with information resources on the official Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs website indicated that during the past years, there have been several top-level bilateral meetings. The overwhelming truth is that some of the information pointed to the signing of MoUs and bilateral agreements, at least during the past decade. In November 2021, a policy document titled the ‘Situation Analytical Report’ presented at the premises of TASS News Agency was very critical about Russia’s current policy towards Africa.

While the number of high-level meetings has increased, the share of substantive issues on the agenda remains small. There are little definitive results from such meetings. Apart from the absence of a public strategy for the continent, at the same time there is the lack of coordination among various state and para-state institutions working with Africa. Many bilateral agreements, at the top and high political levels, have still not been implemented. A lot more important issues have received little attention since the first African leaders summit held in Sochi.

In addition to the above, our monitoring and research show Russia grossly lacks public outreach policies that could help form good perception and build image especially among the youth and the middle-class that form the bulk of Africa’s 1.3 billion population.

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Researchers have been making tangible contributions to the development of African studies in Russia. The Moscow-based Africa Studies Institute has a huge pack of research materials useful for designing an African agenda. In an interview, Professor Vladimir Shubin at the Institute for African Studies under the Russian Academy of Sciences reiterated that Russia is not doing enough to communicate to the broad sectors of the public, particularly in Africa, true information about its domestic and foreign policies as well as the accomplishments of Russia’s economy, science and technology to form a positive perception of Russia within the context of the current global changes of the 21st century.

Under the geopolitical changes and circumstances, Russia would have to open-up more especially working with strategically chosen social groups and business associations in Africa. China has such a strategy and resultantly has excellent footprints. While Deputy Minister Mikhail Bogdanov still talking about 1950s-1960s, about the past Soviet Union education, China’s current focus is on different forms of education, ranging from short-term, requalification courses and academic fellowships to the regular intake of African students.

With far-sightedness and long-term strategy, Beijing is very desirous to win the hearts and minds of Africa’s future leaders and influencers by offering them educational opportunities in China. It is investing and exercising soft power in the education sector, and it is reported that China provided 12,000 scholarships to African students in 2021, despite it was Covid-19 pandemic period. 

Besides that, China has been training African civil servants and runs the Confucius Institute in some 20 African countries. It has recently opened the first Party School and admitted first batch of 120 participants from African ruling parties who are attending the workshop at the US$40 million facility in Tanzania funded by the Chinese Communist Party. There is now a total of 81,562 African students this 2022/23 academic year in China, according to the Chinese Ministry of Education.

The data from the UNESCO Institute for Statistics shows that Asian countries have become the second most popular destination for African students studying abroad with China being number one followed by the likes of India, Japan, Korea, and Israel, among others. Judging from our monitoring and research, India has also taken steps aim at building a more practical partnership in a number of spheres in the continent. New Delhi has a new set of opportunities in human resources development, information technology and education. 

While Indian companies rely more on African talent, they do capacity building of the local population. The India diaspora plays its own bridging role between India and Africa. As the world focuses on Africa’s fast growing economies, India offers many academic fellowship and internship opportunities for young Africans, it has the traditional annual training programmes in various universities and institutes in India.

United States and European countries are investing in the youth. These European and Western countries, which Russians often criticized, train thousands yearly, ranging from short-term courses to long-term academic disciplines. During the days of Barak Obama, the White House created Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI). It brings 500 Africans to the White House in Washington and this YALI still runs various academic and training programmes for Africans. Before the Covid-19, The The Times Higher Education index indicated that approximately 43,000 Africans enrolled into American universities. There are many African universities and institutes with joint agreements running programes, including fellowships, together with Westerners and Europeans. That compared, Russia’s annual scholarship of about 1,800.

The European Union (EU) has been focusing on the African youth. It embraces them with different kinds of training, with fellowship programmes et cetera under its flagship policy on education. Many African countries have enormously benefited from the educational initiatives during the past years. For instance, in August 2022, it offered postgraduate scholarships to over 200 young Nigerians in top European universities for the academic year. And if considering the whole of Africa, this is just the tip of the iceberg. The EU shows consistent commitment to ramping up programmes and activities targeting vibrant young people from Africa.

France is a member of the European Union. France’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs together with Ministry of Education are collaborating with French-speaking African countries to offer an intensive orientation and educational training for 10,000 French teachers in Africa. The five-year training programme aims at strengthening France’s soft power. Besides training French teachers, it has regular students’ intake from Africa. France, like any other foreign player, has been looking for effective ways of improving its public diplomacy especially in French-speaking African countries.

From the Arab world and Gulf region, Turkey has been making inroads these years into Africa. It has shifted direction and now pursues a more diversified, multidimensional foreign policy since the end of the Cold War. Turkey was accorded an observer status by the African Union. In a reciprocal move, the AU declared Turkey its strategic partner in 2008, and since then relations between Africa and Turkey is still gaining momentum. It trains more and more agricultural specialists for Africa.

In 2009, there were only 12 Turkish embassies in African countries, with five of them in North Africa. Now, there are 43. With tourism promotion at the hotspot, Turkish Airlines has flights to 60 different destinations in 39 countries on the continent while the Turkish International Cooperation and Development Agency (TIKA) has nearly 30 coordination centers throughout Africa. 

Arguably, the Presidential Special Representative for Middle East and Africa, Mikhail Bogdanov, most probably understands all these when he admittedly said in his Interfax interview that other foreign players are active and operating in Africa. Statistics on African students are, in fact, still staggering. Russia’s Ministry of Science and Higher Education, citing confidentiality, declined to give the current figure for Africa.

For the coming years, Russia needs a model template of social policy for Africa. With the emerging new world order which invariably incorporates in its fold education and cultural influence – the importance soft power – for making alliances and inroads, networking and collaborating with institutions, in Africa. In a transcript posted to the State Duma’s official website, during the inter-parliamentary conference, Chairman of the State Duma, Viacheslav Volodin, was convinced that cultural and educational cooperation could be equally important areas needed to be developed and intensified in Russia-African relations.

Professor Vladimir Filippov, former Rector of the Russian University of People’s Friendship (RUDN), popularly referred to as Patrice Lumumba Friendship University, has underscored the fact that social attitudes toward foreigners first have to change positively, the need to create a multicultural learning environment, then the need to expand educational and scientific ties between Russia and Africa.

Established in 1960 to provide higher education to Third World students, it later became an integral part of the Soviet cultural offensive in non-aligned countries. His university has gained international popularity as an educational institution located in southwest Moscow.

“The present and the future of Russia-Africa relations is not about charity, it’s about co-development,” stated Evgeny Primakov, Head of the Russian Federal Agency for International Humanitarian Cooperation (Rossotrudnichestvo) and also a member of the Secretariat of the Russia-Africa Partnership Forum.

The Secretariat of the Russia-Africa Partnership Forum works under the Russian Foreign Ministry. It has, under its aegis, three coordination councils namely business, public and scientific councils. Primakov heads the humanitarian council that deals with education and humanitarian questions for the Foreign Ministry. While talking about initiatives especially the sphere of education within the framework of the relationship between Russia and Africa, Primakov explicitly underlined the changing state of affairs in education and added that the number of Russian state scholarships for African citizens – for the whole continent made up of 54 African countries – has only increased from 1765 in 2019 to 1843 in 2020.

Primarily due to the coronavirus outbreak, Russian universities since then potential students have had difficulties with transportation, safety, and financing scholarships allocated through the budget. The Russian system of higher education needs to be adapted to the new realities so that it could gain more value on the international market especially for the Africa’s middle class whose kids could study on contracts in the Russian Federation. This is strictly not humanitarian aid as percieved by Mikhail Bogdanov and Evgeny Primakov.

Similarly at the Valdai Discussion Club, academic researchers from the Institute for African Studies and policy observers held discussions on current Russia’s policy, emerging opportunities and possibilities for partnerships in Africa. Quite interestingly, majority of them acknowledged the need for Russia to be more prominent as it should be and work more consistently to achieve its strategic goals on the continent.

The Valdai Discussion Club was established in 2004 with the primary goal to promote dialogue between Russian and the rest of the world. It hosted an expert discussions themed “Russia’s Return to Africa: Interests, Challenges, Prospects” to brainstorm views on Africa. Officials from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Africa Department were present, and noted that there have been developments in relations with Africa.

Russia claims to have substantial influence in the education sphere. It consistently claims training thousands and thousands of Africans from 1950s and 1960s as emphatically explained by Deputy Minister Bogdanov. But why currently the African youth and the middle class, African NGOs and the civil society, so remote in Russia’s policy towards Africa? Cultural issues are catastrophic, indeed! There is nothing African, except African diplomatic offices in the Russian Federation? Who runs public outreach programmes that could change perceptions in Africa? 

With the youth’s education, experts are still critical. Gordey Yastrebov, a Postdoctoral Researcher and Lecturer at the Institute for Sociology and Social Psychology at the University of Cologne (Germany), argues in an email interview discussion that “education can be a tool for geopolitical influence in general, and for changing perceptions specifically, and Russia (just like any other country) could use it for that same purpose. However, Russia isn’t doing anything substantial on this front, at least there is no consistent effort with obvious outcomes that would make me think so. There are no large-scale investment programmes in education focusing on this.” 

He explains that Russian education can become appealing these days, but given that Russia can no longer boast any significant scientific and technological achievements. Western educational and scientific paradigm embraces cooperation and critical independent thinking, whereas this is not the case with the Russian paradigm, which is becoming more isolationist and authoritarian. Obviously by now, Africa should look up to more successful examples elsewhere, perhaps in the United States and Europe.

In an interview with Professor Natalia Vlasova, Deputy Rector at the Department of International Relations and Cooperation of the Ural State University of Economics (USUE) in Yekaterinburg, explained that many African countries are developing rapidly, the African elites and the growing middle-class are great potentials for sponsoring their children’s education abroad. She explained the necessity to develop bilateral ties not only in economic sphere but also in education and culture, promote exchange of people and ideas in the social sphere.

“We must use the full potential interest and mutual sympathy between the peoples of Russia and Africa, a great desire of Russians and Africans to visit each other to make friends, establish new connections. It will be of high appreciation to African countries when Russian authorities create a social platform towards strengthening Russian-African relations,” suggested Vlasova.

According to her, Russia could still offer credible alternative programmes bringing together Russians and Africans. She finally concluded: “In times of Soviet Union, African countries were strategic partners, and now we should reactivate these relations because in the nearest future they will have big economic and political power. This could, indeed, be a huge market and has potential basis for future diversified business.”

Nevertheless, experts from the Moscow based Center for Strategic Research acknowledged in an interview with this author that the percentage of Russian universities on the world market is considerably low. Due to this, there is a rare need to develop Russian education export opportunities, take progressive measures to raise interest in Russian education among foreigners. This would raise the collaboration between Russia and Africa to a qualitatively new level and ultimately contribute to the economies and the prosperity for both Africa and Russia.

As part of the renewed interest in Africa, Sergey Lavrov and Mikhail Bogdanov at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and top officials at the Ministry of Higher Education and related agencies have to work more on opportunities and diverse ways to increase the number of students, especially tuition paying agreements for children of the growing elite families and middle-class from African countries. It has to review its cultural component in its current foreign policy, undoubtedly, be directed at strengthening relations. It is certainly true that western and European system classically appeal more to Africans. If Russia’s ultimate interest is to lead a fairer multipolarism and more stable global system, then it is necessary to share these interests through educational sphere in sub-Saharan Africa.

Rossiyskaya Gazeta, a widely circulated Russian daily newspaper, in article also reported that Russia has to focus on young population from developing countries of Asia, Africa and Latin America. It has to target the elite and middle class in these markets for the export of education which has great potential. The Gazeta concluded that Africa’s fast-growing population as a huge potential market for knowledge transfer and export education. 

Beyond all these trends in the Russia-African relations discussed above, it is necessary here to recall that President Vladimir Putin particularly noted the good dynamics of specialist training and education in Russian educational institutions for African countries. Putin, however, suggested to Russian and African participants to map out broad initiatives in the sphere of education and culture during the first summit in Sochi. For the joint work, there was a final joint declaration, adopted at the end the summit. The document outlines a set of goals and objectives for further development of Russia-African cooperation.

Kester Kenn Klomegah

Kester Kenn Klomegah is an independent researcher and a policy consultant on African affairs in the Russian Federation and Eurasian Union. He has won media awards for highlighting economic diplomacy in the region with Africa. Currently, Klomegah is a Special Representative for Africa on the Board of the Russian Trade and Economic Development Council. He enjoys travelling and visiting historical places in Eastern and Central Europe. Klomegah is a frequent and passionate contributor to Eurasia Review.

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