Russia Still Exploring Africa’s Partnership – Interview


In this snapshot interview conducted by our media executive Kester Kenn Klomegah with Professor Zenebe Kinfu Tafesse, a Senior Lecturer at the Moscow International University, President of Union of African Diasporas (UAD) and Leader of the Ethiopian Community in Russia, he discusses the current Russia-African relations, the significance of the emerging new world order as well as the forthcoming Russia-Africa summit planned for July 2023. Here are the interview excerpts:

How would you characterize the emerging new global order or alternative called a multipolar world? Do you think this is good for Africa? 

Zenebe: The impression is striking of a flashback to the West-Russia tensions that characterized the second half of the 20th century, from the aftermath of World War II until the collapse of the USSR in 1991. The two rival camps are beginning to openly sketch out the comparison, although observers note significant differences. The developments are reminiscent of the first Cold war – the confrontation between the East and the West.

It seems to me that until a new global order was formed, which everyone is talking about, there was the USA and the USSR and the rest, and now the USA and China. Of course, China is not such a virtual player as the USSR, but now rather turning increasingly into an economic power. China has done a lot for developing countries, therefore sooner or later it will become one of the global players… the rest of the new players are regional and are still in the process of their development. There is always rivalry in geopolitics. Developing countries, especially in Africa, value the non-interference stance of Russia and China, so if Western countries were to affirm a less moralistic foreign policy they could shift the balance of power in their favour.

Why do you think China and Russia can lead this new direction in dividing the world? What do China and Russia have in common in Africa? 

Zenebe: China is perceived favourably by African policymakers because it represents the aspirations of the developing world. Meanwhile, both China and Russia have greater legitimacy in Africa considering that they did not possess a colonial empire in the region. The noticeable difference is that Russia’s investment in Africa is not up to the scale of China. Furthermore, it seems to me that they are not exactly allies and not competitors. Now, in my opinion, they are more like-minded about their views on some things, of course, China has a goal and a plan to become one of the leaders in the world, Russia has not seen this yet (except for the official statements of some politicians). 

Do you agree with the opinion of the general public about that the global crisis was started by both American President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin? And, in particular, what does Africa gain from the Russian-Ukrainian crisis? 

Zenebe: I disagree, regarding the global crisis, this is a long-standing problem of the center and periphery in the world. These are financial and market distribution problems. It is a production problem, and related to corruption, problems of demography. In the end, this is the problem of the lack of faith (trust) when the consciousness of humanity approaches (it happened, the information 21st century opened our eyes to all of us), the problem of the Russian-Ukrainian crisis is a problem of humanity, from which, I hope, all strong and weak countries will learn lessons for the future – but in general, after Joe Biden’s visit to Kiev on February 20, I think a serious conflict between the US and Russia has already begun. 

Obviously, Africa is currently divided primarily due to two main factors: American politics and hegemony, and the Russian-Ukrainian crisis. How are these two factors affecting (influencing) the unity of Africa? 

Zenebe: In practical reality, Africa is not divided. According to the majority, it maintains a neutral position. Africans, for sure, understand that both the West and Russia have their own geopolitical interests, but at the same time they understand that Ukraine has suffered. It seems to me that Africans have sympathy for Ukraine, their attitudes and perceptions are different, glaringly indicating that it’s a normal situation. I would like to remind that Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has, several times, explained Russia’s position – that is a balance of geopolitical interests and this forms the core of Russia’s foreign policy. Many people believe that it is imperative consolidate the intra-African solidarity and unity in the context of this global changes, which is marked by worrying uncertainties and could have unforeseeable consequences for Africa. 

What can you say about the main trends and directions of Russia’s interaction with Africa over the past few years? So, what can be expected from the next July summit for Africa? 

Zenebe: I think there are many expected changes, such as the New Concept of Russia-African policy relations, financial relations, state investment in Africa and Russia. The most significant positive sign is that Russia has moved away from its low-key strategy to vigorous relations. But, Russia still needs to find a strategy that really reflects the practical interests of Russian business and African development needs, especially in the areas of industry and agriculture. The previous joint declaration has offered the road-map, and now Russia has do more to capitalize on diverse range of opportunities to increase cooperation in the economic sphere. The forthcoming African leaders summit, of course, is not enough to make all decisions on various aspects of relations with Africa. But if there is a desire of the Russian state, then this will be a platform for future dialogue. 

Do you also agree that Russia, at least, compared to other external players, has achieved little in Africa over the past decade? What were the main problems and pitfalls in its policy towards Africa? 

Zenebe: With the emerging new world order, it is an opportunity to move towards Africa, although many countries largely continue to have the most extensive relationships with their former colonial powers. Africa is described as rich, with enormous untapped resources. From the interpretation of developments on the side of Russia during the past few years, one can smartly agree to the fact that little has been achieved in Africa. There were many official statements though, frankly acknowledging this level of low performance and economic weaknesses in Africa.

On the other hand, Russia exactly similar to the USSR has given great emphasis or special focus on a few African countries such as Egypt and South Africa. With reference, for instance, to Algeria and Angola and a few other countries, except for the military-technical cooperation. One point which has been overlooked or under-estimated is that Russia can boost its relations by using highly trained African graduates with various academic disciplines to build links with Africa.

We have seen the level of bilateral relations in the sphere of trade, and it’s however interesting to note that Russia cannot be compared with other external countries trading with Africa. I think it is important for Russia to give some priority attention to qualitative expansion of trade and economic cooperation. It may consider raising its economic and trade profiles with Africa in future, Russia has not yet set such goals, in practical terms, for itself over the past 30 years.

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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