By Kester Lomegah
Russia and African states have traditionally enjoyed friendly, time-tested relations, and a significant role was in the liberation of the continent, supporting the struggle of its peoples against colonialism, racism and apartheid.
Today, the development and strengthening of mutually beneficial ties with African countries and their integration associations is one of Russia's foreign policy priorities, thus on October 23-24, Sochi hosted the first Russia-Africa Summit.
The idea to organise such an event emerged quite a long time ago; however, it has taken some time and considerable preparatory work to make this summit a starting point for building fair partnership relations based on equality and mutual practical interest.
Putin has outlined a comprehensive plan and taken note of key factors that includes:
* Russia, together with the international community, renders comprehensive assistance to Africa, inter alia, by way of reducing the debt burden of its states. With a number of countries, Russia is carrying out debt-for-development swap programmes.
* As for the potential level of investment in Africa in the next five years, the figure expected to be quite high, with a number of billion-dollar investment projects with Russia's participation. Both Russia and Russian companies have substantial resources.
African partners, in turn, will have create the necessary stable and predictable business environment and investment protection mechanisms and ensure favourable investment climate.
* Africa's infrastructure needs are increasing, and African population is rapidly growing, as are its demands. All of this, in turn, calls for an expanded domestic market and greater consumption. Of course, where there are promising prospects for investment and profit, there is always competition, which, unfortunately, at times goes beyond the bounds of decency.
* Russia has certainly take note of these factors and draw conclusions. Russia is not going to participate in a new "repartition" of the continent's wealth; rather, ready to engage in competition for cooperation with Africa, provided this competition is civilized and develops in compliance with the law. Russia has a lot to offer to its African friends.
Under the headline "Russia-Africa Summit: Future-Oriented Agenda" for the Valdai Discussion Club, Deputy Director and Chief Researcher at the Institute for African Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, Professor Vladimir Shubin, noted that one should not be surprised that the first summit bringing together Russia and the leaders of African countries should take place after almost three decades. It id ude to multiple factors during the period after Soviet collapse.
Further, he mentioned that one serious obstacle to the development of comprehensive ties is the lack of objective information about Russia in Africa, and about Africa in Russia. The potential of bilateral relations can be realised only if both sides shed the stereotypes imposed from outside and develop mutually beneficial cooperation, grounded in reality.
Shubin added, regrettably that "the state of bilateral economic relations leaves much to be desired." But, Moscow seeks to create favourable conditions by writing off the debt of African countries (US$20 billion), as well as introducing a system of preferences for traditional African export goods.
However, trade turnover remains limited, at less than 3% of Russia's total foreign trade. According to the African Development Bank, Russian investment in Africa peaked at US$20 billion, although its flow is hardly stable. Unfortunately, in these areas Western sanctions have become an obstacle in recent years.
Russia's presence in Africa has remained marginal, but this could soon change. Several delegations from African states have visited Moscow during the past few years and the Russian government appears determined to strengthen ties with Africa.
But, Russia's intensified move to invite delegations has often been interpreted among academics and policy experts as a result of escalating competition and increasing economic influence by many foreign players in Africa.
Professor GeorgyToloraya, Chair of the Regional Projects Department, Russkiy Mir Foundation, and Executive Director, BRICS National Research Committee in Russia, explained that in the wake of increasing conflict with the West and European Union, Russia has to turn its attention (especially in economy) elsewhere and Africa is the obvious choice. The time has come to make meaningful efforts to implement agreements on bilateral basis.
Some experts acknowledge that it is never too late for Russia to enter the business game but what it requires here is to move beyond old stereotypes, prioritise corporate projects and have a new policy strategy for the continent - a market of some 350 million middle-class Africans.
Russia has to risk by investing and recognise the importance of cooperation on key potential investment issues, work closely with African leaders on the challenges and opportunities on the continent, Andy Kwawukume, an independent policy expert told me in an emailed discussion from London, noting that Russians have been trying to restage a comeback over the past few years, which was a commendable step forward.
Kwawukume, a Norwagian trained graduate, pointed out that "there is enough room and gaps in Africa for Russians to fill too, in a meaningful way that can benefit all parties involved.
The poor and low level of infrastructural development in Africa constitutes a huge business for Russian construction companies to step in. Energy is another sector Russians can help in developing. Russian officials should consider using its Russian trained African graduates as bridges to stimulate business cooperation."
But, John Mashaka, a Tanzanian financial analyst at Wells Fargo Capital Markets in the U.S., argues that Russia is going to remain relevant in Africa if its leaders can design a policy or mechanism that will enable its people and corporations to secure credits - loans - with favourable terms including payment.
It must counter China's increasing economic influence with much better packages such as concessional and low-interest loans. There are chances to turn the business tide and if Russians can come with a different mix of economic incentives, without doubt, they will be taking off from the track where the former USSR left after the collapse of the Soviet era.
Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov reiterated that it was to develop a trustworthy political dialogue and strengthen mutually beneficial bilateral cooperation in accordance with the declaration on strategic partnership and to forge cooperation in mutually beneficial economic spheres.
Lavrov further stressed the situation in different African regions, including to the north of the Sahara, in the region of the Horn of Africa, including the situation in Somalia, in the Republics of Sudan and South Sudan, the Central African Republic, in the Great Lakes Region, which is the key focus of attention in the foreign policy.
"We would like to contribute to the normalisation of all multifaceted ties, as well as the settlement of other problem issues in the African continent," said Foreign Minister Lavrov.
As far back as May 2014, while addressing African diplomatic representatives, Lavrov said: "We will continue to assist states of the continent in other areas both in bilateral and multilateral formats.
As it is known, Russia has written off over US$20 billion debt of African states. We are undertaking steps to further ease the debt burden of Africans, including through conclusion of agreements based on the scheme debt in exchange for development."
In an article headlined: "Russia and Sub-Saharan Africa: Time-proven Relations" published in the magazine Russian View in May, Sergey Lavrov gave additional information on gains made in policy implementation in Africa.
"Our country takes significant practical steps to assist sustainable development of African states. Russia provides African countries with extensive preferences in trade and contributes to alleviating their debt burden - the total amount of debt relief exceeds US$20 billion. Debt-for-development agreements for a total amount of US$552 million were concluded with certain States,' Lavrov wrote in the article.
Obviously, Russia continues providing the necessary politico-diplomatic follow-up for the African activities of leading Russian companies such as Alrosa, Gazprom, Lukoil, Rusal, Renova, Gammakhim, Technopromexport, VEB and VTB banks, which are engaged in large-scale investment projects on the continent. Positive dynamics are evident in the development of Russian-African cooperation in the minerals and raw materials, infrastructure, energy and many other spheres.
Some experts have offered both criticism and expert advice, often comparing Russia's economic investment and influence to other foreign players.
As Dane Erickson, a lecturer at the Graduate School of Public Affairs at the University of Colorado and formerly a visiting scholar at the Africa Studies Center at Beijing University, argues that the reality is that China is among many international players that have increased their attention to Africa in recent years.
Largely due to Africa's growing reputation as a region for commerce, over the past few years China, India, Japan, and the European Union all have hosted regional meetings similar to the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit.
Africa's fractional share in global foreign direct investment (FDI) is on the rise, and trade between Africa and a multitude of nations is also increasing rapidly, according to Erickson.
China's trade has increased rapidly. For example, China is the most conspicuous among these actors. China's first Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) occurred in 2000 and larger conferences have taken place every three years since.
And while China's official FDI is only 25 percent of that of countries like the U.S. and France, its trade dwarfs the figures of other nations. Up from just US$10 billion in 2000, Chinese-African trade came to over US$200 billion double that of the United States, the continent's second largest trading partner.
Professor Gerrit Olivier at the Department of Political Sciences, University of Pretoria, and former South African Ambassador to the Russian Federation, wrote that "what seems to irk the Russians, in particular, is that very few initiatives go beyond the symbolism, pomp and circumstance of high level opening moves.
Professor Olivier added that Russian presence in Africa could be directed at promoting economic development and political stability in Africa by introducing more healthy competition, partnership, and greater responsibility on the continent.
Important though is the fact that the Soviet Union never tried to colonize Africa. Soviet influence in Africa disappeared almost like a mirage with the collapse of the Soviet system in 1991. In the current assessment of Russia's influence in Africa, despite efforts towards resuscitation, has remained marginal.
While, given its global status, it ought to be active in Africa as Western Europe, the European Union, America and China are, it is all but absent, playing a negligible role, according to the views of the retired diplomat.
Russia, of course, is not satisfied with this state of affairs. At present "paper diplomacy" dominates its approach, a plethora of agreements being entered into with various African countries, official visits from Moscow proliferate apace, but the outcomes has remained hardly discernible.
Be that as it may, the Kremlin has revived its interest in the African continent and it will be realistic to expect that the spade work it is putting in now will at some stage show more tangible results, Professor Olivier wrote from Pretoria in South Africa.
Foreign Affairs Minister Sergey Lavrov has said that trade between Russia and Africa would grow further as more and more African partners continued to show interest in having Russians in the economic sectors in Africa.
"Our African partners are interested in Russian business working more actively there. This provides greater competition between the companies from Western countries, China, and Russia.
With competition for developing mineral resources in Africa, it is easier and cheaper for our African colleagues to choose partners," he told the staff and students at Moscow State Institute of International Affairs early September.
Soviet Union and Africa had very close and, in many respects, allied relations with most of the African countries during the decolonisation of Africa. For obvious reasons, the Soviet Union ceased to exist in 1991.
As a result, Russia has to struggle through many internal and external difficulties. The past few years, it is still struggling to survive both the United States and European sanctions.
For decades, Russia has been looking for effective ways to promote multifaceted ties and new strategies for cooperation in economic areas in Africa.
A number of foreign countries notably China, the United States, European Union, India, France, Turkey, Japan, and South Korea have held gatherings of this kind in that format. Now, Kremlin has held the first Russia-Africa Summit with high hopes of enhancing multifaceted ties, reshape the existing relationships and significantly roll out ways to increase effectiveness of cooperation between Russia and Africa.
*KesterKennKlomegah is an independent researcher and policy consultant on African affairs and Brics. He is the author of the Geopolitical Handbook titled "Putin's African Dream and The New Dawn: Challenges and Emerging Opportunities" devoted to the first Russia-Africa Summit 2019.