Russia does not currently have a concrete policy agenda for Africa, and offers much less to the continent now than it did during the Soviet era, at least according to Irina Filatova, Professor Emeritus at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa and a professor at the National Research University at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow.
“Russia is interested in developing economic relations with Africa, but does not have much to offer,” says Filatova. “And what it does have to offer, it does not quite know how to.”
Although South Africa is now part of the BRICS grouping, that partnership is more about global political relations than connecting Russia with Africa. “This is, as we know, an ideology aimed at changing the world economic (and political) order,” says Filatova of the BRICS alliance. “Any other strategic partnership between Africa and Russia does not exist, and is impossible because of Russia’s negligible economic ties with the continent.”
BRICS does not fulfil the need for a “platform for Russia-Africa dialogue,” stresses Lesley Masters, a senior researcher at the Institute for Global Dialogue in South Africa. “African engagement with Russia has been difficult, especially in building up economic ties. Relations need to be more visible and opened up to promote greater exchanges across sectors between Africa and Russia. There is not enough understanding in Africa regarding Russia.”
More than economics
From Russia’s perspective, there are important geo-political implications for working with Africa. The continent’s 54 states represent a key voting bloc within the structures of global governance. Nevertheless, Russia’s efforts at gaining soft power in the region have been limited thus far.
Dr Shaabani Nzori, an expert in Russian-African relations says that President Vladimir Putin of Russia and his foreign policy team are pragmatic and so African leaders interested in working with them should take a business-like approach.
“Our [African] leaders must formulate exactly what they want and what to expect from Russia, what they are ready to offer in exchange and spell this out very clearly without any bonhomie,” said Nzori soon after Putin was inaugurated in May.
“With regard to African mineral resources and Russia’s intended role in their exploration and exploitation, we need to be principled and not let Russians determine the agenda on how these our resources ought to be exploited and managed,” he said.
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