Russia goes back to Africa

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Russian President Vladimir Putin and Uganda's President Yoweri Museveni

Emerging powers' move to Africa is one of the most important developments of our time, certain to transform the world's poorest continent. China's role in Africa is now widely scrutinized (the best book on the matter is probably Brautigam's Gift of the Dragon). India's presence in Africa is still a fringe topic, but a growing group of analysts have begun to study India's presence systematically (Mawdsley's and McCann's India in Africa is highly recommendable). Brazil also gained greater visibility in Africa under Lula, even though its current crisis has forced it to temporarily retreat from the global stage. Yet when talking about the BRICS in Africa, commentators usually overlook Russia. That is a mistake.

Similar to China, Russia provided great amounts of aid to Africa during the Cold War, and trained more than 200,000 Africans in Russia. The end of the USSR then forced Moscow to disengage. Struggling with severe internal challenges, Russia's foreign policy makers focused on its immediate sphere of influence. Yet today, more than two decades after the end of communism, Russia seeks to emulate its fellow BRICS members and builds stronger ties with Africa. That began in 2009, a high-profile delegation of 400 businessmen and bureaucrats led by President Dmitry Medvedev visited Egypt, Nigeria, Namibia and Angola. Aside from trade and investment, security issues were debated.

After the war in Ukraine, which led to Russia's growing isolation from the West, Moscow has enhanced efforts to create new business ties in Africa, which is less concerned about Crimea. In 2015, a Russian company won the bid to build a $3bn oil refinery in Uganda. RT Global Resources is part of Rostec whose CEO, Sergey Chemezov, is on US and EU sanctions lists after Russia. A year earlier, Russia launched a satellite system in partnership with South Africa. In 2011, Russia sold Sukhoi fighter jets to Uganda in a deal  worth around $750m.

Similarly to other emerging donors, Russia is not open about its aid flows, and it does not adhere to the many norms and rules conceived by established donors. So while Russia's official aid may be small, there is anecdotal evidence that Russia's influence in Africa is growing. Russia's approach is similar to China's - aid projects are tied to business projects, leading to difficulties to properly distinguish between aid and trade. Raw materials play a major role, and Russian state companies have recognized that African resources may help them increase global market share.

Just like in Brazil's and India's case, Russia will not develop a well-structured or well-coordinated aid strategy anytime soon. For now, ad hoc projects will dominate. Since it focuses on strong bilateral ties and tied aid, Russia will circumvent institutions such as the World Bank. Promoting human rights and improving governance are not on the Russian government's TO DO list, which allows it to engage in markets that are off-limits to Western donors. This will provide Russia with an important niche in Africa.

There are rumours that an aid department will be set up in the Russian foreign ministry, which may help streamline its activities and make them more transparent. For now, however, Russia is not going to turn into what established actors call a "good donor". Policy makers in Moscow are unlikely to care.

Read also:

Does Russia belong in the BRICS? What about replacing it with Indonesia?

Should India still receive development aid?

Despite economic slowdown, BRICS grouping is here to stay

Photo credit: AP