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The legacy of the past

At present, Russia’s role in Africa is in some ways comparable – definitely not in size, but certainly in its characteristics – to that of other emerging economies. Unlike many of them (a partial exception is China), however, Russia can play a card that they can’t: history.

The expansion of pre-Soviet Russia, for geographical reasons, was not focused on Africa, unlike that of most great powers of the time (Britain and France above all). However, the Czars managed to play some kind of role in the continent, also through military involvement and from this point of view, two cases are worth mentioning.

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First, the Ethiopian empire was given assistance in its successful struggle to maintain independence and full sovereignty in the face of Italy’s attempt to annex it: the reasons for this choice also involved religious and cultural elements, most Ethiopians being member of the Orthodox church. A more ‘political’ concern, on the other hand, pushed Russia to support the Boers – with some 200 volunteers – of what was to become South Africa against the British. The Cape colony, in fact, was a key stop on the route to India and Russia’s interests in Central Asia and the sub-continent clashed with Britain’s.

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It was after the end of World War II, however, that Communist Russia (by then the driving force of the USSR) started to play a major role in Africa. Three dates can be regarded as fundamental. The first is 1956, when the Soviet Union supported Egypt against France, Britain and Israel during the Suez crisis: quite ironically a very similar stance was taken by USSR’s greatest rival, the United States, and the outcome of the crisis marked the defeat of the old colonial powers and the rise of the two superpowers set to rule the world for the following fifty years or so. The second date was 1960, when Patrice Lumumba formed his short-lived government in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). In that case, Russians and Americans were on opposite sides: the former supported the Congolese prime minister, while the latter played a role in his assassination. Even if defeated, however, the USSR gained prestige in the eyes of the oppressed peoples of Africa and was increasingly seen as an ally against both colonial domination and economic dependence from the West. The third date, 1975-76, is an example of the way in which the Kremlin responded to these expectations. In those years, Moscow directly sent troops to support the Marxist MPLA – Angola’s ruling party – against its internal, pro-Western enemies.

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Soviet involvement in regional crises on the continent was not always so straightforward. During Eritrea’s liberation struggle against Ethiopia, for instance, the Russians did not take the side of the oppressed, but supported – in a war between Marxist forces – Ethiopia’s military junta, the Derg: nevertheless, the regime was eventually defeated by the combined efforts of Tigrayan and Eritrean insurgents in 1991, when the USSR itself was living its last, frantic months. Before the disintegration of its empire, however, Moscow had been able to leave a footprint in Africa which went well beyond its military and strategic presence. By the mid-1980s, about 25,000 Africans had studied in Soviet universities, political and military schools and other institutions of higher education. Some of them rose to key positions in their home countries, including the presidency in Angola, Mozambique, Cape Verde and South Africa. In addition to this, 200,000 specialists underwent training on African soil and trade agreements were signed with 42 states.

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Most of this political, economic and symbolic capital, though, was lost with the end of the Cold War and in post-Soviet Russia’s early years. It is only in recent years that regaining the lost ground became a key goal for Russia, and historians differ on whether this happened under Medvedev, under Putin’s first tenure or even in the second part of the Eltsin presidency. Since its economy recovered and its foreign currency reserves were rebuilt over the years, the Kremlin also had the means to fulfil this ambition. Also the admission of Moscow to the G8 was a factor in driving its attention to the continent, for African issues were often discussed in the high-level summits. The combined action of these factors led to important results: at present, Russia’s relations with Africa are excellent, at least from a diplomatic point of view. Russia has an embassy in forty African states, plus special representatives in the African Union and South African Development Community (SADC), Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) and East African Community (EAC). Moreover, 35 African countries have sent their ambassadors to Moscow. (D.M.)

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