THE RETURN OF RUSSIA TO AFRICA.

Author:Burger, Johan
Position::Russia - Cover story
 
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Johan Burger's comprehensive report highlights the spread and depth of the Russian presence in Africa as it seeks to expand its presence and influence in the last investment frontier zone in the world--Africa.

After decades of a bipolar world in which the US and the Soviet Union competed for global hegemony, we entered a unipolar era with the collapse of the USSR and the US imposing it's will across the globe virtually unchallenged--until the rise of China.

Now the geopolitical tectonic plates are shifting once more as the US loses ground and influence, the European Union shows signs of fracturing, and new players scramble to gain the high ground.

Africa, with its central, strategic geographical position, its vast natural resources, its expanding markets and its youth heavy demographics, is beginning to play a critical role in the emerging balance of power.

While the spotlight has been fixed firmly on China's ever expanding presence on the continent, it has obscured the steady advance of Russia in Africa. 20 years ago, Russia, as part of the USSR, was a major actor in Africa, counterbalancing the West. It had largely been absent following the ending of the Cold War but is now making a strong comeback.

What does Russia want from Africa? What is behind Vladimir Putin's 'Pivot to Africa' strategy? How do the other powers as well as African leaders view Russia's new push into the continent? What are the benefits as well as the dangers of this new alliance?

Experts believe a new "Scramble for Africa" is unfolding. The main players are China, the EU and the US. India, Brazil, Turkey, Iran, South Korea and the Gulf countries are also interested in increasing cooperation with Africa.

Russia's volume of trade and economic interaction with Africa is inferior to almost all of the abovementioned players. Currently, Russia's trade with Africa is less than $12bn. Nevertheless, in some areas, competition between Russia and other players is quite serious.

During the heyday of the former Soviet Union, it had a strong influence in Africa. This changed after the demise of the USSR. Under Vladimir Putin, it now seems Russia has new aspirations for Africa, which is reflected in Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov's visits to several African countries in 2018.

Russia's timing is good as Africa is both searching for and being courted by new strategic partners, amid changing geopolitical dynamics. First, significant changes among Africa's traditional partners in the West, such as Brexit and the election of Donald Trump, have seen them adopt a more insular approach to foreign policy and international affairs.

Apart from China, Russia is an obvious beneficiary, especially since Western sanctions after its invasion of Crimea meant it needed to find alternative trading partners. As President, Putin also places value on geopolitical relations and Russia's dominance globally.

Russia's method of trade and investment in Africa --without conditions or the moral prescriptions of the West (like China)--also opens the way for economic interactions on the continent. Indeed, trade and investment between Russia and Africa witnessed growth of 185% between 2005 and 2015.

As Russia's interests in Africa expand, so does the field for possible conflict and competition with other players. For example, it is not only Russia that is trying to help Africa in the construction of nuclear power plants, but there is already serious competition, and there have been cases of opposition to Russia's interests.

Russia's Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov undertook a five-day tour to Africa in March 2018, including visits to Angola, Namibia, Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Ethiopia. This clearly indicates Russia is setting itself up to return to Africa. It is also seen as a reaction to the cooling off of Russia's relations with the West. In addition, sanctions against it have influenced Russia's decision to reorient its attention to new partners, including Africa.

Lavrov's visit to Africa, which coincided with that of former US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, was significant. Alex Vines, Head of the Africa Programme of Chatham House, states that "the Russian trip is really about commercial priorities, a bit about defence, while the US one is very much about peace and security."

From a business perspective, Africa's growing middle class is creating a huge new consumer market, also for Russian goods and services. Africa's resources in the field of energy, minerals and raw materials can supplement the needs of Russia in this regard.

Russian companies have been implementing a number of interesting projects in African countries. From a mining...

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