Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

The African Connection

First of two parts

African Liberation Day -- May 25 -- used to be celebrated in Moscow with a degree of pomp second only to that found on the continent itself. This year, though, a sober stocktaking seminar on decades of Soviet-African cooperation, a low-key diplomatic reception and nearly complete silence in the media forcefully drove home the realities of contemporary Russian-African relations. "Last year, we were received by Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev. This year, because of South Africa's shift to democracy, we expected an even higher reception, but we were greeted by Kozyrev's deputy," said Gabonese Ambassador Marcel Odongui-Bonnard.

The head of the chancery at the Ghana Embassy, Paul Aryene, said: "At the height of parliament's stand-off with Yeltsin in October 1993, Africa was conspicuously left out when the Foreign Ministry invited regional diplomatic groupings for a briefing."

The foreign-policy rethinking that characterized the Gorbachev era and gathered increased momentum after the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991 seems to have put Russian relations with Africa on hold. Since 1992, Russia has shut down fourteen of its embassies on the continent and drastically reduced its staff in many others.

Though Russia's Deputy Foreign Minister Boris Kolokolov insisted at a recent meeting with African diplomats that increased co-operation with Africa remains "a priority direction in Russian foreign policy," African diplomats dismissed this as merely banal diplomatic niceties. Figures released by the Foreign Trade Ministry indicated that Africa accounted for only 2 percent of Russia's foreign trade during the first three quarters of 1993; the corresponding figures for Asia and Europe were 21 percent and 68 percent.

Like a couple going through a divorce, Russia and Africa are haggling over the debt question. At the time of the Soviet Union's collapse, Africa owed a total of 13.9 billion "hard" rubles, while Asia owed 48.8 billion and Latin America owed 16.9 billion. Russian experts have been racking their brains for ways to recover this money.

Meanwhile in Africa, the general feeling is that the debts are both unpayable and uncollectible. Africans argue that the debts were accrued at a time the Soviet Union was operating multiple exchange rates. Some debtor nations think the dollar equivalent Russia is demanding -- $1 for every 51 kopeks -- is unrealistic.

Some states are also questioning the legitimacy of the debts. Take Ethiopia: About 2.4 billion rubles out of a total debt of 2.8 billion went for the purchase of arms to suppress internal opposition. Now that the opposition has come to power, it does not feel obligated to repay Mengistu's arms debts. In fact, influential voices in Ethiopia are demanding compensation from Russia for the havoc caused by this "Soviet-imposed" war.

Notwithstanding these realities, concerned people in both Russia and Africa are warning of dire consequences if relations get stalled. Anatoly Gromyko, until recently the director of the Moscow African Institute, deplored the loss of interest in research into African issues. "Against the background of the difficulties Russia is encountering in western markets, it would be the greatest error to ignore the diverse benefits that increased cooperation with Africa could bring," Gromyko said.

Policy makers on both sides agree on one thing: Momentum for new relations can only be provided by a sober stocktaking of the past.

For Africa, struggling against colonial bondage and eager for rapid economic development, its encounter with the ex-Soviet Union in the 1950s and 1960s could not have occurred at a more opportune time. The same is true of the Soviet Union, which was desperately searching for new spheres of influence. Africans appreciated the fact that the U.S.S.R., never having been a colonial power in Africa, had become a key international advocate for decolonization. It was also less fussy than the West about transferring the technologies for developing heavy industry to the Third World.

The successful outcome of liberation struggles in Angola, Mozambique, Guinea Bissau, as well as the dismantling of apartheid in Namibia, were made possible partly due to Soviet technical and military aid. The Aswan Dam in Egypt and the on-going Ajaokuta Iron and Steel project in Nigeria are important examples of technology-intensive, low-interest Soviet economic assistance. In countries like Angola, Mali and Ghana, more than one third of the local doctors, engineers and oil specialists are Soviet-trained.

In return, the Soviet Union won, for example, extensive fishing rights in the territorial waters of Mozambique, Guinea Bissau, and majority shares in Guinean diamonds, Malian gold, as well as stakes in Angolan mineral and oil deposits.

Most importantly, though, the Soviet Union counted on African solidarity in its unequal battle against the West. Indeed, the thrust of Soviet engagement in Africa was directed at outflanking the West in the continuous chess game of geopolitical supremacy. This explains, in part, why -- even when it was supporting genuine liberation fighters -- the Soviet Union nonetheless found time and resources in the 1970s to prop up loathsome dictators like Uganda's Idi Amin. Such leaders attracted Moscow with their bellicose anti-Western hysteria. African leaders, for their part, were quick to turn the superpower stand-off to their advantage. Openly recognizing these ulterior motives and moving beyond them, most importantly in the resolution of the African debt question, will be the crucial component of any new development of relations.

Musah al-Fatau is a research fellow and a freelance journalist. He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.