On January 17, the president of Zimbabwe, Emmerson Mnangagwa, paid a state visit to Belarus, as part of his four-country Eurasian tour. Besides Minsk, the Zimbabwean delegation landed in Moscow, Almaty and Baku (Kommersant.ru, January 15).
The African continent is not a new destination for Belarusian goods. But it does continue to lag far behind in terms of economic cooperation with Minsk’s traditional partners—Russia, Ukraine and the European Union. As of 2018, the annual trade turnover with Egypt and Morocco stood at only about $100 million each, according to Belarusian statistics; and trade with all other African countries was significantly smaller than that (Belstat.gov.by, accessed February 1).
Minsk expressed serious interest in enhancing economic cooperation with Harare back in 2015, when Alyaksandr Lukashenka held a meeting with Mnangagwa, then Zimbabwe’s vice president. The former stated that he considered Zimbabwe a potential gateway to the African continent for Belarusian goods (Sputnik.by, March 13, 2018). Interestingly, from the Belarusian side, the main coordinator of relations with Zimbabwe is Viktar Sheiman, the head of the presidential administration’s property management department. In 2018, he visited the African country twice.
After his visit to Harare in March 2018, Sheiman stated that the two countries had signed a number of contracts worth $58 million. The lion’s share of them had to do with the export of Belarusian tractors and other agricultural machinery (Tut.by, March 13, 2018). Also, Sheiman declared an extremely ambitious goal for bilateral trade—$1 billion in the “not too distant future.” To compare: in 2017, the trade turnover had only reached about $21.5 million (Naviny.by, September 13, 2018). And even that number was seen as a serious success compared to previous years.
According to Sheiman, cooperation in several sectors can boost Belarusian-Zimbabwean economic relations. In particular, he stresses extracting mineral resources (oil, gas, gold, diamonds and platinum), constructing industrial and resident buildings, delivering Belarusian tractors and lorries, and exporting Belarusian fertilizers (Tvr.by, March 13, 2018). Additionally, the two sides discuss the possibility of organizing the assembly and production of Belarusian agricultural and mining vehicles in the south African state, as well as establishing joint agricultural enterprises, in particular meat- and milk-processing ones (Sputnik.by, March 13, 2018).
As of mid-2018, five companies with Belarusian capital operated in Zimbabwe. Most eye-catching of all, has been the cooperation in diamond extraction. Sheiman quoted Mnangagwa saying that thanks to vehicles from Belarus, diamond extraction had doubled in the African state (Tvr.by, March 13, 2018). Thus, given Zimbabwe’s needs to develop its agriculture and infrastructure, as well as rich mineral reserves, the Belarusian authorities hope that engagement with that country can become strategic and will, in turn, open up new opportunities for Belarus in Africa.
Both the Belarusian and Zimbabwean state media called Mnangagwa’s trip to Minsk a great success. During the visit, the two presidents sealed eight agreements covering education, science and technology, agriculture and cooperation in the legal sphere (Belta.by, January 17, 2019). The Development Bank of Belarus offered export credits to support the deliveries of Belarusian goods in accordance with the signed agreements (Belta.by, January, 21). Most interestingly, the Zimbabwean media claimed that the countries “advanced a grand infrastructure scheme that could make Zimbabwe a regional transport and logistics hub” (The Herald, January 18). According to these local news outlets, the scheme is part of a tripartite arrangement involving Zimbabwe, Belarus and China. Its purpose is to link the Indian and Atlantic oceans. The idea implies the participation of several other sub-Saharan African countries as well, but Zimbabwe will reportedly be a central element.
As the countries are only beginning their cooperation, it is difficult to say how successful it can really become. During his recent Eurasian tour, President Mnangagwa invited the leadership and businesses of Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan to all become more active in Zimbabwe, which is now opening up to foreign investors. Harare has a lot to gain from cooperation with more advanced partners; and each of the four aforementioned Eurasian states can offer something attractive for developing Zimbabwe’s infrastructure, industry and agriculture.
Potentially, foreign companies, including from the countries visited by Mnangagwa, could enter Zimbabwe cooperatively. Yet, at the moment it does not look as if any serious coordination is taking place between them. In all probability, each country hopes to occupy some niches in the Zimbabwean economy where it can be most competitive (Kommersant, January 16).
In this respect, Russia is much better positioned to develop the diamonds-extraction industry, both because of its superior technologies and the fact that, between 2013 and 2017, Russian companies already undertook thorough exploration of the diamond deposits there (Kommersant, January 15). Not surprisingly, therefore, Mnangagwa extended a special invitation to the Russian firm ALROSA to exploit the “small window of opportunity” that has opened to foreign investors in the diamonds industry. It is also highly probable that Russia and Zimbabwe will soon undertake joint exploration of one of the world’s biggest deposits of platinum, where Belarus can hardly be a competitor.
Belarus does have its own experience of exploring and extracting mineral resources abroad. For example, the state-owned company Belorusneft currently produces oil and natural gas in Russia, Venezuela and Ecuador (Belorusneft.by, accessed February 1). Belarusian miners have also extracted potassium in Turkmenistan (Belta.by, August 19, 2016). On many previous occasions, Minsk tried to build on that experience in order to lessen its dependence on Russian minerals and diversify its own exports and energy supplies options.
Ongoing attempts to establish cooperation with Zimbabwe seem to follow the same logic. They are also part of Minsk’s so-called “30/30/30” program for diversifying Belarusian exports (Naviny.by, April 3, 2017). According to the program, which is supposed to be implemented by 2020, a third of Belarusian exports should go to Russia, another third to the EU, and the remaining third to the rest of the world. In 2018, the indicators were already approaching this triple target (Naviny.by, February 3). However, most of Belarus’s exports to the EU are made up of petrochemicals produced from Russian crude oil. So as much as relations with Zimbabwe can generate various projects of mutual interest, they will hardly become a remedy for Belarus’ diversification problem.