President Vladimir Putin’s neo-colonial enterprise in the Central African Republic (CAR), one driven by a desire to weaken the West, counter Chinese expansion there, and gain access to gold and uranium in one of the poorest countries on earth (see EDM, May 15, September 4, October 2) has run into a serious problem. Specifically, Moscow is struggling with figuring out how to pursue its interests without undermining the delicate balance of power among CAR’s ethnic and religious groups—a fragile equilibrium that has been the basis of whatever stability and even statehood this African country has had up to now.
The current crisis in Russian “imperial management” began on October 26, following the dismissal of Karim Meckassoua, the Muslim head of the CAR parliament (Jeune Afrique, October 26). He represented an accepted counterweight to the president of the country who is Christian. Meckassoua’s dismissal infuriated the Muslims, who control much of the north of the country; and many of them blamed Russia and its military presence, both official military and mercenaries, for the speaker’s ouster. Abdoulaye Issen, the head of the Front Populaire Pour la Renaissance de la Centrafrique (FPRC), the main anti-government force in the country, demanded that Russian troops and Russian private defense contractors leave the CAR within 48 hours (Trust.ua, October 29).
“We demand from the Russian Federation a precise explanation of the role of these mercenaries who are close to the Kremlin and the true purpose of their presence in our country,” the FPRC said in a press release, “because their actions represent an ever greater danger for democracy, as shown by their direct participation in the parliamentary revolution,” which has resulted in “the destruction of [our] young democracy” (Trust.ua, October 29).
This ultimatum represents a particularly unwelcome turn of events for Russia, Moscow-based military commentator Roman Popkov says. On the one hand, Moscow up to now has positioned itself as a mediator between the Christian and Muslim groups in the CAR. But on the other hand—and quite possibly far more importantly—Russian forces have been supporting prospectors for gold and uranium in areas controlled by the FPRC. So far, Moscow has not pulled its operatives out of that African country and probably will not. But the ability of Russian units of any kind to operate in areas the FPRC controls or at least that the central government does not has been severely compromised, thus undercutting one of the Kremlin’s chief interests and defenses of its latest action in Africa (Rusmonitor.com, October 28).
The Central African Republic is the focal point of Russia’s expansion of economic, political and military ties in Africa (see EDM, June 14). It has at least 170 uniformed military personnel in the CAR as well as some 1,500 mercenaries employed in private military companies (PMC). Moreover, a Russian citizen currently serves as the national security advisor to the African country’s president. But the recent clash with the FPRC suggests that much of that Russian presence may now be at risk unless Moscow is prepared to be the power behind the throne in the capital city while surrounded by an increasingly hostile and mobilized rural population.
That is hardly an attractive option for the Kremlin, even if this crisis were limited to the CAR. But it is not. All the other regional countries where Moscow has been expanding its economic ties and seeking security arrangements are likely to be put off by what looks like an extremely clumsy effort by Russia to interfere in the domestic politics of the CAR. That will be especially true in the states located in the northern and central portions of the continent, where Muslims either dominate the population or are a growing minority that is challenging the central authorities for power. As recent analysis published in the Russian news outlet Nezavisimaya Gazeta points out, over the last 50 years there have been 67 military coups across Africa; and in many of these, foreign powers—primarily the old colonial rulers—were involved (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, October 30).
But there also is a Russian domestic aspect to this problem. First, the growing controversy in the CAR is certain to increase the number of Russians asking what the Kremlin is doing in the middle of Africa. Indeed, such questions were already becoming more insistent as a result of intense media coverage of the deaths of three Russian journalists in that faraway country earlier this year (see EDM, October 2). And second, the new crisis is exacerbating tensions within the Russian elite, between the defense ministry and its head, Sergei Shoigu, and Russia’s security services. The two sides are presently at loggerheads over the use abroad of PMCs subordinated to Putin’s close friend, Yevgeny Prigozhin (24tv.ua, October 30).
Consequently, what may seem like a toothless demand by the leader of a relatively unknown rebel group in an impoverished, landlocked African state is actually likely to send serious shockwaves not only across those parts of Africa where Russia is seeking to expand its influence but also in Moscow itself. Fallout from this incident can be expected to fuel the rivalry between those like Defense Minister Shoigu, who want the military to control this mission, and those like Prigozhin and possibly his patron President Putin, who prefer to use plausibly deniable forces to achieve their goals (see EDM, April 30). The FPRC declaration has just made that task more difficult for the Kremlin leader, while possibly strengthening the position of those, including Shoigu, who prefer a more open and carefully planned approach.