Russia Fails to Convert Economic Ties Into Political Influence in North Africa

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 21 Issue: 15

(Source: Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation)

Executive Summary:

  • Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s recent tour of North Africa focused on maintaining economic ties while seeking to expand the Kremlin’s political influence in the region.
  • The Kremlin has been successful in expanding trade ties with Morocco and Tunisia by exploiting both countries’ food security crises and supplying larger quantities of grain.
  • Rabat and Tunis’ ongoing cooperation with Western partners and their support of Ukraine cast doubts on whether Moscow will be able to convert growing economic cooperation into direct political influence.

At the end of December 2023, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov visited North Africa, almost five years after his last visit to the region in January 2019 (EDM, February 19, 2019; Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation, December 20, 2023). He first went to Morocco for the Arab-Russian Cooperation Forum in Marrakech on December 20. The day after, he flew to Tunisia for a two-day visit, meeting with his Tunisian counterpart, Nabil Ammar. Lavrov then held separate talks with President Kais Saied and other officials. Notably, the Russian foreign minister did not visit Algeria, historically Moscow’s most significant regional partner. Algeria also boycotted the forum held in Morocco (Jeune Afrique, December 20, 2023). Lavrov focused on assuring the North African states of Moscow’s intentions to maintain economic ties while seeking to expand the Kremlin’s political influence in the region.

In Morocco, Lavrov praised the “very interesting” discussions surrounding the implementation of key agreements previously signed between King Mohammed VI and Russian President Vladimir Putin. Lavrov and Moroccan Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita reviewed the details of the strategic partnership declarations of 2002 and 2016 between the two countries, emphasizing increased cooperation in trade, investments, energy, information technology, nuclear energy, fishing, and agriculture (L’Economiste, December 21, 2023). A few months earlier, Putin, in his final remarks at the Second Russia-Africa Summit, praised the efforts of King Mohammed VI to improve food security in his country (TelQuel.Ma, July 31). Over the past few months, Russia’s role in ensuring Morocco’s food security has increased significantly. Moscow now ranks third among Rabat’s leading suppliers of soft wheat, behind only France and Lithuania and ahead of Poland and Germany (Le 360 Maroc, January 3).

In Tunisia, Lavrov stressed Moscow’s ambitions to strengthen political and economic cooperation with a significant focus on “economic and humanitarian perspectives [and] the development of high-technology cooperation.” Russia wields great economic influence over Tunis. The volume of Russian exports to Tunisia for the first ten months of 2023 increased by 67.3 percent compared to the same period in 2022. Moscow’s influence is set to expand further after a cooperation agreement was signed between the Russian Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs and the Tunisian Union of Industry, Commerce, and Handicrafts. The recent establishment of the Tunisian-Russian Business Council will also give the Kremlin added influence (L’Economiste Maghrébin, December 20, 2023). Similar to Morocco, Russia plays a crucial role in Tunisia’s food security. Tunis has become increasingly concerned with this matter, as around three million Tunisians, more than a quarter of its entire population, do not have access to adequate food and water supplies (Kapitalis, May 28, 2023). The Putin regime may use this crisis to solidify its foothold in Tunisia and potentially build more political influence.

Tunisia will have to import all of its wheat and barley until at least the spring of 2024 due to four years of water shortages and a disastrous harvest in 2023. Still, Tunis’ inability to provide proper financing for these imports leads to regular shortages (Asharq Awsat, Dec 21, 2023). Increasing wheat and cereal supplies was the key topic of discussion during bilateral talks in Moscow in September 2023 (The National, September 26, 2023). In the second half of 2023, Russia exported 412,000 tons of cereals, including wheat (66 percent of which was soft wheat) and barley. That amount represented a record for Russian exports to Tunisia, up 48 percent as compared to all imports for 2022 (Agence Ecofin, December 22, 2023).

Food security has become an extremely sensitive topic for African countries. Russia’s war against Ukraine and attempts to block grain shipments coming from Ukrainian  ports have had an adverse impact on exports, imports, and global prices (see EDM, May 18, 2022; July 19, September 7, 2023). Moscow has thus exploited this growing need to strengthen its role as a supplier on the continent. In North Africa, Russia continues using economic tools, such as increased trade ties and investments, to build influence in countries where Western powers seemingly have little interest in strengthening bilateral ties. In the past, the Kremlin exploited economic vacuums in the region, such as tourism in Tunisia after the 2015 terrorist attacks in Sousse or the energy sector in Morocco after US and European companies shied away from significant investments (see EDM, November 19, 2019). Now, the Putin regime is carrying out the same process as it has become a primary source for wheat and cereals. Yet, while this approach bears the characteristics of serious market penetration and will likely increase trade revenues, it does not necessarily translate into greater political influence for Moscow.

Russia stresses it does not want to force countries to pick sides in the grain dispute (see EDM, July 31, September 7, 2023. One of Moscow’s central ambitions, however, is clearly to undermine US and European influence in North Africa. In expanding relations with Morocco, the Kremlin must tread carefully to avoid upsetting Algeria, a balance that is becoming ever-more difficult to maintain as Moroccan-Algerian relations continue to worsen (Sada, May 3, 2022). Russia reaffirmed its commitment to this balance in voicing support for the mediation of UN Secretary-General for the Sahara Staffan de Mistura in reaching “a lasting solution on the basis of the resolutions of the [UN] Security Council” to resolve the conflict around Moroccan Sahara (Aujourd’hui le Maroc, December 22, 2023).

For Tunisia, Moscow may struggle to distance the country from its Western partners. In September 2023, Ammar reiterated that Tunisia cooperates and communicates with all its partners and that “it is not in Tunisia’s diplomatic tradition to reject one partner for the benefit of another.” This came in response to rumors that Tunis wanted to cut ties with the West regarding failed negotiations with the International Monetary Fund (Sahifat al-Arab, September 27, 2023).

Morocco and Tunisia’s view on the war in Ukraine may also complicate Moscow’s efforts to convert economic cooperation into political influence. Both Rabat and Tunis have been important partners of Kyiv in the past and have maintained a public position in support of Ukraine. As such, Russia’s strategy to use economic means as tools for power projection, while undeniably successful in expanding trade ties, still does not translate into direct political influence.