The Russia-Africa Summit and Economic Forum, held in Sochi on October 23–24, was presented as an event of great geopolitical and geo-economic importance (see EDM, October 28), explicitly showcasing the competitive advantages Moscow is purportedly ready to employ in its struggle for influence on the continent. In addition to arms sales and military- or security-related services, Russia highlighted its active support to African countries during the Soviet era and its lack of a colonial past as undisputed strong points. These aspects were first strongly promulgated at the official level last year, during Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s journey to Angola, Namibia, Zimbabwe and Ethiopia (Mid.ru, March 3, 2018). Indeed, those states were among the Kremlin’s key clients in Africa during the Cold War. As Lavrov pointedly told his hosts, “[O]ur country [sic] did its best for African countries to become free” (Eadaily.com, March 5, 2018).
Interestingly, Russian scholars on Africa, including the well-known expert Alexander Zdanevich, attest that Chinese success on the continent is partly related to the fact that Beijing “has borrowed the best mechanisms of ‘soft power’ from the USSR [Union of Soviet Socialist Republics]” (Slovodel.com, July 9, 2018). Importantly, prior to the October summit in Sochi, an influential think tank, the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC), published a report urging Russia to activate and continue relying on the following elements of “soft power” in Africa (Russiancouncil.ru, October 9):
- The Federal Agency for the Commonwealth of Independent States, Compatriots Living Abroad and International Humanitarian Cooperation (Rossotrudnichestvo, created in 2008)—which already has representative offices in Egypt, Zambia, the Republic of Congo, Morocco, Tanzania, Tunisia and Ethiopia. The report argues that Rossotrudnichestvo needs to further increase its activities by creating new centers of Russian culture and science, with South Africa being a top priority.
- Increased Russian media presence. According to the RIAC study, only RT has some presence on the continent, but even that remains almost negligible—no more than 11 million viewers across the entire Middle East (total population 371 million) and all of Africa (1.3 billion).
- Humanitarian help, which “must be made visible and known.” As one of the main problems, the report argues that humanitarian and goodwill support coming from Russia “remains unknown to Africans.” In 2017, Russia’s goodwill/humanitarian aid to African countries exceed $1 billion.
- Emphasis on Russian foundations and public diplomacy, with the Russian World Foundation playing a key role. Its “Cabinet of the Russian World” program, which promotes the Russian language abroad, has given the Foundation access to such countries as the Democratic Republic of Congo, Egypt, Zambia, Kenia, Madagascar, Nigeria, the Republic of the Congo, and South Africa.
- Added emphasis on the Russian Orthodox Church as an instrument for outreach to Christian communities in Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania (some seven million believers in total) as well as Ethiopia (the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church has approximately 45–50 million followers).
- Sports diplomacy.
- Informal business/trade ties and initiatives.
- Inter-parliamentary arrangements.
As noted above, Russia’s “soft power” strategy toward Africa is heavily based on anticolonial discourse and the role the USSR played in the liberation of African nations, as well as “contributions to [the] creation of effective armed forces” of the newly independent African states—points emphasized by President Putin following the conclusion of the Sochi summit (Kremlin.ru, October 24). Putin also attempted to draw sharp distinctions between Russia’s strategy in Africa and those of Western countries: “[W]e can see how some Western countries are relying on pressure, threats and blackmail of the sovereign African countries […] we [Russia] are not pursuing friendships against anyone, we are sharply against any geopolitical games around Africa” (TASS, October 22). The same point was made by Oleg Ozerov, Russia’s deputy director of the Africa Department at the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Specifically, Ozerov emphasized Russia’s strong determination to build relations with African countries “only on the basis of mutual respect and equal partnership.” He stated that the final declaration adopted at the end of the Russia-Africa Summit “became a manifesto against hegemony, against attempts to promote one-way policies, against sanctions and color revolutions… Western transnational companies are receiving multi-billion [dollar] profits from the exploitation of African resources, whereas only [a] small share of these profits is actually getting back to Africa” (TASS, October 28).
This rhetoric employed by Russian high officials fully coincided with sentiments expressed by African leaders. Namely, during the Sochi summit, President of Malawi Arthur Peter Mutharika stated, “[W]e need to put an end to the exploitation of Africa”; while the leader of Madagascar, Andry Rajoelina, argued that “having been the planet’s workforce for a long time, it is now time for African countries to finally become the masters of their own fate” (TASS, October 24). Following these remarks, Putin told all the African leaders in attendance that Russia will not join the forces involved in redistributing African wealth but instead is “ready to compete for partnership” (Gazeta.ru, October 24).
Based on Russian official rhetoric and propaganda from 2018 onward, the main “villain” and hindrance to Africa’s progress has been the United States (and, to a lesser extent, the European Union,), whose corporations, such as Apple, Intel and Motorola, enjoy strong governmental support while the US defense-industrial complex seeks every chance to take and preserve control over strategically important resources in Africa (primarily minerals crucial for industrial production and defense). Surprisingly, in their criticism of the West, Russian experts argue in favor of growing Chinese sustainability in Africa, claiming that “their [Chinese] activities are aimed at uprooting the malpractices of their oil companies,” adding, “unlike Africa’s ‘old’ partners, China is ready to not only take, but also give—invest, provide goodwill help, [as well as] develop infrastructure without annoying its African partners and avoiding direct involvement in their internal affairs” (Russiancouncil.ru, February 8, 2018).
That said, Russia’s discourse on Africa is permeated by multiple frequently contrasting narratives that cut against the declared spirit of friendship and cooperation. For instance, the narrative of a foreign yoke (i.e. white colonization) is paradoxically mixed with “white genocide” and “black racism”—topics actively entertained by key Russian propaganda outlets like RT, targeting foreign audiences. Such mixed signals may undermine the resonance of Moscow’s soft power efforts over the long term.