With Sochi Summit Meetings, Russia Seeks Influence in Africa


21 October, 2019

Russian President Vladimir Putin is preparing to welcome national leaders from across Africa to the Black Sea port of Sochi for two days of talks.

Reports have described the event as the first major gathering of African leaders in Russia since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

FILE - Angola's President Joao Lourenco, left, speaks to Russia's President Vladimir Putin at the BRICS summit in Johannesburg, South Africa, July 26, 2018. With its summit meeting in Sochi, Russia hopes to build economic, security ties.
FILE - Angola's President Joao Lourenco, left, speaks to Russia's President Vladimir Putin at the BRICS summit in Johannesburg, South Africa, July 26, 2018. With its summit meeting in Sochi, Russia hopes to build economic, security ties.

The summit will be held at Sochi's Olympic Park, which is where Russia held the 2014 Winter Olympics. It is expected to include as many as 10,000 politicians and business leaders from 35 African countries.

Russian officials hope the event will show that Russia is again interested in Africa and that the country is a world power. "Russia has things to offer in terms of ... cooperation to African countries," Putin's spokesman said.

Russia's history in Africa

Since the end of the Soviet Union, Russia has done relatively little on the African continent. For years, the government lacked the money and will to expand ties with Africa. But in recent years the country has sought to reestablish old ties and build new ones.

Paul Stronski is with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a research group based in Washington, DC. He notes that the Soviet Union had extensive relationships across Africa. It was involved in revolutionary movements in Angola, Mozambique and Guinea-Bissau after the end of Portuguese rule. Russia also was involved in conflicts in the Republic of the Congo in the early 1960s, and between Ethiopia and Somalia in the 1970s.

However, "As the Soviet Union collapsed, these relationships came to an abrupt halt," Stronski says.

Also during the Soviet period, many of Africa's political and military leaders were educated in Russia. Now, only three current African heads of state have ever studied in Russia or one of its traditional Eastern European allies.

Russia's trade with Africa behind other areas

Russia's foreign ministry notes a 350 percent increase in trade with African countries over the past 10 years. Russian companies are involved in several large projects in Africa, such as work on Egypt's first nuclear power station and mining operations in Zimbabwe.

Yet arms deals are expected to be among the business deals Russian officials and businesses will be seeking at the summit in Sochi. Nuclear energy is another product that Russia is willing to sell. And oil development deals also are likely to be signed.

Russia will be looking to increase its current trade with Africa, which was worth about $20 billion last year. That is half of France's trade with Africa and one tenth of China's trade. All of that is less than the European Union's yearly African trade, which observers estimate at $300 billion dollars.

Business deals and arms sales

The summit comes at a time when Russia's economic growth has slowed. The economy has been hurt by low oil prices and five years of sanctions by Western countries. As a result, Russia is looking for new trading partners.

The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute notes that Russia has reached 23 security cooperation deals with African governments over the last five years. The country is believed to be the largest arms supplier in Africa.

Tim Stanley and Barnaby Fletcher are with Control Risks, a service that provides advice on international risk. The two argue that Russia is filling "gaps left by Western governments wary of condemnation" from voters at home. They say Russia can offer security experts including military contractors and disinformation specialists.

For example, in Guinea last week, police shot and killed nine pro-democracy protestors. Russian diplomats have been supporting an effort by Guinea's president for changing the constitution to enable him to seek a third term in office. Russia also has business interests in the country: the Russian aluminum company Rusal gets one third of its aluminum-carrying rock, bauxite, from Guinea.

Like China, Russia does not link human rights conditions or good governance requirements to its arms sales or security deals.

U.S. Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan made a visit to Angola earlier this year. He says Russia often uses corrupt "means to attempt to influence sovereign states, including their security and economic partnerships."

Some Western officials worry Russia will use its political and economic influence to persuade African nations to support Russia in the United Nations and other international agencies.

However, the Carnegie Endowment's Paul Stronski believes that Western fears might be overstated. In a recent commentary, he wrote that there is a lot of "symbolism over substance" in Russia's activities. They "create the appearance of paying outsized dividends," he wrote.

I'm Mario Ritter Jr.

Jamie Dettmer reported this story for VOA news. Mario Ritter Jr. adapted it for VOA Learning English. George Grow was the editor.

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Words in This Story

abrupt – adj. sudden and unexpected

sanction – n. punishment meant to force a country to observe international law usually in the form of economic restrictions

gap – n. a space where something is missing

wary – adj. not showing complete trust in something

symbolism – n. something done that expressed an idea or is meant to influence someone

dividends – n. gains, desired results

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