Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov: We count on Russian companies continuing to work in Africa
Photo: Department of Information and Press of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs
Russian Presidential Special Representative for Middle East and Africa Mikhail Bogdanov has given an interview to Interfax correspondent Ksenia Baygarova in which he discusses the prospects for Russian relations with African countries, in particular operations of Russian companies in Africa amid western sanctions, as well as when the second Russia-Africa summit might take place.
Question: The global geopolitical situation, just like Russia's foreign political vector, has changed drastically after the Ukrainian events. How will this affect Russia's policy towards Africa? Is it likely that even closer attention will be paid to this track?
Answer: Africa has always been an important region for us from the point of view of foreign policy, as well as trade, economic and humanitarian cooperation. This cooperation is very multidimensional. For instance, how many Africans have studied at our universities? Back at the end of 1950s-1960s our country played the most important historical role for African peoples in getting their statehood and independence during their fight against colonial rule. If we speak about South Africa, there was the problem of apartheid as well. Of course, these historical ties give a solid basis for our relationships. Many generations of politicians and diplomats have changed but it is good that continuity and solidarity between our country and Africa has been upheld.
Now this is the foundation for the restoration of Russian-African ties after a certain pause which was mainly linked to domestic problems in our country. After the collapse of the Soviet Union other problems emerged and they pushed cooperation with Africa into the background. Some of our embassies in African countries were closed. Regrettably, much has been lost over this period, and as they say, nature abhors a vacuum. Others, western countries, China, Turkey, and India, filled the vacuum that emerged after our 'retreat' from Africa.
However, in recent years, when positive changes occurred as far as our own resources, in particular economic, are concerned, luckily an opportunity arose to pay more attention to Africa. Africa is beyond any doubt the continent of the future, both from the point of view of human resources and because it is a storeroom of the world, one of the richest regions. Another issue is that colonial powers, as well as neocolonialists, have never let the Africans take advantage of the treasure which is literally right under their feet.
Q.: The first Russia-Africa summit took place in Sochi in 2019. A decision to hold such summit once every three years was made then. Three years have passed. How have preparations for the summit been progressing?
A.: The Russia-Africa Summit held in 2019 gave strong impetus to the development of our relations and raised them to a whole new level. Almost all African leaders came to Sochi and our President Vladimir Putin actively communicated with them in collective formats and held about 20 bilateral conversations. Important decisions, including the final declaration at the level of heads of state, were adopted. The memorandum of understanding on foundations for relations and cooperation between the Russian government and the African Union was signed. Now a Russia-African Union action plan up to 2025, which extends it, is being prepared.
These agreements created an updated base for our efficient interaction. We have continued to implement it, in particular as part of preparations for the next summit, which we agreed to hold once every three years. The period since the Sochi summit has been filled with active joint work with the Africans. Despite the novel coronavirus pandemic we managed to maintain and even build up the dynamics of our partnership. Many visits at the highest level, the level of foreign and other ministers took place. The secretariat of the Russia-Africa Partnership Forum at the Russian Foreign Ministry was established. The association of Economic Cooperation with African Countries was set up as well.
This means that a framework for cooperation in various areas was formed, not to mention intensive events to build trade and economic ties and mutually beneficial and respectful dialogue in addition to active political contacts. Moreover, various forums and conferences have been held at the level of public and party organizations.
Q.: Is it already known when and where the summit might take place?
A.: A final decision has yet to be made, as the matter is not entirely in our hands. It also depends on the consolidated stance of the African Union and the proposals to be made by African countries. We have to understand there are 54 countries on the continent, in addition to a variety of regional organizations. As for the time and venue of the summit, we are hoping that an optimal solution will be found soon.
At the same time, it should be taken into account that the coronavirus pandemic has had some effect on the intensity of our contacts with the Africans; it has slowed our work. The events unfolding in Ukraine are causing certain problems now: there are no flights to certain destinations, and some parties are not prepared to come for certain reasons. Of course, Western pressure is also palpable. For instance, we can see how certain African countries vote [in the UN]; there are completely different votes. Some are more susceptible to overt blackmail, which our African partners are experiencing at U.S. hands. Most importantly, given the sanctions imposed on Russia by the collective West, it would be necessary to substantially adapt many mechanisms of our cooperation with African countries to the new realities, primarily those in trade and economic relations, before the second summit.
Q.: By the way, the voting. Eritrea was one of the few countries that backed Russia in the voting on Ukraine in the UN General Assembly. Why Eritrea? Do we have special allied relations?
A.: That is because the leadership of Eritrea has taken an independent position. They do not want to bow to the West. They try to rely on their own strength, which is limited of course to a certain extent. Nevertheless, the authorities in Asmara demonstrated their political firmness.
Q.: There once was a project to create a logistics center in Eritrea. Does the project still stand? Is it possible to speak about the restoration of Russia's naval base there?
A.: A logistics point for the Soviet Navy once existed in Eritrea's Dahlak Archipelago in the Red Sea back in Soviet times. Nothing of this sort exists there today, and I am not aware of any projects like the one you have mentioned. Foreign Minister of Eritrea Osman Saleh will pay a visit to Moscow. Key issues concerning bilateral cooperation will be discussed.
I visited Eritrea recently and I had a substantive and frank discussion with the leadership of this country. The Eritrean leadership's assessments of Western countries' conduct are quite principled. Representatives of the West demonstrate a neocolonial approach toward the Africans and deem it acceptable to impose their will on them, to intimidate and to blackmail them. Some Africans are forced to display loyalty because of their dependence, economic or other.
Q.: Many people in Europe are convinced that Africa is capable of increasing the production and supplies of gas to Europe instead of Russia's. In your opinion, how realistic is this?
A.: I cannot comment on this topic in detail as I'm not a specialist in this area. Still, there are international organizations related to the global oil and gas markets. There is the Gas Exporting Countries Forum headquartered in Doha, Qatar. The list of its permanent participants include such African countries as Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Nigeria, and Equatorial Guinea, while Angola has an observer status there. Naturally, there is such a format as OPEC+. Russia, together with Saudi Arabia and other oil suppliers, including Algeria, Angola, Gabon, the Republic of Congo, Libya, Nigeria, Sudan, Equatorial Guinea, and South Sudan, participates in it. The world is governed by market rules. It will not be easy to implement the political goals set by Washington, say, let us swap one gas for another. The reason is the existence of a whole system - consumer markets, traditional suppliers, contracts, not to mention pipelines and oil terminals. In short, this cannot be done in an instant. It will take years to replace supply chains and to build new infrastructure. Besides, even the quality of gas and oil is quite different, which has an effect on the production of particular kinds of goods.
Q.: Are Russian oil and gas companies ready to increase their cooperation with Africa?
A.: Naturally, and this is what is actually happening.
Q.: What countries specifically?
A.: We have perfect relationships with practically all countries of the continent, for example, with Algeria, Angola, the Republic of Congo, and Mozambique. Our partnership with Egypt has always been highly productive. As we respect the interests of our friends and partners, we believe that Africa has a very serious potential for operations of our companies.
For example, oil production requires technologies, expertise, and people who know how to do that. By the way, our oil companies often pay to train national staff. Dozens, hundreds of specialists from one or another African country are trained at the expense of Russian companies.
Q.: How have Russian companies been working in Africa bearing in mind that many of them are under sanctions? In particular, there could be problems in the diamond sector, as Russia's Alrosa company has been sanctioned. What are the prospects for its operations? What will happen to the Russian-Zimbabwean project of developing platinum deposits, in which, it has been reported, an estimated $3 billion could be invested?
A.: People are working despite the fact that unscrupulous Western competitors are trying to hinder the operations. Objectively, we have common interests with the Africans, there is an experience of joint work, there are relations based not just on trust but also on the understanding that this is successful, mutually beneficial cooperation. You mentioned Alrosa, which operates in a number of African countries. There are other our big companies and other big projects for example in Zimbabwe.
Q.: Technically, how could they be implemented if for example Alrosa is under sanctions? To what extent do the sanctions affect Russian companies in Africa?
A.: I wouldn't comment on this, since I don't want to show all our cards to our ill-wishers.
The sanctions have already impacted [operations on Russian companies in Africa] but they are unable to impact human sentiment and companies in the countries, which believe that cooperation, which has a long history and good results, makes sense. You should not expect them to give in and say, well, we are dropping everything. Of course, other ways of cooperation will be found. Of course, certain its forms will be hindered by the completely unlawful, unilateral restrictions, which are doing harm not just to the Russian and African economies but also to the initiators of those measures.
Q.: To sum up, is it right to say that Moscow hopes for the continued participation of Russian companies in large projects in Africa despite the sanctions?
A.: Of course, it is. We are counting on that.
Q.: How would you comment on fears of a possible food crisis in Africa over the Ukraine situation? Egypt is one of the largest buyers of Russian wheat. How has the Ukraine situation and the sanctions impacted the deliveries there? Will Russia increase deliveries given that exports from Russia are limited at present?
A.: A market is about demand and supply. If the Africans have demand and we have supply, we will find a possibility for deliveries. Moreover, relevant contracts have been signed long ago with a large number of countries. If our African partners are still interested in continuing cooperation, naturally we remain absolutely committed to the signed agreements and we are ready to fulfill them. These are not just mere words, this is what is really happening. Clearly, various sorts of restrictions on Russia cause technical and logistical problems, say, in respect to payments, transfers in payment for supplies. Well, this means other ways will be found. We are ready to meet all of our commitments and even to do more.
Q.: To increase wheat deliveries?
A.: Why not? Our agriculture has been highly effective.
Q.: And what African countries would like increased deliveries of Russian wheat?
A.: This is a question to ask them. We will deliver to those who want it. There are resources, there are possibilities. These are purely commercial relations: our goods, their payment. I think nothing is changing in this respect, apart from maybe some forms of implementing certain contracts because our western ill-wishers are trying to create problems. However, I think that together with our African friends we can and certainly will solve these problems.
Q.: Africa has recently become an arena for competition between various powers. Who is Russia's main competitor in Africa? Is it America, the EU, or China?
A.: If we speak about economics, fair competition is about just one thing: better quality, lower price. That's all. The one capable of that is ahead.
Q.: China? Does Russia fear the Chinese competition in Africa?
A.: On the contrary. Our approach differs from the one of the Americans, which is about either you work with us or we will punish you. Of course, we don't do business this way.
For example, the French are in the Central African Republic or Mali, for instance, and they say this is our land, the sphere of historical influence. They don't care about the opinion of the Malians themselves. Where are the results of the French presence from the point of view of countering terrorism in Mali? Moreover, having failed to secure the result which was expected 10 years ago, they say - that's enough, we are relocating, we are scaling back. What should local authorities do in this situation? Of course, they ask others, for example us, or the Chinese, or someone else - let them decide themselves. Someone should do the work which the French failed to do. Should they have done the work there as the Malians expected them to do, then Bamako wouldn't have asked Russia or anyone else for help.
We are telling our Western colleagues - let's cooperate, let's work synchronously in the name of the common goal which is countering extremism and terrorism, let's help our African friends together.
So, answering your question about competition, I would like to say that we are not acting in Africa according to the 'let's ally against others' principles. This isn't our way.
Q.: Is Russia planning to build up military and technical cooperation with Mali? New deliveries of combat helicopters and military hardware have been reported recently. Is Mali interested in such cooperation?
A.: I think so, yes.
Q.: Is Russia ready for this?
A.: As far as our possibilities permit. We keep telling our Western partners that we do not impose ourselves on anyone in Africa. We do not go to places where we are not welcome. We go to places where we are welcome and where we are invited. We cooperate with those who are interested in it themselves.
Q.: In general, what is your assessment of the situation in Mali now that France is withdrawing from there?
A.: If changes take place in a certain country, the main thing is how people react to them. This is the element which defines domestic stability. Of course, there are certain external forces that interfere, that don't like something and they are trying to impose things. However, such interference contradicts international law.
We assume that the main thing is the attitude of the people who elect their leadership and support it. And the leadership of a sovereign state resting on the people's support decides itself what countries to ask for certain assistance and who to cooperate with.
In this context, if we speak about Mali, this is what is really happening. We are building friendly and I think promising relations. Of course, the country is undergoing a transition period. Incumbent authorities should decide on all issues, even regarding the timeline for domestic political events, with regard to attitudes of their own people, rather than under the influence of any external pressure.
Q.: How many Russian citizens are there in Mali now?
A.: Our embassy is fully operational in Bamako. There is also a representative office of our Defense Ministry.
Q.: And how many Russian citizens are there in the Central African Republic?
A.: Nowadays, Russian citizens are not compelled by law to register with consular services during their stay in a foreign country. So, we often do not know for sure who is arriving in what country and what they are doing there. Regrettably, three Russian journalists were killed in the Central African Republic. This is a misfortune and a tragedy. They did not register with the consular service, and no one knew what they were doing there. The situation there has been quite challenging, but the investigation of this case has not stopped and will be brought to a conclusion.
The investigation of this case is continuing. Yet, regrettably, this is very difficult. The investigation is ongoing, but with a lot of problems.
Q.: Some time ago Russia said it intended to resume operations of its embassy in Tripoli. Why hasn't this already been done bearing in mind that many countries already have their diplomatic missions there? What’s the problem?
A.: We have bitter experience. In 2013, our embassy came under an armed attack. We had to evacuate it, actually, under gunfire. The embassy's building was attacked and diplomats moved to a hotel where they again came under attack.
Given this, the restoration of diplomatic presence in Libya should be accompanied by exhaustive security measures. For examples, up to 300 carabinieri are guarding the again opened Italy's embassy in Tripoli.
Formally, the Russian embassy to Libya wasn't closed. It was relocated to Tunisia. There is Russia's charge d'affaires ad interim in Libya, he sometimes visits Tripoli. Russian delegations are going there. For example, one of the goals of my visit was a meeting with former Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj, who has now gone to Turkey and lost power. We were in talks with him and his government, including in order to take back Russian citizens who were taken hostage. As you remember, our sailors were illegally held in Libya but we managed to return them back to Russia.
A significant part of Libya's territory is still under the control of illegal armed units that actually aren't subordinated to anyone. Dual power has again become established in the political sphere. There are governments of Abdul Hamid Dbeibeh and Fathi Bashagha that are competing with each other. National elections have been postponed many times.
Q.: So, is the opening of the Russian embassy off the agenda for now?
A.: As I said, serious preparations on all aspects of this issue are needed. They range from the logistical - the search for a new building, as the old one, as I said, was damaged in the attack - to the military-political - how stable the situation in the country is, how capable the people who could be talked to are, and to what extent these agreements will be fulfilled.
Back in 1992, when so to speak our foreign political priorities were changing, Russia's consulate general in Benghazi, eastern Libya was closed. Then there was a war and NATO came and bombed the country, and no one is still able to piece it back together. How many summits on Libya have taken place? In Palermo, in Berlin, in Paris. How many UN Security Council resolution have been adopted? Where is it all now? It seems that the Libyans themselves, who still cannot understand that this is their country, their one and only country, and that it is needed to reach agreements in order to securely ensure its territorial integrity and sovereignty, lack political will.
Q.: You sound as if you regret what is happening in Libya.
A.: This is indeed so. A recent example. Libyan Foreign Minister Najla Mangoush came to Moscow in August 2021. And recently she came up with an anti-Russian statement over the Ukrainian events. I am convinced this was done under the influence of the Americans, but her rhetoric doesn't reflect the opinion of the Libyans themselves. We are maintaining constructive contacts with various representatives of Libyan political and regional forces. They say as one that the statement of their Foreign Ministry doesn't reflect true sentiment in Libyan society, since the Libyan people remembers history well and knows that Russia has always supported it and shown solidarity in its fight for independence and state sovereignty.