The Kremlin takes an African safari
President Dmitry Medvedev and his entourage of 400 hope to rebuild Russia's status – and sign energy deals – during their African tour this week.
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The former USSR maintained a huge presence in Africa, which, at its peak in the 1980s, included some 35,000 Soviet "advisers" and massive materiel support for more than a dozen regional client states and Marxist guerrilla movements.
One of Medvedev's hopes is that some of that influence still lingers, says Leonid Geveling, an Africa expert at Moscow State University. "There are more than 100,000 African intellectuals who graduated from Soviet educational establishments," in cold war days, he says.
"They may remember all the good the USSR did for them in its time; these are educated people, and they may be of considerable help," to Russia in future, he adds.
A leading Nigerian newspaper, the Daily Trust, held out some confirmation for that Russian hope in a Wednesday editorial: "While some in Europe and the USA may be jittery with regards to the entrance of Russia into Nigeria, especially given their fears of further Russian control over European gas supply, this rapport is not strange," it stated. "Given the significant contribution of the old USSR in keeping this country one in the sixties ... it is to be expected that a resurgent new Russia ... will seek to renew its economic, cultural and scientific ties with Nigeria."
Moscow finds itself far behind Western economic interests – long-entrenched in Africa – and even China. According to the Russian Academy of Sciences, Russia's trade with Nigeria last year was just $300 million, while China racked up $11 billion.
But some experts argue that Russia and China are not so much rivals as complementary forces, both of whom carry an anti-Western political message with their economic overtures toward Africa.
"China needs raw materials, whereas Russian activities are governed by expedience," says Mr. Shubin.
Russia, itself a major exporter of energy and other raw materials, is not eager – as China is – to acquire a direct share of African resources. Rather, Russia aims to establish joint marketing strategies with Africans and to sell them Russian engineering goods and expertise.
Rivalry between Beijing and Moscow in former Soviet central Asia has been tempered by growing cooperation between the two Eurasian giants through the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (read more Monitor coverage on this topic here).
"It's not about ideological influence, as in Soviet times, but it's just pure business interest that's bringing Russia back to Africa," says Elenora Lebedeva, an expert with the independent Center of Problems of Development and Modernization in Moscow. "These first steps [by Medvedev] look good, and they're long overdue."