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.

MOSCOW – Nearly two decades after the Soviet Union's influence evaporated, Russia is returning to Africa in force with aims of catching up to China and Western powers in the scramble for the continent's resources, markets, and political allegiances.

President Dmitry Medvedev and an entourage of 400 Russian businessmen and economic officials arrived in Nigeria Wednesday to sign a variety of oil, gas, and nuclear energy deals. This is the longest African tour by any Kremlin leader. The group visited Egypt Tuesday and will make stops in Angola and Namibia later this week.

A major purpose of the trip is to show the flag and proclaim Russia's return as a serious player on the global stage, analysts say.

"Russia's more active approach toward Africa is part of a more general assertiveness of Moscow around the world these days," says Vladimir Shubin, deputy director of the official Institute of Africa in Moscow.

"The whole architecture of global politics is taking on new shapes," he adds.

Nuclear and oil deals

On Wednesday Mr. Medvedev will sign an accord on "peaceful uses of nuclear energy," which could lead to the construction of Russian atomic power plants in Nigeria.

Moscow's state-run nuclear engineering firm, Rosatom, whose head, Sergei Kiriyenko, is traveling with Medvedev, has already placed bids to build the first-ever civilian nuclear plants in Egypt.

Most attention is focused on a $2.5 billion accord between Russia's government monopoly Gazprom – the world's biggest gas company – and the state-run Nigerian National Petroleum Corp, which will involve exploration, pipeline construction, and an infusion of Russian technological expertise. Though Nigeria possesses the world's seventh-largest reserves of natural gas, they remain largely undeveloped.

The Kremlin's key goal appears to be acquisition of a major role in the proposed Trans-Sahara gas pipeline, which would funnel Nigerian gas to Europe and – perhaps ironically – has been heavily promoted by the European Union as a means of diversifying the continent away from its present dependence on energy supplies from Russia.

Echoes of history

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."

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