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RUSSIA: Putin Attempts a Bridge to Africa

Kester Kenn Klomegah

MOSCOW, Sep 9 2006 (IPS) - Russian President Vladimir Putin has sought to build new bridges with Africa on a tour this week – with development among its main pillars.

Fresh from the meeting of heads of government of the Group of Eight industrialised nations at St. Petersburg in July, Putin has gone with promises of development through expanding trade and promoting education, and of supporting the fight against HIV/AIDS.. These were raised as priorities at the G8 summit.

In pursuit of these stated aims, Russia and the World Bank have agreed to collaborate on a debt-for-development swap to channel 250 million dollars for development projects in sub-Saharan Africa.

In Pretoria, Putin held discussions with South African President Thabo Mbeki on expanding economic and political cooperation between the two countries. Russia and South Africa are exploring possibilities of using their enormous mineral wealth to tap into one another’s potential.

Putin’s five-day tour that covered South Africa and Morocco also sought new markets for Russian businesses. He was accompanied by about 100 delegates, mostly big business leaders.

In Moroccan capital Rabat Putin sought to soothe concerns over a 7.5 billion arms deal Russia concluded with Algeria earlier this year. Relations between Algeria and Morocco are strained over the Western Sahara, which is substantially under Moroccan occupation.

Putin was particularly keen on his tour to push Russian interests in the nuclear energy market. “We do not see an absolutely level playing field on the nuclear fuel market yet,” he told reporters in Casablanca. “Russia’s interests there are being trampled on. Russia will be working for more recognition of its interest in the nuclear energy market, and we have things to discuss with our partners here.”

Putin earlier strategically dispatched Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov to Angola to open a representation office of Russia’s Vneshtorgbank.

“This the first financial structure with participation of Russian capital in Africa, and it is a pleasant fact that it has been established in friendly Angola,” Lavrov said.

Lavrov continued on to Addis Ababa in Ethiopia to deliver a special message from Putin to Prime Minister Meles Zenawi. A scheduled visit to Nigerian capital Abuja was cancelled after Nigerian officials could not confirm an earlier schedule.

Critics say that former presidents Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin did little on the continent compared to Britain and the United States. That approached has distinctly changed.

“Now, the Kremlin authorities are prioritising Russian policy with Africa,” Bashiru Obasekola, African economic policy analyst at the Moscow-based Dutch Independent Media told IPS.

“This is the time for Russia as a G8 member to practically show its commitment to the tasks that are set out during all the previous summits,” he said. Russia needs to do this “not by diplomatic rhetoric but by significantly taking steps to help Africa’s economic development and alleviate poverty, and improve social living standards for the impoverished population.”

Deputy director of the Institute for African Studies Vladimir Shubin told IPS that “it’s important that the old relationship has transformed into a new stage, with a re-engagement in multi-dimensional political dialogue. This now provides new impetus for building more diversified relations with the African countries.”

But Shubin said Russia is not doing enough to communicate its strengths and its policies to the public in Africa. Effective means of influencing public opinion in Africa, such as broadcasting and publishing in local languages, were lost in Yeltsin’s era and have to be developed again, he said.

African-Russian professor at the Moscow State University Gabriel Kochofa is also calling for more effective outreach to Africa.

“The significant part of the answer to all those questions is to embed and integrate Africa with Russia by using specialists Russia has trained over the years to build genuine friendship and cooperation between Russia and African countries,” he told IPS..

Moscow, which used many African countries as pawns against the West during the Cold War era, has lost much influence on the continent to China. But in his state-of-the-nation address in May, and at the St. Petersburg summit in July, Putin indicated that Russia now wanted better relations with Africa.

Critics say the new moves are not enough. Putin, they say, moved from South Africa to Morocco, skipping ‘black Africa’ on the way.

 
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