The Russia–Africa partnership will be sustained through permanent political dialogue at different levels and on a variety of issues
Unstoppable march of the Global South: How Russia and Africa made 2023 a pivotal year for bilateral relations
THE year 2023 seems to have been another ‘Year of Africa’, with significant media attention drawn to developments across the vast continent. Indeed, the region’s 54 countries and nine core regional blocs (SADC, ECOWAS, and others) have a lot of stories to offer.
For many actors beyond the continent, engaging the nations of Africa has grown to be a renewed commitment. Russia has revisited its foreign policy thrust toward the region, underpinned by a more constructive approach in the new Foreign Policy Concept of 2023.
Russia–Africa summits prove value
The Second Russia – Africa Summit (and Russia–Africa Economic and Humanitarian Forum) took place in St. Petersburg in late July. Importantly, both Russia and its African partners opted for a strategic choice to institutionalize the format, solidifying the framework of partnership. In addition to the final declaration, the parties agreed on an Action Plan Towards 2026 that expanded the understanding of avenues for shared cooperation. While the new approach is more practice-oriented, outlining specific initiatives sector by sector, Russia still has much ahead when turning these statements into reality on the ground. To facilitate this change, the Economic Forum complemented the broader political agenda, showcasing what Russia has to offer. Here, too, a step from expositions to ‘field tests’ is expected, so that Russia’s African friends acquire their own experience in three years’ time to testify to the partnership’s efficiency.
Summits are now to be held every three years, but there must be a consistent point of contact to align preferences and agendas. To this end, the Russia–Africa partnership will be sustained through permanent political dialogue at different levels and on a variety of issues, as well as through a multilateral security mechanism.
BRICS expands, Russia welcomes African voices
Russian President Vladimir Putin shakes hands with Ethiopian Prime Minster Abiy Ahmed during a meeting at the Constantine (Konstantinovsky) Palace in Strelna near St. Petersburg, Russia. © Sputnik/Alexei Danichev
At its 15th anniversary summit held in Johannesburg in August, BRICS made the decision to expand its membership to 11 nations. Two African countries, Egypt and Ethiopia, are among those to join from next year, and will engage in some of the world’s most important conversations. Arguably, South Africa’s BRICS presidency has taken the group into a new era.
With Egypt and Ethiopia joining the ranks, Africa’s representation in the bloc is hard to dispute. There was much enthusiasm around the expansion, both in Russia and in the newly admitted nations. Drawing on this high point in diplomacy, the new members will surely bring benefits to the table.
Enhanced defense partnerships receive new impetus
Russian Deputy Defense Minister Yunus-bek Yevkurov’s trips to Africa also marked a development in Moscow’s military cooperation with its partners on the continent.
In the space of a few months, he visited Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, the Central African Republic, and Libya. This pronounced his rise as a kingpin of the ostensible ‘Africa Corps’ affiliated with the Defense Ministry.
Even if it is too early to tell whether such plans reflect the more solid nature of Moscow’s ties with Africa, Yevkurov has essentially emerged as a trusted strategic partner for the region. The new level of partnership is best reflected through intensified contacts and new agreements, which signals a cautious and pragmatic optimism. For the West, it was rather a harbinger of unwanted change that they tried to arrest. Indeed, just days after Yevkurov’s visit to Libya, AFRICOM’s US General Michael Langley was sent to Tripoli for renewed negotiations, while German Defense Minister Boris Pistorius announced a policy shift for resumed cooperation with post-coup Niger (something for which the US was just as ready).
Top diplomats meet more often, and Russia expands its diplomatic footprint
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has been a frequent guest in African capitals throughout 2023. He has discussed the prospects for more food security, more trade, and more exchanges in South Africa, Angola, Eswatini, Eritrea, Mali, Mauritania, Sudan, Kenya, Burundi, and Mozambique.
Each time, his mission was followed by a trail of European and US diplomats hoping to frustrate agreements reached and win African governments over to the cause of sanctions against Russia and military support for Ukraine. The pressures put on Africa – bilaterally and multilaterally – are, in fact, hard to imagine. It’s enough to remember that the US was considering the expulsion of South African from the AGOA program, citing Pretoria’s independent position, and actually expelled the Central African Republic, Gabon, Niger, and Uganda. Even so, most African nations remained neutral, instead preferring a balanced and constructive approach. Many branded this as a win for Russia. More likely, though, it was a win for African agency and common sense.
Russia launches post-graduate training for Africans, reaching the highest level in educational interaction
In late December, Moscow hosted the inaugural e-Gov Knowledge Sharing Week. The program was designed by the Center for African Studies of the Higher School of Economics and supported by Innopraktika, a non-state development institute, and the Russian government. In all probability, it is Russia’s first-ever educational program for African senior civil servants. The innovative format of ‘knowledge sharing’ adopted instead of training was well received as it implies a mutually beneficial exchange, in contrast to imposing agendas, rules, and values through unilateral dictation.
Leaders of digital governance from as many as 23 countries gathered to discuss their experience and outlook on digitalization with Russian experts. The discussion was fueled by the E-Governance in Africa 2024 book and hub, jointly developed by Russian and African experts. The project will hopefully be a lasting partnership: activities are planned for as far ahead as 2026.
This year has also seen a true breakthrough in bringing more African students to Russia. As of early 2023, about 27,000 students from Africa chose Russian universities for their studies. This drastically outperforms the numbers of the late Soviet era, when only 15,000 students came to study in 1991/92.
Russian language increases its popularity
In 2023, the Russian Ministry of Education has opened new Russian-language education centers in African countries, working jointly with more than ten Russian pedagogical universities. Centers and classes are currently operating in Cameroon, Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt, Uganda, Mali, Zambia, Namibia, Nigeria, DRC, and Cote d’Ivoire.
Russian Houses launched by Rossotrudnichestvo to facilitate ties with Tunisia, Morocco, Egypt, Ethiopia, Tanzania, Zambia, South Africa, the Republic of the Congo, and Sierra Leone have accompanied the country’s diplomatic efforts with a broad spectrum of cultural and educational activities throughout the year.
The popularity of the Russian language and preparatory courses is directly tied to the scholarships provided for foreign students who want to study at Russian universities. Rossotrudnichestvo’s press service reported that last year, the average competition to receive a scholarship was about five people per place, so in the 2023-24 academic year, the number of scholarships was doubled from 2,300 to 4,700. Guinea, Angola, Mali, the Republic of the Congo, Egypt, and Nigeria are among the countries to receive the biggest financial benefits.
Russian grain bolsters Africa’s food security
The first two ships with Russian grain for Somalia and Burkina Faso, a humanitarian response coming at no charge, arrived in early December. The countries each received 25,000 tons of grain. Building on the success, more grain will be shipped to the Central African Republic, Zimbabwe, Mali, and Eritrea by the year’s end.
As a continent with a growing population and increasing climate pressures, Africa seems to welcome Russia’s assistance in alleviating food insecurities in the most vulnerable countries. As a result, Russia has emerged as a reliable food security provider, capable of meeting growing needs. While Russia exported 11.5 million tons of grain to Africa in 2022, exports reached the 10 million-ton mark in the first six months of 2023.
Cultural relations grow closer
For the fourth time in 2023, the choreography project led by Innopraktika School brought together talents from all around the world. This time, under the banner of ‘Global Values’, the Boris Eifman Dance Academy welcomed, among others, ten dancers from six African countries, notably Senegal, Mozambique, Burkina Faso, Uganda, Rwanda and Nigeria. Performing at the Russia – Africa Summit in St. Petersburg on the stage of the famous Alexandrinsky Theater, they shared their perception of the world’s most pressing challenges.
This year was also inaugural in the sense of Days of African Culture and Cinema, which were held for the first time and attracted much interest in Africa among Russians.
This has been the year 2023 in Russia-Africa relations, though certainly the frames of this overview could not fit all the relevant issues. However, the events and trends mentioned above will continue to develop, bringing the sides closer together.