Russia-Africa: Sochi more about symbolism than strength
Designed as a real show of strength, the Russia-Africa summit was a success for the master of the Kremlin. Even if no major announcements were forthcoming.
Until the end, some would have hoped for more. After all, wasn’t this going to be the chance for that one-on-one meeting with President Vladimir Putin for which they had come all the way to Sochi, on the shores of the Black Sea?
Alas, of the continent’s 43 heads of state and government attending the first Russia-Africa summit on 23 and 24 October, less than half were able to meet with the Russian President.
Many had to be satisfied with meeting the Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergei Lavrov, or with his deputy, Mikhail Bogdanov.
During these two days, which he described as “intense”, Putin remained true to form: cold and perfectly inaccessible.
In the alleys of the Olympic village, however, his strength, his convictions, and his commitment were praised. Everyone admired this head of state who had the means to oppose the West and who did not hesitate to do so.
His ability to act quickly, which he once again demonstrated on 22 October, was praised by receiving the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and eliciting from him the promise to stop the Turkish military offensive in northern Syria.
Demonstration of strength
The Sochi Summit will be billed as a success. Conceived as a real show of strength, it was effectively a platform on which the Kremlin could showcase itself, while facilitating the task of major Russian groups wishing to strengthen their presence on the continent.
To be fair, Putin did involve some business leaders in his bilateral meetings. But whether the event will have a significance other than symbolic remains to be proven.
The Russian President certainly hammered home that his country had always been Africa’s friend, had supported its aspiration for independence, trained its leaders, and cancelled part of its debt.
The values of both partners are the same, the Kremlin leader added, referring to a common commitment to multilateralism, a refusal to interfere, and the fight against “exploitation, racism and colonialism”.
Absence of “African politics”
Of course, the speech hit the mark with the African audience. But there is a gap between the enthusiastic speeches and the reality of Russia’s presence on the continent, which remains limited.
By 2018, trade between Moscow and Africa was just $20bn — a much lower figure than trade between the continent and China ($204bn) or France ($51.3bn). And the summit was not the occasion for any major announcements.
There is no doubt that Putin was able to stage his African friendships.
But the fact is Russia does not seem to have a real “African policy” at the moment and, from Khartoum to Johannesburg via Algiers, several of its stronger connections have been shaken in recent months.
Despite several years of intense lobbying, Moscow does not have military bases on the continent either — unlike France, the United States or China. Russia has tried to set foot in Djibouti, but so far without success.
Passage through empty
Certainly, the feeling of fraternity in the face of a common “enemy” was strong, as is the memory of the support given to emancipation movements or the struggle against apartheid in South Africa.
Sochi almost managed to make us forget that relations between Russia and the continent have been empty for more than twenty years.
But no matter how much Russia has benefited from the disengagement of its rivals (notably the French and Americans), it remains for the moment a second-class player — a fact that no summit, however well organised, can make us forget.
African countries know this, and even though they rushed to Sochi, they were aware that it was in their best interest not to close any doors. They may even end up taking advantage of international rivalries that the Sochi meeting will have exacerbated.
In his closing speech, Vladimir Putin announced that these meetings will now be held every three years, alternately in Russia and Africa. In short, following the model of the China-Africa forums. Beijing, the great rival, was in everyone’s mind during these two days, even if — unlike the Westerners — no one ever named them.
And at the end of the day, as the Olympic village was emptying, the stainless-steel president of the Russian Federation continued to hold bilateral meetings.
Without showing any sign of fatigue. Without showing the shadow of a smile either.
This article first appeared in Jeune Afrique.