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At first ever summit, Russia aims to revive relations with Africa

Egypt and Russia co-hosted the first Russia-African economic summit in Sochi, as Moscow seeks influence in the continent.
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi shakes hands with Russian President Vladimir Putin during an official welcome ceremony for heads of states and governments of member-states of Russia-Africa Summit in the Black sea resort of Sochi, Russia, October 23, 2019. Sergei Chirikov/Pool via REUTERS - RC12F4C89E10

From Oct. 23-24, the Russian Black Sea resort city of Sochi was a venue for the first ever Russia-Africa Summit and Economic Forum, through which Moscow is seeking greater sway in a continent where the West and China have strong influence.

Co-chaired by Russian President Vladimir Putin and Egyptian President and African Union Chairman Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the summit was attended by 3,000 delegates, including 43 of the continent’s 54 countries as well as representatives of Russian, African and international business.

They discussed various topics such as military and security cooperation, nuclear energy, extractive industries, agriculture, health care, education and mineral extraction.

In his opening remarks, Putin said the African cooperation will not involve “political or other” interference.

Putin said Russia's trade volume with African nations exceeded $20 billion in 2018 but is “clearly not enough” and said he hoped the amount will double in the next four or five years.

Putin vowed to help the continent tap natural resources and offered it Russian technologies.

The summit was aimed at restoring Russian influence, which faded after the collapse of the Soviet Union, when it provided funds and weapons to Africa in rivalry with the United States.

The Soviet Union supported pro-independence movements throughout the continent at a time when European influence was diminishing. The Soviet Union also offered free education to many Africans and dispatched engineers and technicians to help build infrastructure in many African countries.

On Oct. 23, Russia sent two nuclear-capable bombers to South Africa as part of a training mission. Russia’s Ministry of Defense said the mission is designed to nurture military ties with South Africa, one of the continent’s most developed economies.

Putin said at the summit that his country is committed to fighting the Ebola virus through aid, and the training of “African cadres by Russian universities.”

Also, Putin held a meeting with Sisi in the runup to the Russia-Africa Summit to discuss ways to enhance Egyptian-Russian relations.

There are a number of projects underway between Russia and Egypt, including establishing a Russian industrial zone in the Suez Canal Economic Zone, which is regarded as a platform for Russian companies to expand into Africa.

The Russian Industrial Zone is expected to increase economic and industrial cooperation and attract investments worth $7 billion.

Twenty-six Russian companies expressed their desire to invest in this mega project, which is expected to provide over 35,000 job opportunities.

Another mega project is the Dabaa nuclear plant; Egypt’s first nuclear power plant is to be built in Matrouh governorate in the northwestern part of the country. Construction is expected to begin next year and the plant is to inaugurated in 2026. Russia-Egypt cooperation also includes many infrastructure and transport projects.

Putin told the Russian news agency Tass on Oct. 23, “We have large projects underway, which we agreed on. This includes a nuclear power plant and an industrial zone in Egypt.”

“We are working very actively in these areas. We want to invest $190 million in infrastructure development and attract up to $7 billion,” he added. He said relations between the two countries "are developing positively.''

In his remarks, Sisi urged Russia and the international firms to invest in Africa. He said, "This is the ideal time for economic openness to the continent.”

Sisi added that Africa eyes more cooperation with Russia in infrastructure development and enhanced economic integration. Sisi said human development is a top priority for achieving sustainable development in Africa, which has a population of 1.2 billion, 65% of whom are under 25.

Experts in African and foreign affairs hailed the success of the summit, not just for boosting Russian-African relations, but also for Russia-Egypt ties.

“Moscow considers Africa as a promising hub to strengthen its activity in oil, gas and other natural resources as well as to search for new political allies and trading partners,” Amani el-Tawil, an expert of African Affairs at Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, told Al-Monitor.

She said Russia can use trade with Africa to compensate for US and European sanctions on Moscow.

Since Western sanctions were imposed on Russia in 2014, Russia has been working to boost its economic ties with Africa. The trade volume between Russia and the continent was $6.6 billion in 2010, a third of what it is now. Russia invests in selling weapons, military equipment, oil, gas and nuclear power in addition to extracting diamonds, metals and elements. 

Tawil highlighted Russia’s support of the independent policy of African states, and Russian aid in the fight against terrorism.

“Russia plays an active role in UN peacekeeping operations in some African countries. In addition, Russia welcomes settling the regional conflicts in the Horn of Africa, and thus will help enhance the stability and security of the region,” Tawil said.

Gamal Bayoumi, former assistant minister of foreign affairs and secretary-general of the Arab Investors Union, highlighted Egyptian efforts in encouraging investment to Africa for many years.

“Participating in a summit to attract investments to Africa is an effort made repeatedly by Egypt to achieve development in the continent,” he told Al-Monitor.

Bayoumi said Cairo hosted on April 3-4, 2000, the first Africa-Europe summit in which all the participants committed to provide a new strategic dimension in the partnership between the two continents in a spirit of equality, respect, and cooperation.

In October of the same year, he added, China’s engagement began when it held the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation in Beijing; it was the first meeting in the history of China-Africa relations. Over the years, the forum has resulted in tens of billions of dollars worth of pledges for Africa.

Last year, he added, Egypt took part in the Beijing summit of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation. In August, Cairo played a role in the Seventh Tokyo International Conference on African Development as head of the African Union.

“I think that the Russia-Africa summit is a major, and probably last chance to attract investments and trade opportunities that help develop the continent in accordance with the African Union Development Agenda of 2063,” he said.

Bayoumi hailed Putin’s statement about joint projects underway with the continent, especially in agriculture.

“Russia is one of the largest exporters of agricultural products and Egypt is one of the major wheat importers. So agricultural investment is important in the continent, especially since many African countries have arable land and therefore it must be exploited,” he said.

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