For more two decades, Russia has been struggling to regain its Soviet-era economic influence, but such efforts have hit stumbling blocks which policy experts and Russian authorities themselves admittedly attributed to inadequate knowledge of investment and economic possibilities in Africa.
Quite recently, Keir Giles, an associate fellow (on the Russia and Eurasia Program) at Chatham House in London, wrote in an emailed query that "surely lack of knowledge about investment opportunities is one factor holding back economic engagement, but it is certainly not the only one. The problem remains that there are whole sectors of the economy where Russia is simply irrelevant - to take the most obvious example, consumer goods - and so their engagement will always be dwarfed by China."
"The only exceptions are the traditional strengths of Russia (and the Soviet Union before it) - infrastructure, raw materials and energy. In effect, the lack of engagement is partly a consequence of the failure to develop and diversify since the end of the Soviet Union that is a fundamental challenge to the Russian economy," the research associate further explained.
Giles recounted the earlier history that "economic collapse at the end of the Soviet Union affected Moscow's engagement with Africa along with other regions. While Russia was finding its new place in the world, diplomatic representations abroad were cut back harshly and resources focused on those countries seen as essential."
"Embassies across the continent which had previously been generously staffed were severely cut back or closed. At the same time, military, education and other aid programs for African nations were also cut, even if they never completely disappeared," he said further in comments.
As a result, Russian expertise and engagement with Africa entered a hiatus, at exactly the same time as China started rapidly to increase investment and presence. Moscow's recent efforts seek to redress this and catch up - in parallel with, for example, Russia's return to Latin America - both to find and exploit commercial opportunities, and to foster support from third nations in Russia's ever more intensive confrontation with the United States and Europe.
"The most conspicuous aspect of Russia's involvement in Africa is its absence," says John Endres, chief executive officer of Good Governance Africa from South Africa, adding that "whereas the Soviet Union was quite extensively engaged in Africa, Russia has almost entirely abandoned the field to other foreign players during the past two decades."
Interestingly, Russia has more than 40 full-fledged diplomatic representations with competent staff, and has fixed special trade missions to facilitate trade and investment in a number of African countries. And yet economic engagement has faced difficulties down the years.
The Foreign Ministry published the text of deputy foreign minister Mikhail Bogdanov's speech on its official website in July 2013 in which he highlighted the same old problems facing the development of Russia-African ties at a session of the Urals-Africa economic forum in Yekaterinburg. "One must admit that the practical span of Russian companies' business operations in Africa falls far below our export capabilities, on the one hand, and the huge natural resources of the huge continent, on the other," Bogdanov said assertively.
Of course, one of the obstacles has been insufficient knowledge of the economic potential, on the part of Russian entrepreneurs, needs and opportunities of the African region. "Poor knowledge of the African markets' structure and the characteristics of African customers by the Russian business community remains an undeniable fact. The Africans in their turn are insufficiently informed on the capabilities of potential Russian partners," Bogdanov stressed in his speech there without suggesting any possible solutions.
Re-echoing deputy minister Bogdanov, professor Irina Abramova, newly-appointed director of the Institute for African Studies under the Russian Academy of Sciences, has also explained thus: "as before, we cannot deny the insufficient knowledge of the Russian business structures specificity of Africa, its requirements, and other parameters. On the other hand, Africans are poorly informed about the possibilities of Russian partnership."
Similarly, Lyubov Demidova, deputy chairperson from the Russian Chamber of Commerce and Industry (Moscow region), wrote in an emailed response to media interview question that "the main obstacle is insufficient knowledge of the economic potential, on the part of Russian entrepreneurs, needs and opportunities of the African region." For this, she hopes to help members of the business community of all African countries to address systematically issues of effective cooperation.
"The main task is to shift to a more comprehensive approach, using the extensive territorial network of the Russian Chamber of Commerce. Russia's business should be provided with full information on economic development in African countries and their needs in order to establish an ongoing Russian-African mutually beneficial business dialogue,"she suggested.
For the past years, only a few of those Russia's efforts at reviving economic cooperation have been made public. "Russian media write very little about Africa, what is going on there, what are the social and political dynamics in different parts of the continent. Media and NGOs should make big efforts to increase level of mutual knowledge, which can stimulate interest for each other and lead to increased economic interaction as well," said Fyodor Lukyanov, editor-in-chief of the journal Russia in Global Affairs. Lukyanov is also a member of the State Council on Foreign and Defense Policy.
"To certain extent," Lukyanov said, "the intensification of non-political contacts may contribute to increased interest. But in Russia's case, the main drivers of any cooperation are more traditional rather than political interests of the state and economic interest of big companies. Soft power has never been a strong side of Russian policy in the post-Soviet era."
For the dearth of vital economic information, Russian Foreign Ministry, Department of Press and Information could grant media accreditation to, at least, a few African journalists to work in Russia. That could help bridge the business information gap. Most often, African political leaders and corporate business directors have to depend on western media reports about developments in Russia, according to the views of many policy experts.
Igho Natufe, PhD (McGill), research professor at the Centre for Studies of Russian-African Relations and Foreign Policy of African Countries, whose book “Russian Foreign Policy in Search of Lost Influence” was published recently, explained that in order to improve overall relationship, Russia has to review its policy strategies and one surest way is to employ the soft power in dealing with Africa. Russian authorities have to acknowledge that the media has a huge role to play, thus frequent exchange of visits by Russian and African journalists as well as regular publications of economic and business reports could help create public business awareness and further raise to an appreciable levels the relationship between the two countries.
Olga Kulkova, a research fellow at the Center for Studies of Russian-African Relations, Institute for African Studies in Moscow, also noted in her opinion article that "in the global struggle for Africa, Russia is sadly far from outpacing its competitors. In terms of stringency of strategic outlook and activeness, the country is seriously lagging behind China, US, EU, India, Brazil."
For example, at the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) meeting, both China and Africa have fixed a "China-Africa Press Exchange Center" in China to encourage exchanges and visits between Chinese and African media, and China already supports frequent exchange of correspondents by media organizations of the two sides. Most probably, Russian authorities both in the Kremlin and in the Foreign Ministry have to learn from some of these China's policy directions with Africa!
Kulkova suggested strongly that "Africa needs broader coverage in Russian media. Leading Russian media agencies should release more topical news items and quality analytical articles about the continent, on-the-spot TV reports in order to adequately collaborate with African partners and attract Russian business to Africa. More quality information about modern Russia should be broadcast in African states. Indisputably, it would take a lot of money and efforts, but the result will pay off."
Russia ought to take that into account if it wants to improve the chances for success in Africa. All the leading foreign countries have been doing that quite efficiently for a long time, Kulkova noted. But is anybody listening to all these?
Besides other factors hindering Russia's move to Africa, Maxim Matusevich, director of the Russian and East European Studies program at Seton Hall University in New Jersey, says it seems that there are few areas of mutual economic interest between the Russian Federation and sub-Saharan African states. Ironically, many African nations suffer from the same affliction that has negatively impacted western investments in Russia: unfriendly investment climate/s/, unpredictable and capricious regimes, rapacious elites and a lack of rule of law.
Trade experts have also been looking at ways to improve trade relations and economic cooperation with Africa. For instance, Andrey Efimenko, an expert at the Russian Chamber of Commerce and Industry said in an exclusive interview with me that CCI of Russia has closely monitored the activities of Russian companies in Africa.
"Unfortunately," Efimenko regrettably pointed out, "some large Russian companies operating on the African market, has managed to establish itself negatively in a number of countries. This is primarily due to ignorance of cultural peculiarities of the region, the lack of social responsibility, failure to completely fulfill contractual obligations. These cases damage the image of Russia and Russian companies with further entering the African market."
Russian researchers have their own explanations too. "Until recently, Africa was poorly represented in macro-economic forecasting and research, especially in terms of Russian-African relations," wrote Professor Aleksei Vasiliev and Evgeny Korendiasov both from the Russian Academy of Sciences, Institute of African Studies (IAS). Professor Vasiliev, a former presidential envoy to African countries and Korendiasov, a former Russian ambassador to the Republic of Mali and Burkina Faso.
They both authored an article published in June 2013 that Russia has officially declared promoting relations with Africa a priority goal. Assurances made by Russian officials in their statements that Africa is "in the mainstream of Russia's foreign policy" have not been substantiated by systematic practical activities, and the development of relations between Russia and Africa has so far nothing to boast about."
Without doubts, Russia's major lines of Russia-African partnership in the long-term perspective include developing investment cooperation, widening Russian companies' presence in the African markets through increased deliveries of industrial and food products, enhancing Russia's participation in driving the economic development of Africa. On the other hand, access to Russian market for African countries should also be simplified.
Official statistics on trade and investment are hard to find. Internet search simply found out that Russia's trade turnover with the countries of sub-Saharan Africa for the period from January to December 2015 was only estimated at US$ 3.3 billion.
By Kester Kenn Klomegah
The author is an independent research writer on Russia-African affairs and a member of the Regional Council on Development of Relations with Africa. The views expressed here are those of the individual experts in the article and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Regional Council.