Sun, Oct 27, 2019 - Page 16 News List

Russia flexes its soft power with new summit for African nations

By Thibaut Marchand and Andrea Palasciano  /  AFP, SOCHI, Russia

A visitor examines a JSC Kalashnikov Concern submachine gun at the Russia-Africa Economic Forum Exhibition on the sidelines of the Russia-Africa Summit and Economic Forum in Sochi, Russia, on Thursday.

Photo: AFP

Aboubakary Guiro, a financial expert from Ivory Coast, was full of hope after attending the first-ever Russia-Africa Summit and Economic Forum this week in the Black Sea resort of Sochi.

“We forget about Russians when we talk business,” said Guiro, the copartner of a financial advisory firm based in Abidjan, Ivory Coast.

“We think about the EU-USA-China trio,” he said, pointing to a number of psychological and language barriers. “From now on, we will be much more open.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin pulled off a major feat bringing together delegates of all 54 African states for the summit on Wednesday and Thursday.

At the close of the meeting, Putin hailed a “new page” in relations.

“We want to strengthen economic cooperation,” Putin said, reiterating his aim to boost Africa-Russia trade turnover to US$40 billion within five years.

Moscow was a crucial player on the continent in the Soviet era, backing independence movements and training a generation of African leaders. Today, the Kremlin is hoping to rekindle Soviet-era relationships and build new alliances.

It wants to hold an Africa-Russia summit every three years.

The gathering was a colorful affair, with some African participants flaunting traditional fabrics and headdresses in contrast to the black-suited Russian delegates.

For Guiro, it was a great way to make “first contact.”

“The contracts, if there are any, will only come in one or two years,” Guiro said.

However, Russians should also “come to Africa,” he said, adding that Russia has been virtually absent from Francophone countries, except for aluminum producer United Company RUSAL PLC, which has mining interests in Guinea.

Russia has used a traditional combination of debt relief, arms supplies and defense expertise to expand its footprint in Africa.

However, in the past several years Moscow has also sought to make use of soft power tools, such as multilingual state media and various funds, to promote its influence on the continent.

Earlier this year, Konstantin Malofeyev, a Russian Orthodox businessman with ties to the Kremlin, helped set up a development agency to assist the governments of Russia’s partner countries.

The International Agency for Sovereign Development set up a massive stand on the sidelines of the Sochi summit.

Its booklet said in four languages that the outfit’s top goal is to help countries, especially in Africa, “attract investment and “unlock their growth potential.”

The US and Ukraine have accused Malofeyev of helping bankroll separatists fighting against Kiev forces in eastern Ukraine.

Alexander Malkevich, a Kremlin-connected media manager, was another prominent presence at the summit.

Malkevich, head of the Foundation for the Protection of National Values, hosted a roundtable discussion that saw speakers, including Central African Minister of National Defense, Veterans, War Victims and Restructuring of the Army Marie-Noelle Koyara, denounce the influence of “former colonial powers.”

Malkevich, who was last year put on a US sanctions list for alleged attempted election interference, said that his foundation conducted research in Africa.

“We try to help Russian business establish in Africa,” he told reporters. “We know who is who.”

However, critics have said that people like Malkevich might be Kremlin agents of influence.

This year, two employees of the foundation were detained in Libya over alleged election interference attempts.

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