Sunday, June 21, 2009

Russia Back in Africa With Medvedev Visit

Russia back in Africa with Medvedev visit

By Anna Smolchenko
Agence France-Presse
June 21, 2009

MOSCOW, Russia—President Dmitry Medvedev embarks on a four-nation tour of Africa this week in a drive to reassert Moscow's clout in a former Soviet sphere of influence.

After a two-day visit to Egypt starting Tuesday, Medvedev will make an ambitious foray into Nigeria, Namibia, and Angola Wednesday through Friday for talks to expand the country's economic footprint in Africa.

Medvedev's visit follows a 2006 trip to South Africa and Morocco by his mentor and predecessor Vladimir Putin, who became the first Kremlin chief to visit sub-Saharan Africa.

"If the Americans are now active in the post-Soviet region, then it's only natural if our leadership wants to show we can be active not only in post-Soviet region," said Apollon Davidson, Russia's leading Africa historian.

During the Cold War, Africa was a key battleground between the Soviet Union and the West, with communists and pro-Western forces fighting proxy wars for ideological influence on the continent.

Modern-day battles will be fought for control of the continent's huge and largely untapped reserves, a prospect the Kremlin is keenly aware of, analysts said.

Russia gas giant Gazprom has complained it is far behind its foreign competitors in Africa, saying it is ready to mount a challenge to the West.

Moscow's ties with its client states like Angola came to a sudden halt with the Soviet collapse but the Kremlin has now emphasized its wish to revive relationships in Africa, rich in oil, gas, diamonds, metals, and uranium.

But this may not be easy.

"Traditionally, our business and economic ties have not been that strong because the Soviet Union's ties in Africa were political and ideological," said Davidson, who studied Africa for more than 60 years.

"Obviously it's going to be harder than in the 1980s when you were either part of the Western or the Soviet bloc," added Samir Gadio, Africa strategist for Moscow-based Renaissance Capital which has offices in Nigeria and Kenya.

"Now there is a lot of competition."

Russia's biggest trade partner in Africa is now Egypt, while trade ties with Angola, Nigeria, and Namibia, which has one of the largest open pit uranium mines in the world, are insignificant, Gadio said.

Nigeria might become an "increasingly important recipient of Russian foreign direct investment" if Gazprom secures a contract to build a new key gas pipeline, he said.

The Russian gas giant is eyeing involvement in the Trans-Saharan Gas pipeline, a gas project aimed at sending Nigerian gas to Europe and supported by the European Union as a way to diversify its energy resources.

Nigeria and Russia will sign a nuclear energy cooperation accord and a gas joint venture between Gazprom and the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) will also be inked, officials in Abuja said.

"There is a growing understanding in the Russian business circles that Africa is a new market of global significance which offers more opportunities for business than any other part of the world," said Dmitry Suchkov of state-run bank VEB.

Suchkov is a member of a new official support group inaugurated in Moscow this week to help Russian business promote ties in sub-Saharan Africa.

Some major Russian companies already have a presence there.

UC Rusal, an aluminum giant controlled by billionaire Oleg Deripaska, has operations in Nigeria and Guinea, billionaire Viktor Vekselberg's Renova is present in South Africa, while state diamond monopoly Alrosa is active in Angola.

And for some observers, Russia has never left Africa, even if the Soviet collapse has largely muted its voice.

"The early 90s dealt a heavy blow to our ties," said Vladimir Shubin, deputy director of the Africa Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences. "But despite all the difficulties, certain economic ties remained."

Russians companies, he said, will in many ways be returning to familiar territory in Africa, whose many leaders were schooled in the Soviet Union and where portraits of Lenin and Karl Marx still adorn streets.

Medvedev's trip will include meetings with African figures such as Namibia's "founding father" and former guerrilla fighter Sam Nujoma and a safari trip featuring lions and rhinos, said Theo Grunewald, acting Namibian ambassador in Russia.

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