Kirsan Ilyumzhinov's viewpoint: cooperation between Russia and Africa is very promising

Why is our country returning to the Black Continent and why do these plans sometimes provoke an inadequate reaction? The Russia-Africa Summit, held in Sochi on 23-24 October, excited both participants and observers. The forum was attended by more than 40 leaders of African states, 120 ministers from different countries, representatives of the USA, Great Britain, France, Australia and Canada. Together with representatives of African and Russian business, the summit brought together over six thousand participants.

We asked a graduate of MGIMO, the first president of the Republic of Kalmykia and the sixth president of the International Chess Federation (FIDE) Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, who also took part in the summit, the reasons why the cooperation between Russia and Africa does not leave anyone indifferent, and why it is so important for both sides.

 - Kirsan Nikolaevich, you are a Japanese specialist by profession but, as far as we know, you are also interested in Africa.

- When I was first elected president of FIDE, one of the most important problems facing the Federation was the revival of the popularity of chess. And in this regard, the African continent was a blank spot as far as chess was concerned. It required special attention and effort. Over the years of my presidency, I have travelled, perhaps, to most African countries, promoting our chess development programmes. At the same time, I had many meetings, both with game enthusiasts, and with ministers and leaders of states.
As often happens, business relationships often developed into personal ones. For example, so it happened with Muammar Gaddafi, with whom we played live chess while the Western coalition bombed Libya. I hoped that broadcast would help the world realize that the Libyan leader is an intelligent and reasonable person and that all the differences could be resolved at the negotiating table. Unfortunately, I was wrong.
Nevertheless, I dare to think that I know Africa well enough and love this continent. I unconditionally value the people living here.
- Kirsan Nikolaevich, let's start from the end: how do you personally evaluate the results of the summit?
- Definitely, it was a tremendous success. More than one and a half thousand business meetings took place at the summit venues; over 50 agreements worth more than 800 billion roubles were signed between Russia and African countries, which equals to about $ 12.5 billion. In his speech at the plenary meeting, President Putin drew the attention of the forum participants that in five years our mutual turnover has grown five-fold and exceeded $ 20 billion a year. However, 7.7 billion are the trade with Egypt. Therefore, the reserve for the growth of economic cooperation is huge, and the 12.5 billion announced at the summit is only the first step towards developing this reserve.

- This reminds me of another figure announced by the president: $ 20 billion written off by Russia to African debtors. Some, so to speak, “experts” hastened to conclude that Russia, in pursuit of imaginary authority, falls into the same trap as the USSR by buying its allies in Africa.
- Some media outlets made completely incorrect conclusions from this message. In fact, we are talking about debts made in the previous 20-25 years. These are the loans that at one time the leaders of the USSR made for ideological reasons and often without any clear guarantees of repayment. In essence, these are bad debts, which no one was going to repay. However, this gesture has not only a financial meaning, but it is also a successful PR move. The fact is that once G8, which at that time included Russia; decided to promote the economic development of Africa by writing off debts of the poorest countries of the continent. Despite the fact that we left G8, Russia continues to fulfil its obligations.
At the same time, the widespread belief that the Soviet Union helped African countries solely to the detriment of its own economy and its own people is not true. It is no coincidence that at the times of perestroika Russia began to give up its positions on Africa; and that’s when pragmatic China quickly began to occupy them.
- Yes, according to experts, the growing Chinese industry needs the natural resources of the African continent.
- According to recent estimates, almost half of the world's minerals are concentrated in Africa. More importantly, for a number of positions - manganese ores, chromates, bauxites, gold, platinum, cobalt, vanadium, diamonds and fluorite - the African continent has the largest proven reserves.
Despite the fact that African countries receive a minimum of profit from the exploitation of these wealth, the pace of their economic development is second only to the countries of East Asia. According to IMF forecasts, over the next decade, the economies of sub-Saharan Africa will grow by more than 6 percent per year. It is the fastest growing region in the world. Not without reason, in his speech, President Putin recalled that Africa is becoming one of the centres of global economic growth. Accordingly, the African market is growing, and Chinese do not intend to miss the opportunity.
In addition, the world is rapidly aging. Meanwhile, despite all the talk about the development of artificial intelligence, the introduction of automation of technological processes and general robotics, a man will remain for a long time the main driving force of industrial production. African countries, according to forecasts, will provide 65% of the growth of the world labour market after 2050.
So the struggle for Africa is not only a simple competition for access to minerals, it is, literally, a struggle for the future.
- Russia's chances in this fight do not look very impressive. Not to mention the USA and the countries of Europe, which, it seems, are not going to give up their old and strong positions in Africa, China alone has invested more than $ 120 billion in the continent’s economy in recent years and intends to invest further. How to compete with this golden waterfall?
- Firstly, all money is different. Not all the money is good, as they say. UN experts, analysing the results of "technical assistance" provided to African countries in the 1960-1980s, came to the paradoxical conclusion: it was not only effective, but also harmful in some cases, hindering the economic development of these countries.
Today the situation has not improved: Western investment in Africa provides such conditions that African companies operating in the same sectors as their western counterparts find themselves in worse conditions. As a result, the African economy remains at the same level as forty years ago, and the growth that I mentioned above is offset by population growth.
Unfortunately, China in its pragmatism, in fact, repeats the Western experience of working with African countries. Of course, Chinese business is investing heavily in the African economy, and even in Africa itself, according to some reports, at least a million Chinese live and work. But the naive approach of local authorities to Chinese loans, the inability to calculate the risks and, ultimately, the inability to repay them, often makes some countries to force entire industries under Chinese control. For example, Zambia, which has borrowed from China about 12 billion dollars (despite the fact that its own GDP does not exceed 25 billion), transferred the railway, the country's largest power station and the main television channel to the Chinese companies. Therefore, Western countries are not so worried about China’s activity in the region: it plays according to the rules they understand.
- At the same time, the Sochi summit caused serious concern in the West. Why?
- Vladimir Putin in his speech invited African countries to change the "rules of the game." Not loans provided with enslaving conditions and not even investments but equal partnership with full cooperation. We must not forget that not everything is measured in money. Russia is ready not only to finance some joint projects with a subsequent profit sharing, but also to provide equipment, technologies, and train specialists. The latter is especially important, because the number of people in African countries is growing, and the quality of life of people remains low.
And we have rich experience of such cooperation, laid down in Soviet times. The Patrice Lumumba University alone has released thousands of professionals who today work in many African countries. It is this army of influence that has so far ensured the traditional interest of African countries in Russia, and this resource, of course, must be developed and used.
The “battle for Africa” will be won not by the one who floods the continent with money, but the one who manages to win the minds and hearts of Africans. It seems to me that people in the West do not really understand this, and therefore they are afraid.
“Why have we still not taken advantage of this situation?”
- But we have! A number of Russian companies, mainly, of course, resource-oriented, have long been conducting projects in Angola, Guinea, and South Africa with good results. But this is a drop in the ocean. It is clear that it is not the state that should develop economic cooperation but business circles. Business, unfortunately, often approaches a promising idea from its own rather narrow point of view. Meanwhile, Africa, as perhaps no other economic region, requires knowledge and consideration of many local traditions, customs and other nuances. Well, not every Russian businessman can understand that the prime minister of an African country, before giving a green light to a mutually seemingly beneficial project, will go to a shaman or to a head of a local secret society for advice. And if he says “no”, it means that the spirits t. And that’s it. No persuading can move it from a dead point.
And that’s when the state represented by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs could provide all possible assistance to business.
On the other hand, not only the state, but also a society interested in promoting Russian interests in Africa, is ready to contribute. To this end, the International Agency for Sovereign Development, a non-governmental organization, where I am a consultant, has been created. Our goal is to help Russian and African businessmen understand each other, to assist African countries in attracting Russian partners and, ultimately, to develop the very full partnership that Vladimir Putin spoke about at the summit.

Dmitry Lanskoy