The Ideology of Russia’s Return to Africa, Zimbabwean President’s Visit to Moscow

EBE 14 Moskva - Na snímke vľavo zimbabwiansky prezident Emmerson Mnangagwa a vpravo ruský prezident Vladimir Putin počas stretnutia v Moskve v Rusku 15. januára 2019. FOTO TASR/AP Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, and Zimbabwe's President Emmerson Dambudzo Mnangagwa talk during their meeting in Moscow, Russia, Tuesday, Jan. 15, 2019. (Sergei Chirikov/Pool Photo via AP)

The year 2019 can be described, with good reason, as the Year of Africa in Russian foreign policy. The first full-scale Russia-Africa Summit has been planned for the summer. It will be accompanied by a business forum and a meeting of civil society and NGOs and it is expected to bolster youth and university cooperation.

These plans, if they are implemented, will signify Russia’s return to Africa. Russia’s involvement in international African development programs plummeted after the disintegration of the Soviet Union. We must now make up for lost time.

It is clear that Russia will have to look for a niche in a very busy market. Since Russia pulled out of Africa, Western countries as well as China have greatly strengthened their positions there. China has initiated major infrastructure projects, the construction of railways and port modernization and has been holding regular China-Africa cooperation summits. Therefore, to succeed, Russia’s new strategy of involvement in Africa must offer some added political, economic and cultural value to the programs underway on the continent. This might be a project that competes with another or one that will converge with something already in existence. Russia’s experience of alignment with Chinese projects in Greater Eurasia shows that it can also act likewise in Africa.

On the other hand, Russia’s return to Africa must be based not only on ideology, as was the case during the Soviet era, but it should also be economically beneficial for both sides. The Russian authorities must also take into account public concern over any involvement in Africa as a donor with purely geopolitical goals in mind, as the Soviet Union did. They must ensure that the current as well as the future investments in Africa are profitable plus reliably protected. Therefore, Russia’s Africa strategy must focus on dialogue with the society and on the active involvement of civic actors directly in Africa and also in Russia, where they should promote positive public views on Africa and Russian projects there.

The example of Africa is also important as an additional argument in the context of the ongoing public discussion on Russia’s relations with its partners from the post-Soviet republics. Should Russia provide donor assistance for political purposes? Do its partners/recipients support Russia politically? Can we rely on them in this sense, or should Russia’s partner policy be based exclusively on the principles of economic expediency? These questions will arise as soon as Russia starts implementing its Africa strategy. The experience of interaction between civil society and the authorities in Eurasia and of shaping public opinion can and must be used in Africa.

In light of the Year of Africa, it is symbolic that the first foreign leader to visit Russia in 2019 was the President of Zimbabwe Emmerson Mnangagwa, who came to Moscow on January 14-15. His talks with President Vladimir Putin and his other meetings in Moscow focused on economic cooperation. The sides signed agreements on cooperation in mining and the extraction of precious metals and stones, the chemical sector, as well as finance and investment.

The Zimbabwean president’s visit was not limited only to economic matters. The partners also discussed political ideology and values. I wrote about the processes in this sphere during the 2017 crisis in Zimbabwe. Of particular interest in terms of ideology and political alternatives is the development of the leftist liberational and anti-imperialist discourse in Zimbabwe. Under President Robert Mugabe, this discourse went beyond the national borders and became important also for the African political ideology as a whole. It is important to understand this in order to successfully implement Russia’s new Africa strategy, because its effectiveness will largely depend on the ability to speak in tune with the African leaders and to take into account their political concepts and values.

By the way, China has succeeded in Africa because it accepts this leftist liberational discourse (not to be confused with left-liberal discourse), which reflects the values of the Communist Party of China. In terms of ideology, China and Africa initially spoke the same language and did so absolutely sincerely, and this common spirit is now taking the shape of political and economic projects. Russia will have to pay a lot of attention to this if it wants to succeed in Africa.

Therefore, the development of this leftist liberational ideology in Zimbabwe after the change of government and the election of Emmerson Mnangagwa as President of Zimbabwe is not only very important but interesting as well. During his visit to Russia, President Mnangagwa spoke about this during his long address he delivered at MGIMO University.

The Zimbabwean President pointed out the value of the Soviet historical heritage for the liberation movement in Africa. He noted that “Russia as a nation was the cradle of the struggle against imperialism and colonialism … who stood with the entire African continent in our quest for political emancipation and independence from colonial oppression.”

Emmerson Mnangagwa went on to speak about the main part of his country’s political ideology, which boils down to the restitution of land to the indigenous people as well as its role in the history of Zimbabwe: “The liberation struggle has been anchored in the restitution of land to the indigenous people from foreign settlers who had brutally taken it away.”

The Zimbabwean leader said the following about the imperialist nature of the Western sanctions slapped on his country following the land reform of the early 2000s: “Zimbabwe was considered for international punishment in 2008 by those who five years earlier had invaded Iraq under false pretenses. Hegemonic powers sought to reward each other for their international adventurism.” He emphasized the importance of Russia’s solidary stand at that period. In 2008, Russia and China vetoed the draft decision of the UN Security Council on sanctions against Zimbabwe under Chapter VII of the UN Charter. “For us in Zimbabwe, you have consistently stood by us even in our darkest years of isolation, vilification and nefarious machinations of some Western countries,” Emmerson Mnangagwa pointed out.

He then went on to speak about his actions in the sphere of political ideology. He said that the land reform was completed and that the country now faced the goals of modernization, foreign investment and new openness. The main concept formulated in the first year of Mnangagwa’s presidency, The New Dispensation, can be interpreted as new openness or a new thaw.

It took a practical shape in the country’s new foreign economic and investment policies. The official message, “Zimbabwe is open for business,” includes the “policy of engagement and re-engagement” aimed at re-integrating Zimbabwe into the family of nations and involves the amendment of the national legislation. The new authorities have lifted foreign ownership restrictions by amending the ideologically saturated Indigenization and Empowerment Act. A transitional stabilization program has been launched to stabilize the macroeconomy and the financial sector. Its declared goal is to transform the Zimbabwean economy to a middle income status by 2030 (Vision 2030).

Emmerson Mnangagwa laid special emphasis on the political aspects of his policy. He said the following: “We continue to entrench constitutionalism and democratic values, always guided and informed, however, by our national ethos, national interest and liberation war heritage.” This belief that democracy can be combined with national traditions and that the Western models of democracy are not universal is very similar to Russia’s concept of “sovereign democracy.”

Speaking about the progress taking place in Africa as a whole, President Mnangagwa noted that “Zimbabwe rejects the stereotype narrative that Africa is fragile and in perpetual conflict” and pointed out the effectiveness of the peacekeeping and regulatory initiatives of the African Union.

Overall, the President of Zimbabwe confirmed his country’s leftist liberational values and also presented its new openness as a pledge for its upcoming modernization. This is the logic of the current political ideology of the other African countries as well.

Speaking about Russia’s new Africa strategy, it should be said that its effectiveness depends on the acceptance of the pro-modernization trend of the leftist liberational discourse. Unlike China, Russia has abandoned the Communist ideologemes and the leftist discourse is no longer dominating Russia’s policy. It can be adjusted to the African and other external conditions. A case in point is the World Festival of Youth and Students held in Russia in the fall of 2017. Its traditional organizer, the World Federation of Democratic Youth, is known for its leftist liberational and anti-imperialist views. By hosting this festival, Russia could take a new look at the conjunction of this discourse and these values with Russia’s modern political values. Another example is the elements of leftist liberational discourse in the ideology of BRICS as sealed in the final statements adopted at its summit meetings. Anyway, positioning Russia as an attractive alternative to the West calls for formulating an effective response to the leftist liberational discourse in the developing world and possibly for moving beyond the framework of rightist alternatives to the neo-liberal Western mainstream, which would be more natural for modern Russia than for China. – Valdi Discussion Club