Understandably more than three decades after the Soviet collapse, Russia has few well-trained multipolar-oriented specialists and professionals to work seriously on its diverse policy goals in Africa.
As simple as the narratives in several reports, Russians have bitterly complained of an acute shortage of policy leaders with the necessary adequate knowledge and expertise who could advance efforts at directing, coordinating and monitoring purpose-driven action plans and deliver impact at a scale expected in Africa.
With the rapidly-evolving multipolar world, the increasing competitiveness for influence and the need to reinforce cooperation between the government and business sectors, Russia has to focus on its agenda and take suitable strategies for implementing policy-set goals in Africa. Perhaps now, Russians are acknowledging their existing weaknesses. Complaints of inadequate professional staff in several reports could be interpreted as poor performance and as a cover-up for its policy pitfalls in Africa.
On the other hand, Russia has so many reputable educational institutions graduating thousands of candidates yearly. The Russian Diplomatic Academy, Moscow State University’s Institute of Oriental and African Studies, Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO), Russian University of Peoples’ Friendship, St. Petersburg State University, the Institute for African Studies, et cetera. Suppose Russian officials still maintain there is a lack of professionals. In that case, it must be due to poor planning, poor vision and poor coordinating efforts between state institutions of government and educational centres, as pointed out in a policy report in November 2021.
That report, titled – ‘Situation Analytical Report’ – was prepared by 25 policy experts headed by Professor Sergei A. Karaganov, Dean and Academic Supervisor of the Faculty of World Economy and International Relations of the National Research University’s Higher School of Economics (HSE University). Karaganov is also the Honorary Chairman of the Presidium of the Council on Foreign and Defence Policy.
The report was very critical of Russia’s current policy towards Africa. It indicated inconsistency in policy implementation and further underlined the fact that has been few definitive results from various efforts in dealing with African countries. It says in part: “Apart from the absence of a public strategy for the continent, there is a shortage of qualified personnel, the lack of coordination among various state and para-state institutions working with Africa.”
Last December, Interfax News Agency reported that the Russian Science and Higher Education Ministry was preparing new educational programmes for developing countries within the context of the emerging multipolar world. Since the Soviet collapse, Russia has trained graduates and professionals for the past three decades in many of its institutes and universities in the Russian Federation.
“The challenge is the transformation of the system of international relations and the re-focusing of educational and scientific flows to the East and the South. We realize that this turn requires a substantial number of competent professionals, so we are preparing a new educational and scientific programme called Oriental and African Studies,” Russian Science and Higher Education Minister Valery Falkov said during Government Hour in the Federation Council.
“We need specialists who are not just fluent in languages of the regions and have a profound knowledge of their history and culture but who are also proficient in economic and geopolitical matters,” he said at the Federation Council, the Upper Chamber of Parliament.
Russian International Affairs Council, a non-government organization and policy think tank, also published an opinion article authored by Kirill Babaev, Director of the Institute of Far Eastern Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, Professor at the Financial University. He made an excellent analysis of the relations between Russia and Africa.
The article highlighted future perspectives and successes in building political dialogues during the previous years. On the other hand, he exposes for serious consideration by authorities some existing obstacles and weaknesses.
He wrote that Russia’s return to Africa had been discussed in the media and at various levels of power for two decades. That the African elites, especially those who studied at Soviet institutes and universities, still have memories of the struggle for the political freedom of Africa. During the Soviet times, at the height of fighting against Western colonialism, there were economic offerings of the Soviet era.
However, all these cards are a matter of the past, while in the present, it has been difficult for Russia to offer Africa anything of value that could compete with large-scale Western investment or Chinese infrastructure projects, he wrote in his article.
Today the situation has changed radically, according to his assessment. He pointed out the challenges Russia faces, one of them being “an immense lack of personnel for successful work in Africa”, and further suggested the necessity of putting together a distinctive group of experienced professionals and specialists to work on practical, consistent and effective policy challenges as well as geopolitical tasks with African countries.
In an insightful long-ranging conversation in April 2022, the newly appointed Rector of the Peoples’ Friendship University of Russia, Oleg Yastrebov, told me that his university was established back in 1960; it primarily provided higher education to Third World students during the Soviet days. Many students, especially from developing countries, still come to this popular university from Latin America, Asia and Africa. It is Russia’s most multidisciplinary university, which boasts the largest number of foreign students and offers various academic disciplines.
Without mincing words, the youth is the future. The whole development and technological progress depend on them – the present young generation learning to become professional leaders in various fields and get equipped with the necessary skills that help them to acquire the knowledge of communication internationally.
“We are the most international, the most multidisciplinary and the friendliest university in Russia. It has the strongest language school. By studying languages, students receive an extra diploma as a translator. A student can choose from 12 foreign languages to study: European, Oriental or Russian as a foreign language,” he told me authoritatively.
He unreservedly argued that the university staff and academic teams provide the necessary knowledge and cutting-edge skills for young aspiring leaders from 160 countries, and that makes the university first-class among many others in the Russian Federation. The countries include those in Europe, Asia and the Middle East, Africa and Latin America.
The Institute for African Studies under the Russian Academy of Sciences was founded in 1959. Since then, it has undergone various changes and carried out huge scientific research on Africa. It has nearly a hundred staff including well-experienced researchers, academic fellows and specialists on various African issues and directions.
Professor Dmitri Bondarenko, Deputy Director of the Institute for African Studies (IAS), told me during discussions, just before the first Russia-Africa summit and precisely the 60th anniversary of the IAS, that state institutions and business companies seek the Institute’s consultancy services more and more often nowadays. In particular, the Institute played an important role in the preparation of the first Russia-Africa summit held in October 2019.
“The situation has been changing during the last few years. Today the importance of Africa for Russia in different respects, including political and economic, is recognized by the state, and the Russian Foreign Ministry and other state institutions dealing with Russia-African relations in various spheres, ask us for our expert advice on different points quite often,” said Bondarenko.
According to him, the situation now is much better for African studies than for a long time before. In particular, today, there are much more opportunities for doing fieldwork in Africa. Russian Africanists and their work are becoming better known in the global Africanist community. Quite a lot of junior researchers join the academy nowadays. In an assessment, African studies in Russia are on the right road to broadening international cooperation with Africanists worldwide.
Unlike the United States and Europe, Russia has poor relations with its trained African professionals and African specialists who graduated from Soviet and Russian educational establishments. Without a doubt, some of them could serve as bridges between Russia and Africa. Why not? At the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit, there was an explicit indication to engage African professionals in the entire structure in the process of re-setting relations and moving it to the next stage. That is an irreversibly strong positive step.
Are Russia-Africa relations truly based on long-standing traditions of friendship and solidarity created by the Soviet Union? Is forging closer relations within their agreed framework to continue coordinating positions on platforms? Why are Russians complaining? Have they already trashed the joint declaration adopted, after the first summit, on the key areas of Russian-African cooperation or will it be considered only as an important historical document in the State Archival Library of Vladimir Lenin?
The accelerated development of human resource potential is inextricably linked to economic development. The 21st century has heralded the rise of the knowledge economy, and Russia really needs people who will be able to make vital contributions to tackling social and economic challenges facing Africa. Of course, the Soviet Union made an invaluable contribution to developing the scientific and educational potential of a number of African countries.
Obviously, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has reminded several times that Africa is Russia’s priority, especially during this emerging democratic polycentric world order. There should have been well-coordinated efforts toward working with graduates trained in Russian institutions and an integrated manner of working closely with African specialists in opening up practically a new page in the history of Russia’s relations with Africa.