Education And Culture: Russia’s Tools To Enter Africa (Again)

The Western-led encirclement has been pushing Russia to open a revolutionary season of foreign policy changes based on the deepening of the so-called counterbalancing doctrine, including the much-feared partnership with China, the greater protagonism in the Middle East, the opening of new energy routes crossing Asian markets, and the renewed interventionism in Latin America.

On the background of these events, Russia silently joined the world-great powers in the new Scramble for Africa following the footsteps of the Soviet Union. Indeed, the strategy that the Kremlin is being used to challenge Western and Chinese spheres of influences in the continent is a revival of the Soviet-era model which combined economic and military cooperation, anti-imperialist rhetoric and cultural contamination.

Students: The Leaders of Tomorrow

According to a speech delivered at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations in early September by the Russian Foreign Affairs Minister, Sergey Lavrov, currently roughly 15,000 Africans are studying in the country and about one-third of them receive Russian-funded scholarships. Lavrov was stressing the importance of resuming the Soviet-era strategy for Africa based on the combination of military, economic and cultural ties and he has a point, undoubtedly.

Indeed, the Soviet expansion in the Dark Continent during and after the decolonization era was made possible partly because of the appeal exerted by Communism on several political leaders and thousands of poor people. That fascination was spread also by Russian-based high-level institutions such as the Peoples’ Friendship University, which was founded in 1960 explicitly to provide education to Third World students.

Now that the world is increasingly divided and Russia is encircled again by a newly-hostile American-led West, the Kremlin is trying to accelerate the transition to multipolarism in search for allies and partners against the Western-centric order. It is only by reading the whole context that it is possible to understand the importance of a culture-oriented strategy: just like during the Cold War, student and worker exchange programs might be the key to spread Russian-friendly attitudes, feelings and ideas, across the continent.

In the recent years, the Education Ministry and the Foreign Affairs Office have worked closely to raise quotas and scholarships destined to African students mainly from English- and Portuguese-speaking countries like Angola, Mozambique, Ghana, South Africa and Nigeria. The efforts proved successful: in 2010 some 6,700 Africans were studying in Russian universities, in 2018 they were 15,000 – a 130% increase.

According to Professor Irina Abramova, who is one of the minds behind the Russia-Africa Summit, the goal is to increase the number of African students by 12% annually to reach and surpass the Soviet-era outcomes. The Education Ministry has already set up an action plan and expects to achieve the target by 2024 or 2025.

The strategy is likely to work: Russia’s image is widely positive in the continent, mainly due to the Soviet legacy, and the country’s moves in are wisely designed not to resemble Western imperialism and keep stressing the historic support provided by Moscow to the decolonization movements. Today’s students could be tomorrow’s leaders, it happened during the Cold war and it may occur again, this is the Kremlin’s hope.

Waiting For The First Russia-Africa Summit

Sochi will host the first edition of the Russia-Africa Summit on 23 and 24 October. The event is set to attract top-level delegations from more than 40 countries and around 3,000 African businesspeople to discuss the upgrading of bilateral relations between the Russian world and the Dark Continent.

The two-day summit will be co-chaired by Russian president Vladimir Putin and his Egyptian counterpart Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, and it is the most important event of this kind ever conceived by the Kremlin’s Africa-watchers. Undoubtedly, the agenda is going to be monopolized mainly by political, economic, military and energy talks, but education and culture have been reserved a special space.

Russia and ten other countries are to sign four separate agreements that will upgrade educational cooperation through the mutual recognition of study titles, scientific collaboration, and high-skilled worker exchange programs aiming at training African specialists in Russia. Other countries are to sign memoranda of cooperation dealing with high-level education.

But the most important outcome is likely to be the signing of a strategic framework document between the Russian government and the African Union, which is set to deal with the Agenda 2063, the Continental Education Strategy for Africa 2016-2025, the Continental Strategy for Technical and Vocational Education and Training, and the Science, Technology and Innovation Strategy for Africa 2024.

Furthermore, Irina Abramova urged to forge a media cooperation to improve Russia’s image in Africa by making the population aware of the country’s positive actions in the continent. Her idea gained support from other nationwide academics and may be discussed at the summit by taking the form of an international media channel dedicated to Russia-Africa relations modelled on the successful experience of Russia Today and Sputnik.