Russia In Africa: An Alternative To China's Investment Monopoly?

The Soviet Union once held vast political and economic influence in Africa. Today, Russians see major opportunities there, but some fear that China may have already won the race to conquer the continent's vast natural resources and economic poten

Gold is just one of Africa's natural resources that grabs investor attention (Grassroots Group)
Gold is just one of Africa's natural resources that grabs investor attention (Grassroots Group)

ADDIS ABABA -- The Soviet Union was once a major economic and political power in Africa. But when the empire fell, so did Moscow's political and economic influence on the continent. Today, the region is growing, but is increasingly dominated by Chinese companies, businessmen and, some worry, Chinese interests.

Africans are looking to Russia for an alternative, in an attempt to divide their eggs into at least two baskets. A Russia-Africa business forum, which opened last week, in Addis Ababa, was a first step toward a major new initiative of Russian investment across the continent.

"In the 1990s, Russia gave up practically all of its interests, freeing up the territory for the United States, the European Union and China," said Mikhail Margelov, a Russian presidential representative. "In 1992, Russia closed nine embassies in Sub-Saharan Africa. The new economy led to strategic losses, and now we need to make up for them."

The idea to gather Russian and African businessmen in Africa's diplomatic capital (Addis Ababa is home to both the United Nation's economic commission and the African Union headquarters) came from Ethiopian Prime Minister, Meles Zenawi, who suggested the idea to Margelov at the statehood ceremony for South Sudan last June.

In total, Addis Ababa managed to gather 250 African businessmen, as well as governmental representatives from Ethiopia, Zimbabwe, Sudan, Niger and Mali. From Russia, among those present were representatives from Gasprombank, Lukoil and the Russian Railroad Company.

At the beginning of the forum, Margelov announced that Russia plans to return to Africa in full force. Specifically, Margelov discussed the need to strengthen Russia's involvement in the construction of infrastructure, both for gas and oil exploration, as well as in projects such as train and road development. He stressed that Russia could outdo competitors in terms of quality-to-price ratios. He particularly brought attention to the Russian Railroad Companies' role in the construction of a Trans-Kalahari railroad (which is meant to connect the minefields of Botswana with the ports in Namibia), and the Central African Railroad (which would connect Congo, Chad, Niger, and the Central African Republic, providing a way to bring raw materials to ports).

Margelov also said that Russia's new involvement in Africa should include a role in the exploitation of the region's rich raw material reserves: not only in gas and oil, but in minerals lacking in Russia, such as vanadium, chromium, cobalt and uranium. Margelov stressed that Russians would acquire African minerals for fair, reasonable prices.

In spite of the wide interest in African projects, when we spoke with various members of the Russian delegation, they admitted it was premature to speak of a vast Russian expansion into Africa. The first barrier, the businessmen said, are the high political risks.

A "useless' fight

The freshest, and most painful, memory for the Russian Railroad Company, for example, is the railroad that they were supposed to build between Benghazi and Sirte in Libya - a $2.2 billion project that appears now to be lost due to the civil war. A source close to the railroad company said that now that there is in-fighting between the groups that toppled Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, it is not even clear with whom to negotiate.

It is possible to manage some of the political risks with insurance, but even if a company is protected by insurance, it frequently takes several months for claims to be processed and evaluated. There is also the problem with finding appropriate credit.

"In natural resource mining, it is possible to recoup costs relatively quickly, but for equipment exports we need a longer credit line, which often presents a problem," said one representative at the forum.

But the most important problem that the Russians discussed was the competition with China. "It is useless to fight with the Chinese," said a Russian diplomat working in Africa. "They give Africa colossal amounts of credit on very good terms, and at the end of an important contract, they always give a gift - free construction of schools and hospitals," he continued.

The truth in his words was evident right there in Addis Ababa : China is building a new headquarters for the African Union as a gift, and the Sheraton Hotel, where the forum was held, was built by Chinese businessmen. China did $126.9 billion worth of business in Africa last year, while Russia did only $3.7 billion.

On the other hand, Africa's dependance on China could also wind up being Russia's advantage. Many of the continent's countries are already talking about Chinese "colonialism," and are looking for partners from other countries to decrease their dependence on Beijing.

That may be why the countries that sent representatives to the forum are also those countries where China is the only source of financing for major projects. For example, Niger's mining minister tried to get Russians interested in the country's gas mines, where up to now the Chinese have invested heavily. Many African participants in the forum said, over and over again, that they are looking forward to Russian investment, because Russia does not have a colonial history, and they are not "like the Chinese." But they declined to share their name or the company they work for: As much as the Chinese might be unloved, they are still the most important clients and the main source of credit for these African businesses.

Read the original article in Russian

Photo - grassroots group

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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