The Arab Spring and its Impact on the Situation in Africa and Russian-U.S. Bilateral Cooperation in the Region

By
Amy Liedy

“Russian-American cooperation in Africa in the last four years represents one segment of the ‘reset,’” according to Mikhail Margelov, Chairman, Committee for Foreign Affairs, Federation Council of the Federal Assembly of the Russian Federation, and Special Representative of the President of the Russian Federation on Cooperation with African Countries. Margelov spoke at a 7 November 2011 Kennan Institute event, where he addressed the current political situations in various countries throughout the Middle East in relation to Russian-American relations.

For the United States and Russia, cooperating in Africa is less politically-contentious than other regions of the world in which the two states interact. However, this was not always the case. “Africa was a battlefield during the Cold War where western systems were competing with eastern systems,” Margelov explained. While some initiatives had positive impacts that created industry and promoted education, both countries also fostered conflicts in the region based on their own political agendas. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, both the United States and Russia have neglected the region, leaving the field to international organizations. “At the end of the 20th century, we can see a very colorful presence of international intervention and international presence on the continent,” according to Margelov, who asserted that international intervention ultimately did not help Africa overall.

A common aspect of the events across the Middle East and North Africa is the Russian and American visions for the region, Margelov argued. For example, the situation in Sudan in 2008 appeared to be a grave problem, according to the speaker. The frozen conflict between North and South Sudan, the genocide in Darfur, and a lack of common consensus between the permanent member-states of the U.N. Security Council on how to resolve the situation stalled progress in the region. However, Margelov cited that during the two years of meetings of the U.N. Security Council, the members managed to bring the issue of Sudan to the level of Russian-U.S. bilateral relations, which resulted in the peaceful separation of South Sudan in 2009; the recognition of that country as an independent state in 2011; and the signing of the Darfur Peace Agreement in Qatar in that year. The speaker also noted that there are Russian representatives observing in almost every U.N. peacekeeping mission in Africa. 

Margelov highlighted the recent political events that transpired across the Middle East and North Africa. For example, Tunisia, one of the most westernized, liberal countries in the region, had been a very stable country before the January 2011 oust of President Ben Ali. Moreover, the uprising was relatively peaceful; “the political elite of Tunisia managed to grab the situation,” as Margelov described. The Tunisian army played a stabilizing role in the transition of power, Ben Ali left the country, and the recent elections in Tunisia were free and fair. By contrast, Egypt’s recent uprisings presented a much more complicated political situation. The army managed to also play a stabilizing role, but in Egypt, the situation is more difficult due to issues related to the Egyptian-Israeli border, as well as the Muslim Brotherhood’s influence in Egyptian political culture. Margelov added that the situation could change rapidly with the nation’s parliamentary elections.

The most dramatic events of the Arab Spring happened in Libya, the speaker argued. Russia’s involvement included a request for President Dmitry Medvedev to find a solution for the Libyan conflict at the 2011 G8 meeting in Deauville, whereupon Margelov was sent to Benghazi to speak with representatives of the National Transitional Council and the African Union. Colonel Gadhafi was not receptive to international efforts, according to Margelov: he wasn’t just fighting against his people, but the realities of the outside world. The ongoing process of the formation of the new government in Libya faces many challenges: there are a number of competing groups (several of which are armed) in the Libyan opposition that are challenging the National Transitional Council and the new prime minister, including tribal leaders once loyal to Gadhafi. The interim Libyan government is very fragile right now; officials are emphasizing the roles of groups in Benghazi and Tripoli, while ignoring many other political factions in the country. Nonetheless, “Russia is still involved in the international efforts in Libya,” the speaker emphasized.

Margelov cited that many questions are being asked as of late about Russia’s veto of a recent United Nations Security Council resolution condemning the Syrian government’s crackdown on its own citizens, and which would authorize the international community to intervene militarily if the turmoil continues. Despite the country’s veto, however, Russia still recognized that that the status quo in Syria was unacceptable. Infrastructural reforms, not continued violence from a multinational military intervention in the region, are needed to stabilize the Syrian government, which Margelov said the Russian government will be monitoring closely.

Margelov emphasized that the Arab Spring taught the international community not to make the same mistakes of the past; the rest of the world previously neglected problems in Africa, and now needs to think about a real development plan for the continent—as well as about the oversight of the progress of development, and the proper use of funds. Furthermore, the Western world was once solely focused on the Arab-Israeli conflict, but the political landscape has changed rapidly in the region, which will challenge the international community to work together in new ways toward an uncertain future. Finally, also competing in the Arab world are Turkey and Iran, whose diplomatic overtures require close attention as well.

“The international community has already encountered some of the consequences of the Arab Spring,” Margelov noted, adding that they “include not only the region of North Africa and the Middle East, but also Sub-Saharan Africa. It is here that the interests of many countries, including the United States and Russia, intersect. Close cooperation is required to achieve stability in this region, even if our countries have different approaches to solving this problem.” Russia and the United States are in a position to make compromises, Margelov added, and in fact are forced to cooperate in such areas as energy, regional stability, non-conventional and nuclear weapons, and the war against international terrorism. In other words, concluded Margelov, “the cooperation between our countries in the greater Middle East is essentially the regional application of these global trends.”

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