Concerns about Russian activities across Africa have been growing for some time, and new revelations about the Kremlin’s alleged efforts to interfere in the most recent presidential election in Madagascar have lifted the veil on what looks like a concerted campaign to expand Moscow’s influence by a variety of means.
As outlined in a BBC documentarylast month, in addition to investigative reporting by The Project, an independent Russian journalism collective, these efforts have been spearheaded by Yegveny Prigozhin, a Russian oligarch close to President Vladimir Putin who is known as “Putin’s Chef.” Prigozhin rose to prominence after he was indicted by Special Counsel Robert Mueller as part of his investigation into Russia’s interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Prigozhin had set up the troll factory known as the Internet Research Agency that waged “information warfare against the United States” through a sophisticated disinformation campaign to boost Donald Trump’s candidacy, according to Mueller’s indictment. Prigozhin extended these efforts to Africa, establishing a center to handle all of Russia’s influence projects on the continent after apparently selling Russian President Vladimir Putin on the idea.
Russia’s interests in Africa are simultaneously strategic, economic and diplomatic. The continent is rich in mineral wealth. Madagascar, in particular, holds vast reserves of uranium, nickel and cobalt. African countries present the potential for many new markets during a time when Russia’s geopolitical competitors, the United States and China, are exercising their advantage. Sanctions imposed by the U.S. are crippling the Russian economy, while China’s Belt and Road Initiative is rolling out a carpet for Beijing around the world with big-ticket infrastructure projects. On the diplomatic front, specifically when it comes to the United Nations, the 54 countries in Africa represent a treasure trove of potential votes on resolutions and other matters close to Russia’s interests. But for Moscow to realize all this, it helps to have friendly governments in power.
John Bolton, the U.S. national security adviser, has accused Moscow of selling arms across Africa in exchange for votes at the U.N. that helped to keep “strongmen in power, undermine peace and security, and run counter to the best interest of the African people.” Russia is not exactly pivoting to Africa. Instead, it is widening its geographic scope of operations, seeking to expand its low-cost, high-impact strategy for international influence.
One of the key staffers in the Africa analytical center is said to be Igor Osadchy, a top figure in the Internet Research Agency. According to The Project’s reporting, Prigozhin is spearheading a push to develop influence over a host of nations, providing a mix of arms training, election support and security ties in exchange for benefits such as mining rights, business opportunities and diplomatic support in countries including Congo, Sudan, Guinea, Guinea-Bisseau, Mozambique, Zimbabwe and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Russia continues to intensify its push for stronger relations across Africa and expects its investment in Madagascar will pay off.
It is unclear how well all these African operations have fared for the Kremlin. And they have their dark sides: Observers have pointed with concern to the killing of three Russian journalists last year in the Central Africa Republic, who were investigating Russian mercenaries from the Wagner Group, a private Russian military contractor with ties to an associate of Putin.
Although its effort to influence Madagascar’s presidential election late last year appears to have faltered, the operation itself shows the extent of Russian meddling. Prigozhin reportedly sent more than a dozen Russia operatives to Madagascar in early 2018. They entered the country as tourists and spent almost a year there trying to manipulate the election. Their initial objective was to help President Hery Rajaonarimampianina win reelection. When he performed dismally in the first round, the Russians switched their support to Andry Rajoelina, who won the presidency. Rajoelina is not a controversial figure and already enjoyed international support, including from the United States.
Whatever the outcome, it seems clear Moscow used illegal methods in its efforts. At least two of the candidates who worked with the Russians have now spoken out publicly to the BBC. Former Prime Minister Jean-Omer Beriziky said he worked with Russian political strategist Maxim Shugalei, in exchange for an offer of some $2 million. When it became clear Russia’s favorite would not win, Beriziky was instructed to support Rajoelina. Another candidate, Andre Mailhol, named three Russians with whom he worked, detailing a series of payments they made to finance his campaign. He ended up in 24th place. Both Beriziky and Mailhol said their Russian advisers told them to stop their campaign when Rajoelina became the front-runner; they told the BBC that they refused. Mailhol said he was told by one of the Russians that Moscow was working with eight or nine candidates, and that whichever one of them rose to the top should receive the support of all the others. According to the BBC, Russia worked with six of Madagascar’s 35 presidential candidates.
Since the election, authorities in Madagascar have expelled several of the Russian operatives who were named by the local politicians. Three of them were thrown out for their involvement in an unauthorized demonstration against France, others because they were not allowed to work after entering the country as tourists.
What impact, if any, the Madagascar operation will have on bilateral relations remains to be seen. Rajoelina, who took office as president in January, has refused to say if he received any campaign assistance from the Russians, and maintains that he works for the people of Madagascar, not for Moscow.
But Russia continues to intensify its push for stronger relations across Africa and expects its investment in Madagascar will pay off. The moment to watch will come in October, when Putin will host a Russia-Africa summit in the Black Sea resort of Sochi. Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said the event will solidify “Russia’s active presence in the region.” The Russian news agency Sputnik has reported that Rajoelina, looking at ways to increase Madagascar’s security cooperation with Moscow, plans to attend.