Adlene Mohammedi, strategic research officer for AESMA and author of a thesis on the Arab politics of post-Soviet Russia
On September 29, 2020, a few days before the visit of the then U.S. Secretary of Defence Mark Esper, the director of the Russian federal service of technical-military cooperation visited Algiers. Dimitri Shugaev was received by the Chief of Staff of the Algerian Army, Said Shengriha, and together they discussed the state of military cooperation between both countries. If military cooperation is central to relations between Moscow and Algiers, while economic relations are developing quite discreetly, the two countries share common priorities and representations.
Vladimir Putin slowed down a little to take an interest in the Middle East and North Africa after he was elected as President of the Russian Federation in 2000. His first term (2000-2004) was more focused on the United States and Europe, and he only began his diplomatic campaign in the Arab world during his second term (2004-2008). He went to Algiers in March 2006, and was replaced by his ephemeral successor, Dmitri Medvedev, who visited the Algerian capital in October 2010. Even before Russian diplomatic efforts towards the Arab world from the second half of the decade 2000, Abdelaziz Bouteflika – then the new Algerian President – went to Moscow to sign a declaration of strategic partnership and an agreement between both Ministries of Defence in 2001.
Vladimir Putin’s visit to Algiers in 2006 is even more significant as it takes place some thirty years after the last visit of a Soviet leader. The origins of Russian-Algerian relations stem from the Soviet era, even if the Soviet Union first showed caution in the aftermath of Algerian independence in 1962. Nikita Khrushchev is said to have declared to the first president of independent Algeria Ahmed Ben Bella: “We cannot support two Cuba; you have a good partner, General de Gaulle, keep him!”. A decade later, President Houari Boumediene (who succeeded Ben Bella following the 1965 coup d’état) hosted the 4th summit of the conference of non-aligned countries in Algiers (5 September 1973), while maintaining good relations with Moscow.
These good relations are notably reflected in the delivery to Algeria of Russian military equipment in a context of tension between Algiers and Rabat. At the end of the 1970s, 90% of Algerian military equipment was of Russian origin. Algerian-Soviet relations go beyond arms deliveries. Moscow contributes to the development of the mining sector in Algeria and opens its training centres and universities to young Algerian graduates – among other African and Arab graduates. Many executives, engineers and officers of the young Algerian republic benefit from Soviet training, which is accompanied by matrimonial (mixed marriages) and cultural (language learning) connections.
Today, while the opening of Soviet universities to Arab and African students continued until the fall of the USSR, traces of this influence – in competition with French and Anglo-Saxon influence – are becoming increasingly rare. Moreover, executives trained in the Soviet Union are rarely the best-off. If we take the example of the energy sector, and more precisely the oil giant Sonatrach founded in 1963, its presidency is regularly entrusted to engineers trained in the United States (Chakib Khelil, in particular). On the other hand, executives trained in the USSR are well represented in the army staff. The current Chief of Staff, Said Chengriha, was trained at the Russian academy in Voroshilov during the 1970s. His predecessor, Ahmed Gaïd Salah (who died at the end of 2019), the strongman of Algerian power after the first months of the popular uprising (Hirak) and architect of the ousting of Abdelaziz Bouteflika, was also trained in the Soviet Union. Of all the centres of Algerian power, the army – which remains the first of them – appears to be the one where Russian influence lasts the longest. The young generation of generals is, however, less Russophile than the previous ones.
In order to grasp Russian-Algerian relations in their globality and complexity, beyond the myths about an unfailing alliance, it is necessary to look at three sectors (energy, economic and commercial, arms transfers) and two themes: common geopolitical representations and the Russian position regarding the Algerian popular uprising (Hirak).
Competition, tensions and cooperation in the energy sector
When it comes to oil, relations between Russia and Algeria are first and foremost relations between the Kremlin and OPEC. On this point, two contradictory representations coexist: on the one hand, a permanent arm wrestling, fuelled by a role attributed to OPEC in the fall of the USSR (strong production in the 1980s having favoured a fall in prices);; on the other, the spectre of Russia’s membership in this organisation. Moscow has participated in OPEC discussions since 1993 while affirming its independence; but the essential trust needed for a genuine partnership is not always there. In 2001, divergences were already visible. First, OPEC was confronted with an expanding Russian oil sector, with important investments. As the increase in production and exports weakened prices, OPEC hardened its stance with non-member producing countries. Russia nevertheless ended up agreeing to a symbolic reduction in production. With the rising price of oil, the need for cooperation was lessened between 2003 and 2007. At the end of 2008, the idea of a possible Russian membership arose, at a time when the price per barrel had fallen. Even if the discourse may have seemed ambiguous as the idea of having quotas imposed has always been a major issue from Moscow. Otherwise, OPEC considers that Russia’s falls in production are symbolic and that the organisation alone bears the burden of stabilizing prices. In 2009, faced with major budgetary problems, Russia announced a drop in production, justified by the situation of its oil industry rather than by coordination with OPEC. For Russia, as long as prices are considered “normal” (above $80 per barrel), dialogue and exchange of information is sufficient. Today, while world demand is being squeezed by the health crisis, the price per barrel is less than 50 dollars and the terms of tension between Russia and OPEC remain the same: OPEC is demanding Moscow’s collaboration to stabilize prices. Currently under Algerian presidency, OPEC is continuing its negotiations with Russia to further reduce production in order to keep prices stable.
As for gas, here again, the relations are ambiguous. Intuitively, the hypothesis of competition between Algiers and Moscow imposes itself: in a desire to escape an excessive dependence on Russia, European clients are tempted to encourage an increase of imports from Algeria. However, the hydrocarbons sector in Algeria is not doing very well, as is shown by the waltz of the presidents of Sonatrach (four in three years). Beyond the present context, between a domestic demand which is increasing and a production which remains limited, Algeria seems attracted by shale gas, including within the framework of partnerships with American companies. But with a socio-political context already marked by the distrust of the Algerian population, the exploitation of shale gas could exacerbate the current crisis. Anxious to multiply the explorations and exploit new deposits, the Algerian government has relaxed its legislation in order to attract foreign investors – European, American, but also Russian actors. For example, on May 5, 2020, the Algerian national company Sonatrach signed a protocol of agreement with the Russian company Lukoil. Nothing specific has been planned for the moment.
Finally, in the field of civil nuclear power, relations are less ambiguous. Russia makes no secret of its intention to export its expertise in this field throughout the Arab world. In 2014, an Algerian-Russian agreement was signed. It provides for the assistance of the Russian agency Rosatom to the Algerian Ministry of Energy in the development of a civil nuclear industry in Algeria. In 2016, Rosatom and the Algerian Atomic Energy Commission (COMENA) signed a declaration of intent to build Russian-designed nuclear power plants in Algeria. This bilateral cooperation, which is set to develop, has also been discussed at the International Nuclear Energy Forum of Sochi in 2018. The construction of these plants is planned for 2025-2030.
A trade balance largely favourable to Russia
In order to encourage the development of commercial exchanges between Russia and the Arab world, an agreement in 2002 between the Russian Chamber of Commerce and Industry – chaired at the time by Yevgeni Primakov whose role is central here – and the General Union of Arab Chambers gave birth to the Russian-Arab Business Council. Since 2003, this Council has multiplied initiatives (sessions, forums, business trips) throughout the Arab world (from Mauritania to Oman), and Algeria is one of the privileged destinations.
On the occasion of the 15th anniversary of this Council (2018), Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov recalled his role in the development of trade (22 billion dollars in 2018), as well as Russia’s main trading partners in the Arab world: Egypt, Algeria, Morocco and the United Arab Emirates. While these figures are quite modest in comparison with Russia’s other trading partners (trade with the European Union is more than ten times higher), they are far from negligible in comparison with the 1990s. While Vladimir Putin reached power, trade between Russia and the Arab world was less than a billion dollars (whereas it was as high as $10 billion before the fall of the Soviet Union). From Russia, the results are therefore rather satisfactory, even more as trade balances are often largely favourable to Moscow.
Regarding Algeria – which remains a very large importer of Russian armaments – trade with Russia is particularly unbalanced. By collecting some data from UN Comtrade (as reported by the Russian authorities in each case), we can see the extent of this imbalance by comparing the situation in Algeria with that of its two neighbours, Morocco and Tunisia. Beyond trade with Russia, these figures are revealing the weakness of the Algerian economy and its extreme dependence on hydrocarbons.
In 2018, Russian exports to Algeria were more than 450 times greater than the imports of Algerian products by Russia. This number is far more impressive than for Tunisia (approximately 5 times more Russian exports) and Morocco (less than twice). Furthermore, still in 2018, Tunisian exports to Russia were 13 times higher than Algerian exports and Moroccan exports more than 50 times higher. Not only do Tunisia and Morocco succeed in exporting many more products from agriculture (especially fruit) than Algeria, but they also export some industrial products. For Russia, Algeria is above all a client. It is a very demanding customer for military equipment, but not only. Algeria is now preparing to import more and more Russian wheat to the detriment of French wheat.
Russian-Maghreb trade since Vladimir Putin came to power
Algeria: a big customer on the armament market
Looking at data from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), several comments must be made:
- The world arms market remains dominated by Washington and Moscow – who export 57% of the arms – despite the French breakthrough between 2015 and 2019.
- With the United Arab Emirates (18th largest exporter in the world), the Arab world has a fledgling military industry. This industry is above all turned towards the Arab world: Egypt (41% of Emirati exports) and Algeria (13%) are the main clients of Abu Dhabi.
- The Arab world is over-represented among importing countries. Of the ten main arms importing countries, six are Arab, with Saudi Arabia in first place (12% of all imports in the world, versus 5.6% for the 2010-2014 period).
Algeria is the sixth largest importer in the world. It imports 4.2% of the arms on the world market (versus 2.6% for the 2010-2014 period). If the increase in Saudi imports is explained by the war in Yemen and the privileged relations with the Trump administration (the Saudis absorbed a quarter of American exports in the period 2015-2019), that of Algerian imports can be explained by an expressed desire to modernise the Algerian army in a context of regional tensions.
As mentioned above, Algeria is a valuable customer of the Russian military industry. After India (25% of Russian exports) and China (16%), Algeria is Moscow’s third largest customer (14%). Algeria alone buys around half of the Russian arms exported to the African continent. With 67% of Algerian imports, Russia is by far Algeria’s main supplier.
If Algiers is a historical client of Moscow, and has been since the Soviet period, Vladimir Putin’s visit to Algiers in 2006 marked a turning point. On this occasion, the Russian President announced the cancellation of the Algerian debt, i.e. 4.7 billion dollars. In the wake of this, Algeria undertook to spend 7.5 billion dollars on Russian arms. According to specialised Russian media, between 2006 and 2018, Algeria would have spent more than 13.5 billion dollars on Russian arms. Between 2000 and 2019, Algeria has purchased around 200 aircraft (from helicopters to fighter aircraft, including MiG-29s), 500 tanks, as well as anti-aircraft defence systems (from Pantsir to S-300s). In addition, the equipment delivered has been modernised, following the example of the Su-24 aircraft that were treated in Russia in April 2020.
The main arms exporters and their main customers for the period 2015-2019
Major arms importers and their main suppliers for the period 2015-2019
Despite this privileged relationship, it is difficult to speak of an alliance between Algiers and Moscow. At most, we can identify common priorities and reflexes. More precisely, it seems obvious that Russia and Algeria share the same attitude towards the geopolitical recompositions in the Middle East and North Africa.
Confronted with the three geopolitical axes which have emerged in the Middle East (namely the counter-revolutionary axis led by Abu Dhabi, the Islamic-reformist axis led by Ankara and the axis of resistance led by Tehran), Russia and Algeria share the same flexibility. Russia, which assumes as a foreign policy doctrine the refusal of alliances and bloc logics has been able to take advantage of its military successes in Syria. After an exacerbation of tensions with Damascus’ main adversaries in the early years of the Syrian conflict (Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Qatar), who reproached it precisely for its decisive support to the Syrian government, Russia ended up appearing as an unavoidable partner.
It maintains excellent relations with the United Arab Emirates (one of Russia’s main economic partners in the Arab world), while maintaining a dialogue that has become almost systematic with Turkey (in Syria, Libya, Nagorno-Karabakh) and pursuing cooperation with Tehran and Damascus. Russia intends to multiply mediation and maintain good relations with all the players while ensuring that no relationship is threatened by another: cooperate with Iran while preserving links with Israel; dialogue with Turkey while safeguarding links with the Emirates.
At its level, Algeria follows the Russian example and tries to maintain good relations with almost everyone. Beyond the anti-imperialist propaganda (carefully maintained by a large part of the Algerian media), the Algerian government needs to compensate for its internal illegitimacy (the Algerian population has massively boycotted the last two elections, namely the presidential election of December 2019 and the referendum on the constitutional revision of November 2020) by a relative stability in its external relations. Where Russia considers that flexibility in foreign policy (the ability to dialogue with all the players) is an instrument of power and a vector of economic opportunities, the Algerian authorities see it simply as a protection mechanism.
Despite occasional tensions that are largely exaggerated, the Algerian government maintains good relations with Abu Dhabi. From an ideological point of view, the Algerian leaders represent everything that the Emirates support in the Arab world (especially in Egypt): military power against the instability that democracy would bring and against the terrorist threat. On this precise point, Algiers, Moscow, and Abu Dhabi seem to be on the same wavelength. Moreover, Algeria is the second largest customer of the Emirati military industry, which is constantly looking for markets.
In Libya, Algeria has opted for a balanced position between the government of national unity and the army of Khalifa Haftar. In February 2020, the latter welcomed the head of Algerian diplomacy in Benghazi. Four months later, President Fayez al-Sarraj was received in Algiers. With its main sponsor, Turkey, the Algerian government maintains similar relationships to those between Russia and Turkey: it consider it as an essential partner without necessarily supporting its adventurism and its military operations.
Finally, Algeria has maintained very good relations with Iran since 2000. Like Russia, it supports the Tehran-Damascus axis (by promoting, for example, a return of Syria to the Arab League) with a certain caution, because there is no question of it sacrificing good bilateral relations with Saudi Arabia.
Ultimately, Russia and Algeria share many common representations and biases: an emphasis on the hallowed stability (particularly through the importance given to the fight against terrorism), a preference for flexibility in diplomatic relations and a willingness to contribute – through mediation – to the resolution of conflicts. Moreover, despite its traditional support for the Polisario Front and its stormy relations with Rabat, the Algerian government favours prudence and restraint in its treatment of the current tensions in Western Sahara.
Russia facing Algerian Hirak : moderate support to the government
To conclude this synthesis on Russian-Algerian relations, a few additional words on Moscow’s position in the face of the Algerian popular uprising. Since February 2019, the Algerian government has been facing an unprecedented protest movement (Hirak). In the name of a short-sighted vision of stability (the excesses of Algerian power are bound to lead to instability), no external power has turned its back on the cryptocratic regime (a civil showcase and an elusive military power) that controls Algeria. Contrary to what has been seen elsewhere, no opponent of the Algerian regime has come forward to call for its downfall. On the contrary, it seems to have enjoyed widespread support and the notion of interference was only invoked by the demonstrators. The latter criticised Paris for its benevolence towards the Algerian authorities and recent statements by Emmanuel Macron (in support of Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune) did not help matters.
Russia’s support for the Algerian leadership was also criticised by Hirak protesters. From the first months of the uprising, the then Algerian Foreign Minister, Ramtane Lamamra, undertook a diplomatic tour to reassure European partners, as well as Russia. A few months later, it was the turn of Abdelkader Bensalah, acting president, to visit Moscow. His laborious speech to Vladimir Putin was perceived as a humiliation by some Algerians, as the Algerian leader gave the impression of being accountable to the Russian President.
The Russian leadership has in fact been limited to minimal support. By suggesting the re-election of a lifeless man (Abdelaziz Bouteflika), the Algerian authorities did not make it easy for their partners. The Russian leaders, like the others, could hardly apologise for a man who had been incapable of making a single speech for several years. And even after Bouteflika’s ouster, the Russians gave only discreet and moderate support to the Algerian government. Some statements by the French president and the head of French diplomacy seem much more benevolent towards the Algerian regime than those of their Russian counterparts. The official Russian television channel RT is moreover one of the foreign media which has covered the most demonstrations in Algeria. It was not invited by the Kremlin, but nothing was done to dissuade it from doing so.
For Moscow, the overbidding in favour of the Algerian regime was therefore useless. There are two reasons for this limited, though unquestionable, support. Firstly, because the Russians are sufficiently well informed to know that the Algerian Hirak isnot actively supported by any external power. Second, because they are certain of the dependence of the military structure – itself preponderant – on them. A dependence that the heads of the Algerian army are trying to alleviate by maintaining very good relations with Washington and the Atlantic Alliance, which explains the visits that the head of the Pentagon and the head of the US Africa Command paid to Algiers during the autumn of 2020.
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 This former Foreign Minister (1996-1998) and Prime Minister (1998-1999) was an Arab orientalist who was familiar with the Arab world and some of its leaders. After the election of Vladimir Putin, he made a major contribution to the development of Russian-Arab relations. He was one of the most important advisers to the Russian President while chairing the Chamber of Commerce and Industry (2001-2011).
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