Through HE, Russia signals intention to renew influence

The launch last month of the Russian Namibian Cultural and Educational Centre (RusNam) in Windhoek, Namibia, is part of a series of initiatives that seem to signal Russia’s intention to use higher education as a diplomatic vehicle with which to renew its influence in Africa.

According to a 2017 article by foreign policy expert Mehmet Cem Ogultürk in the online journal, Rising Powers Quarterly, during the period from the 1960s through to 1991, 50,000 Africans were educated in Russian universities while 200,000 Africans received various kinds of training on their continent.

"In the Cold War years, [the] Soviet Union managed to educate African people; now there is no handicap for Russia to succeed again," Ogultürk told University World News. "I think that the Russian education project is the manifestation of a soft power approach aimed at enhancing the cultural and political relationship, just like the Chinese Confucius Institutes in Africa."

According to the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, RusNam will be responsible for the implementation of a joint educational project between the Peoples’ Friendship University of Russia (RUDN) and the International University of Management (IUM) of Namibia, known as the Centre for Russian Language and Pre-Graduate Studies as well as other educational projects with leading Russian universities.

The launch of RusNam on 9 November preceded by one day the signing of an agreement between Zambia-based Copperbelt University and RUDN, to set up a regional centre offering Russian language courses to students in Botswana, Namibia, Tanzania, Zimbabwe, Mozambique and Angola, according to a local news report.

Soft power rankings

Russia has, up until now, been relatively poor at nurturing its soft power and is ranked at 28 among the top 30 countries according to Soft Power 30, which uses data to rank the top countries in terms of soft power, including higher education, cultural production, and technological innovation.

"Russia, like all nations, is pursuing its own interests in Africa," said David Shinn, former US ambassador to Ethiopia and Burkina Faso and adjunct professor of international affairs at the George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs. "While Russia may be genuinely interested in promoting African higher education, it is also attempting to enhance its position in Africa through the use of soft power.”

"There is nothing inherently wrong with this tactic; other nations do the same thing. The more important question is whether this effort portends a significant return to Africa by Russia or whether Russia will again lose interest in the continent,” Shinn said.

According to Dmitri Bondarenko, vice director for research at the Institute for African Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, Moscow, Russia's projects in Africa are “sincere educational and scientific initiatives for promoting Africa's higher education development as well as enhancing its soft power along with cultural, political and economic gains".

"Today, Russia's policy in the sphere of international education is no more and no less programmatic and idealistic than any other state," Bondarenko told University World News.

Vladimir Shubin, principal research fellow of the Institute for African Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, and professor of African history and politics at the Russian State University for the Humanities, said while he did not like the term ‘soft power’, he said it was possible to “speak of a combination of sincere initiatives in the spirit of our traditional attitude to anticolonial forces and promotion of national interests by the training of African cadres who would know that Russia is very different from the negative picture painted by Western propaganda".

"Besides, partly it can be a valuable (and honest) source of income for Russian universities," Shubin said.

Language study centres

In addition to the Egyptian Russian University established in Cairo in 2006, other ‘soft power’ initiatives by Russia include the opening of language study centres popularly referred to as “Russkiy Cabinets” mostly in tertiary educational institutions in a number of African countries, according to news reports.

Modelled on the British Council, France’s Alliance Française and China’s Confucius Institutes, the Russkiy Cabinets boost the teaching of Russian language, literature and culture to interested groups abroad.

While Russia has managed to open the Russkiy Cabinets in Ethiopia, Egypt, Kenya, Zambia, Democratic Republic of Congo and South Africa, negotiations for future centres are being undertaken in Algeria, Tunisia, Senegal, Morocco, Madagascar, Ghana, Guinea-Bissau, Nigeria, Mozambique, Tanzania, Uganda, Cameroon and Gabon.

Plans are also afoot for the construction of a Zambia-based Centre for Nuclear Science and Technology (CNST) that could be ready by 2024. Based on a contract between Russian state atomic energy corporation Rosatom and Zambia, the CNST is aimed at ensuring a wide application of radiation technologies in medicine, industry and agriculture, as well as the training of highly qualified experts in the field of nuclear technology.

There are also plans to establish an Ethiopian centre for atomic science and technology, and a nuclear science and technology centre in Sudan and Nigeria.

Scientific workforces

Russia also currently helps African states in developing human scientific workforces for the needs of nuclear energy and related industries through scholarships at higher learning institutions, including the National Research Nuclear University (MEPhI) in Moscow.

As a result of these initiatives, in 2017 more than 1,800 Africans studied at Russian universities on federal scholarships allocated by the Russian government. Overall, 15,000 young people from Africa are currently studying in Russia, including some 4,000 at state-financed departments and the rest under contracts, according to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in an interview with the Hommes d’Afrique magazine.

According to UNESCO figures, Russia draws most African students from Morocco, Nigeria, Angola, Tunisia and Namibia.

Increasing this number is a challenge, particularly given the competition that Russia faces from other countries, according to Bondarenko.

"Today the educational market is really competitive, not like in the time when the USSR could attract many students from pro-Soviet states, and Russian universities now have to compete with Western as well as Chinese, Indian, etc, universities."

He said Russia should consider increasing the number of scholarships for African students on the one hand, and at the same time make Russian education more competitive by offering more educational programmes in the high-demand specialties. He also said there should be “wider possibilities” to study in English.