PRESIDENT Robert Mugabe’s just-ended visit to the Kremlin where he had a closed door meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin on, among other issues, investment, will no doubt strengthen the “relationship of convenience” between Zimbabwe and Russia, but the two countries have a long way to go in building solid cordial relations and meaningful levels of bilateral trade and investment.
Although Russia has been a key player in Zimbabwe’s history having backed the country’s liberation struggle by assisting Zapu’s armed wing Zipra with military training, arms and material support during the liberation struggle, relations between the two countries have never blossomed to what they could be.
Significantly, Russia alongside Zimbabwe’s “all-weather friend”, China, vetoed a United Nations Security Council resolution seeking sanctions against Zimbabwe in 2008, giving relief to the Mugabe regime.
The resolution, which called for an arms embargo as well as financial and travel restrictions on Mugabe, senior government and military officials, was backed by nine nations but foundered on the vetoes of the two permanent members.
despite these significant events and the fact that both countries have for long periods been anti-West, an article by Professor Vladimir Shubin, posted on the Russian embassy’s website acknowledges that since Independence, relations between the two countries have been slow to develop and indifferent.
There has not been any significant investment by Russia in Zimbabwe save for the cumulative US$4,8 billion platinum mining project between Zimbabwe and Russian investors, dubbed the Great Dyke Investments, which involves a military mining company Pen East and a Russian consortium made up of three corporations — Rostec, VI Holdings and Vnesheconombank. The joint venture project is however spread over 10 years.
Trade, noted Shubin, who was involved in political and practical support of the liberation movements in Southern Africa from the 1960s and is a principal research fellow of the African Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences, has also been very low between the two countries despite their historical ties.
“Since Independence the relations between the two countries were developing perhaps slowly, but steadily. Their progress was, however, interrupted by the political and economic crises in the USSR on the threshold of 1990s followed by a somewhat similar crisis in Zimbabwe several years later,” he said.
“… the prospects of broadening our co-operation are very bright. We cannot be satisfied with a trade turnover of US$30 or US$40 million or with a limited number of Russian tourists coming to your beautiful country. Furthermore, there is an important factor which brings Russia and Zimbabwe closer to each other: both our peoples cherish their Independence and are ready to thwart any attempt of external forces to subvert it.”
Shubin also chronicles the rich history between Russia and Zimbabwe, which began in earnest when the late national hero George Silundika visited the Soviet Union in January 1961 at the invitation of the Soviet Afro-Asian Solidarity Committee.
Silundika successfully requested for financial support for buying a printing shop, means of transport and other needs and scholarships in the Soviet universities for training of trade-union, women and youth activists.
“Soon Zapu leadership requested Moscow to organise military training for its members, especially ‘for subversive work’, for military sabotage and for training in manufacturing of ‘simple small arms’, because it was impossible to bring arms into the country,” wrote Shubin.
“So, in the summer of 1964, two groups of Zapu militants came to Moscow. They included such prominent persons as Akim Ndlovu, now a national hero, Dumiso Dabengwa, former minister of Home Affairs, and (Vice-President) Phelekezela Mphoko. Apart from studying general military subjects, they specialised in guerrilla warfare. Military training of Zimbabwean freedom fighters continued for many years …”
The good pre-Independence relations between the two countries, however, seemed to take a dip at Independence. Unlike most countries, the Soviet Union did not immediately establish an embassy in Zimbabwe soon after Independence, only doing so on February 18, 1981.
One reason why Zimbabwe and Russia’s relationship has never really taken off seems to be rooted in the liberation struggle during which the Soviet Union built solid relations with senior Zapu officials and not Mugabe and Zanu PF, who won elections in 1980.
Social commentator and international relations expert Jonathan Gandari says Russia would have preferred an ex-Zapu official to lead the country, having supported the party throughout the liberation struggle.
Gandari said Zimbabwe was, however, trying all it could to improve relations with Russia, which he said was an important ally given hostile relations between Zimbabwe and Western countries.
“The government of Zimbabwe is not considered a darling by the Russians, but it’s a relationship they are trying to work on. It’s a rather lukewarm relationship and historically the Russians were closer to Zapu officials, so naturally they would have supported Nkomo’s candidature at Independence,” he said.
“But Zimbabwe is trying to reach out and this may be the reason why Mphoko was appointed vice-president. He trained in Russia while (Emmerson) Mnangagwa, the other vice-president, was trained in China. The appointments suggest Zimbabwe wants good relations with both Russia and China.”
Gandari said the move to solidify relations with Russia was positive for Zimbabwe, given that it is a world power with a permanent seat on the UN Security Council.
“Zimbabwe benefitted in 2008 from the relationship with Russia, so the country stands to benefit. The relationship may be lukewarm but it will not fade, because Russia supported revolutionary parties although in our case they preferred Zapu,” he said.
Political analyst Ibbo Mandaza said although relations between the two countries were initially nonchalant, significant strides had been made since 2008.
“The modern relationship begins in 2008, when Russia and China blocked the imposition of sanctions on Zimbabwe. And Zimbabwe has reciprocated by supporting Russia on the Ukraine issue,” he said.
The European Union and United States imposed sanctions on Russia last year after Russian soldiers invaded Ukraine.
“It is also quite significant that the foreign minister of a world power like Russia visited Zimbabwe. One can read a lot of nuances into that,” Mandaza said.
Russian Foreign minister Sergey Lavrov visited Zimbabwe last year and witnessed Mugabe commission the platinum mining project in Darwendale.
Mandaza also said the platinum deal was significant, although there are questions on whether it will benefit ordinary Zimbabweans or just a few elite people.
Zimbabwe and Russia have not revealed the full details of the Darwendale platinum deal although there have been reports that it involves arms.
The involvement in the deal of Russian defence conglomerate Rostec State Corporation and its supervisory board chairperson Denis Manturov — who is also Kremlin minister of Trade and Industry — reinforced reports of a secret arms deal behind the arrangement.
Manturov is the chairperson of Rostec supervisory board. Rostec, based in Moscow, is Russia’s biggest arms manufacturer and brings together 663 entities that form 13 holding companies of which eight of them operate in the military-industrial complex.
Russia though is unlikely to provide financial relief to Zimbabwe given that it is reeling from sanctions imposed by the West.
The economic sanctions are focused on Russia’s key defence, energy, and financial service sectors, and include asset freezes, controls on financing and restrictions on access to capital markets.
In the end it seems Zimbabwe and Russia are keen on an intensification of relations — historically lukewarm because of the Zanu PF and PF Zapu rivalry as they were supported by China and Russia respectively — in the 21st century partly due to the deterioration of ties between Harare and the West, and also the worsening of state of affairs between Russia and Western countries.
As such Zimbabwe and Russia have a common enemy in the form of Western countries — the strange logic that an enemy of my friend is my enemy.
Relations between the two countries have also been improving partly because they share common national interests; they share a common ideological socialist background as well as common foreign policy principles of non-interference and non-intervention in the internal affairs of sovereign states.
They also share the same foreign policy objectives and philosophies like resource nationalism. These common interests and values have resulted in renewed and strengthened co-operation between the two countries.