The Democratic Republic of Congo is believed to be the most resource-rich country in the world, yet it has struggled to develop because of two decades of war. Russia, which recently began renewing its ties with Africa, is ready to help Congo achieve political stability and economic prosperity. Congo is taking a step this summer that may help — increasing the number of its provinces from 11 to 26. That decentralization is designed to give more political and economic clout to regions that feel underrepresented, particularly the eastern part of the country, where a civil war is raging.
Russia can help Congo achieve stability and prosperity. It has a history of engaging with the country during its early days of independence in the 1960s. It also has expertise in extracting the minerals that could make Congo prosperous. And it has a willingness to help Africa’s second-largest country end its civil war.
“We wish to develop relations (with Congo) in every direction,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has asserted.
The Democratic Republic of Congo’s resources are worth $24 trillion, experts estimate. The biggest minerals trove on earth includes 70 percent of the world’s coltan, more than 30 percent of its cobalt and diamonds, and 10 percent of its copper. Coltan is a mineral containing the elements niobium and tantalum, which are widely used in electronics.
A lot of Congo’s mineral resources have yet to be tapped, however. A key reason is the civil war, which has scared off would-be investors not just in the east but the entire country.
The conflict that has devastated the country has a complicated history. The fighting that occurred during the 1990s was actually a combination of regional and civil war, pitting Congo’s armed forces against neighboring countries’ armies and guerrillas. Today’s conflict is purely a civil war. The guerrillas are fighting because they believe that Congo’s population, particularly those living in the east, have failed to benefit from the country’s natural-resources wealth. Their argument is hard to refute. International surveys of gross domestic product per capita always list Congo as among the poorest nations on earth.
As Russia gears up its investment in Africa, it would like to help Congo change that. Russia’s stature as a global leader in oil, gas and mineral extraction could be a major help to the country of 75 million. In addition to petroleum- and mining-development help, the Democratic Republic of Congo needs transportation and energy assistance. The country has only 2,250 kilometers of paved roads, half of which are in bad shape. It also has a shortage of rail lines. Russia’s experience building roads, rail lines, ports and other transportation links would make it a natural partner in Congo’s quest to create goods- and people-moving infrastructure.
Russia could also help Congo build the facilities it needs to become energy-independent. The country is crisscrossed with rivers that could be used for hydroelectricity. In fact, experts say Congo has so much hydro potential that with enough dams it could be a major exporter of electricity to neighboring countries. Russia is also one of the world’s leading nuclear-plant builders and operators. That expertise would come in handy if Congo wanted to broaden its energy mix.
A sweetener is that Russian companies’ terms for building and running nuclear facilities are among the most generous in the industry.
Congo was a colonial territory known as the Belgian Congo until becoming independent in 1960. The Soviet Union reached out to the new country right away, establishing business, educational and cultural ties with it. In fact, in 1960 the U.S.S.R. established the Peoples’ Freedom University of Russia in Moscow specifically to educate young people from Congo and other developing nations in Africa, Asia and South America. The fast-developing relations between the Soviet Union and Congo were cut short when Congo’s first president, Patrice Lumumba, was assassinated in 1961. Cold War politics stalled relations between the countries until after the break-up of the Soviet Union in the 1990s.
Russian leaders believe they can work with the current president, Joseph Kabila, a pragmatist whose priorities include getting the country on a faster development track. Kabila has signaled he’s open to working with any country of goodwill that’s ready to help.
But peace is crucial to Congo achieving its development potential. Lavrov has declared that Moscow is willing to do whatever it can to help bring peace to the country and the rest of Africa. He hasn’t discussed the specifics of a Congo peace strategy, but Russia’s commitment is clear. The end of the civil war would put Congo on a development path that would transform it from one of the world’s poorest countries to a prosperous one. Russia would benefit from the broader economic ties it forged with Congo as the country accelerated its development. It would truly be a win-win partnership.
The main issue to be decided was the future of NATO, which had been established as a counterbalance to the Soviet Union. However, starting in 1991, the Soviet Union lost control over the events in Central and Eastern Europe. Communist governments fell, the Warsaw Pact dissolved, and the West had no impetus to engage in any negotiations or agreements with Moscow.
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