As Kremlin scrambles for Africa, Moscow university eyes soft power

As the Kremlin seeks to boost ties with Africa, a Moscow university that was a training ground for the continent's elite during the Cold War is once again working to bolster Russia's soft power. (File/AFP)
Updated 20 October 2019

As Kremlin scrambles for Africa, Moscow university eyes soft power

  • Russia’s interest in Africa declined and the institution briefly became better known for skinhead attacks on its students
  • Moscow prepares for the first Russia-Africa summit on October 23-24

MOSCOW: As the Kremlin seeks to boost ties with Africa, a Moscow university that was a training ground for the continent’s elite during the Cold War is once again working to bolster Russia’s soft power.

The Peoples’ Friendship University of Russia, created in 1960 to improve Soviet ties with developing nations, counts among its alumni top politicians in Rwanda, Uganda, Mali, Chad, Angola, Botswana and other African countries.

But after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Russia’s interest in Africa declined and the institution briefly became better known for skinhead attacks on its students than for building bridges with the continent.

Now, as Moscow prepares for the first Russia-Africa summit on October 23-24, rector Vladimir Filippov says the university is reviving its status as a top destination for young Africans.

“Our task — and the task of Russia as a whole — is to revive the system that we once had during the Soviet Union” for the advanced training of Russian and foreign students, he said.

Filippov, a former education minister, told AFP he welcomes two African university delegations a month, on average, seeking to develop ties with the institution.

Around 1,200 African students are enrolled in the university, which is spread across several campuses in a southern district of Moscow.
During the Soviet period it was known as Patrice Lumumba University after the Congolese independence leader. Today it goes by the Russian acronym RUDN.

In a hall of the grey, Soviet modernist main building, Russian and foreign students mingle as members of the Guinean society dance to traditional music.

Filippov says the university’s aim is not simply to attract African students to Russia, but also to export Russian expertise to the continent and vice versa.

Of RUDN’s cooperation agreements with 49 African universities, more than 20 were inked in the last two years.

In addition, RUDN has established Russian language centers in Namibia and Zambia.

The rector acknowledged that this increased activity was tied up with Moscow’s aim to develop its presence in some African nations.

“Of course it’s always a question of geopolitical interests and economics,” Filippov said.

The university is meanwhile hoping that some of its Russian students will spend time in Africa after they graduate. At the end of this month, RUDN will host its first “I Want to Work in Africa” careers fair.

The Soviet Union maintained a strong presence in Africa as part of its ideological war with the West, backing liberation movements and sending tens of thousands of advisers to former colonies that had gained independence.

Touting military cooperation, arms deals and investment, Russia is making a comeback on the continent and seeks to rival European countries and even China, analysts say.

Chimuka Singuwa, a 23-year-old Zambian who is working toward a master’s degree in international relations and diplomacy at RUDN, said he had the opportunity to study in Russia or China.

He chose Moscow on the advice of his grandfather, who was a student at RUDN in the 1970s.

Singuwa said he had no regrets about passing up on a Chinese education. “I’m kind of against the ‘takeover’ of Africa by the Chinese,” he said, pointing to the debt Zambia has accumulated with China, its main investor.

Singuwa will travel to the Russian resort town of Sochi to work as a volunteer at the Africa summit, which he described as a “great opportunity” for the regions to develop their relations.

RUDN hit international headlines in 2003 with a dormitory fire that killed 43 foreign students. Arson was never ruled out, and witnesses and rights groups criticized what they said was a slow response to the blaze.

At the time, foreign students also told media of racially motivated attacks. But Singuwa said he had encountered little racism in Moscow.

“In some remote areas in Russia, where there’s one foreigner, that’s kind of difficult,” he said. Ousmane Setibaye Sou, a 25-year-old undergraduate from Chad, told AFP he had come to Moscow expecting racism but had not experienced any.

He said he would like to help develop cultural relations between Russia and his home country.

“There are many people there who speak Russian,” he said, adding that dozens of Chadians had been coming to Russia to study every year since the 1970s.

“Even our former prime minister (Yusuf Saleh Abbas) was a student” at RUDN, he said.


Patten says China pursuing ‘Orwellian’ agenda in Hong Kong

Updated 26 min 42 sec ago

Patten says China pursuing ‘Orwellian’ agenda in Hong Kong

  • Chris Patten defended London’s announcement that it would grant residency and a path to citizenship for nearly 3 million Hong Kong residents
  • China shocked many of Hong Kong’s 7.5 million people when it announced earlier this month that it will enact a national security law for the city

BEIJING: The last British governor of Hong Kong criticized the Chinese government on Friday over proposed national security legislation, calling it part of an “Orwellian” drive to eliminate opposition in violation of the agreement on handing the territory over to Beijing.
Chris Patten defended London’s announcement that it would grant residency and a path to citizenship for nearly 3 million Hong Kong residents if Beijing goes through with passage of the legislation.
The law is seen as potentially imposing severe restrictions on freedom of speech and opposition political activity in the former British colony that was handed over to Chinese rule in 1997. China has denounced the offer of citizenship as a violation of its sovereignty.
“If they’ve broken the (Sino-British) Joint Declaration, if they’ve thrown it overboard, how can they then use the joint declaration as though it stops us doing something that’s a sovereign right of ours?” said Patten, now chancellor of the University of Oxford, in an online talk with reporters.
The declaration is a bilateral treaty signed as part of the handover process. China has essentially declared it null and void, while Britain says Beijing is reneging on its commitments made in the document that was supposed to be remain in effect until 2047.
China shocked many of Hong Kong’s 7.5 million people when it announced earlier this month that it will enact a national security law for the city, which was promised a high level of autonomy outside of foreign and defense affairs.
An earlier push to pass security legislation was shelved after massive Hong Kong street protests against it in 2003. However, Beijing appeared to lose patience after months of sometimes violent anti-government protests in Hong Kong last year that China said was an attempt to split the territory off from the rest of the country.
Patten said the security legislation is unnecessary because Hong Kong’s legal code already includes provisions to combat terrorism, financial crimes and other threats to security.
“What Beijing wants is something which deals with those rather worrying Orwellian crimes like sedition, whatever that may be,” Patten said.
China may also be seeking grounds to disqualify opposition candidates from running in September’s election for the local legislature by accusing them of being disloyal, he said.
Beijing has ignored promises that Hong Kong could democratize of its own accord after the handover, Patten said. The US should unite with other democratic countries to oppose underhanded tactics by Beijing, he said.
“It’s the Chinese Communist Party which attacks us, which hectors, which bullies, which tells companies which have roots in our countries, that unless they do what China wants, they won’t get any business in China,” Patten said. “That’s the way the Mafia behave, and the rest of the world shouldn’t put up with it, because if we do, liberal democracies are going to be screwed.”