On the eve of the Russian Federation, the largest country in the world by surface area and one of the largest economies celebrating its statehood today, New Era Editor Chrispin Inambao had a candid interview with the Ambassador of the Russian Federation to Namibia, Valery Utkin on a wide range of issues.
NE: Namibia and Russia enjoyed excellent relations even before our country became independent almost three decades ago. How would you describe the current state of bilateral relations and its future prospects?
VU: “The spirit of friendship, cooperation and mutual respect has prevailed in the relations between Russia and Namibia for many years now, and I am confident, it will prevail in the years to come. There is a solid foundation for that: our two countries were together during the struggle of the Namibian people for national liberation under the guidance of the SWAPO, and today we share common views on many pressing issues of modern times. Russia and Namibia support legitimate rights of every nation of the world, as well as the leading role of the UN in addressing key problems of mankind. Our present-day relations develop in various spheres: from economy to culture, from investment to education, and we should continue to explore opportunities for enhancing bilateral cooperation by joint efforts. As it was emphasised during the recent talks in Windhoek between His Excellency Mr. Sergey Lavrov, the Minister of Foreign Relations of the Russian Federation, and His Excellency Dr. Hage Geingob, President of the Republic of Namibia, and Honourable Netumbo Nandi-Ndaitwah, Deputy Prime-Minister, Minister of International Relations and Cooperation, we need to consolidate relations in trade and investment as well as in cultural and educational areas, to promote further cooperation at the international arena with the purpose to contribute to maintaining global and regional stability.”
NE: In 1998 the then Namibian President Sam Nujoma and the then Russian President Boris Yeltsin signed an agreement on establishing the Joint Inter-Governmental Commission on Trade and Economic Cooperation that was aimed at expanding trade and economic cooperation between the two countries. What became of that agreement and are there any tangible results from that bilateral cooperation agreement that would have boosted trade and subsequently Russian investments in Namibia?
VU: “As you have mentioned, the mainstay of our economic relations is the Russian-Namibian Inter-Governmental Commission (IGC) on Trade and Economic Cooperation. The Agreement of 1998 remains in force, and the IGC has become an instrument for identifying cross-points of mutual interests, facilitating subsequent practical steps and evaluating progress achieved. The Seventh Session of the Commission held in Windhoek in November, 2017, adopted a number of decisions aimed at deepening links in mining, agriculture, energy, fisheries, tourism etc. It was also agreed to take measures to expand the legal framework of our relations, i.e. to come to more agreements and memoranda in different fields. This work is going on. It is also vital to promote direct links between business communities of our two countries with a view to launch joint projects, which could boost economic and trade turnover. There is a mutual understanding that both parties should jointly work hard to advance bilateral cooperation in many spheres.”
NE: Are there any plans to expand bilateral ties in the field of higher education?
VU: “Sure, there are. Today several hundred Namibian students are studying in higher educational institutions in quite a number of regions in Russia: from the city of Kaliningrad on the shores of the Baltic Sea and the city of Makhachkala in the Caucuses Mountains to the cities of Krasnoyarsk and Yakutsk in Siberia. For the academic year 2018/2019, the Namibian quota for higher education in Russia (bachelor degree) at the expense of the Russian Federal budget includes 33 scholarships. Last year, more than 50 Namibians became students in Russia on federal scholarships or on educational contracts. If required, the Russian Side can increase the quantity of government-backed scholarships.”
NE: Are you satisfied with the status quo of this bilateral relationship in terms of trade and economic cooperation between Russia and Namibia?
VU: “I think that the current state of our economic cooperation lags behind the opportunities available. And this is one of major tasks of the IGC – to promote the exchange of commercial information between the Parties, e.g. through Chambers of Commerce and Industry of our two countries, to help create favourable conditions for entrepreneurs etc. I believe that there is a good potential and prospects for Russia-Namibia partnership in mining, energy, ICT, transport, health, industry, tourism, agriculture, fishery. We can expect more investments to come as new projects are identified.”
NE: What is your assessment of the overall relationship between the Russian Federation with the various African countries?
VU: “Today Russia’s relations with Africa traditions of friendship and mutual respect continue to prevail and consolidate. Russia has diplomatic missions in more than 40 African states, and there is a similar number of African embassies in Moscow. We go ahead with our intensive political dialogue, exchange of visits, promotion of trade, economic, cultural, educational, humanitarian cooperation and inter parliamentary links. In his recent congratulatory message to the Heads of State and government of African countries on the occasion of Africa Day His Excellency Vladimir Putin, the President of the Russian Federation, underscored that Russia is ready to expand the traditionally friendly relations with African partners, both bilaterally and in various multilateral formats, and to continue its active participation in the programs of assistance for Africa under the auspices of the UN, G20 etc. Russia interacts with African regional organizations, including the African Union, SADC, ECOWAS, IGAD etc. There is also a significant African component in the BRICS. We work closely with the African group in the UN and believe that Africa should be properly represented in the UN Security Council. Many African delegations participate in various international events annually under way in Russia, like the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum, Eastern Economic Forum, Sochi Russian Investment Forum, Yalta International Economic Forum, Krasnoyarsk Economic Forum. Very soon, we will welcome teams and fans from all continents including Africa, in connection with the 2018 FIFA World Football Cup matches to be held in 11 cities of Russia from June 14 to July 15. As far as I know, there is keen interest to this event among football fans in Namibia as well.”
NE: In general, what is Russia’s policy towards investing in Africa where there is a market of around 400 million middle-class Africans?
VU: “We attach special attention to expanding trade and investment cooperation with African states. A lot is yet to be done here. However, Russia’s trade with Sub-Saharan countries increased to US$3.6 billion in 2017, compared to US$3.3 billion in 2016 and US$2.2 billion in 2015. It is encouraging that more and more Russian companies choose to enter the huge and perspective market of Africa, engage themselves actively in the spheres of geology, mining, energy, infrastructure and petrochemical sector. Nowadays, over 30 major Russian companies work in the above areas with due regard to high technology and education of local personnel. There are also good prospects for partnership in transport, industry, agriculture etc.”
NE: Russia has written off debt amounting to billions of American dollars. Has any of this debt cancellation benefited or eased the debt burden if any of Namibia? What kind of aid Russia provides to African countries?
VU: “In fact the amount of debts cancelled by Russia for African states exceeds US$20 billion, and this step contributed to the sustainable development of Africa. Russia also provides to its partners from Africa broad preferences in trade, including a preferential customs and tariff regime on imports from this continent. With regard to the Russian aid to African countries, currently, the bulk of it is channelled through international organizations and funds, in particular through the United Nations institutions. In 2017, for example, we contributed US$1,5 million to the World Food Organization for the humanitarian aid to Namibia. Another traditional area of assistance is training of national cadres. The Russian government annually allocates federal scholarships for education of students at Russian universities. In 2017 alone, more than 1,800 African young people studied in Russia on federal scholarships. Overall, 15,000 young people from African countries are studying in various fields today in Russia.”