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By John Helmer, Moscow

Sergei Lavrov, the foreign minister of Russia for the past nine years, is almost as well-known for rushing to the rescue of Russian companies in trouble in Africa, as the payback for the favour is unknown. Still, the Lavrov Doctrine is the first major change to have been introduced in the Kremlin’s foreign policy in Africa since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

In the old days the Soviet strategy was one of non-intervention in the internal affairs of the African states. The strategic meaning was that Moscow opposed arms deliveries, bush wars, assassinations, putsches, economic threats and bribery operations by the competing colonial powers and superpowers – the British, French, Americans, Portuguese, Belgians. The Russian Foreign Ministry reiterates this non-intervention doctrine from time to time. In Nigeria, for example, it has had the effect of allowing the local navy to take Russians hostage with impunity, and for the courts to rule punitively against local Russian investments.

But Lavrov’s personal and ministerial intervention in the Republic of Guinea-Conakry has been an obvious and enduring exception to the rule. The purpose has been to reinforce efforts of Guinean concession holder United Company Rusal to prevent the local government making tax and customs duty claims, or enforcing the terms of its mine concession agreements. Thus, the Lavrov Doctrine turns out to be one of selective intervention in the internal affairs of the African states, whenever there is money to be made, and whenever there is a risk that other foreign powers – the previous list plus the Chinese and Brazilians – will make their money at the expense of Russians.

For the archive on the Lavrov Doctrine in Africa, especially in Conakry, read this. Because the Foreign Ministry is relatively short of cash itself when suitcase liquidity is an operational need, the Lavrov Doctrine coordinates with the Russian intelligence services, the arms exporters, the state banks, the oligarchs, even well-known Moscow-based lawyers. Scouts and spotters are also employed from time to time – for example, Mikhail Margelov the senator, and Alexei Vasiliev the academic.

Occasionally, the Lavrov Doctrine bumps awkwardly into the commercial, military or strategic interests of a rival Power. When the French invaded Mali early in the year, Lavrov implied he was against the intervention, but in favour of the purpose, and against double-talk and duplicity when the French do it.

Zimbabwe is a special case because a variety of international sanctions are in effect against the 33-year government of Robert Mugabe. Partial sanctions have been implemented by the United Nations, and endorsed by Russia. But in 2008 Russia and China vetoed the more extensive scheme of sanctions proposed by the western powers. At the time, the non-interventionist line was echoed by Vitaly Churkin, then Russia’s ambassador to the UN, who said the sanctions proposed were beyond the powers of the UN Security Council to implement: “We believe such practices to be illegitimate and dangerous.”

As for the presidential and parliamentary election which Mugabe conducted last week, the non-interventionist doctrine appears to have been Moscow’s position. The result – a clear victory (61%) for Mugabe’s incumbency , and a sweeping gain for his Zanu-PF party in the Zimbabwe parliament – has not been endorsed by the US, the UK, or the European Union.

According to the State Department, “the United States does not believe that the results announced today represent a credible expression of the will of the Zimbabwean people.” The UK Foreign Office announced: “The irregularities in the lead up to the elections and on Election Day itself, reported by the observer missions and in contravention of SADC’s guidelines, call into serious question the credibility of the election. We note that some political parties have rejected the result on the basis of these irregularities.” From Brussels, the EU said it is “concerned about alleged irregularities and reports of incomplete participation, as well as the identified weaknesses in the electoral process and a lack of transparency. The EU will continue to follow developments and work closely with its international partners in the weeks to come. The EU encourages all parties to maintain calm and order.”

South Africa led internationally in endorsing Mugabe’s win, albeit over the objections of many elements in Zuma’s own political party and government, and despite evidence that Zuma is personally averse to Mugabe. According to the Pretoria statement: “President Zuma urges all political parties in Zimbabwe to accept the outcome of the elections as election observers reported it to be an expression of the will of the people.” Note the date, August 4.

But two days earlier Russia had already endorsed the outcome in this statement by Lavrov’s ministry: “Moscow welcomes the successful holding of such an important domestic political events in the life of this traditionally a friendly African country. According to preliminary estimates, the elections were conducted in a peaceful environment and good organizational level at a very high turnout. No major violations and incidents that could affect the will of the voters, was [sic] noted. As election observers attended by representatives of the African Union, the Southern African Development Community, and the local diplomatic corps, including diplomats of the Russian Embassy in Harare, which confirmed that the vote was broadly in line with generally accepted international standards. It is expected that the election results will be announced on August 5.”

The unusual speed with which the Lavrov Doctrine was applied to the Zimbabwe election contrasts with the relative lack of official, corporate or media interest in Moscow during the election preliminaries. It also contrasts with expert opinion among Russians with direct interest in the outcome. Sergei Goryainov, a leading analyst at Rough & Polished, the Russian diamond industry bible, acknowledges that Zimbabwe is “one of the few countries where potentially there are very good mineral resources for diamonds”. But he cautions that the outcome of last week’s election isn’t stable enough for Alrosa, the dominant diamond miner in Russia, to become more active in Zimbabwe, as Mugabe has been inviting.

“My opinion is negative. I believe that the so-called Mugabe victory, in which in my opinion no one believes in the world, is just a prelude to serious conflicts within the country. In the near future there will be a serious conflict. Nobody will cancel the sanctions. On the contrary, in my opinion, they will be enhanced. So that no stabilization will turn out in Zimbabwe. And Alrosa, in my opinion, is better not to go there in the near future.” For the backfile on Alrosa’s interests in Africa, read this.

Ahead of the election result, Alrosa had said through a spokesman that its African priorities are elsewhere. The source noted these are diamond search in Angola and Botswana. Zimbabwe is “a promising region in terms of the capacity for discovery of new deposits of diamonds, and the company is studying the possibility of participating in exploratory projects in the country. But no concrete decision has been taken, so there can be no talk of delay on Alrosa’s part. As for making decisions about getting into some projects we will be also based on the condition of the political situation in the country.”

Norilsk Nickel, Russia’s largest mining company and one of the leading platinum miners in the world, has been courted for investment, according to Zimbabwean press reports and by claims from Russian go-betweens with links to Mugabe’s circle, his army, and others. But last week Norilsk Nickel denied it has any investment interest in Zimbabwe, nor any relationship with go-betweens, who have been offering platinum mining concessions in exchange for Russian arms deliveries.

Russian Technologies (Rostek) has been involved in more active bidding for African state arms contracts in recent months. This is how the arms relationship with the republic of Congo-Brazzaville, for example, has been progressing, in tandem with deals of special sensitivity for the most important oil trader in Moscow, Gennady Timchenko.

A source at Rostek said, also ahead of the election in Zimbabwe, that the company has been reviewing proposals, plans and schemes, and that an executive has been appointed for Zimbabwe business. The source added that for the time being Rostek isn’t saying no to Zimbabwe, but it isn’t saying yes either.

Russian military analysts say that if a state bank were prepared to finance a new arms trade with Mugabe, Kremlin approval would almost certainly leak, and they would know. But Igor Korotchenko, editor in chief of National Defence Magazine and a well-informed source, is clear: “There is no detailed information on this subject. [If no agreements have been signed at the moment, they may be in process] but they will be signed only after elections and the legal entry of the President to his post.”

Predictability and stability as the Russians see it, not legality as defined by the western powers, are evidently encouragement enough for several Russian government ministries to negotiate a framework for future business. The bilateral investment protection and investment promotion agreement (BIPPA), which was signed in Harare last autumn, also reduces the influence of Russian adventurers and fraudsters who have been active for years in Harare, the Zimbabwean capital. Here’s the signing announcement from on October 7, 2012.

The Russian delegation was headed by the Trade and Industry Minister Denis Manturov. But he made no effort to publicize where he was, what he had done, or the terms of the Zimbabwe agreement for the Russian press. Lavrov’s ministry didn’t mention it in its announcements for that week in October.

Eight months later, though, Lavrov’s deputy, Mikhail Bogdanov, met at the ministry in Moscow with the Zimbabwean ambassador, B.G.Chidyausiku. The Ministry communique on June 18 doesn’t mention the investment treaty, nor the election then approaching. But it does acknowledge that business is now driving the relationship: “during the conversation, an interesting discussion took place on a number of issues of further development of the traditionally friendly Russian-Zimbabwean relations, including some promising areas of trade and economic cooperation.”

What Russian interest in Zimbabwe made for an interesting discussion that day apparently pressed pedal to the floor, when the Lavrov Doctrine was declared so soon after election day.

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