“Algeria does not require the resignation of Assad”: why Sergei Lavrov travels to the Maghreb

23 January, foreign Minister of Russia Sergey Lavrov began his diplomatic tour of North African countries. For three days the Minister for foreign Affairs, will visit Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco. The head of Russian diplomacy is not the first time over the last few years visits to North Africa, and the visit to Algeria will be Lavrov’s already the sixth. Of what attract the Maghreb Russia, whether Moscow is trying to increase its influence in the region and why in North Africa will discuss the conflict in Syria, in an interview with the Russian service RFI said the orientalist, doctor of historical Sciences Alexey Malashenko.

RFI: Sergei Lavrov is not the first time in recent years, visits Tunisia. Earlier, the Russian Prime Minister was in Morocco. Why the interest in Africa and what they talk, in your opinion?

Alexei Malashenko: Let’s start with Tunisia, and Algeria. Of the States of the Maghreb, the North African countries — excluding Libya and Egypt, it’s another piece of the Arab world, closest to Algeria, which is very good economic relations. The volume of trade in the region of 4 billion dollars, a very large military supplies, including aircraft SU — and there the account goes on tens. It was recently put, in my opinion, nearly 200 tanks, including the T-90 is modern enough tanks, and they need Algeria, and of the helicopters, too — there the account goes on tens. Therefore, in this respect, with the economy the best — and in Africa and in the Arab world. By the way, Russia forgave, in my opinion, 4.7 billion dollars in debt, and in exchange, had signed a military contract for about 7 billion, that is full understanding. It’s the economy.

With regard to policy. Look at Syria: the position of Algeria — I would say not the same, but there is a very large understanding. Anyway, in Algeria no departure of Bashar al-Assad does not require, and Algerians try to be very moderate and not to interfere. Importantly there is no one to support, but their position is: let it be Bashar.

Incidentally, in the 2015-2016 year — the Algerians were the mediators in the Russian-Turkish conflict — do you remember all of the plane happened was some creepy relationship, but the Algerians however showed, I would say, inherent intelligence and diplomatic intelligence and have their say. So what they need to say thank you. Although, of course, when there were sanctions, Algeria has doubled and the production and delivery of gas to Europe. That is, it is a competition, but business is business.

To speak about what Sergei Lavrov in Tunisia?

I would say that the relationship (Tunisia) neither good, nor bad. Again, if we return to the economy, in my opinion, $ 800 million of volume — you know. With regard to tourism (this is an important economic component), then, in General, it would seem that the case could be, but Russian tourists are afraid of a terrorist attack. And especially after 2015, when there was a bombing in Sousse, you can understand people who prefer to go somewhere else.

If you look wider at our economic contacts, it’s all quite sluggish, despite the creation of two some economic associations, despite the claims that Tunisian products appear in Russia… They may appear (but I personally haven’t seen them), but lose on price. Even said that Tunisia can become a dealer of Russian goods in North Africa, but this, too, imperceptibly.

Tunisia has repeatedly stated that he will discuss with Russia the issue of settlement of the conflict in Libya. It was in 2014. Now, this theme continues — any help or assistance of Russia in the situation in Libya?

I think that the debate in Tunisia on the Libyan issue is meaningless. To discuss them it is necessary not in Tunisia, and at least in Egypt. There you can talk about anything, to Express their position regarding the Haftarot, on the Libyan government about what is happening there now — there again in the Tripoli fighting began, there is a lot going on. But Tunisia that has the most indirect relationship. If Libya will be a madhouse, which was then across the border some people can run across — they always ran. But mostly, by the way, this whole Libyan game is focused, first, on Libya itself, and is geographically more South. They just Tunisia is not needed. And to talk — I don’t know, maybe it’s just an excuse to Express the position of Russia on the Libya — Tunisia is convenient because it’s closer.

About again Russia and Algeria — you said that in Syria, our position is similar, at least no one is demanding the resignation of Bashar al-Assad. How now important for Russia, this support of North Africa and Algeria, especially its actions in Syria, in your opinion?

When the isolation in which Russia is, this is very important — you need some kind of state that the position of Russia was understanding. And now, I’d say every one grass in the favor, especially such as Algeria. It’s still, excuse me, not the island of Nauru, this is a serious, rich country with a complex history, influence, long-standing Soviet-Algerian relations. In fact, for Russia, Algeria is very important. I do not exclude that there will be discussed the gas problem — and so they are discussed. But, again, there is competition, that’s perfectly normal. I remember somewhere a year or two ago there was talk about the need not to incite Algeria to Russia, but, in any case, to show the Algerians that under certain conditions it can be a very important alternative to Russian gas. Algerians in it to burn and they buy our weapons with great pleasure.

In addition to the weapons that we supply to Algeria, in addition to gas, which we have military interests in Algeria? Is there some kind of military cooperation may be a military base that also can be discussed? What do you think about this?

There are no military bases. As always, there our technicians, our advisors. Even techies rather that teach. But it’s not the 60’s and not 70 years, is now a completely different life.

About the French perspective on the issue — Yves Le Drian also frequents North Africa, and Tunisia, in particular, says there are also about business, about investment. North Africa, for historical reasons, is a zone of special influence for France. Is there some kind of rivalry with Russia? Or is it two different cooperation, which are even difficult to compare?

I would say that you can map. You are very right to say that this former French colony, Algeria was generally, excuse me, until 1962 a part of France, and the French from there it is not going to leave. Throughout the Maghreb speak French still. I remember when the late Houari Boumedien the former President of Algeria — arabization propagated, it is found out that in his government and no one around him spoke Arabic — only in French, and good French. In this respect, all three countries: Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco really appreciate this “franzosenhohl”, they do not belong to this from a position of inferiority complex. I think that in this field the Franco-Russian conflict should not be.

31 March summit of the Arab League. It will this year be held in Tunisia. The fact that Sergei Lavrov is going to this tour on the eve of the summit is, in your opinion, a coincidence, or indeed Russia thus wants to indicate their position at the summit, even though she’s not represented?

This summit will be a madhouse. Recently they interacted at the Ministerial level and almost all quarreled. Therefore, to make any profound judgments, I would not, because there are States that are adamantly against Syria — the very same Qatar that the Saudis are extremely critical. And there are States like Algeria that are ready for any compromise. There is Libya, which is now generally not allowed at this event, which was held in Beirut. Arab unity is a great utopia, and so to predict who of them will behave…

After all, if we try to summarize what the purpose of the visit of Sergey Lavrov that he wants to find in Africa this time? Talking is not only about Syria.

To preserve and strengthen relationships — forgive for banality. There is nothing so special. To go this route. Relations are normal, all around quarreled, so where possible, it is necessary to strengthen these relations.
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