Death, diamonds and Russia’s Africa Project: Leonid Bershidsky
Opinion piece by Leonid Bershidsky.
The murder of three Russian journalists last week in a remote area of the Central African Republic, the world’s poorest country according to the World Bank, has turned a spotlight on what looks like a big Kremlin play for influence and resources in Africa. Where China has spent decades and billions of dollars trying to entrench itself there, Russia is offering its brute force and strong appetite for risk. It’s already making headway.
The three journalists, Orkhan Dzhemal, Alexander Rastorguev and Kirill Radchenko, were in the Central African Republic working on an investigative film about the Wagner private military company. That's a secretive Russian contractor linked by news reports to Yevgeny Prigozhin, a St. Petersburg catering entrepreneur close to Russian President Vladimir Putin. Prigozhin is also one of 12 people indicted in the U.S. along with the Internet Research Agency, a troll farm he funded that has been caught up in Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. Wagner has provided mercenaries to fight in the eastern Ukraine and Syria, and it’s probably also present in the Central African Republic and neighboring Sudan.
Back in March, the Russian Foreign Ministry reported that Russia was working with the government of Central African Republic President Faustin-Archange Touadera to explore the country’s natural resources on a concession basis. At the same time, the ministry said, Russia had sent weapons along with five military and 170 civilian instructors to train the nation's military forces. The African country, home to warring Christian and Muslim groups, is under a United Nations-imposed arms embargo, but Russia obtained an official dispensation, arguing that the weapons – 5,200 Kalashnikov submachine guns and smaller numbers of handguns, grenade launchers and other hardware – were for the UN-supported regime.
The mining concessions and the “civilian instructors,” however, appear to be more closely linked than the Foreign Ministry let on. Africa Intelligence, a Paris-based investigative and research outfit, reported in July that the government of the Central African Republic had begun extracting diamonds on an alluvial site not far from the capital, Bangui, with the help of a company called Lobaye Invest. The company, according to Africa Intelligence, is a subsidiary of the St. Petersburg firm M Invest, founded by Prigozhin. Africa Intelligence reported that Wagner fighters were delivering mining equipment to the site in armored trucks. At the same time, Touadera’s Russian advisers are helping the president negotiate a truce with various groups that used to be part of the Muslim rebel movement, Seleka.
This is a business model Wagner has reportedly used in Syria, where it lends its private troops to the regime of President Bashar Al-Assad, and in return receives a share of revenues from the oil wells and refineries the troops recover from regime opponents. In February, Wagner mercenaries clashed with U.S. troops while trying to seize a refinery and suffered major losses.
Like Syrian oil, Central African Republic diamonds are a commodity on which no ordinary business can get its hands. In the 1960s, the country exported half a million carats of diamonds a year, a volume that would make it the seventh-biggest exporter in the world today. Unlike neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo, which specializes in industrial diamonds, Central African Republic diamonds are mostly gem-quality. But the enormous economic potential of the industry was undermined by civil strife and government greed. A lot of diamonds are still extracted illegally and smuggled out of the country, and there’s a partial ban on diamond exports.
Another of the country's major resources is gold, and the three Russian reporters died while trying to drive out to a gold mine, apparently to check on Russian presence there. The circumstances of their death are still unclear: The driver of their vehicle, who survived, keeps changing his testimony. But even though the journalists didn’t live to tell their story, they were known well enough in Russia to turn attention to Wagner. Dzhemal was one of Russia’s top war reporters, known for his intrepid coverage of the Russian operation against Georgia in 2008 and the Libyan conflict of 2011, in which he nearly lost a leg. Rastorguev was a documentary filmmaker known for his bold experiments, which often included giving a camera to subjects to record their daily lives. He was one of the two creators of The Term, the essential documentary depiction of the 2011-2012 political protests in Russia.
Official Moscow was quick to deny any responsibility for the journalists’ death. Maria Zakharova, the Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, said they’d neglected the official channels, and pointed out that the presence of Russian “civilian instructors” in the Central African Republic was no secret. That, however, is probably disingenuous. There have been reports in the regional media that there are many more Russians in the Central African Republic than the 170 that the Foreign Ministry has mentioned. Nor has Russia admitted a connection between the “instructors” and mineral concessions.
These concessions make Russia a contender for resources that have long interested China, present in the country since 2007, when a Chinese company began drilling for oil there. China has been less lucky than Russia so far, despite writing off billions of Central African Republic debt and setting up a program to train government officials. The oil project stalled in 2017, and China recently failed to gain a dispensation similar to Russia’s to supply weapons. France, Central African Republic’s former colonial master, is especially concerned about the inroads made there by non-Western powers.
Putin’s Russia has sought to restore its Soviet-era influence throughout the developing world, and its activity in Africa is not limited to the Central African Republic. It’s worth watching for reports of Russian concessions in other nations, such as Sudan, Chad, Rwanda and Gabon. The Wagner business model is well suited to the region where a forceful presence can be a prerequisite for successful business – and where looking into how this business is conducted can easily get one killed.