By John Helmer in Moscow
President Dmitry Medvedev will make his first visit to Africa in June, with stops planned in Egypt, Nigeria, and Angola. The disclosure of the Russian President’s first Africa trip was made in an interview with Business Day by Mikhail Margelov, the chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Federation Council, the upper house of the Russian parliament. Since December last, Margelov has been Medvedev’s special representative for Sudan, and the Kremlin’s first roving troubleshooter for Africa.
“Russia is back in Africa,” Margelov had said on arrival in Khartoum in January. Since then he has also toured the Darfur region, and met with Arab mediators in Cairo, Beirut, and Qatar to help bolster international efforts in the Sudanese conflict.
Margelov told Business Day that he recently held talks in Moscow with Awad Ahmed Al-Jazz, a special emissary from the Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir.
Russia is able to play the “honest broker role” in the Sudan, Margelov said, because Russia does not carry the burden of the colonial ties of the UK; the multi-billion dollar investment stakes of China; or the ideological positions of the US. Margelov said he is trying to build a balanced approach, and gather information from all of the Sudanese political factions. He said he has already held talks with Minni Arcua Minawi, a former rebel and leader of one of the Sudanese Liberation Army factions, who signed the Abuja peace settlement of 2006.
Margelov told Business Day he expects to meet other Sudanese opposition groups and neighbouring governments in Chad, Uganda, and Kenya, probably after Medvedev’s visit to the region.
The 44-year old Margelov grew up in North Africa, and later trained in Moscow as a linguist in Arabic; he also speaks fluent English. He said that Russia retains credibility from the past, when the African states “had a choice between two political mainstreams and two development models”. He sees his role as improving the balance and the choices in regional African conflicts. He said he had had informal talks with members of the new Obama administration, and now believes that both Moscow and Washington see the opportunity for concerting their efforts in the Sudan. “We have to do some good things together,” he told Business Day. “Why not in Africa?”
Margelov has been criticial of the International Criminal Court (ICC) for issuing an arrest warrant against President Bashir a month ago. He has also condemned Bashir’s order for the expulsion of foreign NGO’s from Sudan. Recent Israeli attacks on alleged Hamas weapons shipments on Sudanese territory were “a dangerous precedent”, Margelov added, noting that “we were not given evidence of real arms shipments”.
Margelov said that actions now under way by the governments of Nigeria and Guinea to review the privatization of aluminium, alumina and bauxite assets in favour Oleg Deripaska and his United Company Rusal are “a commercial matter”. Distancing himself and the Russian government and parliament from any appearance of support for the near-bankrupt Deripaska, Margelov said he is “not surprised” that conflicts and scandals would arise “for young Russian entrepreneurs who picked up their habits of privatization in Russia [in the 1990s].”
He disclaimed any backing for Deripaska, who is being criticzedd in Nigeria and Guinea for failing to pay in full a fair price for the assets Rusal has been operating. “We want to have friendly relations with the African countries,” Margelov told Business Day. “The Russian national interest is to settle the scandal.”