‘Our Objective Is to Export Russian Expertise and Knowledge to Africa’
On December 27, Andrey Maslov was appointed Director of the HSE Centre for African Studies. In his interview with the HSE News Service, Mr. Maslov talks about the Centre’s objectives, whether HSE students will be engaged in the Centre’s activities, Russian-African relations and the practicalities of doing business in African markets.
At what stage are Russian-African relations now? Are they any different from the situation, say, a decade ago?
On the one hand, Russian-African relations are currently going through a period of growth, but on the other hand, they are being structured and shaped into a long-term architecture. Looking back at 2021, we can expect a record volume of Russian exports to Africa. These exports are well structured and have high added value for the Russian economy. The share of raw materials is minimal across all geographic regions. Oil products, fertilisers, grain, food products, equipment and high-tech products are being supplied. It is also important to note that there is almost no credit support or non-market incentives, as this growth is of an organic nature.
The Russia-Africa Partnership Forum has been created to coordinate the activities of the Russian federal authorities and state-owned companies. A unified trajectory is gradually forming in Russian relations with Africa. Meanwhile, Africa itself is becoming an independent agent in world politics. Mechanisms to coordinate economic policies and political positions have emerged, and we can see that most of its 54 countries, if not all of them, are increasingly acting in a unified way: coordinating foreign policy, approaches to legislation, and work with investors. There was certainly nothing like this ten years ago—it was too early to talk about Russia’s relations with Africa as a whole.
We know what Russia can give Africa, but what can Africa give Russia? What are the benefits?
For Russia, it is primarily markets. So, in simple terms, Africa puts money into the Russian economy. Over the past ten years, exports from Russia to Africa have amounted to about USD 114 billion, while imports have only reached USD 27 billion. Russia does not have such a balance (over 1 to 4) with any other part of the world. This is true even though Russia is not supplying natural gas to Africa and the share of oil in exports is minimal. In the future, African markets will only grow, if only because the population there is growing. In addition, Africa is a political pillar for us: trust in Russia is traditionally strong there, and there are no historical conflicts between us. Russia is building a multipolar world, and Africa is lending its support.
You used to be Head of the RosAfroExpertise Expert Centre, didn’t you?
A long time ago, more than ten years back. The centre was small, our projects were small, and we tackled applied tasks, but almost half of the 30 biggest companies in Russia eventually became our clients. At the time, there was no one in the market better at finding information on Africa, considering African specifics, cultural and historical characteristics, and performing risk and market analyses of the continent: energy, food, metals, pipes, etc. We gained important experience, which we all then went off to apply in different fields.
Why you decide to resume expert work?
Expert analysis has always been my principal occupation. I have never left this sphere. At the same time, I find the necessity to build a new team both very interesting and of paramount importance. This team will bring Russian expertise and knowledge to Africa and adapt them there. I like the idea that we will not just do short-term research for a specific task, but provide long-term expert support for large-scale projects that could change the world in some way.
HSE University is renowned not only for its academic and research strengths, but also for its expert and analytical competencies. The Centre for African Studies will work primarily within the expert-analytical sphere. This differs from research, even though it stems from it and is based on science.
The Centre for African Studies was opened on August 25, 2020 as part of the School of International Regional Studies at the HSE University Faculty of World Economy and International Affairs. It is being coordinated by Vice Rector Andrey Zhulin. The Centre specializes in expert analysis, research into African markets, and financial, legal, and political risk assessment. The key goal of the Centre is to provide complex analysis of current and future projects implemented in Africa by Russian companies.
How is it different?
There are a few key differences. Researchers pose a question and look for a universal solution which anyone in the world can use. Experts generally help one client by giving recommendations and proposals on how to solve specific problems. An expert is someone who has to make decisions. The language and architecture of expert analysis differ slightly from those of a research paper.
If a Russian company wants to enter an African market, what should it understand about the country it plans work with and how things work there?
First of all, Africa is a high-risk territory. It presents all sorts of risks, from epidemiological risks (which have always been there), to legal risks—the legal environment is unstable, non-transparent and still taking shape. Moreover, success in Africa depends on your skills and knowledge. Knowledge is the only way to counter risks, to predict unexpected uncertainties and business situations arising from this non-transparency that would be unusual in other countries. There are very few established, codified databases in Africa. Special analysis is necessary to even identify open data sources. However, high risks usually go hand in hand with high profits. Because of the high risks, you need to invest in information constantly to succeed in Africa.
Does the Centre for African Studies deal with these issues?
Of course. Risk research is the pillar of applied African studies. The Centre is already preparing risk profiles on African countries, the open portion of which will soon be published. However, this work always requires an individual approach: it’s one thing to study the climate in a country, but it’s another to explain how this climate will affect your health and your ability to do business. It is similar to the other risks: the specifics of the legal and political systems mean risks for some people and new opportunities for others.
What parameters do you use to estimate these risks?
Large Russian companies are used to relying on international credit ratings. To Russia, a country’s ability to be responsible for its debt obligations is the main indicator. Not even its ability in fact, but the opinion of international agencies about this ability. Meanwhile, less than half of the countries in Africa have such assessments, which is why we have to develop our own system, taking into account the knowledge of other HSE divisions and our accumulated experience. We are developing our own risk assessment methodology. We look at various measurable indicators, but their scarcity is a problem, so it is important to have a pool of experts that can give relevant assessments based not only on measurable indicators, but also on our own knowledge base and relevant comparisons.
What has the Centre for African Studies managed to do so far?
Even before I was appointed Director, our Centre had successfully completed a number of projects under the leadership of Polina Slusarchuk. Unfortunately, we are not always allowed to talk publicly about our expert work; it is always up to the client to publish the results. That’s all the more reason to appreciate that one of our clients initiated the publishing of the study ‘Africa: Prospects for Development and Recommendations for Russian Policies’, which was released with the participation of the Centre. We are going to continue publishing this series in 2022. About 30 experts—top expert leaders in their fields—took part in preparing the Russian version. The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and our Centre are currently arranging a bilateral conference with African experts, where our proposals on the bilateral relations agenda will be critiqued and fine-tuned. By the Second Russia-Africa Summit (Editor’s note: the event is scheduled for November 2022 in St. Petersburg), we should come up with a clear agenda that’s understandable to both sides and a roadmap for the relationship. The Centre cooperates with the Russia-Africa Partnership Forum, which is responsible for developing the roadmap, and as the Head of the Centre, I am responsible for strengthening this cooperation.
The Centre is only a year old and it is just taking its first steps. Our small team is very important to me. Moreover, HSE University employs unique specialists—world-renowned scientists—who know Africa very well and work in this field outside our Centre. We rely on their assistance with the Centre’s projects. Sergey Karaganov, Academic Supervisor of the Faculty of World Economy and International Affairs, provides tremendous support for our work.
Given how many expert platforms there are, how will the Centre differ from existing formats?
In recent years, we have seen an exponential growth in the number of centres that offer expertise on Africa to Russian companies. We see our main objective as exporting Russian expertise and knowledge to Africa. HSE University has a unique set of expertise. It demonstrates the highest level of world-class science, implementing it and working in a developing economy which is essentially in the process of formation. Therefore, the Africa-related expertise accumulated by various HSE divisions is the best in terms of both data and the level of elaboration. We will advise African countries, try to improve life there and make it more stable.
Are you planning any educational student programmes for HSE University?
I would call them projects. Initially, the Centre won’t have its own programmes, but we will be glad to see students who are interested in Africa and want to tackle real expert and analytical problems. Anyone can be an Africanist—geologists, economists, political scientists, historians. We can teach students to work with us as part of teams that deal with practical, real cases.
Are you planning to establish partnerships with African universities and researchers?
We will continue developing the relationship between HSE University and African universities. Any study of Africa requires a partnership with Africans, and one of our strengths is the university's existing relationships within the BRICS framework, as well as personal connections—mine and those of our experts.
You have been working with Africa for over 25 years. What makes this part of the globe different from others?
First and foremost, the people. They are open, positive, and easy to deal with. If you are as open with them as they are with you, you will gradually build a network of contacts and make close, reliable friends who will make you feel comfortable and secure against any dangers or unexpected turns of events. Friendliness, optimism, and the significance of informal relationships are the most important things for me there.
Academics at HSE St. Petersburg are convinced that oriental studies as a field of humanities is becoming more topical every day, and create new educational and research departments.