Putin courts influence in North Africa with free trade zone

Less than two weeks after the conclusion of the Russia-Africa Summit, Moscow says that discussions on drafting a free trade agreement with Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria have begun



Russian President Vladimir Putin has announced his intention to establish a free trade zone with four North African countries – Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia, and Algeria – in a move aimed at furthering Moscow’s diplomatic and economic influence on the continent.

The official Russian news agency TASS quoted Putin as saying, “we do have to translate the level of political trust [between North African countries and Russia] into economic cooperation. They feel Russia is a friend, and we also treat African countries as friends.”

The Kremlin said that discussions on drafting a free trade agreement have begun between Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) member states and the four North African countries.

Several North African countries have already emphasised their openness to boosting economic relations with Russia. The prime minister of Morocco, Aziz Akhannouch, recently appeared to welcome Russia’s apparent determination to “strengthen friendly ties and constructive cooperation with African countries”.

In June, Algeria struck a deal to help Russian gas giants establish a stronger foothold in the Algerian market. President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi of Egypt has been vocal in criticising Russia’s departure from the Black Sea Grain Initiative, which allowed 33m tonnes of Ukrainian grain to reach international markets between July 2022 and July 2023, but there are few suggestions this could derail efforts to further economic cooperation between Cairo and Moscow.

Moscow strengthens ties with Africa

This move comes shortly after the conclusion of the Russia-Africa Summit in St Petersburg, which hosted 49 African delegations and 17 African heads of state in a bid to bring about a “new level of mutually beneficial partnerships” between Russia and Africa.

Moscow sought to ingratiate itself with African leaders by wiping out debts worth $23bn and announcing military cooperation deals with over 40 African countries, although there were also some tensions over Russia’s blockade of Ukrainian grain exports, which has contributed to soaring world food prices and high levels of inflation in North Africa.

Dr Kaiser Naseem, a former World Bank official who has previously been based in both Cairo and Moscow, tells African Business that relations between many African countries and Russia stretch back decades but the current diplomatic environment means they are now particularly important.

“Russia has had long-standing relationships with several African countries ever since the days of the Soviet Union. Several African leaders were hailed as heroes in the USSR – Patrice Lumumba, the prime minister of the Congo, comes to mind especially,” he says.

“But in today’s world, all eyes are on the African continent given its economic potential and mineral wealth. Capitalising on its decades-long relationship, at the recent summit in St Petersburg Putin declared his intent to cooperate with African countries on the economic front.”

Naseem believes that the potential free trade zone with North Africa is “a strategic move on Putin’s part to try and forge even closer ties with North Africa and the economic benefits that come with that in the long run,” and notes that “China and the United States are following similar strategies”.

“All in all,” he says, “the race for ‘wooing’ the African continent has heated up a notch after the St Petersburg summit.”

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Harry Clynch

Harry is Finance Reporter at African Business.