Medvedev's Angola visit to strengthen ties of Cold War allies

24th June 2009, Comments 0 comments

Angola was once a deadly Cold War battlefield, with the Soviet Union and Cuba backing the ruling party, while the United States and apartheid South Africa bolstered UNITA rebels.

Luanda -- When Russian President Dmitry Medvedev visits Angola on Friday, he will see places named Lenin Avenue and Karl Marx Theatre -- visible signs of their nations' long ties which a re now turning toward business.

Angola was once a deadly Cold War battlefield, with the Soviet Union and Cuba backing the ruling MPLA (Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola) while the United States and apartheid South Africa bolstered UNITA rebels.

Under a treaty signed shortly after independence in 1975, Angola granted the Soviets military use of its airports and Luanda's harbour, giving Moscow a strategic foothold in southern Africa.

In turn, the Marxist MPLA gained expert military training and hardware including tanks, armoured cars, landmines, AK-47s and MiG fighter jets to use in their fight against UNITA (Union for Total Independence of Angola).

Hundreds of Soviet military advisors came to Angola, while many top Angolan politicians and generals -- including President Jose Eduardo dos Santos -- studied in the Soviet Union.

"The Soviet Union helped us very much, especially in terms of giving us weapons and training and teaching us in the art of warfare," said Colonel Manuel Correia de Barros, head of Angola's Centre for Security Studies.

"Because the United States has the perception of the MPLA being communist, this sent the party into the arms of the Soviet Union."

He said Soviet support was crucial in the decisive battle of Cuito Cuanavale in 1987-8, which drove apartheid-era South African troops out of Angola.

"Their great role was giving us the sophisticated weapons that gave us airborne supremacy and helped us solve our problems with South Africa," he said.

By 1992, as the Cold War was ending and Angola's warring parties struck a ceasefire, Soviet links weakened.

In the last years of the civil war that only ended in 2002, the MPLA shook off its Marxist policies and the oil-hungry United States ditched UNITA in favour of Dos Santos's side.

Russia turned more inward, but business links continued, with Moscow still a major arms supplier and its largest diamond company Alrosa operating here.

But as Angola competes with Nigeria to be Africa's largest oil producer, and as both the Chinese and the West queue up to invest in the resource-rich but know-how-poor country, Russia can see new opportunities.

Speaking in the Angolan media Sergei Nenashev, Russia’s ambassador to Angola, referred to the "need for a new dynamic and diversification in economic and commercial co-operation" between the two countries.

This already appears to be happening.

Russia is financing two dams on the Kwanza River and the Russian arms trading monopoly Rosoboronexport has reportedly won the contract to construct and place in orbit Angola's planned satellite "Angosat".

"Russia is very aware of Africa's resources," Irina Filatova, professor at South Africa's University of Kwazulu-Natal, told AFP.

"The country is currently trying to establish itself in the world as a premier mineral and energy destination and it is trying to find countries in Africa which will support Russian policies."

She said it was significant Medvedev was visiting the continent so soon after Vladimir Putin had toured Africa in 2006, underlining the importance Russia gives to Africa in its plans.

Since the end of the civil war, Angola has enjoyed double-digit growth thanks to high oil prices, and Luanda currently heads the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC).

Low oil and diamond prices have seriously dented the country's income -- with the World Bank predicting a three percent GDP contraction in 2009 -- and the government has launched a major economic diversification plan.

Billions of dollars of credit from Europe and North America are being channelled into developing areas like manufacturing and agriculture, and Russia is expected to join the club.

Louise Redvers/AFP/Expatica

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