In a rare break from Russia’s policy of defending authoritarian allies against popular unrest, on March 12 Maria Zakharova, the spokesperson for Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, called for a “constructive and responsible” amelioration of Algeria’s political turmoil. Russia also did not endorse Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s decision to retain power following his declaration that he was withdrawing from running for a fifth term in response to widespread protests. Instead, the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs insisted that Algeria’s political crisis was an internal affair and refrained from publicly supporting the status quo in Algeria.
Russia’s cautious reaction to unrest in Algeria reflects Moscow’s desire to maintain long-term influence in Algeria, regardless of the outcome of the protests. In particular, Russia wants to ensure that Algeria maintains its dependence on Russian weaponry. Between 2014 and 2018, Russia supplied the Algerian military with 66 percent of its weapons, and Algeria was Moscow’s largest African client. Russian Ambassador to Algeria Igor Belyaev estimated in July 2018 that Algeria accounts for half of Russia’s arms sales to Africa. Russia also views Algeria as an increasingly valuable economic partner in North Africa. Since 2017, Russia’s leading energy companies, Gazprom and Transneft, have cooperated with Algeria’s state hydrocarbons company, Sonatrach, on pipeline construction projects. After Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergei Lavrov’s visit to Algiers in January 2019, the Russian Ministry of Energy also discussed the possibility of producing Lada automobiles in Algeria.
Russia’s approach will allow it to preserve its arms contracts and pursue lucrative investment opportunities, regardless of who holds power in Algeria. However, Russia’s preferred outcome is an internal transition that allows Algeria’s new prime minister, Noureddine Bedoui, to maintain power by striking a compromise with the Algerian opposition and gaining their support in semi-competitive elections, postponed until later this year. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov made clear Moscow’s preference for a negotiated settlement in comments following his consultations with Algerian Deputy Prime Minister Ramtane Lamamra on March 19.
Lavrov’s warning about the Algerian unrest’s destabilizing consequences suggests that Russia wants to prevent the National Coordination for Change from carrying out a successful popular revolution—and might view the state-controlled incorporation of members from this catch-all opposition group as the most effective way to contain its long-term influence. Russia’s apprehension about a regime change in Algeria reflects its concerns about the ideological orientation and policy preferences that an opposition-led government might embrace, as well as Russia’s own aspirations for a stronger relationship with Saudi Arabia and desire to maintain Algeria as an ally in regional diplomacy.
Since mass protests broke out in Algeria on February 16 over Bouteflika’s decision to run for a fifth term as president, members of the Russian expert community have negatively compared the Algerian unrest to the Arab Spring protests, particularly the overthrow of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in February 2011. These comparisons have persisted, even though many Algerian protesters view the instability that persisted after the Arab Spring in North Africa as a pernicious development and have expressed sympathy, rather than disdain, for the Algerian security forces. Tatyana Shmeleva, an expert on the Middle East at the Russian International Affairs Council, described the Algerian opposition as an “aggressive, chaotic crowd,” and compared the looting of the National Museum of Antiquities and Islamic Art on March 8 to that of the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities during the 2011 protests. This conflation of popular unrest with anarchy is another example of Russia’s delegitimization of mass protests, which has been a defining feature of Russian foreign policy since the 2004 Orange Revolution in Ukraine.
In addition, there are growing concerns in Russia that a successful popular revolution and free elections in Algeria could cause Algiers to strengthen its relationship with liberal democracies, such as the United States, that have defended the Algerian people’s right to protest. In a possible attempt to mask Moscow’s apprehensions about a democratic Algeria’s foreign policy alignments, Russian government-linked experts have linked the Algerian opposition to Islamist movements that have little influence over the country’s political scene. In a March 4 interview with Russian state media outlet TASS, Oleg Barabanov, the program director of the Valdai Discussion Club, argued that Bouteflika’s alignment with the Algerian military had kept Islamist movements at bay since the early 2000s, and that Arab Spring-style protests in Algeria could trigger an Islamist uprising. This conflation of opposition movements with Islamic extremism has widespread credibility in Russia, as it aligns with Moscow’s characterization of Syrian opposition movements as extremist organizations since the start of the Syrian civil war in 2011.
Russia’s reservations about a potential regime change in Algeria are shared by Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who has pressured Saudi media outlets to censor coverage of the Algerian protests. Mohammed bin Salman shares Russia’s view that popular unrest in Algeria could energize dissenting voices within their own borders, just as instability in North Africa in 2011 diffused to Saudi Arabia’s predominantly Shia Eastern Province and inspired protests by Russian opposition figures ahead of the 2012 elections. This solidarity against the threat of popular unrest could strengthen a Russian–Saudi rapprochement that has largely been premised on maintaining oil price stability.
In addition, Russian officials believe that preserving authoritarian stability in Algeria will be less threatening to Russia’s diplomatic objectives in the Middle East than a democratic Algeria. In 2016 Sergei Balsamov, a Middle East expert at the Russian International Affairs Council, described Algeria as Russia’s crisis-proof partner in the Arab world because Algiers opposed the overthrow of Libyan dictator Muammar al-Qaddafi and consistently maintained diplomatic links with Bashar al-Assad during the Arab Spring. The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs emphasized the common foreign policy views shared by Russia and Algeria after Lamamra’s meeting with Lavrov on March 19, praising both countries’ commitment to “non-interference in the internal affairs of other states.”
In particular, this Algerian support for Russia’s policy preferences led Moscow to engage in dialogue with Algeria on the stabilization of Libya. Lavrov discussed Libya with Algerian officials during his Maghreb tour from January 23 to 26, 2019. Both countries have reportedly discussed frameworks for an inclusive peace settlement in Libya, and attempted to devise governance frameworks for the incorporation of former Qaddafi regime loyalists into Libya’s political life. The Algerian government’s links to tribal militias and Libyan National Army (LNA) leader Khalifa Haftar makes Algeria a valuable partner for Russia’s strategy of balancing good relations with all major Libyan political factions. Russian officials are concerned that instability in Algeria might limit its ally’s ability to act as an effective arbiter even as Russia hopes to expand its mediation role in Libya, and therefore view popular unrest in Algeria as a check on Moscow’s own ambitions.
The Russian government wants to avoid a disruption of its arms contracts with Algeria, and Moscow has a vested interest in ensuring that Bouteflika is replaced through a political transition that pre-empts an all-out regime change. As Bouteflika faces intensifying pressure to step aside and opposition movements mobilize an ever-growing base of supporters, Russia will keep a close, apprehensive eye on Algeria.
Samuel Ramani is a PhD candidate in International Relations at St. Antony’s College, University of Oxford, specializing in Russia’s policy toward the Middle East. Follow him on Twitter @samramani2.