Picking up where the previous post left off, I want to explore some reasons that may have contributed to Algeria’s refusal to recognize Kosovo. As noted before, Algeria, like many countries, has a strong relationship with Russia. Russia is the source of most of Algeria’s military materiel, and it shares many geopolitical interests with the Federation. Chief among these is securing the European gas market which, along with Norway, Russia and Algeria dominate.
February 2008 was an important month for Russo-Algerian relations. During 2006 and 2007, Algeria and Russia signed a several billion dollar arms deal that would have done away with Algeria’s debts to the Soviet successor state (the deal included an Algerian purchase of large amounts of military equipment and allowed Russian companies to take advantage of Algerian oil and natural gas fields, splitting the revenue and thus providing a means for Algeria to pay off its debts). Algeria, though, was dissatisfied with the quality of 15 MiG Fulcrum jets that were part of the package. The Algerian feeling was that the jets were “sub-standard” and “disappointing“. In Western reports it was seen as a blow to Russian prestige, emblematic of Russia’s “smoke and mirrors” economy. Meanwhile, Russian reports sought to assign blame for the return on France’s poliking (and downplay concerns over quality control), with one stridently penning the following lines:
The planes Algeria wants to return will not rust in Russia, as many countries would eagerly snatch them up, including India, Yemen, Eritrea, Sudan, Egypt, Syria and Libya. So Russia will not sustain big financial losses, while Algeria’s reputation will be tarnished, experts say.If Algeria terminates the contract, Russia might remove it from the list of potential buyers of its military equipment.
A return was signed just before president Boutefliqa made his way to Moscow last week. The real motive behind the return is not widely believed to be one of quality alone; the Algerians are said to be opting for French Rafales, as the report above suggests. The hardline taken in the Russian press over the deal is more the result of increased nationalism and pandering to popular sensitivities than the actual state of the two countries’ relations.
Russo-Algerian relations have hit a rough patch, emanating almost wholly from this transaction. Algeria has been attempting to diversify and modernize its sources of arms over the past decade, in order to compete with its neighbor Morocco, whose supplies come from the US and France. Moroccan policy has been to achieve total air superiority over their eastern (Algerian) and southern (West Saharan) rivals. Algeria’s military policy for many years has been modeled on the Soviet one, mixed in with a strong guerilla element, while Morocco’s has been modeled off of America’s. The Algerians focused on artillery while the Moroccans focused on aircraft. This put Algeria at a severe disadvantage, as the Moroccan air force, in terms of equipment (comprised mostly of American and French fighters) outpaced Algeria’s during the lost decade of the 1990’s when Algeria was focused on crushing internal revolt.
Algeria and Russia still share many common interests. First is a mutual emphasis on maintaining state sovereignty and existing borders. Algeria’s activist support of rebel movements survives only in its support for the Polisario and the Palestinian cause. A friend in the State Department describes Algerian policy as having “matured” since the days when the Foreign Ministry was staffed by business-like 20 and 30-something revolutionaries. Second is an interest in keeping their respective shares of the European natural gas market. On his visit to Moscow, Boutefliqa stressed the need for Algeria and Russia to “coordinate” their gas policies. Russia has been calling for similar measures (albeit less vocally), as has Iran. This has led to fears of a “gas OPEC” in Europe. Algeria and Russia together account for 65.7 percent of Europe’s natural gas imports.
The MiG deal was a severe blow to Russia’s prestige, and the Algerians are trying to make up for that. While not compromising on their desire to diversify their materiel, the Algerians are trying to nevertheless allay Russian fears that they are moving out of their camp internationally. Thus, when Kosovo announced its independence, and Vladimir seethed, Algeria did not extend recognition, not out of a special respect for Serbia (which does exist), but in recognition that the opposite action would irreparably damage its ties with Russia at the public level. Algeria often likes to operate on the basis of two principles; good will and realpolitik.
Its relationship with Russia, at the public relations level is based on good will. The two countries have a long history of cooperation and Algerians often see Russia as being more like themselves than they see any Western European state. The Russians trust the Algerians and are remembered among the officer corps for selling weaponry when no other country would (in the 1990’s). Much of the military brass received training in the old USSR or its satellites. I am told that Boutefliqa’s ministers of defense and the generals are personally fond of Mr. Putin.
When dealing with counties with which a relationship might damage the regime’s credibility, such as France, the Algerians will offer an official visit with a cold reception. When French President Nicholas Sarkozy traveled to Algeria earlier this year, the idea of a friendship treaty was rejected and his offer on the Rafales was declined. I think that the MiG return was supposed to have been more discreet and ideally would not have created the kind of buzz in Moscow that it did. This would have allowed the Algerians to bargain with the French in a less publicized manner. Since the French end of the deal has not received as much attention as the quality concerns related to the MiG’s have, this might be considered a semi-victory for the Algerian strategy.
Kosovo is not a matter of principle for Algeria: It is a matter of politics. If this were a matter of principle, the circumstances of recognition in the western Maghreb would be reversed. Instead of Morocco offering recognition, Algeria would be exchanging ambassadors with the Kosovars. Ideologically, Algeria is impelled to support Kosovo on the same basis that it demanded it own independence from France; an oppressed people, against whom terrible atrocities have been committed, demands that its right to self-determination be recognized and realized. A comparison can easily be made between Kosovo and the Western Sahara, a region for which is taken as a given in all Algerian circles as a matter of principle. But the politics of Kosovo are too precarious for the Algerians to play games with, and so the Foreign Ministry has chosen to look at the problem in terms legalism, of secession rather than self-determination. Another reasoning for returning the Fulcrums might have been to press the Russians into selling them more advanced fighters — such as Sukhoi 30’s and 35’s — to trump Moroccan F-16s. In all, the Algerians do not see Kosovo as being worth jeopardizing their ties with Russia and, potentially as a result, the balance of power between themselves and Morocco. For now, it seems, the Algerians would rather hold the lid on the box.