Quick Algeria talk

People ask me who Algeria’s greatest international partners are and who they will be in the future. Three countries always make the list: France, Russia, and China. The relationship with France is a complex one based on the colonial history, culture, diaspora and most especially economics. So long as they face each other across the Med, they will be tied to one another. How deep that relationship remains depends on the persistence of Algeria’s linguistic schizophrenia.

Russia was historically one of Algeria’s two main patrons during the Cold War (the other being China), and there is good deal of Russophilia in sectors of the elite (this is also true of other Eastern Bloc countries, like the former Yugoslavia, Romania, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, etc. where many Algerians studied; there are clubs dedicated to Russian culture and language in Algiers). Algeria buys 4% of Russia’s weapons as of last year, and the modernization of its air force (the key to intimidating and/or defeating Morocco in combat, if the occasion should arise) depends on good relations with Russia. People-to-people links between military officers and ministers in both countries are no longer as strong, though, because of the collapse of the USSR and the promotion of younger leaders on the Russian side with whom the Algerians are less familiar. For this reason, and Algeria’s relations with France, it is unlikely that Russia’s gas cartel ideas will find much favor except in more militant circles in Algeria, who are kept out of the circles of agency in the country.

China ties, as President Bouteflika stated this week are “ideal“. In 2006, the two countries signed a strategic partnership agreement that reiterated 50 years of very close ties. The PRC was the first country to recognize the provisional Algerian government during the War of Independence, and trained many soon-to-be Algerian soldiers and officers. For this reason the Algerians have always favored the Chinese over the Russians (I suspect that the “bad attitude” some Algerians attribute to Russian diplomats has something to do with it as well). The Algerians also coosposored resolutions aimed at “restoring China’s legitimate seat in the United Nations.” Bouteflika has visited China twice, in 2000 and 2004. This illustrates the importance of the Algeria-China relationship, especially to Algeria. The Chinese have a keen interest in Algerian gas, and the Algerians have just as much an interest in Chinese rifles and artillery (the country’s primary assault rifle is Chinese made). Many in governing circles thoroughly admire the “Chinese model” of authoritarianism as well. Algeria strongly supports China’s world view on state sovereignty at the UN and elsewhere (Africa, mostly). China, as well as Russia, provide cover for Algeria at the Security Council on the Sahara issue as well. China is also very active in construction of every type in Algeria. Algiers now has a budding China town, and Chinese wares, cheap and fashionable, are becoming more and more popular. The China relationship may suffer if locals begin to turn on the Chinese workers/expatriates that do a lot of the labor Algerians believe they should be doing. Even then this would likely be squashed and minimized by Algiers and China’s presence would be fortified nonetheless.


2 thoughts on “Quick Algeria talk

  1. Let us not forget that China’s ties with Algeria underscore the fact that both countries have near-absent civil societies and the governments are not beholden to their publics. China is free to cut a lucrative swath across Africa; Algeria is eager to get the things it wants, and more than happy to do business. Algeria’s internal problems are legendary, but I think all of this wheeling and dealing will catch up with China soon. Everyone is so afraid of China’s economic coming-of-age, but few people consider the fact that internal problems could actually undo it.

    Governments like Algeria’s and China’s cannot continue scratching each others’ backs while keeping one hand on the lid of the pot forever. All of these countries (Algeria, Russia, China) have similar unspoken contracts with their citizenry: stay the hell out of politics and we will try to throw you the best economic bone we can. They miscalculate, however: the economic liberalization is outpaced or not accompanied by political liberalization. The people will only quiesce with one half of the package for so long. China’s learning that lesson now; Algeria never really stopped learning it; and Russia is going to have to turn up the authoritarian dial to 11 once the oil gravy train starts crapping out.

    The “China, Russia -> Algeria” connection a function of shared goals and the willingness of no party to ask any questions. As long as heads of state are the exclusive brokers of relations, I think the ties are sustainable.

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