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.