It is not a coincidence that the German Chancellor should send President Bouteflika such a warm letter, encouraging more cooperation between her country and Algeria, in the aftermath of the Georgian War and on the eve of her changing her tone on Georgia’s NATO bid.
Clearly, the Germans would like to try their best to keep the Russians and the Algerians (and likely the Libyans as well) from forming an axis that would make Europe more especially dependent on Russia for energy. More [non-Russian] suppliers, in greater volume, would give the Europeans more freedom of action when it comes to Vladimir Putin’s geopolitical judo. The Algerians for their part have been friendly with the Germans (the Chancellor’s visit last month was Bouteflika’s idea), and have rather consistently voiced sympathy for the cartel idea, but their practice is more ambiguous. Still, the Germans have reason to be hopeful.
Bouteflika has had rough relations with the Russians (the Russian official media, perhaps for the first time, outrightly bashed Algeria this spring over the countries’ botched MiG deal), and he is said to be rather fond of Merkel at an interpersonal level. Russophilia is being replaced by a penchant to become a more massive European supplier. (It’s also interesting to recall some of the imagery from Bouteflika’s state visits to Moscow where he was visibly uncomfortable both with the climate and the country’s president (who appeared to be no more comfortable on his visit to Algiers).) It is telling that Medvedev has yet to plan a visit to Algiers, indicating that the Russians see Algeria as an increasingly remote candidate for their energy axis. And as a result of the recent War (in which the Russians showed that they could hit the BTC pipeline if they really wanted to), the Germans now more than ever appreciate the importance of maintaining amicable ties with Algeria.
I doubt the Algerians see their future international relations tied to Moscow, even if regime type and military cooperation make them good matches for one another. The Algerians will be content to extend bilateral cooperation with Berlin, and other European capitals, at the Russians’ expense and to their own enrichment, while continuing to pull the Russians’ chains, supporting them verbally but only occasionally in actuality (especially when doing so holds the prospect of raising prices). There is not a huge demand in Algiers to be seen to be a part of a singular axis of alliance or economics (notice the Algerians’ lukewarm embrace of the UPM, which was more rooted in a skepticism of the organization’s economic ideology than the inclusion of Israel). Parroting Moscow would limit the options for corruption among the elite, especially if this seriously damaged Algiers’s ties with Europe.
The Algerians are quick to note the importance of non-alignment (this should not be at all mistaken for neutrality) to their foreign policy (it is constitutionally mandated), and this should not be dismissed as hollow rhetoric. The Algerians will play both sides of the continent for as long as they can. The Algerians are enjoying holding the position of strength in their Teutonic encounters and will do what they can to maintain that relationship. They are more equal footing with the Russians, given the importance of Russian armaments to the Algerian military and Algeria’s natural gas resources and geography, but see themselves as out smarting them (the Russians no longer hold the debt card, and so there is little the Russians can do to coerce them). If the Russians run out of patience, and stop selling them high end weapons, they will buy knock offs from Beijing (and, they hope, newer equipment from Berlin).
Regardless of these factors, the Algerians are oriented towards Brussels increasingly for historical, cultural and economic reasons that the Russians cannot hope to challenge unless they can up the stakes in North Africa. Given their more aggressive disposition since the secession of Kosovo, they may be looking for a way to do this in the Maghreb. If they cannot, which is not out of the realm of possibility, they will increase their efforts to direct energy outlets elsewhere in Latin America and Africa (not to mention Central Asia).