Word that Algeria is willing to increase its gas supplies to its European customers (and that it would “never” cut supply to Spain, one of its largest partners), as long term contracts allow, is significant in many ways. It is surely an expression of Algerians’ desire to distance themselves from Russia’s aggressive attempts to cut supply, maintaining their autonomy in the gas game and shifting their place on the board.
On the European front, it is partially the result of Algeria realizing that placing itself even partially on Russia’s “side” is bound for failure. One of the main lessons Algerians took away from the Cold War, as it seems from talking to former diplomats, has been that it was a mistake to have made the country appear to have been a Soviet-leaning state within the Non-Allied Movement. This caused Western powers to view Algeria’s border disputes and its backing of national liberation movements in Africa as part of the Soviet-communist effort and to oppose them in the UN and other fora. Such Algerians tend to take the view that had Algeria positioned itself more closely to China, which has become increasingly powerful as Russia has become increasingly fragile and whose relationship with the West is less heated, Algeria could have avoided much acrimony with the United States or Western Europe. This ignores, though, that anti-American rhetoric was not the result of the Soviet relationship, but rather of Algeria’s own view of that country, despite their close economic and technical ties.
Over the last decade, Algeria has spent some time diversifying its international partnerships. Notably, it has de-emphasized its historic relationship with Russia, particularly following the arms-for-debt-forgiveness spell in 2006. No longer indebted to Western Europeans or the Russians, the Algerians have been relatively free to cultivate good relations with many powers, China being chief among these. Whether it is infrastructure, parliamentary cooperation or anything else there is a Chinese footprint. This can been seen in Algiers’s growing China town, in security firms in Kabylia and in the major construction projects from Batna to Constantine to Setif. One hears Kabyle, Derja and French being spoken with a Chinese accent in the most unexpected of places. Ties with Iran are also growing in importance, a function of reconciliation that took place in the early part of the decade between Bouteflika and Khatami, and which has carried on with Ahmadinejad, though in a more muted way. Of most immediate importance has been the growth in amiable relations with western European countries throughout the Bouteflika period. The Algerians view this as smart position for a middle power, because of China’s almost Westphalian commitment to territorial integrity (remember that Bouteflika was terse when it came to commenting on Russia’s invasion of Georgia, following Beijing‘s position) and because it sees China, not Russia, as the truly ascendent of the eastern powers. One will note that Algeria’s relationship with India, usually cordial, is nowhere near as high profile as its China ties and that the Algerians sent the president’s assistant Belkhadem (who was also sent to Paris in preparation for the Mediterranean Union talks, which the Algerians have been quick to dismiss as irrelevant; one can tell where international engagements rank on Algeria’s list of priorities by whether Bouteflika or Ouyahia is sent as opposed to Belkhadem, who has little constitutional power) and not Ouyahia to the Indo-African Summit last year, while Bouteflika made high profile visits to Tehran and China.
Russia’s efforts to create a “gas OPEC,” bringing the biggest suppliers under its influence have fallen flat in North Africa. Algeria has had little interest in the project, largely because it sees itself as being of greater relevance as an independent actor that can present itself as an alternative to Russian supplies for those countries fearing Russian mood swings. Germany has taken a strong initiative towards increasing North African supplies to off set Russian influence in its neck of the woods, as was seen in July. Algeria has worked closely with Germany, Norway, Italy and other countries, aside from its traditional customers in Spain, to find a place for Algerian gas further north. In this effort, the Algerians hope to avoid one of their chief mistakes during the 20th century: Being too closely identified with Russia. There are other factors at work as well: important segments of the Algerian population and younger elements in the political class identify strongly relate Russia (and Putin, in particular) to the slaughter in Chechyna not so long ago. Others, as one elderly diplomat remarked, see Russia as a passing phenomena: the Soviet Union did not out last the 20th century, while China has existed for thousands of years and Russia’s economic structure is as potentially unstable as Algeria’s own (ironic, given that Algeria itself cannot trace its own existence back farther than 1830, while both the Russians and Chinese were important powers hundreds of years prior).
On a wider scale, one may remember that Hugo Chavez made his way to Algiers in 2006. Algeria still rubs elbows with members of Russia’s mouthy oil producers clique, but never formally joined. Therefore, in Latin America, Algeria has remained fixated on Brazil, the more moderate consumer of significant portions of Algerian exports. It has avoided speaking so loudly as Iran and Venezuela, mindful of the precariousness of high oil prices. The “Axis of Sovereignty” driven by Beijing and Moscow, including most of Central Asia, Iran, Zimbabwe, South Africa, Algeria and other rising and developing powers has two poles: Moscow and Beijing. Loudmouthed or geopolitically [mostly] irrelevant states cluster round Moscow; the quiet powers with dirty secrets driving their obsession with sovereignty meet in Beijing. Algeria increasingly sees itself as one of the latter.
Still, Algeria keeps its Russian portfolio open. It refused to recognize Kosovo‘s independence, in no small part because it would irritate Moscow. There is nostalgia among older officials for their time spent studying or working with Soviet comrades, strongest amongst members of the military and security services. Algeria’s military infrastructure remains mainly Russian, though every Algerian conscript has held a Chinese type 81 rifle and, for the most part, that which is not Russian is Chinese. Though there is no desire to “break” with Russia, but they see heavy reliance on Russia as a potential hindrance in the pursuit of long term goals. Russia is still the most likely state to aid Algeria in an arms race with Morocco. After all, Algeria did sign cooperative memoranda with Russia in 2006 and 2007 when tensions between the EU and Russia were obvious.
In all of this, the Algerians are convinced that their long term interest is to remain strategically aloof from the problems in Eastern Europe or the furious language that Russia’s protégées have heaped on America and the rest of the rich world. Instead, it has reserved its venom for African issues (note the Algerian UN ambassador’s love for calling the crimes in Darfur “alleged” or “imagined” and his defense of Zimbabwe and Algeria’s on going jihad against the Mauritanian junta, linked back to the Saharan issue) and those which related to developing nations broadly. They have sought to make Algeria an important supplier in Europe in and of itself, not as a function of any axis or alliance. They have concluded LNG contracts with Turkey and others, are most recently seeking one in the Netherlands. In this, they have sought to go around traditional points of reference — France and Russia especially — in favor of Germany, Turkey, Spain, and Italy, a combination of old customers and major centers of gravity on the continent whom they see as being more respectful of Algeria’s desire for geopolitical autonomy, because of their physical distance and principles. Despite its reliance on Russian armaments, Algeria does not want to risk economic or political stability by banking on an exclusive relationship with Moscow.