Ethiopia and Russia: kindred spirits
Vsevolod Tkachenko is the Ambassador of the Russian Federation to Ethiopia. After graduating from the Moscow State Institute of International Relations, Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the USSR in 1983, Tkachenko started his diplomatic career the same year. He served in diplomatic missions in Uganda (1983–1988), Zimbabwe (1991–1996) and Greece (1999–2002). From 2006–2011 he was the Minister-Counselor of the Russian Embassy in South Africa. He then went back to Moscow to become deputy director of the Department of Africa of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation from 2011–2014. Since 2014, he has been the ambassador of the Russian Federation to the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia and Representative Plenipotentiary of the Russian Federation to the African Union. He holds a diplomatic rank of Minister Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary, 2nd class. Tkachenko, who is married, with one daughter and one son, speaks fluent English and Swahili. In an email interview with The Reporter, Tkachenko talks about Ethiopian-Russian relation, Sergey Lavrov’s recent visit and Russia’s place in the modern system of international relations. Excerpts:
The Reporter: You have been Ambassador in Addis Ababa for almost four years. What is your overall impression of our country?
Ambassador Vsevolod Tkachenko: To tell the truth, Ethiopian specifics did not surprise me that much after my previous assignments with different African countries. When I was a student at Moscow State Institute of International Relations I learned Swahili to perfection and thus tied my future career and life to Africa. Since then I have worked in Uganda, Zimbabwe, South Africa and Europe.
From the very beginning, Ethiopia struck me as a special country. Its ancient history and identity have made life and outlook unique. I instantly fell in love with your country, its people and culture, especially because I was lucky to witness rapid development of Ethiopia in such a short time. I see how new ambitious projects and programs are implemented in the spheres of energy, infrastructure, science and technology. At the same time, Addis Ababa is transforming into a modern city with advanced transport system, flourishing small and medium businesses, new educational institutions and diverse entertainment.
The 120th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between Ethiopia and Russia is being celebrated. How and when were these historic relations initiated?
I don´t think there are many examples of such relations that are marked with true friendship and mutual trust throughout centuries. Common orthodox faith was the foundation that brought us closer together. Faithful Russians and Ethiopians celebrate same religious holidays, observe same fasts and follow same orthodox traditions in family and social life. In fact, we are now intensifying our spiritual ties. Last month there was an exchange of religious delegations to Moscow and Addis Ababa and now we are expecting Patriarch Abune Mathias I to visit Russia for the first time. It will open a new page in the history of relations between the two sisterly churches.
Coming back to the origins of our historical friendship, it all began with contacts between our orthodox churches in the middle of the 19th century. They laid the basis on which we started to build our further cooperation. In 1895 the Russian Empire provided the Abyssinian army with 30,000 rifles and 5,000 sabers to oppose the Italian aggression. Russian volunteers under the leadership of Lieutenant Nikolay Leontiev fought shoulder to shoulder with Ethiopian brothers in the glorious Battle of Adwa. Moreover, the Russian Red Cross mission arrived in Abyssinia to take care of the sick and wounded. It was the first experience of medical cooperation between our countries that later provided basis for establishing a permanent Russian hospital in Ethiopia.
The first official Russian mission to Abyssinia was sent in 1897 in order to formalize diplomatic relations with our distant but already spiritually close and important ally. At that time it took diplomats more than half a year to set foot on Ethiopian soil. Finally, in February 1898, first Minister Resident of Russia to Ethiopia Petr Vlasov presented his credentials Emperor Menelik II signed by Emperor Nikolai II.
Let’s talk about more recent times. Russia and Ethiopia fought together against fascism. How did the bilateral cooperation develop during World War II?
For us, the victory in World War II is sacred. The USSR made the main contribution to the global triumph over Nazism. However, our country paid the highest price for universal freedom. Dozens of millions of my compatriots, both soldiers and civilians, perished in that devastating war.
We do not forget that Ethiopia was the first victim of fascist aggression. While the international community kept silent during the Italian invasion in Abyssinia in 1935, the Soviet Union was one of the few countries that strongly condemned it in the League of Nations. Among valiant heroes of that war was Mishka Babicheff, son of a Russian officer and Emperor Menelik’s sister-in-law who became one of founders and commanders of the Ethiopian military aviation.
The victory of the Ethiopian resistance over Italians in 1941 gave the world the first glimmer of hope in the global fight against fascism. We treat Ethiopian veterans with great respect and take part in joint memorial events including annual celebration of the Patriots Victory Day at Arat Kilo Square on May 5.
After Abyssinia was liberated from fascist occupation, Russian-Ethiopian diplomatic relations that had been previously interrupted in 1917 due to the Russian revolution, were reestablished in 1943. Emperor Haile Selassie I supported the USSR in the war against Nazism and even provided financial assistance to the Red Army.
Relations with the Soviet Union were of special importance to Ethiopia…
Absolutely, these were relations of not just partners but allies. Suffice it to recall how Moscow assisted Ethiopia during the Ogaden War in 1978-1979 with rapid delivery of arms, equipment and sending military advisers.
Our relations were certainly not limited to military assistance but also included broad cooperation in industry, agriculture, energy, education and culture. Take for example Bahir Dar Polytechnic University or Melka Wakana hydropower station both built by Soviet specialists. More than 20,000 Ethiopian students received education in the USSR.
By the way, the Russian Federation wrote off almost all Ethiopian debt to the Soviet Union, roughly USD five billion.
And what is the current situation regarding trade and economic relations between the two countries?
I must admit that the potential of our economic relations is far bigger that the current volume of bilateral trade. However, we have a number of important joint projects already running. Take for instance natural resources. Russian energy giant Gazprom has been undertaking oil exploration works in Afar region since 2014. Major Russian industry companies such as KAMAZ, UralVagonZavod and LiAZ are interested in establishing their production facilities in Ethiopia.
Russia is financing the UNIDO project aimed at the development of fisheries and aquaculture in Ethiopia, as well as creation of production and marketing value chains, which will provide people with fish products. We hope that these measures will assist solving the problem of food insecurity in Ethiopia.
For the majority of Ethiopians, Russia is nevertheless not just an economic partner, but a country with rich culture, developed science and medicine, as well as a place where many could get free top-quality education. Ethiopians also remember the great poet Alexander Pushkin who had Ethiopian roots. How would you comment on the current level of relations in the scientific, educational and cultural spheres?
In this context, I would rather speak about broader humanitarian cooperation, which traditionally is a strong part of our bilateral relations. Take for example the Russian Red Cross hospital named after Dejazmach Balcha, which employs dozens of Russian specialists and treats more than 70,000 Ethiopians annually.
Russia really helps Ethiopia to deal with the acute problem of infant mortality: since 2011, Ethiopian doctors and pediatricians have been receiving free special training in Russian medical centers. This year alone, 25 medical specialists from Ethiopia attended two-week courses in pediatric centers in Moscow and
Russian universities continue to educate Ethiopian students for free, including targeted training of personnel for the country's developing rail transport: first Ethiopian specialists with Russian diplomas already successfully work in this area.
For 70 years, the Russian Centre for Science and Culture, better known as Pushkin Centre, has been active in Addis Ababa. It does not only promote the Russian language and values in Ethiopia through linguistic courses and cultural events, but also serves as a link between cultures of the two countries, uniting under one roof compatriots, graduates of Soviet and Russian universities and simply everyone who is interested in developing bilateral ties.
Speaking about the roles of Ethiopia and Russia on the global arena, how do the countries build political relations on international platforms?
The success of Russian-Ethiopian political interaction is based on identical or similar positions on major global issues. Our Ethiopian partners consistently support Russian initiatives in the United Nations on the basis of reciprocity. Since Ethiopia is a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council in 2017-2018, we are also engaged in a close dialogue within this platform.
I would like to note that during recent years we have been able to bring the bilateral political dialogue to a new level. Both former minister of Foreign Affairs Tedros Adhanom (PhD) and current chief of Ethiopian diplomacy
Workneh Gebeyehu (PhD) paid working visits to the Russian capital. And most recently, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov visited Addis Ababa for the third time.
How do you evaluate the results of Sergey Lavrov’s recent visit?
Addis Ababa hosted the Russian delegation warmly. During the talks with Ethiopian partners we thoroughly discussed prospective directions of strengthening mutually beneficial cooperation in the fields of trade, economy and investments, with a focus on implementing joint projects with Ethiopia in energy, agriculture, transport, geological studies, science and technologies. The heads of foreign ministries exchanged views on practical steps towards implementing the agreements reached earlier, including the establishment of the Ethiopian Centre for Nuclear Science and Technology based on a research reactor of Russian design. The Ministers stressed the importance of further cooperation in humanitarian sphere and training of local personnel.
During his stay in Addis Ababa Sergey Lavrov also held substantive negotiations with the chairperson of the African Union Commission Moussa Faki Mahamat. Under his visionary leadership, the AU continues to strengthen its crucial role in protecting continental security, fostering integration and advocating common African position on the global arena.
As one of the founders of the Organization of African Unity and promoters of pan-Africanism, Ethiopia has always been at the forefront of tackling these issues. We appreciate Ethiopia’s efforts to resolve regional crises at all levels including within IGAD and its active participation in peacekeeping operations in Africa.
Referring to the role of Russia on the world stage, how would you define the place of your country in the modern system of international relations?
Today we are witnessing a desire of certain Western countries to create a unilateral world model according to their own scenarios, disregarding cultural features, traditions, development level of other nations and peoples. In doing so, they often flagrantly violate fundamental principles and norms of international law, show lack of respect for world community. From the Russian point of view, this approach is unacceptable since it destroys traditional values developed in societies for generations.
In countering these dangerous trends, we feel support of many countries including Ethiopia. We all agree that the only possibility of further development is to create and strengthen a genuinely multipolar world based on principles of mutual respect and balance of interests. At the same time, we believe that the United Nations should play a leading role in international security and stability.
Unfortunately, we have recently witnessed frequent attempts of certain countries to act contrary to these principles and common sense, especially towards the Russian Federation. They do it baselessly, relying on support and promotion of Russophobic propaganda by obedient Western media. It has become customary to demonize Russia and its leaders, blame us for almost all mortal sins, from interfering in elections to targeted killings; be it in Syria or elsewhere. However, these calculations proved to be wrong. When we face unfounded and unjust accusations against Russia, when we feel the pressure coming from the outside, we unite around a strong national leader. Our recent presidential elections have clearly demonstrated whom the majority of Russian people entrust their future.
As an official representative of the Russian Federation, what would be your wish for the Ethiopian people?
First of all, I would like to emphasize the rapid economic and social growth of Ethiopia, the way your country is achieving progress. I hope that your country will successfully overcome all challenges on its path towards modernization and development on the basis of national consensus, respect for state sovereignty and norms of democracy.
I will continue to do my personal best for our two sisterly nations to go forward towards better future in order to preserve and intensify excellent relations – our main historical legacy.