If you follow press coverage of public events in Mali, particularly street demonstrations, you may have noticed a pattern over the last few years: alongside expressions of anti-French sentiment, which I’ve written about extensively on this blog, are frequently expressions of pro-Russia sentiment. Below are a few examples of photos taken at demonstrations held at Bamako’s Place de l’Indépendance over the past month.
It’s hard to know what to make of these signs. Does a broad base of support for Russia exist among Malians? Among Bamakois more specifically? Or are pro-Russia demonstrators just more likely to show up and get photographed at marches?
Well, if pollster Sidiki Guindo’s work is as reliable as in the past, Russia these days would appear to be the most popular foreign power among Bamakois. In a survey conducted immediately after the events that toppled President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita (IBK) from power on 18 August, Guindo and his team found that 88% of Bamako respondents had a favorable view of Russia–much higher than for the USA, ECOWAS, or France, though just a touch above favorable views of China.
What explains such strong support for Russia in this part of the world?
One likely factor is that a generation of Mali’s top secondary school graduates were sent for university training in the Soviet Union. It is quite common to meet Malians who studied film making in Moscow, forestry in Voronezh, law in Tashkent, or food science in Odessa. (Full disclosure: I’m married to one of them.) Most of these students received full scholarships. Between 1962 and 1993, according to research by Tatiana Smirnova and Ophélie Rillon, some 2500 Malians received Soviet degrees–which must be a huge portion of all Malian university graduates during that period. (Still others attended universities in Soviet satellite states like Poland or East Germany.) But in the 1990s with the Cold War over, that pipeline began to dry up as first Soviet and then Russian funding for scholarships diminished, and living conditions for African students in Russia deteriorated.
(My wife’s scholarship from the USSR came at the tail end of the Soviet period: it was awarded to her in 1990 and fortunately kept funding her through the completion of her masters degree in 1996, even though the USSR broke up in late 1991 and her university subsequently transformed into a Ukrainian institution.)
Africans still study in Russia today, which claims to provide 15,000 state-funded spots annually to foreign students. Training so many Malian and other African university students was something of a soft power triumph for the USSR. To this day, many of Mali’s high-ranking civil servants and leaders of industry have fond memories of their Soviet student years, and much of that goodwill has carried over to Russia.
The guys brandishing pro-Russia signs in this year’s Bamako protests, however, are too young even to remember the Soviet Union. They clearly belong to a different category of Malian russophiles. And some of them are organized.
The Groupe des Patriotes du Mali (GPM) was formed at least three years ago. It has a very active Facebook page, created in early 2017. Its content has been equal parts pro-Russia and anti-France. The GPM organized one demonstration in January 2020 demanding the departure of foreign troops from Malian soil and burning French flags, and its members and their signs have a knack for showing up in press photos of subsequent demonstrations against IBK and in support of the junta (see above).
Despite the GPM’s media savvy, however, I don’t see the organization as a mass movement. Its following is modest: most of the videos on its Facebook page received dozens or hundreds of views, not thousands. It is also entirely possible that the group receives funding from the Russian embassy in Bamako to keep it afloat.
But the GPM has clearly tapped into a vein of pro-Russia public opinion in Bamako, and perhaps in Mali more broadly, which I suspect would still exist in the absence of external support. In other words, even if the GPM turned out to be an “astroturf” organization, it’s feeding on real grassroots support. With respect to Operation Barkhane, the GPM’s message is similar to those broadcast through official and semi-official Russian channels, which have been highly critical of French military intervention in Mali. (Never mind that the French wouldn’t have been able to fly their armored vehicles in without chartered Russian cargo planes!)
In addition to scholarships and other soft-power programs, the Russians have pursued closer military ties with Mali in recent years. Russia has been Mali’s top arms supplier for the past decade. (This assertion contradicts a recent DW article on the subject, which supposedly drew its data from the same SIPRI source I used.) A bilateral military cooperation agreement was promised in 2016 and signed last year with IBK’s government. Most recently, Mali acquired two Mi-35 attack helicopters from Russia.
So I would not make too much of the fact that two of the junta leaders recently returned from military training in Russia. This doesn’t imply that Russia was behind their takeover any more than Colonel Assimi Goita’s US training implies a US backing. Friendly bilateral relations between Russia and Mali go back a long time, even if they became less prominent for a decade or two after the end of the Cold War. These relations have clearly translated into enduring public support for Russia in Bamako. And all indications are that Mali-Russia ties will deepen in the future.
Postscript, 2 June 2021: In the wake of the latest coup in Bamako and Macron’s threats to withdraw French troops from Mali, the pro-Russia voices are again being raised. Are they trying to send a message to Russia? To France?