Sudan at a crossroads: what does it mean for Belarus and Russia?

Analytics | Aliaksandr Filipau | 24-06-2019, 13:50

On April 11, 2019, mass protests in Sudan resulted in the toppling of President Omar al-Bashir, who had held the country’s highest office since 1989. The protests notwithstanding, the power transit rather resembled a military coup d’etat- the Transitional Military Council was created under the leadership of the Minister of Defense, Avvad bin Aouf (soon replaced by Abd-al-Fatikh Burkhan).

The events in Sudan raised a crucial question about the character of these political perturbations: did we witness the president’s removal from office resulting from dire economic circumstances, or it was a wholesale failure of the political system, caused by tectonic shifts in the sociopolitical fabric of the Sudanese state?

Just as in the Libyan case, the answer to this question will automatically help to answer the question about the future relationships the new Sudanese government will likely build with Russia, Belarus and other Eurasian Union countries. Will the country delve into chaos and disintegration for at least a decade or the situation will quickly return to normal? Let’s remember that the same al-Bashir managed to successfully suppress very serious protests in 1992 and 2013, that the country experienced a long-term civil war in the Western and Southern regions and some foreign powers had made several attempts to change the governments in Sudan. Moreover, it must be mentioned that this time, a number of force agencies abstained from the government’s attempts to put down the April unrest. To an extent, al-Bashir’s fall was due to the generational shifts in the ruling elite, whose cohesion, based mainly on personal networks and informal agreements, had been waning and weakening. A similar process can be traced in Libya and Algeria, where mass protests against Gaddafi and Bouteflika respectively, were regarded by most political scientists as signs of systemic crises in a number of Arab states, caused on the fragility of their political frameworks and high level of personalization.

Sudan, which emerged as a unified state mostly thanks to the outcomes of British colonial policies, was unable to complete the process of consolidated nation- and state-building throughout its independence. The history of independent Sudan is largely a story of a fragile political balance between Juhainah and Ja’alin as well as Ansars (Mahdists), Hatmiyya and Furs, periodically entering unions with any of them, of military coups and the army’s attempts to stabilize the complicated interethnic relationships partly by force, partly via personal networks, and also of relentless internal conflicts, particularly with the would-be South Sudan, which was not fitting any of the local political frameworks existing here since the pre-colonial age. Attempts to use Islam as a factor of unification often led Sudanese governments to take quite dubious decisions, from the point of view of international community.

The Transitional Military Council’s position still remains ambiguous. The militaries managed to brutally suppress a further rise of the civic resistance in early June (with a lot of casualties among the peaceful population), but the exacerbation of the socioeconomic crisis against the background of successful April protests serves to preserve the risks of new unrest. In this context, the new government, needing international recognition and rather fractured due to internal contradictions and power struggles, may behave indecisively. One can neither exclude the possibility of using protesters in the interest of various power brokers. Neither the Head of the Transitional council, Abd al-Fattah al-Burhan, nor his deputy (and the most probable rival) Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo has been able to secure sustainable internal support, mostly relying on external players (Saudi Arabia and UAE).

For Belarus, the current political turbulence in Sudan may bring about unexpected outcomes. Without doubt, Sudan, with its endemic poverty, has hardly ever been viewed by official Minsk as a potential expert for the Belarussian goods. Permanent political instability did not help to trigger bilateral projects on joint exploitation of the country’s natural resources, either. Belarus is interested in Sudan from the point of view of arms and double-purpose goods export, while Minsk has always remained cautious in this matter not to violate the international sanction regime. 

Sudden improvements in the Belarus-Sudan relations (in 2004, al-Bashir even visited Belarus) would be replaced by periods of stagnation. These fluctuations could be well noticed from the dynamics of the Belarus exports to Sudan during 2001-2018:

We must note that neither President Lukashenka’s visit to Sudan in January 2017, nor the Sudanese involvement in the Yemen war as part of the anti-Houthi coalition did not result in substantial growth of the Belarus export in this country.

Russia’s interests in Sudan are undoubtedly wider, not exhausted by trade, even including arms trade, at all. In 2007-2018, the mutual turnover of goods constituted about USD 500 mln., meagre shares of per cent from Russia’s total foreign trade. According to the country’s attractiveness ranking, calculated by the Russian export center, Sudan holds the 109th position. Russian exports to Sudan do not demonstrate any sustainable dynamics: 

 

Russian officials had previously talked about lucrative prospects of joint gold mining in Sudan, as well as creating a Russian military base on the Red Sea coast, which would considerably enhance Russian influence in Eastern Africa and, prospectively, in the southern part of the Arabian Peninsula, fitting in the overall pattern of increasing Russian presence in this part of the world. A number of media accused Russia of assisting President al-Bashir in toppling the protests in the early 2019. Nevertheless, despite certain forecasts, Russian involvement (assuming it has ever taken place) did not help to save the toppled president’s power, in the end. 

Currently, the Transitional military council faces several urgent tasks. First of all, it needs to stabilize the economic situation, which was the initial trigger of protests, as soon as possible. Most probably, al-Burhan’s and Diallo’s meetings with the Saudi and UAE representatives will help them to secure certain financial inflows from these countries, but this money will hardly suffice for long , given the endemic problems of the Sudanese economy. Moreover, further rapprochement with the Saudi Arabia will serve to decrease Russian influence in Sudan, as Riyadh sees Moscow above all as a dangerous rival. Moreover, even if Russia had indeed tried to help al-Bashir to keep power, for new Sudanese leaders it would have been a sign of Russian weakness and unreliability. In this context, Belarus, given its close unformal ties with the Emirates’ ruling family and relative freedom from the need to coordinate all its policies with Kremlin, might preserve its position in this African country.

The second task is to build personal ties with the Sudanese tribal elite. Usually, this process takes long years. In this context, al-Burhan, enjoying extensive clan-based connections via his kinship to general Ibrahim Abboud, Sudan’s president in 1958-1964, and commanding respect among the armed forces, has an obvious advantage. On the other hand, in order to remove Avvad bin Auf from power he had to rely on the assistance of Rapid Support Forces, headed by Muhammed Diallo. The latter obviously has big ambitions and has already conducted negotiations with the Saudi prince Muhammed bin Salman. On the other hand, Diallo’s relationships with the country’s tribal elite are rather weak. It makes sense to expect the intensification of rivalry between these two figures, and hence a further political destabilization.

The third task is to achieve at least some legitimacy in the eyes of the international community. The EU is worried about a possible rise of migration from Sudan in case of soaring instability, but is not yet ready to directly support the government that stains itself with brutal suppression of protests, with hundreds of casualties. For the U.S., migration problem is not that relevant, but Washington may show flexibility if Khartum strengthens its ties with the Saudis and decreases cooperation with Russia. But in case the sanction regime against Sudan is hardened, conditions for Belarus’ and Russia’s presence in the country will get much harder.