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Russia’s overtures in Africa have left European officials worried about the EU’s cautious pace of re-engaging Ethiopia’s government, despite accusations of war crimes and ethnic cleansing.
Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed was once a darling of the West and hailed as a reformer, even winning the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize, but has more recently been criticized for ordering the systematic killing of civilians in the Tigray region during a civil war. As a result, the EU has been reluctant to resume full financial support for the Ahmed regime, despite attempts at peace talks in the country.
But several European diplomats from the bloc’s biggest members say Russia’s growing presence in Ethiopia has made it difficult to maintain strict European standards in the country – and say countries like Italy, Germany, France and the Netherlands is pushing for more funding for the country’s government. . Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov was even in Addis Ababa on Wednesday, pledging support and accusing Western powers of maintaining a colonial mentality in the region.
“There are fears that Russia could take advantage of deteriorating ties with Addis and its Western partners,” said William Davison, senior Ethiopia analyst at the International Crisis Group. “There is therefore an overriding desire for stability in some countries with a relatively large ally for humanitarian concerns such as accountability for war crimes.”
With this in mind, the European Commission recently authorized €81.5 million in humanitarian funding for education and health projects – but made it clear that the projects would take place “outside government structures”, a woman said. spokesperson. Potential €1bn EU funding for Ethiopia, halted during the war, could be released in coming years, after strict conditions such as the withdrawal of foreign troops and a ceasefire are met – permanent fire.
“There is an openness to engage based on progress and real concerns that China and Russia are filling the gaps,” said a diplomat familiar with the matter. “But at the same time, we can’t just throw away our standards and our values.”
This constant reckoning highlights the broader challenge that haunts European policymakers: how to pursue their stated goal of promoting European values in Africa, which sometimes means withholding funds, while the Kremlin makes inroads blaming the West for Africa’s challenges and offering unconditional offers. . Or worse, let Moscow arm belligerents in fragile states and hold war criminals accountable.
When to approve money
In March, the Ethiopian government declared a truce in the conflict, which has already left tens of thousands dead and millions displaced or on the verge of starvation. Peace talks with Tigray leaders are tentatively set for August. But the Commission said the results were not sufficient to resume financial budget support which was suspended after the outbreak of war in November 2020.
“While there has been progress in Ethiopia…there is still an urgent need to restore basic services [in Tigray]such as access to fuel, energy, banks, communications,” said a Commission spokeswoman.
Unlike the EU, the World Bank has started reaching out to Prime Minister Ahmed. The bank announced in April a $300 million grant for the reconstruction of war-torn regions, including Tigray, which remains under a military blockade that continues to hurt millions of civilians.
Mehari Taddele Maru, a political economist at the European University Institute in Florence, said the World Bank’s plan was “hasty and poorly thought out” and “greases the war machine”.
“Any EU member state that supports World Bank funding, or wants to pretend nothing is happening, is ignoring possible genocide, that’s ridiculous,” he said. “It will not lead to lasting peace, but could lead to further fragmentation.”
Ethiopian Minister of State for Finance Eyob Tekalign Tolina dismissed concerns over the World Bank-funded reconstruction plan via text message, saying it was “ambitious, critical and urgent” and would rebuild schools and health services.
The minister then blamed Tigray: “Instead of wholeheartedly returning the favor (to the truce), the leaders of Tigray are beating war drums. … This group is incapable of managing peace, it thrives on conflict.
The rhetoric reflects the difficult position Brussels faces. Ethiopia is not stable ground for lasting peace talks. But peace is needed to rebuild and strengthen relations with a key regional ally.
Ethiopia’s ties with Russia, which once included support from the Soviet Union, are mostly security-related rather than an attempt to move fully into Moscow’s orbit. Russia cannot compete with China’s deep pockets and “checkbook diplomacy”. China, for example, built the headquarters of the African Union in Addis Ababa. It is also a major foreign investor in Ethiopia.
A fragile peace
Latent tensions remain throughout Ethiopia, a country of 120 million people belonging to more than 90 ethnic groups. There are fears Ethiopia could break apart as Addis Ababa tries to consolidate power through a centralized governance model.
Even with the recent infusion of development funds, economic uncertainty hangs over the country as it faces an economic crisis after a decade of growth. And there are fears that if the economy collapses, the security and migration repercussions will be felt not only in Africa but also in Europe.
Earlier this year, Ethiopia asked the International Monetary Fund to restructure some of its debt as part of an initiative to help countries cope with the fallout from the pandemic. But critics say Ethiopia’s financial woes are linked to its costly war in Tigray.
EU countries seem to have taken a varied approach to Ethiopia. France, for example, canceled an 85 million euro military loan to Ethiopia in August 2021. Yet, in May the following year, Italy announced that it had reached an agreement with the government. Ethiopia which included a “soft loan” of 22 million euros for business ventures in regions such as Tigray.
At the EU level, the bloc has not always shown a unified position. The head of Brussels diplomacy, Josep Borell, chastised the members for failing last year to reach an agreement on war-related sanctions. A diplomat said it illustrated the differing views on how best to foster peace in Ethiopia.
A spokesperson for France’s permanent representative to the EU said the country’s approach to Ethiopia is in line with the EU’s broader position that it is too early to completely normalize relations with Ahmed’s government. The permanent representatives to the EU for Germany, the Netherlands and Italy declined to comment on the case or did not respond.
A World Bank spokeswoman said funds earmarked for Ethiopia would contribute to the achievement of the goal of eradicating extreme poverty in the country. While the United States holds the most power in the organization, which grants funds mainly to developing countries and NGOs, several European countries, including Germany, France and Italy, also have their say in the management of the bank.
“This cannot be achieved without addressing fragility, conflict and violence,” she said in a written statement.
The Women of Tigray, an online advocacy network, said it was “dangerous” to further normalize relations with the Ethiopian government, calling the World Bank grant “highly irresponsible”.
He noted that relying on the federal government or pro-government NGOs as development partners, especially to scale back projects to address gender-based violence, will be “unnecessary and risks prolonging the ongoing devastation.”
Despite some signs of progress, reports of war crimes on both sides of the war continue to emerge.
Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International detailed in April the Ethiopian government’s campaign of ethnic cleansing, carried out through crimes against humanity and war crimes in western Tigray. Amnesty also reported in February that Tigray forces committed killings, rapes and looting early in the war.
Maru, the political economist, said the fundamentals that sparked the war, including tensions over the constitution and its “ethno-federalist model”, must be resolved through dialogue and a proper reconciliation process.