Some have been rather mystified by the Eritrean decision to be the only African state to vote against a resolution critical of Russia for its invasion of Ukraine. Only five countries – Belarus, North Korea, Eritrea, Russia and Syria – voted against it, while 35 abstained.
See at the end the Eritrean explanation of the vote.
That Eritrea should take this stand seems surprising, but it should not have been. President Isaias has a long history of making deals with the Russians and the Soviet Union before that.
He met Russia’s Mikhail Bogdanov, Deputy Foreign Minister and Special Presidential Envoy of Russia to the Middle East and Africa in February this year. How much did Mr Bogdanov share with President Isaias about President Putin’s plans for Ukraine? We cannot know.
What we do know is that when Russia seized a chunk of Ukraine by annexing Crimea in 2014, Eritrea was not slow to endorse the action.
In May 2014 an Eritrean delegation visited Crimea, resulting in an angry complaint from Ukraine.
Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry condemned a visit by President Vladimir Putin to the Crimean peninsula annexed by Russia in March as a deliberate escalation of a crisis between the two countries. “Such a provocation is yet another confirmation that Russia is deliberately pursuing further escalation of tensions in Ukrainian-Russian relations,” Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement.
The Madote website explained the decision in these terms:
For many years, successive Kiev administrations have disrespected Eritrea’s sovereignty and territorial integrity by supporting the belligerent regime in Ethiopia and turning a blind eye to its occupation of sovereign Eritrean territories.
More concerning, it was Ukraine who sold 200 T-72 tanks worth over US$100 million in one of the largest contracts signed by the country’s arms exporter in more than 15 years. This contract was delivered despite extensive protest by the Eritrean Government, and with the knowledge of these weapons were likely going to be used against the Eritrean people.
So it’s long overdue that Ukraine looks itself in the mirror when feeling the need to lecture nations about the virtues of adhering to international law.
The war of independence
This is not the place to lay out the Eritrean relationship with the Soviets during the 1961-1991 war of independence. But it is worth noting that the excellent Historical Dictionary of Eritrea by Dan Connell and Tom Killion records certain key points.
First, that in the 1940’s the Soviets first supported the return of Eritrea to Italy as a colony, but that – after 1950 – it backed Eritrean independence. This was closely tied to the presence of American Kagnew base, which monitored Soviet missile launches.
In December 1976 the Dergue negotiated a military agreement with the Soviets and Moscow tried to persuade Ethiopia, South Yemen, Somalia and the Eritrean liberation movements, to support a regional federation. Cuba’s Fidel Castro toured the region trying to sell the idea, with little success.
Despite Soviet military equipment and expertise being provided in vast quantities to Mengistu and the Dergue, the Eritrean movements did little to criticise Moscow. The EPLF made no criticism of the Soviets until after 1980, and after a bitter internal debate inside the clandestine Eritrean People’s Revolutionary Party.
Indeed – as Gaim Kibreab reveals in his 2021 book: “From Ally to Enemy: The Soviet Union and the Horn of Africa, a failed intervention” in January 1978 the East Germans arranged a meeting between the Dergue and the EPLF. (p. 121)
Isaias Afwerki described the meeting as “historic” and went on accept a draft four point proposal from the East Germans to end the war with Ethiopia. (p. 126)
These are points 3 and 4.
3. Revolutionary Ethiopia’s secure access to the Red Sea must be guaranteed by its uninterrupted access lines and its control over Asmara and the ports of Massawa and Assab.
4. Both sides form a common commission for the purpose of implementing the above points and all other steps for the security of the Revolution in Ethiopia and regional autonomy in Eritrea.”
That President Isaias would even contemplate such a deal, which clearly compromises the goal of independence for which Eritreans had been fighting since 1961 is extraordinary.
Does President Isaias still wish to compromise Eritrean independence?
Yet there are indications that he is still not wholly sold on Eritrean independence.
As he said during his visit to Addis Ababa on 14 July 2018 after Prime Minister Abiy’s trip to Asmara: “We are no longer people of two countries. We are one,” Isaias told political and cultural figures gathered in a palace built during Ethiopia’s imperial days. “We’ll go forward together.”
In his February 2021 interview President Isaias was openly dismissive about the viability of Eritrea as an independent state. It’s economy – in his view – simply doesn’t exist.
There is no economy or trade problem in this country but the way we think which has been the root cause of our difficulties. To say COVID has had an adverse impact on our economy is an exaggeration. The issue is lack of economic development. Nobody can say “our economy is an economy”. What economy? It is a “hand to mouth economy” subsistence. It is not a big economy with productive added value. We do not have big factories, farms that use new technology, industry etc. What we have now is a subsistence economy but we are working out plans that can help us move to a sustainable economy. This is why I say there has not been any business in Eritrea that has been interrupted or closed down because of COVID. Which ones? None because they did not exist.
All of such statements make Eritreans distinctly uneasy. How all this fits into President Isaias’s world view, and his relationship with Moscow is far from clear. But nothing can be ruled out.
What we do know is that Isaias has been distrustful and antagonistic towards the United States and the West in general. His relationship with Russia is far warmer, and may now be coming to fruition.