In Central African Republic, the government relies heavily on Russian mercenaries and weaponry to fight rebels. UN experts are now accusing the Russians of gross human rights violations.
Security in the Central African Republic (CAR) comes at a heavy price. The government is still fighting different militia groups in many parts of the country, and attacks on civilians have become routine.
As a result, hundreds of thousands have been displaced. Yet, around 12,000 UN blue helmet soldiers are supposed to stabilize the country and support the regular security forces, but the situation remains fragile.
It is no longer a secret that the government in the capital Bangui has solicited the services of Russian mercenaries to maintain security, albeit criticism.
However, most recently, UN experts reported on "serious human rights violations" allegedly committed by Russian security companies, including mass shootings, arbitrary arrests, torture, and attacks on civilian facilities.
Russia's low profile
When DW asked the Russian foreign ministry about the allegations, the latter replied in a statement but evasively. "Military specialists from Russia are sent to the country as per the UN Security Council guidelines."
"Russian aid is being provided in line with the international community's general efforts to strengthen the Central African Republic's security structures," the response to DW further said.
Moscow officially gives the number of Russian military experts in CAR at 535. But according to press reports, the actual number is much higher. The Wagner Group alone, a private security company from Russia, employs over 1,000 people in CAR.
There are also other companies such as Sewa Security Services. They guard airports, ministries and are part of President Touadera's security detail.
Security as a business
Russia's foreign ministry further said that it had "no information on the total number of Russian citizens currently in the CAR." Russian citizens who "temporarily stay in the Central African Republic for business or tourist purposes" are not obliged to report to the Russian consulate.
In an interview with DW, Paul Stronski of the Carnegie Foundation for International peace said, "It is well known that the security companies are connected to the underworld and organized crime. They regard their use as a lucrative business, and their services are partly paid for with shares in gold and diamond mines."
"For Russia, the Central African Republic is part of its long-term strategy to expand its influence on the African continent. At the same time, the use of private mercenaries is seen as an inexpensive way of demonstrating Russia's global clout," Stronski added.
Meanwhile, the elites in CAR are increasingly dependent on the Russian security companies. This partnership is not only about politics, but above all, also about economic interests. "CAR is not only rich in raw materials such as gold and diamonds, but it is also very interesting from a geostrategic point of view."
CAR's cooperation with Russia goes back to the 1960s and 1970s when Russia was still a federation. It was renewed in October 2017 when Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov met with President Touadera in Sochi, Russia.
Two months later, Russia received an exemption from the UN, despite an existing arms embargo, to deliver weapons to the CAR. The weapons included Kalashnikov rifles, pistols, rocket launchers, and surface-to-air missiles.
In May 2018, Touadera traveled to Russia again and met with Putin. During their meeting, the two leaders quickly agreed on granting mining licenses to Russian companies in exchange for pacifying regions with gold, diamonds, and uranium deposits.
In July 2018, Putin sent the first Russian military advisers and mercenaries from the Wagner company to Bangui to secure the activities of Russian companies, train Central African soldiers and protect top government officials.
President Putin's 'ace card'
Russia was never a colonial power in Africa, which gives it a comparative advantage to achieve its goals on the continent. In the case of CAR, "Putin is a reliable partner. He protects the politicians in power and is clearly against the opposition. His position pleases those in power," Nina Bachkatov, a Russia expert and author of the blog "Inside Russia and Eurasia", told DW.
Russia is also positioning itself as an opponent of France, according to Paul Stronski. Again, the card of "anti-imperialist Russia" is often played, unlike the former colonial power France. The core message: Russia -- unlike France -- has the necessary clout and credibility to solve CAR problems. Step by step, Putin's Russia is preparing to challenge the former colonial power France for political and economic supremacy in CAR.
Russian diplomatic scandal
To achieve this goal, Russian government officials do not seem to shy away from unusual rhetoric. A few days before the UN expert group's report was published, the Russian ambassador in Bangui, Vladimir Titorenko, publicly threatened the rebel leader Francois Bozize with death. He said, "the former president should renounce the armed struggle; otherwise, he would be neutralized by the armed forces."
Serge Simon Bozanga, a spokesman for the rebel group CPC, lamented the excessive interference by a foreign diplomat in the internal affairs of CAR. And the President of the Central African League for Human Rights, Joseph Bindoumi, told DW that "the Russian ambassador has clearly exceeded his competencies as a foreign diplomat."
Mikhail Bushuev and Eric Topona contributed to this report.