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World: Analysis From Washington -- The Angola Variant

  • Paul Goble



Washington, 10 April 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Governments of countries which earn most of their income through the export of a single raw material often are unwilling to promote human rights or social welfare. But at the same time, these states are very much prepared to spend money on the military both to justify their existence and to keep themselves in power.

And because their exports -- especially oil -- are so valuable to many other governments, these states often are able to escape significant criticism of their policies, a pattern that the historical record suggests may create over time precisely the instability that both the exporters and those who purchase their raw materials say they want to avoid.

That is the clear lesson of recent developments in the African country of Angola, but it is one that appears to have a clear application to several post-Soviet states which are benefiting from the recent rise in oil prices to finance military activities or which hope to power their economic development through the export of petroleum or some other raw materials.

According to an analysis published on Sunday by American journalist Blaine Harden, Angola suffers from "the paradox of plenty": Its enormous and apparently increasing oil wealth has permitted the government in Luanda to enrich itself while allowing the majority of Angolans to fall into ever more terrible poverty. And this wealth has also allowed the government there to escape serious criticism from Western oil purchasers.

As a result, Harden points out, the government there has become ever more corrupt, its reliance on security forces to keep the population in line has increased, and its need to continue a military campaign against insurgents rather than seek an accommodation with them has grown over time. And because of these factors, Harden notes, Angola has remained "impervious to the greater openness now seen across much of Africa."

Harden's conclusions about Angola clearly apply elsewhere as well. Buoyed by the rise in oil prices and the income that has generated for the Russian government, Moscow has conducted a war in Chechnya that it could not otherwise pay for. Moreover, with this new source of income, the Russian authorities have become dismissive of any Western criticism by the West noting that they can make it without Western loans.

Last week, for example, one Russian official after another noted that Moscow would like to get more assistance from the West but that it would not significantly change its policies in order to do so. Several Russian commentators argued that Europeans would soon be forced to moderate their criticism of Moscow's Chechen policy because they need Russian gas and oil.

But there is an even more disturbing parallel with the Angola variant: Ever more Russian officials are calling for building up the country's national defense even though it faces no clear threat and even though money spent on the military will not be available to alleviate the social and economic problems of the population as a whole.

Initially and again as in Angola, such a strategy may be popular, but over time, it is likely to lose support, potentially leading the government to rely on the constant generation of new enemies to justify this approach and possibly to employ ever more repressive means to keep itself in power.

In several other post-Soviet states, the danger of an Angola variant may be even greater. The government of Turkmenistan is certainly using what revenues it gains from the export of natural gas in this way. And several other states in the region which have begun to earn money from the export of oil and gas or hope to do so soon also find themselves at risk.

In all too many cases, the governments of these countries have not adopted policies designed to diversify the economy and spread the wealth as some oil exporters in other parts of the world have begun to do. Instead, they have chosen to concentrate wealth in the hands of a few, an arrangement that almost always contributes to both corruption and repression in the short term and to instability over the longer haul.

Moreover, all too many of these countries have escaped the kind of Western criticism for their social policies and human rights shortcomings that their non-oil-exporting neighbors have regularly received. And that in turn has made both the exporters and the non-exporters more cynical than ever about whatever human rights criticism there has been.

Many people in the Russian Federation and other post-Soviet states have regularly talked about a "Latin American variant" for their futures: an authoritarian regime that could manage the transition from instability to a more open and just future.

But the Angola variant serves as a reminder that any reliance on authoritarianism supported by the export of raw materials can have another and much less positive result, one that neither the exporters nor the importers of these raw materials ultimately are likely to be satisfied with.

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