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26 Jun, 2009 17:12

Medvedev looking for diamonds in the rough in Angola

Diamonds, oil and gas were the key topics discussed by Russia and Angola during President Dmitry Medvedev's visit to the country.

The Russian president is wrapping up his African tour in Angola, after stops in Egypt, Nigeria and Namibia.

President Medvedev and his Angolan counterpart, Jose Eduardo Dos Santos, witnessed the signing of several documents, among them intergovernmental agreements on air traffic and mutual protection of investments.

The two countries also agreed to cooperate on a slate of economic, scientific, technical and trade matters up through 2013, as well as signed memoranda of understanding on natural resources and education.

In addition, Russia and Angola announced the launch of the AngoSat national satellite telecom project.

“We have discussed both the economic and humanitarian aspects of our relations,” Medvedev said after meeting Dos Santos. “The conclusion we came to was as follows: while our relations are good in terms of their content, they need some adjustment.”

“We must substantiate our economic relations with new major projects,” he continued. “Some agreements were signed today, but that’s just the beginning. We realize that the distance between signed papers and actual results is rather great. The most important thing is that we have provided a new impetus for our economic cooperation.”

Angola is one of the richest African countries in terms of resources, as well as one of the biggest oil producers on the continent. However, as much as 70% of the republic’s population lives on less than $1 a day.

Last year, trade turnover between the two countries reached $76.3 million.

Soviet phantoms of Angolan war

Following the war for independence from Portugal in 1975, Angola faced a civil war that lasted for 27 years and claimed thousands of lives.

The South African regime, eager to establish control over the region, wanted to overthrow the government and put the opposition movement UNITA in power.

In 1988, South African troops reached Cuito Cuanavale where one of the definitive battles in the Angolan Civil War took place.

It is also known as “Africa's largest land battle since World War Two”. The lesser known fact is that Soviet military specialists were working with every Angolan brigade. Officially, however, the thousands of Soviet translators and consultants were never there.

Today, the veterans of Angola look back and tell their stories with a bitter smile. Andrey Polikanov, a military translator said:

“Take some of our boys in the Navy, for example. They were there, but their papers said they'd never left their navy base in Russia. When they found out, they were asking each other if they should just throw out the photos of them under the African palm trees.”

With time, the shroud of secrecy began to lift in Russia. In 2002, the Angolan Veterans Union was established. Last year, all those who served in Angola came under an amended Russian Veterans Law, but problems still remain.

According to Vadim Sagachko, the Chairman of Angolan Veterans Union, there are too many legal and bureaucratic hang-ups.

“For example – young translators who came to Angola and were in battle zones – in order to prove that they’d been there, they had to get a bunch of signatures from superiors, which they were totally unaware of. So they came home and got nothing,” he said.

They had to live in whatever conditions were available, knowing that should anything happen – they would vanish in Angola, because, according to Soviet officials – they weren’t there.

Yury Andrianov, former operations specialist for Angolan liberation forces believes “a Russian will try to make a home wherever he is.”

So, he recalls, “when we all got there – we tried to build a banya, hang some curtains – you know, make it homely.”

But, he continues, “if we were moved to the battle zones – well, there you do what everyone else does. Sleep in trenches, eat from the same pot – or not eat for days. In the end, Angola for us became more than just another posting. It became special.”

It was Angola which first thanked these men for their help. Their motherland chose to make them phantoms of war. Only years later did these men begin to be given a voice, but for many this has come too late.