Russia is back in the Central African Republic (CAR).
In a military training base located on former palace grounds southwest of the capital Bangui, hundreds of Russian fighters, described as army reservists, are training CAR government soldiers in preparation for deployment along the country’s border.
The CAR government hopes to regain control of the country, which is torn by sectarian violence and the operations of 14 rebel groups. CAR, formerly colonised by France, is rich in strategically important minerals, diamonds and gold.
Russia has sought influence in CAR before, when the Soviet Union developed ties during the reign of former President Jean-Bedel Bokassa before he was overthrown in 1979.
In 2017, CAR President Faustin-Archange Touadera reached out to Russian President Vladimir Putin on the sidelines of a UN General Assembly meeting, asking for help. It was a meeting that stunned many on the security council, especially France, which had advised the presidents of CAR for years.
Russia has returned to Africa ... on the invitation of the president.
Valery Zakharov, a former Russian intelligence official, stepped in as an adviser to CAR’s president.
Zakharov gave Al Jazeera access to the military base, where three Russian journalists were killed investigating the potential involvement of a Russian private security company, the Wagner Group.
He denies accusations that Russia will exploit resources or cause instability and told Al Jazeera that Russia hopes to end conflict in the country.
“My job is to deal with national security, I help restore the army, police and all sorts of questions regarding national security,” he said.
“The Russians came here to bring peace. To arm government troops is one of the tasks so in the future these soldiers can occupy the borders and peace can be brought here in the end, and police take care of internal security.”
While Russia did help broker a peace deal that was signed by the 14 armed groups in February 2019, some are still concerned that Russia is playing a geopolitical chess game in Africa involving China and the United States, which have already established bases in places like Djibouti.
Just a 10-minute car drive away from the presidential palace is the mainly Muslim PK5 neighbourhood, which is effectively dominated by Seleka fighter Nimery Matar Djamous aka “General Force,” who is accused of war crimes including torture, rape, and extortion, and has evaded arrest by the United Nations security forces.
He views the arrival of the Russians with deep suspicion.
“I trust the president of the Central African Republic, it’s us who elected the president, in a difficult moment … He worked well, but there’s … the politics that exceed him,” he said.
“The Russians are not here to help, they want our gold, diamonds and minerals. They are here to exploit and replace the French. What they want is to obtain France’s position here.”
There are other concerns about interference. Gunshots were fired after Karim Meckassoua, then-president of the CAR National Assembly, was dismissed from his position in a vote of no confidence. He believes Russia orchestrated the move.
“Because I was bothering them, putting up obstacles. They are ignoring our constitution. Only the national assembly can be in charge of the country’s wealth, in other words, no licence to mines or financial contracts or timber exploitation can be delivered without the consent of the national assembly. Who is trying to brush our laws aside? The Russians,” Meckassoua said.
Najat Rochdi from the UN peacekeeping mission, MINUSCA, said peacekeepers welcomed involvement from all member states, but they must abide by some rules.
“The presence of the Russian, you know, this country needs the support of everybody, really, of everybody in terms of member states. Every single member state is more than welcome to support the country, while it comes also with some obligations. And the obligation is to be part of the international community and of the partners and to play the game by the name.”