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Relations with the Communist World

Mobutu's Zaire has had cooler relations with the Soviet Union than with most other major states, the coolness being a remnant of the First Republic, when the Soviet Union had attempted to assist Lumumba in his efforts to reconquer secessionist Kasai and Katanga in July-September 1960. Mobutu expelled Soviet and Czechoslovak diplomats and personnel when he first seized power on September 14. Nikita S. Khrushchev then tried unsuccessfully to use the ouster of Lumumba as the catalyst for a Soviet-Afro-Asian voting bloc in the UN and an assault on the position of the UN's secretary general, Dag Hammarskjöld. After this double defeat, the Soviet Union was left in a marginal position, with little influence in Zaire (see The Crisis of Decolonization , ch. 1).

The wave of Lumumbist "second independence" rebellions that swept the country in 1963-65 seemed to offer an opportunity for an expanded Soviet role. In January 1964, as Chinese-trained Lumumbist Pierre Mulele began his insurgency in Kwilu, all personnel of the Soviet embassy were expelled from Zaire, on the grounds of complicity (probably fictitious) with the rebellion. In fact, Soviet support for the insurgents was largely rhetorical. The Soviet Union eventually began to supply significant aid to the secessionists, overland from Sudan. But after several truckloads of arms had been stolen by rebels in southern Sudan and turned against the Sudanese government, Khartoum cut off the route to Zaire. During 1965 most communist aid to the rebellions came from China and Cuba (uncoordinated with the Soviet Union).

The Soviet Union initially reacted very negatively to Mobutu's 1965 coup, denouncing the "American grip on the country." However, the nationalization of UMHK and the reorientation of the new regime's African policy led to more positive assessments by Soviet spokesmen.

In 1967 negotiations between Zaire and the Soviet Union led to the reestablishment of normal relations between the two countries, and a new Soviet ambassador presented his credentials early in 1968. Formal ties with the Soviet Union were useful, as Mobutu, still closely linked to the United States, attempted to present an image of nonalignment. However, the chief utility of a Soviet presence was still to provide a visible scapegoat; Soviet diplomats were expelled in 1970 and 1971, on the grounds that they had fomented unrest among university students and carried out other "subversive activities."

When Mobutu developed ambitions for a leadership role in Africa and the Third World, he turned first to China rather than the Soviet Union, as a symbol of his nonalignment. In a sense, this move foreclosed the possibility of warmer ties to the Soviets, given the level of animosity between the communist superpowers. There are indications that a state visit to Moscow was in the planning stages late in 1974 but failed to materialize when the Soviet Union declined to provide the extravagant ceremonials to which Mobutu was becoming accustomed. Instead, the Zairian leader made a sudden visit to the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (North Korea) and China at the time originally announced for the visit to the Soviet Union.

The Portuguese coup of 1974 and the struggle for control of Angola placed Zaire and the Soviet Union in conflict once again. Not anticipating heavy Soviet and Cuban backing for the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (Movimento Popular de Libertação de Angola--MPLA), Mobutu took the fateful decision to commit Zairian army units to Angola, backing the National Front for the Liberation of Angola (Frente Nacional de Libertação de Angola-- FNLA) of Holden Roberto. Zairian forces probably were operating in Angola as early as March 1975. In November 1975, the Zairian-FNLA column was almost in sight of Luanda--where an FNLA government would have been installed--when it encountered Cuban troops. The Cubans inflicted a crushing defeat on the men of Mobutu and Holden, who fled back into Zaire, and the MPLA governed Angola alone.

The fact that the Soviet Union and Zaire had backed opposite sides in the Angolan civil war had a decisive impact on Zaire's foreign policy for the next decade or more. Mobutu's claim to African leadership was foreclosed, as most African governments sided with the MPLA regime. Economic and military needs pushed Mobutu back into the arms of the United States and its allies, and Mobutu took a pro-American stance on such matters as Israel's position in international organizations.

In 1977 and 1978, Zaire was invaded by a few thousand men of the FLNC (see External Threats to Regime Stability , ch. 1). These men had come from Angola, where they had been based since the early 1970s, and perhaps had undergone Cuban training there. It has been alleged that the German Democratic Republic (East Germany) was assigned the job of destabilizing Zaire, on behalf of the Soviet Union, and that the FLNC was the chosen instrument. Both in 1977 and 1978, Mobutu chose to blame the invasions on the Soviet Union and Cuba, but no evidence supporting Soviet or Cuban involvement ever came to light.

Since the Shaba invasions, there has been little significant shift in Zaire-Soviet relations. In 1986 Mobutu made an effort to "play the Soviet card," i.e., to promote the idea of closer relations with the Soviets as a ploy in his much more important struggle to maintain or augment the flow of aid and investment from the West. In sum, the Soviet Union, before it broke up into independent republics, remained of symbolic importance to Zaire and occasionally served either as a scapegoat for difficulties that were entirely or mainly domestic or as a threat to the relationship between Zaire and its Western partners.

Relations with China were cold at first because of Chinese aid to Mulele and other rebels, and Mobutu opposed seating China at the United Nations. By 1972, however, he began to view China as an important counterweight to the Soviet Union. Zaire recognized China along with North Korea and East Germany in November 1972, and in the following year Mobutu paid a state visit to Beijing from which he returned with promises of US$100 million in economic aid. The friendship with China deepened when the two countries found themselves supporting enemies of the MPLA in the Angolan civil war. During a second state visit to Beijing in 1974, Mobutu and Chairman Mao Zedong discussed further aid to the FNLA. Mobutu appeared to have been so impressed by what he saw in China and in North Korea that his rhetoric became noticeably more radical. He instituted the takeover of schools by the party and began advocating the establishment of agricultural cooperatives.

After the defeat of the FNLA, China became more circumspect in its dealings with Zaire, but Mobutu continued to emphasize his ties to China as a counterpart to his close relations to the United States and South Africa in the eyes of the world. During the second Shaba invasion, China sided firmly with Mobutu, accusing the Soviet Union and Cuba of destabilizing Central Africa by their interference. In 1983 Zaire received partial relief from its massive debt burden, as Premier Zhao Ziyang, during his elevennation African tour, announced that China was cancelling Kinshasa's US$100 million debt. The money borrowed would be reinvested in joint Chinese-Zairian projects. In the late 1980s, China provided Zaire with some military equipment and training. Following the cutoff of Western aid to Zaire in 1991, China is reported to have become more active in Zaire. An estimated 1,000 Chinese technicians reportedly were working on agricultural and forestry projects in Zaire in the early 1990s.

Because of the alleged support by Cuba and East Germany of the Shaba invasion, Zaire suspended relations with those countries in the spring of 1977. Relations with Cuba were restored in 1979, in order to facilitate Zairian participation in the nonaligned summit held in Havana in September of that year. Relations with North Korea cooled after the country recognized the MPLA regime, and North Korean military instructors left Zaire in the spring of 1977.

Romania remained one of Zaire's closest foreign partners until the fall and execution of Nicolae Ceausescu in 1989. Part of the attraction doubtless was the independence of the Ceausescu regime vis-à-vis Soviet hegemony. Mobutu seems also to have admired the cult of personality surrounding his Balkan counterpart. Relations were not just state-to-state but also party-to-party between the MPR and the Romanian Communist Party. The fall of Ceausescu, vividly presented on Kinshasa television, reportedly made a strong impression upon Mobutu, whose announcement of democratization followed shortly thereafter. Popular humor in the capital speculated upon the future of "Mobutu Sesesescu."

Data as of December 1993

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