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Ethiopia Soviet Relations

Diplomatic relations between Russia and Ethiopia were established in 1898 , interrupted in 1917, and renewed in 1943. With the assistance of the USSR, a number of industrial facilities were built in Ethiopia, and exploration work was carried out. Over 20 thousand Ethiopian citizens received education in the USSR, five thousand specialists underwent professional training. The change of regime in Ethiopia in 1991 and the collapse of the USSR led to a reduction in bilateral cooperation.

The foreign relations of the modern Ethiopian state were driven by the government's quest to establish this multiethnic polity as a viable nation- state and to maintain its territorial integrity. In many respects, then, the foreign policy pursued by the leaders of postrevolutionary Ethiopia was consistent with the foreign policy of the old imperial regime. The aspect that changed from one era to the next was Ethiopia's ideological alignment. Whereas the regime of Emperor Haile Selassie had relied heavily on the patronage of the United States, that of President Mengistu Haile Mariam cast its fate with the Soviet Union.

The regime's efforts to resolve the country's educational problems received considerable support from abroad. The German Democratic Republic (East Germany) sent teachers, training specialists, and curriculum development experts. The Soviet Union provided hundreds of scholarships. In 1978 there were 1 ,200 Ethiopian children (aged nine to fifteen years) from poor families who attended two special schools in Cuba for an undetermined period. Other students followed this initial group.

A number of countries were generous in helping Ethiopia meet its health care needs. Cuba, the Soviet Union, and a number of East European countries provided medical assistance. In early 1980, nearly 300 Cuban medical technicians, including more than 100 physicians, supported local efforts to resolve public health problems. Most of Ethiopia's imports came from Western countries. The Soviet Union accounted for 16 percent of the value of imports in 1987. By contrast, Ethiopia's exports to the Soviet Union amounted to only 5 percent of total exports in 1987. The relatively high proportion of imports from the Soviet Union was largely because of oil; in 1987 Ethiopia received virtually all its crude petroleum from the Soviet Union.

The Derg required all civil servants and political appointees to undergo reeducation to acquire the proper socialist orientation. Many civil servants, as well as military personnel, traveled to the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe, and Cuba for ideological training.

In mid-1977 Somalia, intent upon wresting control of the Ogaden region from Ethiopia and sensing Addis Ababa's distractions, initiated a war on Ethiopia's eastern frontier. Mengistu, in need of military assistance, turned to the Soviet Union and its allies. When the Soviet Union continued to aid Ethiopia as a way of gaining influence in the country, Somalia, which until then had been a Soviet client, responded by abrogating its Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation with Moscow and by expelling all Soviet advisers.

At that point, the Soviet Union adopted Ethiopia as its main ally in the Horn of Africa. In late November, it launched a massive airlift and sealift of arms and other military equipment to Ethiopia. The Soviet turnaround immediately affected the course of the war. Starting in late November, massive Soviet military assistance began to pour into Ethiopia, with Cuban troops deploying from Angola to assist the Ethiopian units. By the end of the year, 17,000 Cubans had arrived. The vast amounts of equipment and thousands of Cuban combat troops, which enabled Ethiopia to repulse the Somali invasion.

The 1977-78 Soviet supply operation impressed Western observers, who admitted that the display of Soviet transport capability had added a "new strategic element" to the East-West balance. The Soviet Union drew on large stockpiles of equipment created by high production levels. Soviet aid—which included eighty aircraft, 600 tanks, and 300 APCs—had an estimated value of US$1 billion, surpassing in a matter of months the total value of United States aid provided to Ethiopia between 1953 and 1977. One-fourth of the Soviet assistance was a gift; reportedly, the Libyan government financed a small portion.

In November 1978, a few months after the end of the Ogaden War, Addis Ababa and Moscow signed a twenty-year Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation. Among other things, the treaty called for close military cooperation. With the promise of future arms deliveries, the Mengistu regime continued to pursue military victory against Eritrean and Tigrayan separatists in northern Ethiopia. In July 1979, for example, the Soviet Union underwrote Ethiopia's fifth offensive against Eritrea by shipping military hardware to Ethiopian army garrisons at Mersa Teklay and Asmera.

By mid- 1980 Ethiopia's military and economic debt to the Soviet Union had grown dramatically. The total value to be repaid was US$1.7 billion, to be spread over ten years beginning in 1984, with 2 percent interest to be paid concurrently on the principal. In addition, Ethiopia agreed to repay a US$300 million commercial debt to the Soviet Union for items such as trucks and cranes. Addis Ababa met these obligations by sending coffee to the Soviet Union and by making foreign-exchange payments from export earnings elsewhere. Throughout the mid-1980s, the Soviet Union's military commitment to Ethiopia continued to grow, despite Moscow's purported encouragement of a political settlement of the Eritrean problem.

Although Addis Ababa quickly developed a close relationship with the communist world, the Soviet Union and its allies had consistent difficulties working with Mengistu and the Derg. These difficulties were largely the result of the Derg's preoccupation with internal matters and the promotion of Ethiopian variations on what Marxist-Leninist theoreticians regarded as preordained steps on the road to a socialist state. The Derg's status as a military government was another source of concern. Ethiopia's communist allies made an issue of the need to create a civilian "vanguard party" that would rule a people's republic.

The Soviet Union changed policies toward its allies among the developing countries in the late 1980s; these changes appeared likely to result in significant reductions in its hitherto extensive support of Ethiopia. By then it was evident that the Soviet-Ethiopian relationship had undergone a fundamental reorientation. The change was partly the result of the new directions in Soviet foreign policy undertaken by Mikhail Gorbachev. But other contributing factors were the strong undercurrents of Soviet disapproval of Ethiopia's conduct of its internal affairs and of Addis Ababa's inability to make effective use of the aid that Moscow sent. The implications of this changed policy for Ethiopia were likely to be profound, inasmuch as continued high levels of military assistance were vital to the pursuit of Mengistu's military solution in Eritreaas well as to the fight against other internal insurgencies.

Although Ethiopia was dependent on the Soviet Union for military assistance and sided with it in the international diplomatic arena, Addis Ababa on numerous occasions demonstrated its independence in the area of domestic policy and international economic policy. For instance, the Derg procrastinated in setting up a vanguard party despite Soviet pressure to do so. Once the party was formed, it was dominated by former military personnel, again contrary to Soviet wishes. In the economic sphere, Addis Ababa had close aid and trade relations with the West and pursued a pragmatic investment policy.

As long as the Soviet Union and its allies provided support to Ethiopia's armed forces, the Mengistu government remained secure. Democratic reform in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union threatened to isolate the revolutionary government politically, militarily, and economically from its allies. In the late 1980s, however, Soviet support waned, a major factor in undermining the ability of government forces to prosecute the wars against the Eritreans and the Tigray.

When Mengistu visited the Soviet Union in 1988, Gorbachev told him that if Moscow's support were to continue, the Soviet Union would have to see dramatic changes in Ethiopia's agricultural priorities, coupled with political liberalization. The Soviet leader also refused to continue unqualified military and economic support of the Mengistu regime. A combination of economic realities and Soviet pressure encouraged the Mengistu regime in 1989 to retreat at least partially from its dogmatically statist approach to economic development.

Despite Ethiopia's growing need for helicopters and other counterinsurgency equipment, Moscow refused to conclude any new weapons contracts with the Mengistu regime. It should be pointed out, however, that the Soviet Union honored all commitments set forth in the military assistance agreement, which was to expire at the beginning of 1991. By late 1990, the Soviet-Ethiopian alliance had ended.

Gradually, the insurgent movements gained the upper hand. Faced with impending defeat, on 21 May 1991 Mengistu fled into exile in Zimbabwe; the caretaker government he left behind collapsed a week later.

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