Date: Thursday, 21 July 2022
Ph.D., independent analyst
In the period of the transformation of international relations taking place in the world, many countries inevitably have questions about finding new allies, and former interstate ties are often revised. Eritrea has repeatedly acted on multilateral platforms as a consistent ally of Russia. How bilateral relations have developed and what a common future our countries have. Petros Tseggai, Ambassador of Eritrea to Russia, answered these and other topical questions. Interviewed by Alexander Matveev.
Previously, I was a member of the Eritrean Liberation Front, served on the organization's executive committee, which was located in Europe. My diplomatic career began with the independence of Eritrea. I received my first assignment to Germany, with which diplomatic relations were established. After Berlin, I worked in Italy, then there was a second trip to Germany, after which I was sent to serve in Russia. Previously, I had already been to the Soviet Union, where I studied for 5 years at the Odessa Polytechnic Institute with a degree in chemical technology. The diplomatic mission to Moscow was the reason for the second visit to this beautiful city, but to another country. Today, I still belong to the Eritrean Liberation Front, but unlike most of my former associates, I work abroad.
Since 1890, Eritrea was an Italian colony, but after the Second World War and until 1952, the British military administration exercised control over it. We did not feel any difference between Italy and Britain - the British behaved like typical colonizers. I would even say that it has become worse than during the presence of Italy. They were only engaged in pumping resources out of the country. Britain even removed equipment from industrial facilities built by the Italians. She left nothing for the country, even the electrical cables in the port of Massawa were removed and taken away. After independence, we had to build the economy from scratch.
It is noteworthy that the new status of the Italian colonies was decided at the UN site. By decision of the organization, the territory of Somalia was transferred to Italy for 10 years, which was supposed to prepare it for independence. It seems to me rather strange that until recently the fascist state again began to lead its colony. In turn, Eritrea advocated full independence for the country. But even in this case, the UN made a decision, incomprehensible to us, to create a federation with Ethiopia. Although the entire population of our country, regardless of ethnicity and religious beliefs, was united by the desire to become an independent state.
Almost immediately after the creation of the federation, restrictions on the rights of autonomy began. At the very beginning, we had our own governing bodies and even the Ministry of Defense. But pretty soon, financial institutions, police, courts, the Eritrean flag was replaced with the Ethiopian one, and the Eritrean government was renamed the Eritrean administration. The UN did not listen to the requests of the delegation from Eritrea about the inadmissibility of such a development of events.
In these unacceptable conditions, people were forced to take up arms and start fighting for their right to be independent. We went through a long and bloody path to our independence from Ethiopia, which was noticeably superior to us technologically. It is noteworthy that the Soviet Union, which supported almost all the people's liberation movements in Africa, did not become an ally for the freedom fighters of Eritrea. There is no resentment associated with such a decision by Moscow in our people's memory, but even such a detail once again emphasizes that the decision to fight was not provoked or initiated by any external force. It was an unsupported, our own desire to gain independence. After achieving independence, difficult years of economic formation began. It is worth considering that many influential states did not like our victory. For example, the United States actively supported Ethiopia in the war and was not going to conclude equal agreements.
The struggle for independence affected most areas of Eritrean life. The country's flag also reflects our desire to commemorate one of the most significant events in our history. It has four colors. Green symbolizes agriculture and pastoralism, red symbolizes the sacrifice that our people made in the struggle for independence, blue symbolizes the sea, yellow symbolizes natural wealth, and the wreath of yellow olive branches symbolizes the peace that was achieved as a result of a long struggle.
Independence Day is the most important holiday for every Eritrean, as well as for many other nations around the world. It is celebrated in our country on May 24. Regardless of the location, we celebrate it as the most joyful event in our history. The next most important is to name June 20 - the Day of the Martyrs. We remember those who fell in the struggle for independence every year on September 1 - Revolution Day.
The ethnic composition is represented by 9 ethnic groups: Afar, Hedareb, Tigris, Tigray, Sakho (they live on the border with Djibouti and Ethiopia), Belin (a group ethnically quite close to the Arabs), Beja, Kunama and Nara. There are 9 languages spoken in Eritrea, but the most common languages are Tigrinya and Tigre. Despite the fact that there are not so many Arabs in our country, Arabic is also widely spoken, especially among Eritrean Muslims. If you know any of these three languages, you can talk to people all over the country.
There are two main religious denominations in Eritrea - Christians (mostly Orthodox) and Muslims. I would not compare Orthodoxy in Russia and Eritrea, but as far as I know, Eritrean or Coptic Orthodoxy is dogmatically more similar to the Armenian, and not the Russian Orthodox Church. It seems to me that the differences between the Orthodox directions are not so significant, but if we talk about the closest church, then this is the Armenian one. Our Easter fast is as strict as yours - you can not eat food of animal origin. More than 40 days you need to adhere to strict rules for eating food. In addition, Catholics (about 5%) and Protestants (about 4%) live in the country among Christians. As for Muslims, almost all of them adhere to the Sunni direction of Islam.
Christianity and Islam came to our country a long time ago. For one and a half thousand years these religions have coexisted in peace and harmony. Eritrea forms a single space with the Arab world. Mecca and Medina are quite close to us. The first people who professed Islam were sent to Eritrea by the Prophet Muhammad himself. Arabs who became refugees as a result of these wars found their refuge on the territory of our country. They settled in Massawa, one of the most ancient Muslim cities in Africa. Probably, these refugees from the Arabian Peninsula were the first Muslims in Africa (this question still requires the study of historians and archaeologists). For quite a long period of time, Muslims and Christians coexist in our country, respecting each other.
If you visit some caves of Eritrea, you can see ancient mummies there. It seems to me that they were the first monks who left the secular world to perform religious practices. However, we do not fully know the facts from their lives and their role for traditional religions.
Diplomatic relations between Russia and Eritrea have been going on for 27 years. They have always been progressively developing, but now is a special period in the common history. There is an exchange of delegations that discuss the development of our joint future. We expect an intensification of economic, cultural and technological cooperation. We are working to simplify the regime of joint investments in our countries. For our part, we expect Russian investment in areas such as mining and infrastructure construction. We will be glad to accept specialists from Russia who have a high technological background. We also expect to train specialists in innovative specialties in your country. Currently, 40 of our best students have had the opportunity to study in Russia - not only in Moscow, but also in St. Petersburg, Novosibirsk, Krasnodar and Voronezh. We expect their number to grow in the very near future. It is worth noting that 25 out of 40 students are graduate students. I would like to note that in our country education is considered as a priority in the distribution of budget funds.
In addition, we are also developing the medical sector with the participation of Russia, especially in the field of pharmaceuticals. Notably, unlike past colonial systems of government, Eritrea does not focus on the development of the capital alone. We are building clinics and schools all over the country and we are following the steady development of Eritrea. Large-scale work has already been carried out, but we will help to attract Russian participation in mutually beneficial projects.
We would not like to see a conflict between two brotherly countries fighting each other on the battlefield. I would emphasize that we are against double standards, against sanctions and the use of the UN in our own interests. We have repeatedly seen the policy of double standards in relation to Iraq, Libya, Yugoslavia, Afghanistan and, of course, in relation to Eritrea. Since independence, we have been subject to sanctions for going against the world's hegemons. In addition, sanctions against some African countries are set only because their natural resources are in demand in the markets, but belong to national governments. We stand for the reform of the UN - every country should have equal rights without any double standards. This was our real reason for such a vote. Today, some countries are just "toys" in the US playground. We cannot accept such games. Eritrea does not want a violation of the sovereignty of Ukraine or any other country, but we are fully fed up with sanctions and turning independent countries into "toys" in greedy hands.
In Russia, everyone is well aware of Pushkin from the school curriculum. In our schools, more attention was paid to English-language literature. We knew better about the works of Shakespeare or Mark Twain. My first acquaintance with Pushkin's work happened when I first came to the Soviet Union. People in my country became better acquainted with the personality of the great poet after the erection of a monument in his honor in the central square. Despite the existing interest, familiarization with his work is carried out through English translations. I know of only one book that has been translated into the Tigrinya language - The Captain's Daughter.
Of course, Russian composers are known, but only those who study classical music listen and understand well. Dostoevsky is famous because he was widely translated into Western languages and many books ended up in Eritrea. Above all, the Eritreans highly appreciate Crime and Punishment. In addition, the novel "War and Peace" by Tolstoy is popular, which aroused wide interest after the well-known film adaptation of this book. There is a translation of another significant work of Tolstoy, Anna Karenina, into the Tigrinya language. Also a network of translations of Chekhov's stories and Gorky's novel "Mother". The library of the capital today has a good collection of books in Russian.
I would recommend the book "Workyha: The Story of a Girl" by Musa Aron. The book was translated from Tigrinya by A. Gutgarts, it was published by the Nauka-Eastern Literature publishing house in 2019. When I was little, Musa Aron translated the book Robinson Crusoe into Tigrinya. It became the first book I read.
We used to have a strong football team, but, unfortunately, those times are in the past. The most noteworthy Eritrean athlete today is Amanuel Gebrezgabihir, a five-time African champion in cycling and a regular participant in the Tour de France.
We have a country with a favorable climate throughout the year, and already thousands of tourists from Russia have been our guests. However, the infrastructure is only developing, there is still a lot to be done. We have to admit that there are still not enough comfortable hotels. Eritrea is popular primarily among divers who can explore interesting places in the Red Sea. Another plus of Eritrea is that, unlike many African countries, we maintain peace and security. We maintain good relations with our neighbors, which helps Eritrea to remain the safest country on the continent.