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By John Helmer in Moscow

A bold move by two of Russia’s largest companies to fly General Sékouba Konaté, the acting head of the Guinean state in Conakry, to a rendezvous at the Kremlin with President Dmitri Medvedev has failed after a blaze of publicity caused the general to get cold feet.

Sources familiar with the matter in Conakry and Moscow told Business Day that three men close to Gazprom had brokered a meeting between Konate and Oleg Deripaska, chief executive and controlling shareholder of United Company Rusal, the Russian aluminium monopoly. Deripaska flew into Conakry early this week to meet Konate, a high-ranking government source said. A Gazprom plane was ready to fly Konate to his rendezvous with Medvedev. An announcement on the Kremlin website, posted on Monday afternoon, said: “Dmitry Medvedev will meet with Acting President of Guinea Sekouba Konate”.

However, late on Tuesday evening, the Kremlin announced that the visit had been called off. “The Guinean side requested to postpone the visit of the Acting President of Guinea. Due to the onset of urgent matters of an internal nature, the Guinean side requested to postpone the planned June 9 working visit of the Acting President of the Republic of Guinea Sekouba Konate in Russia to another occasion. In Moscow this message is understood and accepted.”

Konaté is acting in place of Captain Moussa Dadis Camara, the head of the Guinean state, who is still in Burkina Faso, in recuperation from an assassination attempt last December. As defence minister and commander of the army in Conakry, Konate has shown sympathy for Rusal and has backed its resistance to claims in the Conakry courts, and from senior Guinean government officials, including Camara. These charge the Russian company with failing to meet its bauxite concession obligations in Guinea, and with financial reporting and tax improprieties. An international report, commissioned by Mining Minister Mahmoud Thiam, estimates the financial damages at over $800 million.

The move to fly the Guinean general into Moscow marks an unusual operational advance by the Russians in lobbying for African political and commercial favours. An earlier effort on Rusal’s behalf was attempted in March when Alexei Vasiliev, a Russian professor at the Institute of African Studies in Moscow, flew into Conakry to meet Prime Minister Jean-Marie Dore. Vasiliev is titled Special Representative of the President of the Russian Federation for the Relations with African Leaders. Medvedev’s office refused to say at the time whether Vasiliev had been sent on Medvedev’s order, and for what purpose. Vasiliev also refused to discuss the visit.

The pressure is on Rusal to sign a deal with the Guinean Army commanders before a presidential election, scheduled for June 27, brings a new group of politicians to power. Popular hostility towards Rusal has been running high in Guinea.

Rusal has announced that the “appellate court held that the Guinean courts lack jurisdiction over the case regarding the RUSAL’s asset in Guinea and therefore reversed the ruling issued by the Guinean lower court in September 2009….RUSAL views this decision as providing a favourable step toward expanding the long-term and mutually beneficial cooperation between RUSAL and the Republic of Guinea.”

Deripaska has flown his private jet to Conakry on more than one undisclosed occasion before. The only time Rusal has officially registered his presence in the country was last August. A Rusal website release claimed at the time: “RUSAL also invests in strengthening social and economic stability in Guinea…. Oleg Deripaska met with local chiefs to discuss the priorities of the company’s social investments and the results of RUSAL’s programmes aimed at developing infrastructure, education, sports and environmental safety in Guinea.”

According to sources in Conakry, Deripaska’s meeting with Konaté this week alerted Camara, and the news of Konate’s unilateral move towards Moscow was leaked into the press. That in turn triggered the cancellation of the Kremlin trip.

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