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By John Helmer, Moscow

When it comes to support for President Vladimir Putin’s international positions, the South African (SA) Government has been among the most consistent and enthusiastic of any in the world. However, Russian policy in South Africa has been damaged by the behaviour of Russian oligarchs and state businesses implicated in the corrupt schemes of former SA president Jacob Zuma; he is now facing multiple indictments for seeking and taking bribes for himself and his family.  Putin’s landing in Johannesburg on Thursday ought to have been the signal for a fresh start.

Putin was visiting South Africa (SA) this week for a summit meeting of the BRICS states – Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa.

Ahead of his departure from Moscow, Putin’s advisor on foreign affairs, Yury Ushakov, told the Tass news agency that Putin would be focusing on the nuclear reactor sale he had been promoting with Zuma. “Russia Eyes Building Nuclear Power Plant in South Africa” was the Tass headline. “Russia is interested in cooperation in the sphere of peaceful use of nuclear energy, including construction of a NPP [nuclear power plant] in South Africa,” Ushakov was quoted as saying, “ continued supplies of uranium product to this country, and joint making of isotope products.”  


Left to right: Putin; Adviser to the President Yury Ushakov, Minister of Energy Alexander Novak, Minister of Economic Development Maxim Oreshkin, Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergei Ryabkov, and the Director of Russia's Federal Service for Military and Technical Cooperation,  Dmitry Shugayev.

Ushakov was referring to a scheme devised by Sergei Kirienko, now the deputy chief of Putin’s staff. When Kirienko headed Rosatom he planned to sell South Africa $50 billion worth of reactors, based on terms of an agreement beating rival reactor bids from the US, South Korea,  France and China. Follow that and the Zuma corruption story here.

Corruption in the business of selling reactors was pioneered by the French. The notoriety of the French nuclear concern Areva in corrupt dealings in Africa has been documented, and is still being prosecuted.  It has led Areva to divest its reactor business into Framatome and renamed what’s left of itself into Orano.  The methods of the Chinese and the American nuclear reactor companies employ differences in style but not in persuasiveness. The Russian methods selected for Zuma have involved oligarch cutouts, Roman Abramovich and Vladimir Yevtushenkov.    

Left:  South African energy minister Tina Joemat-Pettersson with Sergei Kirienko after the signing of their nuclear reactor agreement in September 2014. For the text of the agreement and anti-Russian media reporting about this agreement financed by George Soros, read this.  Right: A month after the Rosatom agreement, Joemat-Pettersson signed a nuclear reactor agreement with French foreign minister Laurent Fabius in October 2014. 

Rusgeologia, a state company engaged in deep drilling for oil and gas, has also been involved in controversial dealmaking with the Zuma circle. Click to read.  

For a fresh start in Russian relations with the new SA President Ramaphosa, the sensitive words to be avoided in the communiqués and press statements are “reactor” and “geology”. Putin didn’t mention them in his speech to the BRICS session.  

In his bilateral talks with Ramaphosa, the text of a joint public statement was agreed. This included a strike by the two governments at US sanctions against Russians: “The Parties condemn extraterritorial application of national law by States in contravention of international law as another example of violation of the principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of a State.”

From left to right: Yury Ushakov, foreign affairs advisor to the President; President Putin; unidentified Russian interpreter; Mikhail Petrakov, Russian Ambassador to SA; unidentified SA official; Lindiwe Sisulu, SA Foreign Minister; President Ramaphosa; unidentified SA official. Source: http://en.kremlin.ru/

They agreed to attack US trade warfare against Russia and China. “Noting that the WTO is facing severe challenges from unilateralism, both sides agreed to work more closely under the WTO framework to oppose any forms of trade protectionism and unilateralism, uphold the legitimacy and authority of the multilateral trading system and jointly contribute to the building of an open world economy.”

Ramaphosa also joined Putin in an attack on the British manipulation of the Skripal case, agreeing to  prevent “the politicization of the activities of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.”

On the bilateral priorities between Russia and SA,  the communiqué noted “the importance of the ongoing negotiation process on developing cooperation in the energy sphere, including in the areas [of] oil, gas and electricity power generation. The Parties confirm mutual commitment to enhancing co-operation in shipbuilding, aviation industry, transport, water resources, customs matters, agriculture, forestry, fisheries and other sectors in the framework of the Joint Intergovernmental Committee on Trade and Economic Cooperation and the Russia – South Africa Business Council.”

There was no explicit mention of nuclear reactors or Rusgeologia’s offshore drilling project, although there is room in the phrase “developing cooperation in the energy sphere” for reviving both. SA sources believe that once the Ramaphosa government finalizes a new energy generation plan, there is likely to be room for one or two new nuclear reactors.  The SA minister of energy, Jeff Radebe, has promised to submit this plan to Ramaphosa in August;   so far Radebe has mentioned the production of nuclear isotopes, not nuclear electricity.

The new SA Deputy President, David Mabuza, attended Putin’s inauguration in Moscow in May, but he emphatically denied reopening the Rosatom reactor plan. Business Day reported: “ ‘In all the issues I’ve referred to above‚ there is no mention of nuclear and no discussion has taken place regarding the so-called nuclear deal‚’ said Mabuza. ‘No reference was made about any current or future agreement, [but] having said that‚ our government’s position on nuclear remains that it is part of our energy mix to diversify our sources of energy. Our integrated resource plan, to be concluded later in the year, will determine the role of nuclear in that mix‚’ said Mabuza.”

As Putin landed, Business Day reported the treasurer of the African National Congress (ANC), SA’s ruling party, as  saying “SA could not, for now, afford massive nuclear expansion, and SA’s strategy on nuclear energy should be to avoid a ‘big bang approach’.”. This meant Rosatom is still in the running for a contract for one or two reactors. 

In Moscow Rosatom was asked to clarify “why Mr Ushakov is reviving the discredited nuclear reactor deal of ex-president Zuma. Has Mr Ushakov failed to read the SA court papers?”  A judgement by SA High Court Judge Lee Bozalek in April 2017 had invalidated all of Zuma’s nuclear reactor agreements, including the American, South Korean, Russian, French, and Chinese. For the Bozalek ruling, click to open

Andrei Ivanov  (right), the head of Rosatom’s communications department, claimed he could not answer the question because “it’s not in my range of competence, so I advise you to contact the specialised subsidiary of Rosatom –  Rosatom International.” This subsidiary operates a website with email addresses and a telephone number.  A telephone call was then made to the number indicated on the website. It doesn’t operate. Two emails with the question Ivanov had avoided were then sent to the information and press addresses indicated on the website. Rosatom International refuses to respond.

Putin and Ramaphosa agreed to say in their communiqué that they “recognize the need to elevate bilateral trade, economic, investment and banking relations to a qualitatively new level, reflective of the strategic partnership of the two countries. Accordingly, they agree to enhance the level of bilateral trade in a way that is supportive of each other’s industrialization and development imperatives. The Parties gave a positive assessment of their developing interaction in the field of automotive and mechanical engineering, geology and exploitation as well as processing of natural resources.”

The catchword “banking relations” refers to the two Russian state banks which have offices in Johannesburg – Gazprombank and Vnesheconombank. VTB has also been mentioned in connexion with the proposed Rosgeologia deal.  The Vnesheconombank office in Johannesburg has been a bone of contention between the governments in the past for non-banking reasons. Promsvyazbank announced in August 2017 that it was thinking of expanding into Africa, but the bank then collapsed into bankruptcy and prosecutions for fraud. 

The communiqué’s catchword “geology” may refer to Rosgeologia;  Russian energy minister Alexander Novak was in the delegation to revive the Zuma scheme.  More promising is the reference in the joint statement to talks on the trade in arms, satellite and other electronic intelligence. “The Parties recognise the need”, according to the communiqué,  “to increase military-technical and inter-regional cooperation.” The Russian official in charge, Dmitry Shugayev (right), Director of the Federal Service for Military and Technical Cooperation, was in the Johannesburg delegation. In his previous career Shugayev was responsible for foreign contract negotiations at the Russian arms exporter, Rosoboronexport.

SA press reporting of the BRICS summit has overlooked Putin and the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in favour of the Chinese President Xi Jinpeng.   The Mail & Guardian ran a hostile opinion piece against Putin by a junior US academic, Brian Taylor.  Taylor is paid by the Smith Richardson Foundation, an anti-Russian fund supervised by a former CIA director; a former US Navy admiral and NATO commander;  and a US Army general who lobbies for US arms exporters.   

Listen as Putin’s SA policy is discussed in this interview with Michael Avery on Johannesburg’s Classic FM Radio, broadcast on Thursday evening.

Click on the broadcast here. For an alternative listening format, go to the Classic Business FM home page, and scroll down the July 26 broadcast segments, then click on this one:

Avery hosts the daily radio programme, Classic Business Tonight, the leading business news radio broadcast in South Africa. The programme archive can be listened to here.

AFTERWORD: After the radio broadcast and following publication of this story, it was reported in Johannesburg that Ramaphosa’s spokesman Khusela Diko had confirmed that Putin had raised the Rosatom nuclear deal during his meeting with Ramaphosa. “While we remain committed to an energy mix that includes nuclear, SA is not yet at the point where it is able to sign on the dotted line,” Diko has told the SA media. Rosatom responded through Dmitry Shornikov, chief executive of the company’s Central and Southern Africa division. “We have not heard anything to date. Only what we have read in the news. This said, we remain ready to provide a proposal should a nuclear energy procurement programme arise in the country. We are proud of our world class generation III+ technology and are confident in our unique integrated offer.” 



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