South Africa Readies for 2-Day Visit From Russia's Putin

South Africa is rolling out the red carpet for Russian President Vladimir Putin, who arrives Tuesday for a two-day visit expected to strengthen economic ties and political cooperation on issues like U.N. reform and the Iranian nuclear standoff.

Putin, the first Russian head of state to visit South Africa, will be accompanied by a heavyweight business contingent intent on forging closer links and boosting investment in the diamond, mining and metals sectors.

The South African Foreign Ministry on Monday said that Putin's bilateral talks with President Thabo Mbeki would include discussions about the Middle East crisis and Iran's nuclear ambitions.

• CountryWatch: Russia | South Africa

Russia has generally opposed the push by the United States, Britain and France for the U.N. Security Council to get tough with Tehran. South Africa, which says that countries should be allowed to peaceful uses of nuclear energy, contends that U.N. sanctions would be counterproductive.

Mbeki and Putin are expected to sign a number of partnership and cooperation agreements, including on health care and outer space exploration — where South Africa wants to become a bigger player in international astronomy and deep space research.

Putin will also make a brief visit to Robben Island, where former President Nelson Mandela and other anti-apartheid leaders were imprisoned. The Soviet Union was a powerful supporter of the underground African National Congress when it was banned by the white racist government. Mbeki received military training in Russia in 1970, as did other members of the current government.

Moscow, which used many African countries as pawns against the West during the Cold War era, has lost much influence on the continent to China. But in his state of the nation address in May, Putin indicated that Russian wanted better relations with Africa.

"Russia's economic gains and brighter prospects are the basis of a new foreign policy that seeks to renew, on a different basis, Russia's presence in regions it vacated with the collapse of the Soviet Union," said Irina Filatova, a professor emeritus at the University of KwaZulu-Natal and professor of the Moscow High School of Economics.

"This is the key to the visit: Russia is back," she wrote in a column in South Africa's Business Day newspaper.

Given that Russia holds the leadership of the Group of Eight, Mbeki is also anxious to remind him of industrialized nations' commitments to helping Africa through trade and aid.

Most of the focus is expected to be on business links, because of Russia's thirst for raw materials, South Africa's need for investment, and their joint domination of the diamond and platinum market.

Putin is to talk Tuesday with Nicky Oppenheimer, chairman of the De Beers group, the world's largest diamond mining company. With him will be Alexander Nichiporuk, president of Russia's Alrosa, the second biggest rough diamond company.

The two companies were the subject of an antitrust probe by the European Union into a 2001 deal whereby De Beers said it would buy diamonds worth US$800 million from Alrosa every year for five years. The EU in February forced De Beers to agree to stop buying diamonds from Alrosa beginning in 2009, to open up more opportunity for competition. De Beers controls about 60 percent of the world's rough diamond supplies and produces 43 percent of world output.

Putin and Mbeki are also due to attend a Russian-South African business forum grouping top Russian business figures such as EurasHolding Alexander Abramov, and oil and metals magnate Viktor Vekselberg. South African companies include the state oil refining body SASOL, media giant Naspers, Sun International leisure group, and mining companies Anglo-American and Gold Fields.

South African exports to Russia totaled US$130 million in 2004, with Russia replacing Britain as the biggest buyer of fruit. It imported just US$9 million worth of goods, mainly nickel.

• CountryWatch: Russia | South Africa