Putin-Zuma Growing Closer: What for?

2014-08-25 14:53

President Jacob Zuma shakes hands with Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin in Moscow, Russia. (Misha Japaridze, AP)

The diplomatic traffic between Pretoria and Moscow is building up fast and exchanges between President Jacob Zuma and Russia's Vladmir Putin are indicative of this. There must be more to this than converging commercial interests.

There is so much publicized interaction among political leaders and government officials of Russia and South Africa of late that one cannot help but suspect some big developments are in the pipeline.

Zuma is currently (24 - 29 August 2014) in Moscow in what government has described as a meeting with Putin over the implementation of the Intergovernmental Committee on Trade and Economic Co-operation (ITEC) Agreements between the two countries, consultations on topical international issues like Iraq, Syria, and Ukraine.

In May, just three months earlier, Zuma and Putin held discussions over the phone that covered a wide range of issues including the Middle East and bilateral relations. In 2013, the two leaders met three or four times and held intensive discussions again on a range of issues.

These meetings are besides the growing number of discussions being conducted at ministerial level involving mostly foreign affairs ministers, ministers of trade and industry, minsters of energy and ministers of defence.

Two months prior to presidential discussions in May, the two governments had signed a Declaration of a Strategic Partnership after a wide ranging discussion that reviewed what had been done and not done the previous year. As a result, the declaration set out the agreed long-term benchmarks to work towards as the two countries strengthened cooperation in trade, investment, humanitarian affairs and international relations broadly.

So "strategic" in this case meant both the intention to deepen relations and the decision to think through cooperation into the long-term. It is often not clear why governments use "strategic" in many bilateral dialogues, but in this case it seemed that they had a clear intention on the direction of relations that justify the adjective.

Several sectoral agreements in areas like the energy, air transport, education were also signed as well as a Cooperation Programme including joint cultural projects for the period 2013-2016. There were documents signed that would promote research cooperation in areas like platinum group metals, astrophysics research, fishing, ferroalloy production and solar energy.

While SA relations with Russia are old and long-established now and have not been cold at any point in the post-1994 period, the intensity of high level political discussion is particular to the past few years and seems to be made possible by the period when both counties are members of the global reform platform called BRICS, when Russia is re-asserting its global power and through that revitalizing relations with countries of the south. The question is what explains this warming of relations? Are the actors mentioned above sufficient to explain the frequent discussions? What is to come out of these discussions or what is this crucial element that helps their strategic interests converge?

In a press conference they held in Moscow following President Zuma's visit in May 2013, President Putin sort to explain this obvious fact of intense and frequent discussions. He said, "We are meeting for the third time in a short period – just over a year – and this is a good sign. It is a sign that we pay a great deal of attention to each other, and we believe that relations between the Republic of South Africa and Russia have good prospects." For him, they were building a closer relations of friendship.

Putin went further to explain the value derived as follows: "In fact, we have very good political contacts, not only bilaterally but also in the international arena, within a variety of key international organisations." This he credited to frequent consultations and discussions at the political level. In his view, the political chemistry between them enabled them to develop shared positions of major political questions confronting the two of them (one supposes this means being able to discuss politic situations on the domestic front and in their neighbourhoods) and with regard to international affairs broadly.

Secondly, he underlined how these relations were manifest also in the growth in trade and investments between the two countries. "Last year," he reported with confidence, "our volume of trade suddenly increased by 66 percent, even by more than that. And growth in the first quarter of this year was more than 17 percent." This was the material aspect of relations, one that ensured that concrete benefits accrued to both nations and thus served national interests.

Thirdly, the shared membership of BRICS and the G20 created a need for the two countries to find each other more. It was a case of strengthening bilateral relations in order to make their shared membership of the two diplomatic club meaningful enough. This suggests that they understood the fact that the cohesion of multilateral forums required to be complemented by strong bilateral relations. The degree to which they share the understanding of questions confronting the BRICS and the G20 and perspectives on solutions strengthened their agency within these platforms. It also enables them to be particularly influential in the internal decision making.

Therefore, the Zuma visit should seen as building upon this increased interaction with three prongs: trade and investment, cohesion in diplomatic clubs and shared positions on international issues.

South Africa is in great need of investment especially in the areas of technology, innovation and skills enhancement especially in the energy sector. Russia is offering this through its companies supported generously by their government's credit insurance. There has been a dramatic increase in the volume and profile of trade and investment in the past few years. Zuma is hard pressed on the domestic front to respond to the triple challenge of poverty, unemployment and inequality. Russian investment is a welcome relief during a period of economic difficulties.

Russia is needs of friends especially among key countries of the south with whom it shares the opposition of imperialist tendencies of major western powers. South Africa appears prepared to offer Russia the support it needs in dealing with the challenges of its neighbourhood, specially in Ukraine, where South Africa shares the BRICS position that refuses to be party to western attempts to isolate Russia, but prefers inclusive dialogues that recognise Russia's interests.

Russia also needs new markets for its products as well. It has generally fallen behind other emerging powers in the scramble for trade and investment relations in Africa. It has not been enthusiastic and present in Africa as China and India, for instance. South Africa may be a gateway for future growth in trade relations with Africa.

Of course, it is not a must that Russia goes through South Africa to access the African market, but working with it on a number of fronts within the framework of BRICS-African dialogue can assist its expansion.

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