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Russia’s Putin stays away over arrest warrant as leaders of emerging economies meet in South Africa

Published: August 22, 2023, 8:16am

JOHANNESBURG (AP) — Russian President Vladimir Putin will be notably absent when Chinese President Xi Jinping and other leaders from the BRICS group of emerging economies start a three-day summit in South Africa on Tuesday.

The bloc, consisting of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa, is holding its first in-person meeting since before the COVID-19 pandemic, but Putin will participate via video call after his travel to South Africa was complicated by an International Criminal Court arrest warrant issued for him in March over the abduction of children from Ukraine.

Xi, Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and South African President Cyril Ramaphosa will attend in person as the bloc — home to 40% of the world’s population and responsible for more than 30% of global economic output — mulls a possible expansion.

That will top the agenda at Wednesday’s main summit meeting in Johannesburg’s financial district of Sandton. More than 20 nations have applied to join the bloc, according to South African officials, including Saudi Arabia, Iran and the United Arab Emirates.

Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan will be at the summit, as will Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi.

The five BRICS countries will have to agree on the criteria for new members before any countries are admitted, but a bigger BRICS is seen as a policy favored by China and Russia as a kind of coalition amid their deteriorating relations with the West.

The BRICS group was formed in 2009 by Brazil, Russia, India and China. South Africa was added in 2010.

Overall, around 1,200 delegates from the five BRICS nations and dozens of other developing countries are expected in Johannesburg, including more than 40 heads of state, according to Ramaphosa. United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres also is expected to attend.

Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov stressed that Putin will fully participate despite appearing virtually and will make a speech. Russia will also be represented in person by Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.

At the summit, there will be calls for more economic cooperation and collaboration in areas such as health, education and climate change — but under a growing sentiment in the developing world that it is not being served by what it sees as Western-led institutions such as the U.N., the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.

Ramaphosa met with Xi in the capital, Pretoria, on Tuesday ahead of the summit. The South African leader said he was seeking “Chinese support for South Africa and Africa’s call for the reform of global governance institutions, notably the United Nations Security Council.”

Africa and South America have no permanent representatives on the Security Council despite being home to nearly 2 billion people.

Xi, who has gradually resumed foreign travel after the lifting of his country’s strict COVID-19 restrictions, joined Ramaphosa to watch a ceremonial parade by soldiers at the Union Buildings, the official seat of the South African government. He then planned to travel 60 kilometers (37 miles) through South Africa’s most important economic province of Gauteng to the summit in Johannesburg.

Xi made brief comments, saying China was ready for more cooperation with Africa’s most advanced economy “to take our comprehensive strategic partnerships to new heights.”

BRICS officials have pushed back at characterizations that the bloc is taking an anti-West turn under the influence of China and Russia, saying it is rather looking out for the interests of the Global South.

But the BRICS stance is at odds with the United States and its Western allies on a number of issues, not least over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The European Union called on Xi, Lula, Modi and Ramaphosa to use this week’s gathering to condemn Russia and Putin for the war in Ukraine, but that’s unlikely to happen.

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If anything, BRICS has been a forum for Russia to express its anti-Western rhetoric, with Lavrov using a BRICS foreign ministers meeting in June to lambast the West for its “hegemony” and using “financial blackmail” to serve its “selfish interests.”

A small protest against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was held Tuesday at a public park more than 3 kilometers (1.8 miles) from the summit venue.

The U.S. and EU will be closely monitoring events in Johannesburg, with the long list of countries lining up to join BRICS suggesting that the bloc’s calls for a reorganization of the global governance structure might be hitting home with many.

Ahead of the meetings, the U.S. stressed its close ties with India, Brazil and South Africa.

Not officially on the agenda but an issue for closed-door negotiations will be food security, with the developing world especially eager to use its BRICS ties with Russia to seek more grain shipments out of both Russia and Ukraine.

Ramaphosa led a mission of African leaders to Russia and Ukraine in June, meeting Putin and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to press for more grain exports to Africa, with little result.

There’s added urgency after Russia halted a deal allowing Ukraine to export through the Black Sea last month, exacerbating hunger and pushing food prices higher. Putin later announced free Russian grain shipments to six African nations and might offer more shipments this week, some analysts say, as a means of gaining favor among the dozens of developing nations represented at the BRICS summit.

The summit officially began with a business forum on Tuesday morning, and Xi, Lula, Modi and Ramaphosa were expected to arrive at the Sandton Convention Centre for the first meeting of the leaders in the afternoon. They will hold a retreat Tuesday evening at the luxury Summer Place estate in Johannesburg’s plush Hyde Park suburb.