PRESIDENT Vladimir Putin of Russia overshadowed the weekend’s BRICS political event with his announcement that he would attend the August summit virtually rather than physically.
Putin announced that he would not attend this year’s annual BRICS summit in Johannesburg from August 22 to 24. He announced via an official statement that, by “mutual agreement” with President Cyril Ramaphosa, he would not attend the summit physically.
Instead, the country's foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, would attend the summit. It is unclear as to why Putin opted to send Russia’s foreign minister rather than its prime minister to a global summit with other world leaders. But this action could speak to the exceptional nature of the situation.
Putin’s arrest warrant for alleged war crimes, which he has denied, has been a diplomatic and political thorn in South Africa's side since it was announced by the International Criminal Court (ICC) and pressured by dominant Western political powers, particularly the US and members of the EU.
While the government may heave a sigh of relief for avoiding diplomatic dilemmas regarding Putin, South Africa’s stance and actions, both domestically and internationally, have put the country in a precarious position regarding foreign policy.
South African MPs made contradictory statements in the months before Putin's decision about the country's need to arrest him if he attended the summit.
South Africa is obligated to apprehend persons charged by the ICC as a signatory to the Rome Statute, the treaty governing the Hague court.
International relations specialist and South African chair in African Diplomacy and Foreign Policy, Professor Chris Landsberg, told SABC News that Putin's virtual attendance would greatly affect the agenda of the summit.
“It's the first time in 15 years that an important founder member will not be there. The agenda will be affected, (and) some key decisions will not be made,” Landsberg said.
He said the South African government should take responsibility for the manner in which the matter was handled and how the summit would turn out to be lower than the government’s expectations.
In response to Putin, US State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said: “President Putin can hardly leave his own borders now. He’s an international pariah who can barely leave his own borders for fear of arrest.”
Ramaphosa and the Department of International Relations and Co-operation (Dirco) have maintained the country’s neutral stance, arguing that South Africa refused to be drawn into taking sides in the conflict between Russia and Ukraine.
Putin's announcement also overshadowed the week’s latest developments: 40 countries have formally applied and expressed interest in joining the BRICS Bank ahead of the summit. The countries include Argentina, Iran, the United Arab Emirates, Cuba, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Comoros, Gabon, Kazakhstan and Saudi Arabia.
The additional names from the first 20 interested parties mentioned in June reflected the comments made by Dirco Minister Naledi Pandor, on developing countries turning to each other and economic blocs for support after feeling failed by developed countries during the Covid-19 pandemic.
“The world has faltered in co-operation. Developed countries have never met their commitments to the developing world and are trying to shift all responsibility to the Global South," Pandor said in June.
The annual summit in August is expected to cover trade and investment facilitation, sustainable development, innovation and global governance reform.
An interesting key point of discussion will be the bloc’s controversial proposition of a new, gold-backed currency.
This controversial topic has grown over BRICS members’ comments in favour of a non-Western dominant alternative currency system that would benefit a multi-polar world.
Research by UK-based macroeconomic research firm Acorn found that the BRICS now provide 31.5% of global GDP, with further projected growth. Countries that are part of the G7 economic bloc –Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the UK and the US – provide 30.7%.