South Africa readies for two-day visit of President 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.

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, reports AP.