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22. February 2007

Russia promises

to step up South Africa trade

Russia promised Wednesday to increase trade with South Africa as its natural resources minister began a two-day follow-up visit to a recent trip by President Vladimir Putin.

Opening the intergovernmental Russia-South Africa conference on trade and economic cooperation, the minister, Yuri Trutnev, said that two-way trade with South Africa was too low to mention and everything possible must be done to up the rate.

The forum is meeting Wednesday and Thursday at the presidential guesthouse, five months after the visit to South Africa by Putin and before an upcoming visit by Russian premier Mikhail Fradkov.

"We are not happy with the numbers of the trade turnover. They are not such that I would mention them," said Trutnev.

"We must discover here what is holding up business cooperation. We have to work faster and more successfully to determine what we must do to promote trade between our countries. We must ask businessmen what we can do, and what we must do, to improve the trade figures."

Putin and his South African counterpart, Thabo Mbeki, oversaw the signing of a series of trade agreements last year, including a joint cooperation accord between the South African minerals giant De Beers and the Russian firm Alrosa, the world's two largest diamond producers.

The Russian billionaire Viktor Vekselberg, head of the metals conglomerate Renova, was also on hand to sign agreements on building a new ferroalloys smelter and developing an ongoing project to mine manganese ore.

Officials said two-way trade between the countries is currently about $200 million a year. Russia has replaced the UK as the premier destination for the export of South African fruit.

Although Moscow was one of the main backers of Mbeki's African National Congress during the former apartheid era, Western Europe has been the main trade partner for South Africa since the end of whites-only rule in 1994.

China's influence in the southern Africa region has also been steadily growing, leaving Putin to acknowledge during his visit in September that Moscow had "a lot of catching up to do."

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