Russia denies dirty dealing on nukes
Envoy says Moscow has no knowledge of Zuma shenanigans
Russia is seeking to distance itself from the controversy over the Zuma government's nuclear deal, denying it was party to attempts to rig the contract worth more than R1-trillion.
In an exclusive interview with the Sunday Times, the Russian ambassador to Pretoria, Mikhail Petrakov, rejected claims that his government had strong-armed former president Jacob Zuma and former energy minister Tina Joemat-Pettersson to guarantee the contract for eight power stations, and said Moscow had intended to go through the "proper procedures" to compete for the deal.
In a wide-ranging interview in which the Russian government also rejected reports it had interfered with the May 8 elections, Petrakov said there were attempts to "vilify" Russia and create fear about its activities.
He said President Vladimir Putin had stated in March 2013 that Russia's intention was to help SA develop its nuclear energy industry, which included construction of nuclear power plants and research reactors, and designing and manufacturing SA's own nuclear power equipment.
"For us it was never about grabbing a contract, rather a mutually beneficial venue of co-operation," Petrakov said.
The assertions ramp up pressure on Zuma to respond to evidence presented at the Zondo commission that he abused his office and wanted to flout legal procedures to bulldoze through the nuclear deal even though SA could not afford it.
'A QUESTION FOR MR ZUMA'
Former finance minister Nhlanhla Nene testified at the commission in October that Zuma and Joemat-Pettersson had pressured him to sign a letter to the Russian authorities, which would have served as a guarantee for the nuclear deal.
Nene said that at a July 2015 meeting of the Brics group - Brazil, Russia, India, China and SA - in Ufa, Russia, Zuma demanded that the letter be signed before a meeting with Putin.
"I told president Zuma that I could not sign the letter without having first interrogated the financial and fiscal implications and proposed funding model," Nene testified at the state capture inquiry.
But Petrakov says his government has no knowledge of this letter.
"Whatever guarantee document SA had or did not have, I do not know. We simply know nothing about it. This is your internal matter and a question rather to former president Mr Zuma," Petrakov said.
Zuma admitted in an interview with Business Day in March that he favoured the Russian nuclear company Rosatom acquiring the contract, saying this would have solved SA's energy problems.
Zuma's spokesperson Vukile Mathabela did not respond to questions from the Sunday Times.
The nuclear deal, which was intended to add 9,600MW to the power grid, was halted when the Cape Town high court declared government procedures "unconstitutional and unlawful".
The inter-governmental agreement signed with Russia, as well as subsequent agreements signed with the US and South Korea, were all set aside by the court.
Petrakov said President Cyril Ramaphosa had informed Putin on the sidelines of the Brics summit in Johannesburg last year of SA's financial constraints that prevented the nuclear programme going ahead.
"Our position was and remains that the nuclear programme is a domestic matter of SA. The decision on the matter lies totally with the South African government."
Petrakov said he had never met or interacted in any way with any member of the Gupta family, which was allegedly intended to benefit from the nuclear deal through its company Shiva Uranium.
"I do not know if and why they travelled at any point to Russia," he said.
"Russia is very good at nuclear technologies, I am not shy to say this. We know how to do these things. Our reactors have been successfully working for dozens of years and hence have reference. Yes, we want to promote our technologies. It is commerce, after all. We want to earn money."
Petrakov said the nuclear programme would have been "a great opportunity to upgrade the level of economic relationship even more".
"I do not see anything wrong with that. The project was politicised and mythologised within the domestic South African context, with which we have nothing to do," he said.
Regarding reports in Daily Maverick and The Guardian about an election disinformation campaign favouring the ANC hatched by people with links to a Russian business person known as "Putin's chef", Petrakov said the allegations were "utterly unverifiable".
"The allegations against Russia, that Moscow is trying to interfere in domestic affairs of other states, be it here or in the US, make us an enemy you love to hate in the eyes of the media. These allegations always turn out to be fake news," Petrakov said.
ANC elections head Fikile Mbalula said the party had not obtained any campaign material from a foreign source and had not seen the document quoted by the publications.
"Why would we ask marketing advice from Russians? We do our own stuff," he said.
Ndivhuwo Mabaya, spokesperson for the department of international relations & co-operation, said there had been no interaction between the two governments on the allegations of election interference.
"SA and Russia have good diplomatic, economic and political relations. They are all members of Brics and the UN Security Council. We consult on all global matters as part of the bilateral and multilateral engagements," Mabaya said.