Russia’s Lavrov is controversially welcomed in South Africa

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was welcomed Monday by his South African counterpart for talks in Pretoria on a visit that has sparked criticism amid the war in Ukraine.

South Africa, a continental superpower, has refused to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and has resisted taking sides in the war.

The conflict has led to sweeping Western sanctions against Moscow and attempts to keep it diplomatically isolated.

South African Foreign Minister Naledi Pandor thanked Lavrov for the “most wonderful meeting” after the talks, which she said would have rather contributed to “strengthening the already good relations” between the two countries.

Sitting next to Moscow’s top diplomat, she described Russia as a “valued partner.”

South Africa recently assumed the presidency of the BRICS, a grouping that includes Brazil, Russia, India and China to challenge the dominant US- and European-led global governance structures.

Last week it announced that it will organize 10-day joint maritime exercises with Russia and China in February off the port city of Durban and Richards Bay.

But ties with Moscow have sparked criticism in the country, with some accusing the government of abandoning its neutral stance. “It is becoming increasingly clear that the South African government is openly siding with Russia,” said Darren Bergman, a lawmaker with the main opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) party.

“Friendly relations” with Russia were “not appropriate” unless they were intended to convince Russia to end its involvement in Ukraine, he said.

Lavrov told a press conference that Russia did not “refuse” negotiations with Ukraine.

“But those who refuse should understand that the longer they refuse, the harder it is to find a solution,” he said.

Moscow officials have blamed the closure of diplomatic channels on Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who has said he will not negotiate as long as Russian leader Vladimir Putin is in power.

Despite the public overtures, the Kremlin has so far shown little willingness to soften its approach on the ground.

In Pretoria, members of South Africa’s Ukrainian community staged a small protest against the visit, with some waving signs saying “Go home Lavrov” and “Stop the lies! Stop the war.”

Last week, the foundation of the late South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, called the planned naval exercises “disgraceful” and “amount to a declaration that South Africa is joining the war against Ukraine” .

Pandor defended the exercises, saying they were part of the natural course of relations between nations.

“All countries conduct military exercises with friends,” she said.

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