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Last week, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced that he won’t be going to South Africa for next month’s summit of the BRICS countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa), although all the other leaders will be there. In fact another couple of dozen national leaders who want to join the club will also be there. Why is Putin staying away?
One reason might be that it’s too dangerous, because a lot of Ukrainians want him dead. South Africa would doubtless let him bring his own security team, but he’s been quite cautious recently, visiting only dictator-run post-Soviet states (and a China trip coming up in October).
Another reason could be that Putin is afraid to leave Moscow at the moment. What looked like a coup attempt by Wagner Group mercenaries led by Yevgeny Prigozhin fizzled out late last month, but Putin is looking vulnerable and his absence in South Africa might tempt somebody else to have a go.
Or maybe he has just belatedly realized that the South African courts are independent. I’d vote for that one.
The International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for Putin last March for alleged war crimes committed during the invasion of Ukraine. Putin may initially have assumed that the party that has ruled South Africa for the past three decades, the African National Congress, would protect him from arrest, but it’s not that simple.
The African National Congress depended on Soviet financial and military help back in the days of the anti-apartheid struggle, when most Western countries withheld their help, so there’s strong pro-Russian sentiment among the older comrades.
Moscow still subsidizes the African National Congress today (in various clandestine ways), so Putin could reasonably expect Prime Minister Cyril Ramaphosa to protect him from arrest. However, South Africa is also a member of the 123-country International Criminal Court and legally obliged to execute its arrest warrants. Ramaphosa tried to stymie the courts, but by May it wasn’t looking good.
South Africa’s largest opposition party, the Democratic Alliance, went to the Gauteng High Court asking it to order the government to arrest Putin if he came to South Africa, and last Friday the court did just that. Forewarned of that decision, Ramaphosa announced on Wednesday that he and Putin had agreed that the Russian leader would attend only by video.
Ramaphosa’s explanation for the change of plan was the usual bumbling mess, claiming that arresting Putin would amount to a declaration of war on Russia, but the real winner in this was the rule of law, both in South Africa and in the wider world.
You think I’m being naive? That there’s no chance Vladimir Putin will ever face an international court? Consider the fate of Slobodan Milošević, former president of Serbia and the prime mover of the genocidal Balkan wars of the 1990s.
In 2001, he lost an internal power struggle and was deposed as president, whereupon the winner, Prime Minister Zoran Dindić, handed him over to an international criminal tribunal in The Hague. He died behind bars in 2006 while the trial was still continuing.
That happened because the new Serbian regime desperately needed money and couldn’t borrow it unless it handed Milošević over. At that time, such a thing could not have happened to Putin (who was already president of Russia), because great powers are, in practice, above the laws that apply to other countries.
Russia has fallen below that status now. Apart from nuclear weapons, it has none of the attributes of a great power, and it’s easy to imagine somebody who overthrows Putin handing him over to the International Criminal Court in return for international recognition and financial aid.
“But that’s not fair,” I hear somebody cry. “Why aren’t George W. Bush and Tony Blair in prison as war criminals for their illegal (and exceedingly stupid) invasion of Iraq in 2003?”
They certainly should be, but they were the leaders of countries that are still great powers (though only by courtesy, in Britain’s case), so they were for all practical purposes exempt from international law. So are China, India and the member countries of the European Union.
But not Russia any more, so Putin really needs to avoid countries that belong to the International Criminal Court and have domestic courts that enforce the rule of law.