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By John Helmer, Moscow

Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov last week took a tour of Africa – Algeria, Mozambique, South Africa, and Guinea — in part because President Vladimir Putin told him to, ahead of Putin’s own visit to Africa in March. In part, Lavrov went to the Republic of Guinea at the bidding of Oleg Deripaska to settle a billion-dollar dispute Deripaska failed to fix when he and the Guinean President, Alpha Conde, were to meet in Davos, Switzerland, early this month. Lavrov does Deripaska’s bidding in Washington, too. He is generally more successful executing Putin’s requirements than Deripaska’s.

The stop in Algeria was strategic since the Libyan war began spilling American and British-armed Islamic guerrillas in every direction, threatening in particular gas and oil exporters like Algeria, Niger, Congo-Brazzaville, and Nigeria. Lavrov was discrete in saying ‘We told you so’. He said instead: “If we wish to avoid double standards, we need to stop guiding ourselves by them. I think that the recent events related to the development of the consequences of the so called Arab spring, will serve as a lesson to those who recently guided themselves by double standards.”

But Lavrov didn’t say that in Algiers, when he met with President Abdelazziz Buteflika. Indeed, he didn’t publicly say much of anything in Algiers, least of all how the Russian and Algerian services have assessed the guerrilla gasfield operation at In Amenas a month ago.

By the time Lavrov started talking about “double standards” in regional and energy security, he was in Conakry on February 13, on the return leg home. If Lavrov had a genuine interest in the security and stability of Guinea, he might have said so. This is because Lavrov’s landing was sandwiched between a helicopter crash which killed many of the coup-capable officers of the Guinean Army and mass demonstrations against the President, Alpha Conde, for trying to rig parliamentary elections, and for enriching himself corruptly.

Helicopter crashes can be accidental; they can be assassinations. Here is the list of the 11 officers killed when their aircraft, a machine supplied to President Conde for his security by an Israeli gunrunner. The most important of the dead is General Souleymane Kelefa Diallo. If luck or foresight hadn’t intervened, the next most important of the dead would have been Guinea’s commander of the gendarmerie, General Ibrahim Balde. He was late at the boarding gate.

Whatever evidence has been retrieved from the crash site near Monrovia, in neighbouring Liberia, it has so far failed to surface publicly in that country, or in Guinea. Unless the Liberians are planning to side with the opposition to Conde, the evidence, if it has been gathered at all, isn’t likely to be published. That’s because there are two theories of the crash, and neither of them points to an accident. The first theory comes from the Conde supporters, who claim it was revenge from the former acting president and Army commander, General Sekouba Konyate, who is currently living in the US. According to this theory, Konyate was behind the attack on Conde in July last year. Because Conde survived, and the perpetrators confessed to taking their orders from Konyate – the late General Diallo extracted these confessions the old fashioned way – Konyate gave him some of his own medicine.

The other theory is that Conde is still disposing of evidence that last year’s plot was a set-up, designed by him, Diallo and others, to discredit his opponents, critics of his election-rigging and corruption, and their allies in uniform. That an aircraft supplied and maintained for Conde’s personal security should have crashed is one circumstantial element in this theory. Another is that Balde got suspicious himself, and that’s why he failed to show up for the fatal flight. A third comes from Washington sources: they claim that Army General Boudouka (aka Boundouka) Conde, who was sent to Washington as Guinea’s military attaché after last July’s events, is refusing to return for fear of meeting an accident himself.

Whichever version of events turns out to be correct is less relevant right now than the evidence, however doubtful on the facts, that identifies security problems for Conde so serious that they may combine to topple him at any moment.

That Rusal has been targeted by the Guinean political opposition, trade unions, and some elements of the military is equally certain and publicly obvious. So what exactly did Lavrov tell Conde he should do to save himself, and save Russia’s biggest stake in West Africa? Did Lavrov suggest that Conde might be more secure with Russian help if he didn’t continue to antagonize Deripaska with claims for compensation for tax evasion, corrupt concession operations, and environmental damage? Those claims currently exceed $1 billion; they have been ruled on by the Guinean courts, and appealed against by Rusal in an arbitration tribunal in Paris.

Lavrov said nothing after his closed-door meeting with President Conde. Nor is it clear that he was alone with Conde, as a press release from Rusal claims Lavrov was escorted to the presidential meeting with “a group of the Company’s executives… as part of a Russian governmental delegation to meet Guinea president Alpha Conde.” It was, says the Rusal communique, “a successful visit.”

At the press conference following his meeting with counterpart foreign minister, Francois Lonseny Fall, the Russian foreign ministry version of what Lavrov said was: “Our approaches regarding the need to guide oneself by the supremacy of law in all situations… are fully concurrent.”

He can’t have been thinking of the rulings of the Guinean courts against Rusal since September 2009.

In the press conference version issued by the Foreign Ministry, Lavrov fails to confirm that the agreement Rusal has announced for retaining its undeveloped bauxite mining concession known as Dian-Dian, has been followed by an agreement to restart the Friguia (Fria) alumina refinery and bauxite mine, and pay the compensation demanded by political parties in Guinea, including Conde, when he was running for election.

“Have you discussed this topic [problems with Fria] with the leader of the Republic of Guinea,” Lavrov was asked at the Conakry press conference. “Yes, we talked about it. The Russian party welcomed the agreements reached between Guinean authorities and RUSAL in December 2012. The agreements are not a secret, they are submitted for approval to the Parliament of the Republic, and, I am convinced, reflect interests of the Guinean party and the Russian company quite well. This question is about the balance of interests that deserves to be supported. As we implement our agreements, conditions are created for the resumption of performance by RUSAL of its social obligations – this is also a crucial aspect.”

Lavrov was fudging. The December agreements, at least those publicly disclosed by Rusal on December 31, relate only to the Dian-Dian concession, and postpone significant investment there until 2016 at the earliest, and only after 2019 “at the discretion of RUSAL and [investment] will depend on the global economic situation and the Company’s needs.” There is no mention of the Friguia (Fria) compensation case to which the Dian-Dian concession deal has long been tied by the Guineans.

Rusal halted mining and refining at the Friguia complex in April 2012; the year-end production report from Rusal reveals that alumina and bauxite output from Friguia dropped by 74%, compared to the year earlier. So long as the global market prospects for a recovery of aluminium demand and prices look bleak, Rusal has no incentive to resume production at Friguia. It has even less incentive to pay Conde and the Guinean Government any amount of the compensation claims in relation to the Friguia concession agreement. So Rusal’s tactics have been to protract negotiations, and exploit Conde’s weakness.

A Guinean source involved in mining concludes: “Dian-Dian is attractive to everyone. The government thought it could use its leverage on Friguia to put pressure on Rusal for compliance on Dian-Dian. But Rusal doesn’t need Friguia right now; and the halt to production has put the heat back on Conde. So everyone believes Deripaska [Rusal] will succeed in cutting a deal on Friguia in order to save a piece of Dian-Dian.”

According to Lavrov, Conde should be satisfied with no more than a promise of investment in the future. “After my talk with President Alpha Condé I can express an opinion that there are quite good perspectives for a considerable build-up of Russian investments into the mining sector of Guinea. This will certainly promote the creation of new jobs and the development of the economy in general.”

Pavel Tarasenko (image below), a Moscow journalist who has done favours for Rusal in the past, reported from Conakry what Rusal told him; that was more than Rusal issued in its own name, or Lavrov claimed Conde had agreed to. Tarasenko’s lead is: “The conflict between Rusal and the leadership of Guinea around alumina refinery in Fria has been overcome. This conclusion, according to Kommersant, came in the Wednesday evening talks of Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and President of Guinea, Alpha Conde. However, Russian businessmen working in Guinea, in conversation with Kommersant, do not exclude the possibility of a repetition of blackmail by the local unions.”

Tarasenko omits to report what terms of the Friguia settlement have been sought by the Guinean government, what offered by Rusal, and what have now been negotiated by Lavrov. According to another of Tarasenko’s anonymous Russian businessmen working in Guinea, the only reason there has been a conflict at all is that the natives prefer collecting bribes and sunning themselves. “Guineans believe,” according to Tarasenko’s anonymous Russian, “that if foreigners are developing their natural resources, this means that [they] should completely provide a high quality of their [Guineans’] life. Being friends for Guineans, that means to receive. In the negotiations with Sergei Lavrov the Guineans raised the topic of our relationship back to the level of the Soviet era. That means that they want to return to the practice when we gave them everything, and in return received nothing.”

If this black face-white face is what Tarasenko’s Rusal sources genuinely believe about their Guinean counterparties, including Conde himself; and if they want to put into print how they distinguish themselves from their Soviet predecessors, the hint is that the Lavrov mission to Conakry has failed. For Friguia the Guineans are still demanding $1 billion; and Rusal is still refusing to pay.

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