Sergei Ryabkov: “BRICS is a catalyst for global governance reform”

Sergey Ryabkov, Russia's Deputy Foreign Minister. Source:

Sergey Ryabkov, Russia's Deputy Foreign Minister. Source:

South Africa’s accession to BRIC and the subsequent transformation of that informal association into BRICS put an end to academic arguments over whether it is a phantom or a reality.

But opinions about BRICS as a factor in global politics still vary among political scientists. What prospects does Moscow see for BRICS? The VIP Premier magazine discussed that with Russia's Deputy Foreign Minister, Sergei Ryabkov, who supervises the work of Russian diplomacy in that area.

VIP Premier: Has BRICS become an instrument of global governance?

Sergei Ryabkov: No, BRICS is not a mechanism of global governance. Indeed, such a task has never been set. It is not for me to judge whether it is or will ever be such a mechanism, but at this stage BRICS is a catalyst for global governance reform. Although three billion out of seven billion people in the world are citizens of BRICS countries and although BRICS accounts for 25 percent of the global GDP, I cannot describe that structure as a mechanism for global governance. BRICS is still to a large extent an association based on interests. This is what makes it strong and viable.

BRICS is not a mechanism of global governance also because right now 80 percent of issues pertain to the economic agenda and only 20 percent to foreign policy. The main global forum for coordinating approaches to economics is the G20, while BRICS works within that group, as it were. Incidentally, unlike in BRICS, the ratio in the G8 today is the reverse: 80 percent of the issues on its agenda relate to politics and 20 percent to economics. I don’t think we will ever come to see BRICS in “utilitarian” terms.

At the same time, its member countries have increasingly shared interests. The BRICS Declaration adopted in New Delhi shows that the group has come a long way since the previous summit a year ago. There is no longer a certain sense of wariness on the part of some members of the group concerning the development trends and outlook for BRICS. They have already become an integral part of the agenda and the work of all member state governments.


VIP: Has a common BRICS philosophy been developed?

S.R.: Definitely. Its philosophy is to not rush the process of transforming BRICS into an international organization, in the literal sense of the word.


VIP: That means that this option is not ruled out in principle?

S.R.: Russia would welcome the gradual strengthening of the institutional principles in the structure’s activities. We have concrete proposals. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev outlined them in Delhi. But we are not imposing anything on anyone. Because our partners so far prefer to remain at an informal and bureaucracy-free level, we do not think that BRICS has reached the limit of its institutional development. There is no limit, and development continues. So far, however, everybody is happy with the status quo. Meetings of sectoral ministries are taking place and a whole number of new formats, including public and academic, are active. Businesses, including Russian businesses, have developed an interest in contacts with partners at business forums. Banking agreements are being signed. By the way, 80 Russian representatives took part in the business forum in Delhi. That is an unprecedented level. And significantly, nobody is dragging anyone into this. BRICS is becoming very attractive because of an awareness of the prospects it opens up.


VIP: What forces are at work within BRICS?

S.R.: BRICS countries have different views regarding the priorities and the pace of progress on certain issues. For example, one such major political issue is the reform of the UN Security Council. Perhaps there are also topics like human rights, their role in the system of international relations and approaches to addressing problems in that area. But it is always the case that the glass is half full or half empty.

Within BRICS, Russia always takes the side of those who favor concrete decisions and want to see the language of declarations translated into practical deeds. The action plan adopted in Delhi speaks for itself. It includes several categories of specific measures. Some are long-term projects, including those adopted at our initiative. The idea of collectively developing a BRICS development strategy has been put forward. The time is gone when there could be any doubt that BRICS is here to stay. The international system has accepted this new entity and is reckoning with it.

VIP: But are there attempts to “split” BRICS and “drag” its partners apart?

S.R.: Not to “drag them apart,” but discussions, including in the European Parliament and in political think tanks, tend to emphasize the existing differences and overestimate their importance. However, the forces of attraction within the group are stronger than their differences. It is a fact that their economies mutually complement each other. Bilateral trade is growing at a fairly rapid pace. The economic agendas are very similar, including in relation to the reform of international financial institutions. Much has been written of late that the spring session of the IMF and the World Bank showed that BRICS is in no hurry to expand the share of its capital in these structures. But one should look at the whole picture. We simply cannot continue along the well-trodden path. It is necessary to ensure that the reform that was such a big talking point at the peak of the crisis does not fade out, but continues and is put into practice in the decisions of the IMF and the World Bank’s governing bodies. One other thing: Russia has made a serious decision to accede to the stated agenda of the current round of WTO negotiations that are built into the Declaration of the BRICS summit in Delhi. But Russia is not yet a WTO member, and one should understand that our approval of the language of the document does not mean that Russia will automatically comply with all these provisions. Adhering to these provisions is fairly tentative. First we must join the WTO. After that one could expect from Russia concrete and professional work with its BRICS partners on the agenda of the Doha Round of WTO negotiations.

VIP: The year 2011 was unique for BRICS, which is primarily oriented towards economics. All its participants were working in the UN Security Council: the Russian Federation and PRC as permanent members and the others on a rotational basis. Is cooperation in the sphere of international security still on the BRICS agenda?

S.R.: It is not only still on the agenda, but it is growing stronger. BRICS representatives in New York, Geneva and Vienna have established an ongoing dialogue and have been holding working meetings. They exchange messages and phone calls. It has ceased to be something extraordinary and surprising. It all takes place as part of the normal diplomatic and political routine, the culture of diplomatic work. I think this is one of the major recent achievements. That is how interaction should be built if BRICS is not to remain an event involving heads of state meeting once or twice a year, as happened in 2011 when an informal BRICS summit took place in Cannes on the fringes of the G20, while the main event took place in Sanya, China. Interaction must proceed at all levels.

It is important to deliver results wherever they are possible. If we have good coordination on pressing international issues concerning regional security, that already marks a step forward.

Usually a group of states, especially large, significant ones with global interests, needs decades in order to grow from “the toddler stage” into a global player, a factor not of global governance, but of global dialogue and practical cooperation. The first meeting of BRICS foreign ministers took place in 2008 and the first summit took place in 2009. BRICS has achieved a great deal during the past three years. That means that the format works. I’m very optimistic about the future.

VIP: How come BRICS doesn’t work at the level of defense ministers and doesn’t deal with military-political topics?

S.R.: Look out the window. The grass is growing, there are buds on the bushes, but the spruce trees and the poplars have yet to turn green. I recall what Dmitry Rogozin famously said at the end of his mission as Russia’s representative to NATO in Brussels. He symbolically planted two poplar trees and said: “This is Topol (“poplar” in Russian) and this is Topol-M.” Poplar will bloom, do not rush things. Everything must follow its course.

VIP: Speaking of missiles. Was the recent Indian test of its Agni-V intercontinental missile capable of carrying a nuclear warhead an irritant within BRICS?

S.R.: The declared range of up to 5,000 km (3,100 miles) is not intercontinental but medium-range, according to the Russian classification. Several years ago, Russia proposed universalizing the agreements on banning medium- and shorter-range missiles it signed with the United States during the Soviet period. We believe it would be desirable to impose a ban on a whole class of ballistic missiles of that range. The existence of these weapons is often fraught with a regional arms race.

VIP: What do the BRICS partners think about it?

S.R.: They are studying the idea. I cannot say that the first reaction was immediately positive. In principle, we believe we should work towards universalizing the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons and the ban on medium- and shorter-range missiles. But in terms of demonstrating the high scientific and technical level achieved by India, there is no doubt that the test launch of the Agni-V missile made a big impression on everyone, including India’s neighbors.

VIP: Why does the dynamically developing BRICS so emphatically declare its “non-institutionality”? How does that square with Russia’s demands to create the attributes of an organization (a charter, etc.) for the OSCE?

S.R.: Russia would have liked to institutionalize BRICS, but it does not want to artificially speed up the process. There is no need to raise the temperature by creating the impression that BRICS can’t exist without it. The results are good even without an institutional framework.

BRICS comprises only five states and the OSCE, 56. So, it is often problematic to achieve a common OSCE position in the absence of proper “rules of the game.” The organization’s procedures include only the consensus rule and the other norms are extremely fragmented and aren’t compiled. The OSCE needs a charter if it is to work according to rules.

The strength of the UN is in its procedure. When it comes to the interaction of 200 states so different that at times it is difficult to find anything in common between some of them, no progress can be made without procedure.

Within BRICS, the commonality of interests and the culture of searching for compromise are greater. There is more political patience and respect and less desire to impose anything on each other. That helps with proper work. It is easier to deal with partners when the mood is so similar. I don’t think BRICS will feel any discomfort from the lack of a charter or any functional structures. BRICS has created the institution of sherpas and sous-sherpas; it has established the practice of holding summits, meetings of foreign ministers and other agencies. The foreign ministries of the countries that hold the chairmanship de facto assume the functions of BRICS secretariats. Collective publications are issued and media and political science projects are implemented. I think that process will broaden. Such enrichment of the fabric of cooperation is characteristic of bona fide organizations.

VIP: How does BRICS relate to other formats in which its members are involved? For example with the RIC (Russia-India-China), the IBSA (India-Brazil-South Africa) tripartite alliance, with the G8, of which Russia is a member?

S.R.: Russia doesn’t view the IBSA activities with jealousy because it does not see in the group’s agenda anything that could cast a shadow on the Russian and the common BRICS agenda. IBSA is mainly concerned with sustainable development issues and assisting developing countries in solving their infrastructure problems. RIC has a very concrete political agenda. Its last ministerial meeting, held in Moscow in April, discussed crisis situations (Syria and regional problems, the Middle East settlement). I see no problems with the fact that some members have interests challenged or rejected by other BRICS members. The agenda is agreed upon in advance and benefits derive from discussing the topics on which we are interested in being together and not diverging. The work of these formats is by no means an instrument for resolving certain conflicts or disputes. That applies to BRICS as well.

I cannot say that BRICS is comparable to the G8. The tough nature of discussions, the problems that have to be overcome in the G8 format contrast sharply with the atmosphere within BRICS, where it is more comfortable to work. Not that it is easier, but the style is different, more reasonable.

VIP: Mexico, the current president of the G20, has expressed a desire to join BRICS…

S.R.: BRICS must live through a period of maturing in its present format of a global association that already represents the majority of continents.

VIP: Have any criteria been developed to select future candidates to join BRICS?

S.R.: Common interests and a readiness to work according to the scheme of interaction that exists and is being followed by BRICS. I think that at this stage the BRICS countries fully meet these requirements. It will take some time before BRICS expansion will again become part of the agenda.

VIP: You do not want to admit new members, but you can create an institution of observers, like in the SCO…

S.R.: That will be our priority. The Russian side has proposed thinking about schemes for promoting BRICS dialogue with partners that are not members of that structure, but are interested in discussing specific aspects of the BRICS agenda.

VIP: What specific countries are seen as BRICS partners?

S.R.: The country you have mentioned and some others have shown an interest, and international organizations as well. I would not like to name them. We should first discuss it in the BRICS “family circle.”

VIP: On what positions is BRICS developing a common approach for the G20 summit in Mexico?

S.R.: The BRICS finance ministers had a meeting recently. The G20 agenda is evolving, but work in this format slowed down somewhat as the crisis let up. BRICS must stimulate it. Russia would like to promote the “outreach system,” but starting with a dialogue among the BRICS countries and other multilateral structures. Working with individual countries is the next stage. In the G20, a lot depends on the presidency, which forms the agenda and conducts consultations. The G20 created the troika a year ago. We are members of the troika because Russia will be chairing the G20 next year.

VIP: Will BRICS be affected by the slowdown of China’s economic growth?

S.R.: I see no direct connection there. I will express my personal opinion, which not all our experts on the world economy may share. In my opinion, the slowdown of the economic growth of a country that is shifting the focus of its development towards the greater use of internal factors is inevitable. For several decades, the growth of the Chinese economy was export-led (thanks to the competitive advantages of China’s economic model) by exporting ever-greater amounts and a growing range of products with a high added value. At some point, external demand is saturated and one has to look for additional drivers of growth. Such a driver is the economic policy of the Chinese Communist Party, aimed at ensuring growth by expanding domestic consumption – not just personal consumption, but above all, the implementation of infrastructure and other structurally significant projects. A slowdown of growth is simply inevitable against this background. Even so, we are talking about numbers that are often multiples of what other countries are proud of. So, in terms of China preserving its role as a modern locomotive of economic development on the global scale, I think nothing will change. Similarly, the possibility will remain for us to work jointly with China to achieve the strategic goal of using national currencies in settlements.

To work with national currencies as legal tender is necessary, and not only to protect mutual settlements against fluctuations of the main reserve currencies due to circumstances beyond our control. It is necessary also because unfortunately we are increasingly feeling the consequences of the exterritorial application of some decisions made in the United States, its legislation under which the role of the dollar as the settlement unit of international trade and banking transactions cannot but be questioned. The example of Iran is a glaring instance of how American political priorities and approaches translate directly into decisions in the currency and financial sphere. Among other things they limit access to the dollar as a settlement currency in perfectly legitimate trade with Iran. In this context, it is necessary to become less dependent on the dollar.

VIP: BRICS is creating its own development bank. Will it be involved in the development of Siberia and Russia’s Far East?

S.R.: We are working towards that end and we will seek it. The language in the final communique of the BRICS summit in Delhi makes it possible to work in that direction. So far, a BRICS development bank is only an idea. We have been given a year to develop, jointly with our colleagues from the Finance Ministry, the concept and submit it to the leaders at the South African summit. Our goal is to ensure that the financial resources of the future new development instrument be used to address problems on the territory of BRICS countries themselves, and not just to address problems in other regions of the world.

First published in the VIP Premier magazine. 

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