Russia cements lead role with BRICS presidency

BRICS is an important instrument in Russia's foreign policy. The presidency gives Russia a chance to expand the economic, political and strategic scope of the five-nation grouping.

Drawing by Konstantin Maler. Click to enlarge

The BRICS Summit, to be hosted by Russia in Ufa from July 8-10, will be the seventh meeting for the organisation since its establishment and the fifth since the four Bric countries were joined by the Republic of South Africa. Until recently, the Bric countries were united only in the imagination of former Goldman Sachs economist Jim O’Neill, who created the abbreviation in 2001 to define the fastest developing economies in the world and to offer his clients new investment opportunities (the bank immediately began offering portfolios containing the four countries’ securities).

Russia has special relations with the BRICS. It was Moscow that breathed political life into the BRICS stock exchange chimera. Back in 2006, on the initiative of Russian president Vladimir Putin, the first ministerial meeting of the Bric countries was held in New York. Then in May 2009, in Ekaterinburg, Mr Putin’s successor Dmitry Medvedev hosted the bloc’s first summit. Even though there were no concrete results from that event, it had an important propaganda effect for Russia: relations with the West at the time were at a low and Moscow demonstrated to the US and the EU that it had other influential partners.

In recent years, the organisation has expanded its field of activity. Besides the political image, it also began creating new international regulations. For now, BRICS is most famous for its attempt to create an alternative to the Bretton Woods international finance architecture, which is dominated by the West. Countries actively coordinate their positions on these issues in the G20. However, in 2014, when it finally became clear that the US Congress had blocked the IMF reform approved by the G20 concerning the redistribution of votes in favour of the developing countries, BRICS participants agreed to create their own bank and a pool of national currencies. In the future, this should help reduce the dependence of international finance on the dollar-euro duopoly. So far these have been the BRICS’s main achievements.

A key challenge to BRICS’s effectiveness is the international structure and the specifics of its bureaucratic system. BRICS is perhaps the only association in which the leaders’ summits do not represent the crowning of the presidency, but rather its beginning. Thus, one country prepares the agenda throughout the year, while another country make the decisions. Due to a lack of synchronisation, many initiatives remained poorly developed.

Russia decided to put an end to this. Russia’s presidency formally began in May, meaning it has less than three months to set up the summit; the 2016 summit in China will be the result of a fully fledged year-long presidency. Already within the framework of its management, Russia is doing its best to expand the agenda: the Kremlin has asked all federal agencies to present their proposals concerning co-operation with BRICS. As a result, the Ufa summit’s agenda has a total of 130 points.

Just as in 2009, in the prevailing international situation it is symbolism and not pragmatism that is important for Russia. After the annexation of Crimea and the start of the war in eastern Ukraine, the West actively tried to isolate Russia. Sanctions were introduced, Moscow was formally excluded from the G8 and leaders from the US, EU and their allies tried to avoid personal contact with Vladimir Putin during all international events. (In 2014, the Russian president left the G20 Summit in Australia ahead of schedule.)

The May 9 Victory Day Parade on Red Square became another important symbol of Russia’s international isolation. Now, in Ufa, the Russian administration will have an opportunity to present the country as a leader of the non-western world. Presidency of the BRICS will allow Moscow to position itself as a participant of an association that offers an alternative to the global world order. In the company of the largest economy in the world (at least that is how the IMF estimates China’s GDP in relation to its purchasing power parity) and the dynamic leaders of South Asia, Latin America and Africa, Moscow can confidently say that it does not intend to return to the G8, even if it is suddenly invited back. Therefore, any practical result obtained during the Ufa summit will be less significant than the symbolic meaning of the event, since the creation of new ideas has for now been the only field where the BRICS was able to prove itself.


Alexander Gabuev is director of the Russia in the Pacific Rim Region programme at Moscow’s Carnegie Centre.

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