By Oliver Stuenkel
[Crossposted from Post-Western World]
When Russia hosted the first BRIC Leaders’ Summit in June 2009, which was attended by Brazil’s President Lula, Russia’s President Dimitry Medvedev, India’s Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and China’s President Hu Jintao, Russia’s leader hailed Yekatarinburg the as “the epicenter of world politics.” The need for major developing world nations to meet in new formats was “obvious,” he said. Only a day earlier, Russia had hosted, in the same city, the 9th Summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), with many observer countries, including a brief visit by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who had just been declared the winner of a controversial presidential election in Iran.
The Western media reacted with a mix of neglect and rejection. As The Economist wrote at the time:
this disparate quartet signally failed to rival the Group of Eight industrial countries as a forum for economic discussion. … Instead, the really striking thing is that four countries first lumped together as a group by the chief economist of Goldman Sachs chose to convene at all, and in such a high-profile way.
Back then, even more benign observers would hardly have predicted that the BRICS grouping would turn into the most prominent political platform outside of the West. Since 2009, not a single state leader missed any of the yearly summits. In addition to the yearly meetings, over thirty BRICS-related meetings take place per year, in areas as diverse as education, finance, public health, agriculture and academia. In 2014, the grouping created its own development bank and set up a contingency reserve agreement (CRA). The grouping reached unprecedented political visibility when, in a joint communiqué earlier this year, BRICS representatives rejected calls to exclude Russia from the G20 in the aftermath of the Crimean Crisis, thus decisively undermining Western attempts to isolate Russia.
Growth figures in the BRICS countries in 2015 will be far lower than they were in 2009, and the United States is already growing faster than Brazil, Russia and South Africa. In that sense, seen from Brasília, Pretoria and Moscow, the global environment offers fewer opportunities than a few years back, when established actors and institutions faced a severe legitimacy crisis and when emerging powers saved the global economy from a complete meltdown.
Yet it would be wrong to expect the BRICS grouping to peter out. The reelection of Dilma Rousseff in Brazil has been hailed in the Russian and Indian media as crucial in maintaining momentum in the slow process of BRICS institutionalization. Indeed, it is unclear to what extent a President Aécio Neves would have continued Brazil’s support for initiatives such as the BRICS Development Bank, which some see as a rival to existing Western-led institutions. The underlying principle still holds: Being part of the BRICS grouping generates tangible benefits but virtually no cost.
And yet, the 7th BRICS Summit (see the recently launched official summit website) may put that logic to its greatest test so far. Increasingly anti-Western, Russia will introduce a series of measures during the summit discussions that are likely to generate strong criticism in the West, such as arguing for the UN’s International Telecommunication Union (ITU) to replace the US government as the ICANN overseer. Many critics of this idea say that it would allow authoritarian regimes to challenge the open Internet. While China is supportive of the idea, Brazil is unlikely to go along, considering its leadership on the matter at the 2014 NetMundial in São Paulo.
In several other areas, Russia may seek to politicize the BRICS meeting further and use it as an anti-Western platform, particularly if current sanctions are still in place next year. That strategy will cause resistance among the other members that have no interest in unnecessarily antagonizing Washington, DC. In fact, Brazilian foreign policy makers will be careful not to admit any overly strongly-worded language in the final summit declaration that may imperil a key goal for Brasília in 2015: repairing frayed ties with the United States.
Even without imposing his internet-related views on the other BRICS countries, the summit will be a success for Vladimir Putin. Within a few days, the Russian president will host not only the BRICS leaders, but also heads of state of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). One year after the Winter Olympics, Russia will continue to successfully resist Western attempts to turn it into a pariah.
At the same time, during the 7th BRICS Summit policy makers may release some news about the creation of the BRICS Development Bank, which is expected to start operating in 2016. Lastly, after two summits in Durban and Fortaleza that were accompanied by vibrant civil society-led events — often very critical of the BRICS members, for example regarding their environmental policies — the Ufa Summit is less likely to turn into a lively gathering of NGOs from around the world.
And still, the BRICS grouping remains a highly beneficial undertaking for Brazil, and both President Rousseff, her Foreign Minister and several key cabinet ministers are right to travel to Ufa next year. A direct and institutionalized channel of communication to China, as well as regular meetings with Indian, South African and Russian decision-makers, are essential for Brazil to maintain and strengthen ties that remain remarkably underdeveloped.