Does Russia belong in the BRICS? What about replacing it with Indonesia?

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Russia matters, yet Brazil’s international relations scholars know preciously little about the ‘R’ in the BRICS. Prof. Alexander Zhebit, who teaches at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro is one of the few researchers who focuses on the topic. While the Brazilian press has come around to reporting on China regularly (reflecting the fact that China is Brazil’s biggest trading partner), Russia is virtually absent from the public debate here.

Despite a highly uncommon visa-waiver agreement between Brazil and Russia (in force since June 2010), the relationship remains rather uninspiring, as I have written in an article in this blog one year ago. Interestingly enough, what ties Brazil and Russia together is their common BRICS membership, an important factor that cannot be underestimated as emerging powers are increasinlgy eager to have a say in global politics. But at the same time, Russia is not really an emerging power, and its interest in changing the international system is limited at best – Brazil, on the other hand, is eager to join the global oligarchy.

Why, then, is Russia still part of the BRICS? Any observer will quickly realize that there seems to exist a global consensus that Russia is a thing of the past, starkly contrasting the other young and dynamic BRICS members. (see Neil

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MacFarlane’s excellent journal article in International Affairs and op-eds in The Telegraph, the Financial Times and the Moscow Times, all arguing that Russia does not belong in the BRICS). In the latest edition of Foreign Affairs, Nicholas Eberstadt describes Russia’s demographic decline (see “The Dying Bear“) and reinforces the negative image. The reader feels sorry for the Russian people after being inundated by a wave of depressing social statistics (e.g., Russia’s life expectancy is lower than that in Niger and Eritrea). Articles with a more positive connotation are rare, and rather cynical, as Ralph Peter’s op-ed in the Washington Post. In the same Foreign Affairs issue, Karen Brooks is full of praise for Indonesia (Is Indonesia Bound for the BRICS?), which seems like a much better fit than rotten Russia. Then why not expel Russia from the BRICS and take in Indonesia instead? This is clearly not a very realistic suggestion. Two years ago, in an op-ed in Today’s Zaman (a Turkish newspaper), I suggested the G8 exclude Italy, which earned me nothing but angry comments from Rome. Yet adding Indonesia to the BRICS outfit may still be a good idea, even though Brazil’s Foreign Minister Antonio Patriota recently opposed including any new members in the near future.

Last month, Nandan Unnikrishnan, researcher at the Delhi-based Observer Research Foundation (ORF) and India’s leading Russia expert, told me that the Western narrative of ‘declining Russia’ did not reflect reality (anachronistic Cold-War triumphalism, perhaps?) He argued that melting ice caps (providing Russia with access to even more resources) and high oil prices augured a bright future for the country – so does Russia belong in the BRICS, after all? Rather than adopting the US-American perspective, emerging powers should find out themselves.

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