Russia lays out its vision for the BRICS – others should, too

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The history of the BRICS can be separated roughly into two phases. During the first phase (2001-2005) the BRIC acronym was a mere investment category without any political meaning. The second phase (since 2006), on the other hand, has been marked the transformation of the term into a political consultation group – at first ad hoc and informal, then with a growing ambition to institutionalize.

Since 2006, Russia has played a particularly important role within the grouping. It was Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov’s idea to organize a first meeting of Foreign Ministers in New York in 2006, and the stand-alone BRIC Summit in 2009 in Yekatarinburg took place thanks to his initiative (even though Lavrov publicy gives the credit to President Putin).

Considering Russia’s role in the BRICS’ grouping’s genesis, studying Russia’s long term vision on the BRICS can provide useful insights as to where the grouping may be headed. In a “BRICS Strategy Statement”, the Kremlin laid out some of these ideas in the week before the 5th BRICS Summit. It mentioned for the first time some of the ideas expressed in the final declaration of the 5th BRICS Summit.

The document contains sweeping claims, such as that “… the [BRICS] association can potentially become a key element of a new system of global governance, first of all, in the financial and economic areas. At the same time, the Russian Federation stands in favor of positioning BRICS in the world system as a new model of global relations, overarching the old dividing lines between East and West, and North and South.” A similar phrase promptly appeared in the eThekwini Declaration on March 27.

Furthermore, it produces a series of innovative proposals, such as the creation of a new ratings agency, and ideas on how to promote cooperation in the fields of agriculture, energy, healthcare, science and technology, innovation and industry. Yet while the BRICS should indeed strengthen ties in these areas, the document could be clearer about how to reduce trade barriers in many of these areas. It also remains silent on one of the principal barriers that keep people in BRICS countries from interacting and doing business with each other more readily – an anachronistic and overly bureaucratic visa policy that only Russia and Brazil have addressed with a bilateral visa waiver program.

The “BRICS Strategy Statement” is also one of the first officially sanctioned documents that proposes studying the possibility of a BRICS Secretariat - an idea that was also included into the eThekwini Declaration. Differently from previous official documents, it frequently uses the term “institutionalization”, pointing to Russia’s desire to further strengthen intra-BRICS cooperation. Finally, it argues that the primary challenge for the next three to four years is to consolidate rather than to expand membership.

In sum, thus, the document was, prior to the 5th BRICS summit, an important contribution to the debate about what BRICS cooperation should look like over the coming years. While they do not have to be approved by the government, academics and policy analysts from the other BRICS countries should now start producing such documents more frequently and exchange ideas about the future of the grouping, thus enriching the debate and helping Brazil prepare the themes of the 6th BRICS Summit in 2014.

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Photo credit: AFP