What is Russia’s role in the BRICS?

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During yesterday's debate about Russia's role in the BRICS, Ambassador Sergey Akopov underlined his country's commitment to the emerging power outfit. As he rightly stated, Russia had played - together with Brazil - a leadership role in the creation of the group: In 2006, it was Russia's Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov who convinced Russia and China to expand the RIC (Russia, India and China) group, a loose group that meets regularly to discuss regional security issues, and invite Brazil's Celso Amorim to an informal lunch discussion on the margins of the 61st UN General Assembly in New York. It turned out to be the beginning of a political grouping that went far beyond what Lavrov had imagined at the time.

Yet Russia is, in many ways, the group's oddest member - unlike the other BRICS, it has been a superpower during the Cold War. Unlike Brazil and India, which seek to secure a place for themselves in the world's most exclusive fora, Russia is much more of a status-quo power which has little interest in eroding its institutional heft. During his presentation, Ambassador Akopov pointed out more than once that Russia was open to UNSC reform as long as it would not loose its veto right. He seemed skeptical when asked about the possibility of doubling the size of the Security Council - a reform that would most certainly assure Brazil's permanent membership.

The question of UNSC reform is not the only issue that exposes a divergence between Russia and those BRICS that feel underrepresented - Brazil, India and South Africa. Other issues complicate Russia's newly acquired emerging power identity, notably its decision to apply for OECD membership. During a discussion at Itamaraty last year, a Brazilian diplomat argued that Russia's OECD membership could seriously compromise its credibility among other emerging powers, many of which see the OECD as a status-quo oriented rich country club squarely opposed to the BRICS.

Russia's complex role in international affairs - it is partly European, partly Asian, a BRICS member and soon a OECD country - has forced Russian policy makers to work in diverse groupings and sometimes to create new semantic categories. For example, when referring to established powers, Akopov spoke of the "Classic Occident" - consisting of the EU and the United States - to help draw the line between Russia and the Western World.

Despite these differences, according to Akopov, the potential for intra-BRICS cooperation is vast - ranging from areas such reforming the international financial order, science and technology, education, and, perhaps later, trade. Asked several times about the possibility of creating a military alliance, however, Akopov emphatically argued against adding a security dimension to the BRICS grouping.

Contrary to what many think, Russia remains a pragmatic and at times visionary member of the BRICS grouping - in 2008, for example, during a bilateral meeting between President Medvedev and Lula, a visa-waiver agreement was signed that allows Brazilian and Russian tourists to visit each others' countries without the hassle of applying for a visa. For Brazilians, traveling to Russia is thus easier than traveling to the United States, which still require a visa. Russia is working on establishing similar agreements with the other BRICS members. The argument that Russia does not belong in the BRICS because it is no emerging power in the first place - frequently heard in the United States and Europe - overlooks that Russia remains a formidable international actor that may turn out to be the big winner of climate change - it is thus certainly premature to discard Russia's role as a major power in the 21st century.

In this sense, Russia continues to play a key role in the BRICS grouping - even though it is, in several dimensions, more status-quo oriented than Brazil and other emerging powers in the Global South.

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Photo credit: CPDOC/FGV