By Nithya Kochuparampil
Over the past year, there have been many articles explaining the cohesion and staying power of the BRICS grouping. Repeated emphasis has been on the priorities shared as developing economies protecting their interests. However, the commonalities should not be confused for notions of a sort of monolithic ’emerging economies bloc’. National interests still frame many rules of the game and if we look at Russia in the BRICS forum through this lens, the country hasn’t changed its outlook very much in the past three years. It saw BRICS as an anti-Western grouping and it can be said that this Russian BRICS-view persists. The main problem with this position (apart from the fact that it is unrepresentative of the other members) is that BRICS was not crafted to be a foreign policy vehicle. National outlooks like this could conflict with the larger aim of the group — which is to collectively become an economic powerhouse to reckon with.
Kommersant ran an article early last year indicating that the Goldman Sachs prognosis of a lower global growth rate for 2012/2013 has made Russia look like an outsider within BRICS as it lags behind in sectors where other members in the grouping have been excelling. According to a paper published by the World Bank in early 2012 on Russia’s economic outlook, the Russian economy is expected to grow by 3.9% in 2013, and if high oil prices sustain, could increase to 4.2%. These projections affirm the extent to which oil prices affect the government balance and explain their dependence on oil revenue. Added to this, over the course of 2011, the country faced large capital flights to the tune of USD 80 billion. Chronic institutional weaknesses such as oligarchic business interests that place individual empires over national interests have added to Russia’s poor economic functioning. The future growth of Russia would appear to hinge on serious domestic renovations. Modernizing Russia would need investment and technology, and for both these purposes, Russia cannot afford to rest in a policy camp that believes in one-upping the West.
Navigating Russian foreign policy puts out three main camps whose leanings can largely be read as the liberals being more pro-West, and the great-power balancers and nationalists being closer in affinities to an anti-Western stance. However, there have been interesting motions for each of these camps, in part depending on the personal proclivities of the leader in power at the time but also on Russia’s conception of its place in the world. There’s one particular recent ‘switch’ that could illustrate the point. The upward Russian years from 2003-2008 which saw Russia sailing on an average GDP of around 6% had the country positioned quite firmly in the great power balancer camp with analysts reading the renewed emphasis on its political sovereignty as stemming from the financial sovereignty that came with paying off its Paris Club Debt. However, post-2008 and the economic downturn, the coin flipped, giving a greater voice to liberals advocating structural market reform.
Based on this analysis, the foreign policy tussle would appear to go two ways in the near future. In an undiversified economy, the main traded commodity (in the Russian case, oil) and the global economy have a say on most matters. In Russia, higher oil prices could fuel greater self assertiveness and discourage reform whereas low oil prices would have the opposite effect. While oil prices remain high, it remains to be seen whether this co-relation between high oil prices and disinterest in reform can continue given that the continuing oil dependency comes at a rather costly price of a restless public looking to the government to jumpstart economic reform.
The economic future of the country depends in large part on domestic renovations like diversifying the economy, improving accountability, lowering tariffs and revising trading rules in order to attract investment. Russia is going to be needing technology and investment, and on that front, will not be able to alienate the West, particularly because investment from BRICS is doubtful since a bulk of it depends on China which has its own interests in pursuing trade with Russia – consequently leaving Russia to look for investment with looser strings attached.
Russia’s conception of its place in the world is an important component of its foreign policy orientation. As BRICS-member status becomes a ticket to being part of a future high-table, each member’s contributions to the grouping are bound to come under the scanner. In the BRICS power dynamic, Russia’s trump cards are its energy resources and its political clout. In addition to being a UNSC member, Russia continues to have influence in certain geographical areas of historic interaction, while remaining the only country in the world which can destroy the reigning super power -all of which makes Russia important for world security. However, the reason this group has registered importance on the international scene is due to its economic might – present and future projections. Maintaining this persona of the grouping is of utmost importance, otherwise the grouping could defeat the purpose for which it was set up and risk becoming just another “diversion in the world of imperialism”.
(The writer was a Research Intern at Observer Research Foundation)