American analyst Paul Goble investigates Russia's interests in testing the economic and political boundaries of BRICS cooperation.

 Russia pins hopes on BRICS. Photo: Reuters

The increasingly chilly relations between Russia and the West at the G8 summit in Northern Ireland seem certain to lead Moscow to devote even more attention to another international grouping, the BRIC.

This is the acronym for Brazil, Russia, India and China, four countries often thought of being at roughly the same stage of economic development and currently projected to overtake the G7 countries (the G8 minus Russia) economically within the next 20 years. And while there is no chance that Russia would ever pull out of the larger and more powerful G8, at least for now, President Vladimir Putin is very likely to try to give the BRIC more political content to gain both leverage and freedom of action on the international stage.

Invented by an economist a dozen years ago as a way to talk about the shift in economic power from the developed to the developing world, the BRIC has acquired greater importance over the last few years, because, except for Russia, its three other members are not part of the G8 circle, and because as an informal grouping it is open to the inclusion of other developing states such as South Africa, Mexico, Turkey, Indonesia, and Nigeria, whose economic growth has not brought them the political recognition that they believe is theirs by right.

That possibility has already been realized. After BRIC summits in Russia and Brazil in 2009 and 2010, BRIC became BRICS in 2011, when South Africa attended its first meeting of the group.

Earlier this year, South Africa hosted the fifth BRICS summit in Durban, the first such meeting ever in Africa and one that focused on relations between the BRICS countries and the developing countries of Africa. Participants agreed to set up a New Development Bank for the continent, a new contingent reserve arrangement, and the establishment of a BRICS Think Tanks Council and a BRICS Business Council to share information and ideas among member states.

That summit’s declaration also spoke about human rights and stability issues, an indication that BRICS countries are interested in moving beyond economics and assuming a political role in much the same way that the G8 has done.

But perhaps most important as an indication of the direction that the grouping is headed, the March 2013 meeting not only sought to develop closer ties with the African Union, but also collectively pressed the International Monetary Fund to consider the needs of the BRICS countries as a group and the World Trade Organization to select as its next director general someone from a developing country.

Clearly, Russia and some of its other members would like to see the grouping assume an even more prominent role not only to press the existing and G8 dominated institutions to move in their direction, but also to play an autonomous one on its own.

There are some obstacles on that road, however. Although all five members are committed to capitalist economics, they are very much divided in terms of the nature of their economies.

Russia, Brazil and South Africa are and are likely to remain economies driven and defined by their exports of raw materials, while China and India are rapidly becoming centers of manufacturing and service industries. But similar divides exist in the G8, and they have not prevented that grouping from playing a predominant role in international economic and often political relations.

Up to now, BRICS has received far less attention in the United States than it has in the Russian Federation, itself a BRICS founding member and a country that has a clear interest in playing a leadership role among other countries on the rise that for one reason or another may feel excluded from the highest levels. But three ways that Moscow appears likely to use this organization mean that it should gain more attention in the West soon.

First of all, and as all international relations theory teaches, whenever one or a small group of countries are in a predominant position, other countries will seek to form alliances as a counterweight to those powers. Beyond any doubt, that is Moscow’s main interest in the BRICS process, and it will define Russia’s approach to that grouping in the years to come.

Second, BRICS gives Moscow the opportunity to reach out not only to the members of this group, but to others as well, trying out new ideas of economic and political cooperation in ways that are less likely to produce an allergic reaction from the West. BRICS, at least so far, can and does operate under the radar screen of the currently dominant countries, and is thus likely to serve as an incubator for new ideas and arrangements.

And third, Moscow is betting on the future. If indeed the BRICS countries overtake the G8 minus Russia sometime in the next two decades, Moscow will win support from these and other countries simply because it was there first. Those who are currently ignoring the BRICS process should keep that in mind.