Thinking the Russian Choice: BRICS v/s OECD

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After a long wait, come 2014, that most exclusive club of nations, Organization of Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) will have a new member – Russia, which at one point was its most vocal critic. With the grouping’s influence arguably on the wane, despite efforts to make it more reflective of the zeitgeist, Russia’s eagerness to join it makes for an interesting study. By itself, it may largely be emblematic of Russia’s aspirations for a slice of imagined glory on the high table of the rich. Apart from saving denizens of St Petersburg a drive across the border to Finnish supermarkets, thanks to reduction in import tariffs, it brings to the fore the dichotomies that define Russia’s foreign policy, and more notably, its unique position within the BRICS. Russia’s impending accession to OECD, will see it attempting to align to an arrangement that could be characterized ‘old world’, with attitudes to political and economic models that compete and collide with those the developing world consider optimum to their own needs. This OECD membership will be at odds with the BRICS aspiration of offering a credible alternative to extant western systems currently governing international trade and economic exchange.

Strategic Expectations

Up until the disintegration of Soviet Union, the anxious need for this ‘super-power’ to shape an equally prevailing alternative to US domination of world affairs was central to the bipolar architecture that informed world politics. While bipolarity is now a remnant of history, lingering anxieties have continued to play a visceral role in shaping Russia’s foreign policy discourse. Russia’s presence in BRICS and other multi-lateral organizations such as SCO or G-20, its play at the UN, and response to issues such as opposition to proposed NATO missile shields in erstwhile client states of Poland and Romania, can be consistently traced to this arc of alternate leadership challenging legitimating discourses of the US led Western bloc.

Russia stands at the crossroad of global power flows today, where the signboards often appear fuzzy. On the one hand, the exclusivity of OECD beckons it. Even as Russian policymakers see OECD accession as natural fit, Russia may have to remain content with a seat at the periphery of OECD policy play. Powerful, entrenched lobbies within OECD, and Russia’s own political and economic architecture, could scupper effective integration and any gains thereof. On the other hand, Russia is rightly upping her engagement ante at BRICS. Even though BRICS agenda and agency may have been shaped by characteristic developing world priorities such as urban renewal, universal health and poverty alleviation, yet it is the only capable agent on the horizon that can offer a credible political and economic alternative to extant western systems. These nations have ‘emerged’ more ‘despite’ than ‘because’ of the developed world’s hand in their own journeys of growth. Their homegrown brews of practical logic in economics and governance, which helped them over the threshold, hold valuable lessons for Russia, which needs customized rather than copybook solutions.

Economic Priorities

Russia has the highest per capita GDP in the BRICS grouping, with Brazil a close second. Viewed in isolation, this means little. However, figures have a peculiar ability to obscure reality. For, Russia’s growth is based on skewed planning logic, spindled around commodity leverage aiding wealth concentration that has created physical and economic habitations literally at the opposite ends of the spectrum, with little in the middle. So, while Russia may have one of the largest populations of billionaires on the globe, the country does not figure anywhere in the top fifteen in the world millionaires chart, even as a significant mass of people struggle to make a decent living. Even today, commodities, especially oil and gas, which contribute the biggest slice of income to the national exchequer retains high policymaking attention in the Russian schema, even as the financial sector tethers at frontier market levels with subprime level interest rates for even high quality assets. While the predictability of such economic logic is close to the Russian roulette, even its frailty exposed by oil economy collapse in the aftermath of financial meltdown of 2008, has led to little meaningful change in planning behaviors.

Russia urgently needs systemic overhaul and its BRICS calling card offers it the maximum single point leverage in this regard. Economic ethos of BRICS historically has been pivoted around creating sustainable and inclusive institutional structures, which operate with high degree of predictability, posited as counterweight to overcome the highly negotiated nature of their national agency. Dipping into this rich collective experience, especially those of Brazil, India and China, who have long perfected models of sustainable reform with emphasis on equitable wealth distribution, could significantly alter Russia’s own learning curve, delivering quicker results with much less effort and fiscal pain.

Social Priorities

With close to cent per cent literacy, healthy sex ratio, high education levels, and, almost ten hospital beds and over four physicians per thousand individuals, Russia’s social statistics rival the best in the developed world. Years of disciplined social planning by the erstwhile Soviet regime had created one of the best national social architectures anywhere. Whereas the disintegration of the Soviet Union, and the economic chaos that ensued, consumed most other national institutions, strong fundamentals anchored in robust institutional frameworks helped Russia’s social architecture negotiate adverse headwinds of over two decades or so of policy challenges and spending cuts. However this fabled resilience is now showing unmistakable signs of fracture, with income inequity, rising unemployment levels and falling living standards, all of which are making the population increasingly restive.

There is an increasing constituency within Russia’s policy-making apparatus, which realizes the long-term consequences of this trajectory. A rethinking of national priority, away from the overdependence on oil economy to improving social conditions is underway, as Russian planners realize this is perhaps the only sustainable option going forward. In this, Russia can draw and adapt from the immense experience and resource within the BRICS, especially those of post reform Brazil, India and China, where creating sustainable social architectures that balance opportunity and growth with improved living standards has been key to managing large and diverse population groups with disparate interests, and certainly with differing degrees of success.

BRICS Play

Even while BRICS will continue to make the right noises towards providing an alternative to the extant global system, its short to medium term agenda will continue to be dominated by shared domestic priorities and their interplay with global governance frameworks. For realizing their dreams of expanded geopolitical influence, member states are already operating outside the BRICS ambit, and will continue to do so. Brazil has waddled into issues in far off Middle East while China has embraced Latin America, as a single point alternative to United States. As emerging states, they are situated uniquely, being both competitors and partners at the same time. For instance, India has been romancing Japan and United States as counterbalance to China in the political play, while Brazilian policymakers are responding to China’s increasing foothold in Latin America, by establishing closer economic and political collaboration with regional states, a move away from its traditional Euro centricity.

At the same time, on the more substantive issues such as climate change, Doha rounds and WTO which hold real potential to impact the life and times of their citizens, they have functioned as a cohesive unit, even compromising stated national positions, in the finest spirit of give and take. Their development emphasis notwithstanding, BRICS agency remains sufficiently reflective of global commons, and, their interactions are witnessing an increasing play of heavy political content. BRICS have taken firm and independent positions, on the Israel-Arab conflict, Iran and Syria, broader issues of sanctions, transnational interventions and the UN system that governs peace and stability. However, BRICS are unlikely to morph into a security bloc or alliance, and neither are they likely to be anti-western in their orientation. Yet, together they have shown to be able to stand-up and take an effective position against irrational acts stemming from whimsical or partisan objectives that hold potential to disturb global stability. And, that will be the moral space BRICS will seek to occupy in global political consciousness.

Promiscuous Future

We live in a world awash with promiscuous choices. But, the high rush in such flirtation is not without matching dangers. Russia will find reasons and perhaps even the wherewithal to court both BRICS and OECD simultaneously. Even so, Russia will have to delicately balance divergent expectations of the two groups who situate themselves at different ends in an uneven spectrum.

Inclusive growth, prosperity and a stable environment (internal and external) is what each of the BRICS seek as they transform their national economic and political landscapes. While this development emphasis within the BRICS agenda (which will only increase as South Africa assumes leadership) may appear to disturb the role Russia envisaged for BRICS, and herself within it, in reality Russia stands to gain immensely from this dispensation. Considering Russia’s own urgent need for systemic overhaul, there can be no better reference point than countries at the forefront of shaping the new global order. Staying the course will also see the BRICS increase the political content of their engagement, something the Russians always sought from the group of five.

Gains from accession to the OECD, which some feel Russia is speed-gating, may yet be notional. For, reduction in tariff barriers or better access to cutting edge technologies may all be part of the solution, but by themselves, they hold little value unless fundamental changes are effected in governance and planning behaviors to release energy and vibrancy into its national system, which is incidentally the signature BRICS objective.

Jaibal Naduvath is a communication professional and Samir Saran is Vice President at theObserver Research Foundation, a premier Indian Think Tank. The article is a revised version of the column that appeared in the Russia India Report on Jan 21, 2012.

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