Authors: Fernando César Costa Xavier and Alexander Korolkov*
Almost a month has passed since the inauguration of the new President of Brazil Jair Bolsonaro. He and his team are not new to Brazil’s national politics; during their careers, they have made quite a few statements about the country’s place in the world and their vision of the development of Brazil’s relations with its key partners. Still, very few political observers (and maybe even members of the new cabinet) understand what Brazil’s foreign policy will be over the next four years. Thus far, we can gauge from the President’s campaign promises that Brazilian diplomacy needs to transform radically and move from broad participation in international organizations and initiatives to “anti-globalism” and bilateral talks in international trade.
The person charged with implementing this project, which has the supported of President Bolsonaro’s voters, is the career diplomat Ernesto Araújo, who was appointed Minister of Foreign Affairs not so much for his institutional experience as for the “correctness” of his ideas. Under his leadership, the new diplomacy should be based on an ideology composed of religious (Judeo-Christian) ultra-conservatism, programmatic anti-socialism, and vain nationalism. The implementation of this project should result in improving relations with the United States, Israel and those European countries that are led by right-wing conservatives.
Diplomacy on the Edge
As the new ruling elite in Brazil moves from words to deeds, concerns seem to have arisen that the new foreign political doctrine may cause the country economic and political damage. As a result, a group of the new President’s supporters led by Vice President General Hamilton Mourão (ret.) have been attempting throughout January to mitigate a series of foreign political messages that emerged during the presidential campaign.
At the very least, such actions result in an inevitable conceptual conflict between Mourão and Minister of Foreign Affairs Ernesto Araújo. Attempts to side-line the latter and remove him from the decision-making process are already obvious, so much so that the Vice President has met with ambassadors of several countries, including China (whose influence in Brazil was proclaimed to be almost the chief threat to national sovereignty during Bolsonaro’s presidential campaign), without the Minister of Foreign Affairs being present. This is at the very least unusual and goes against established practice. However, Mourão’s actions have not gone unnoticed. The Brazilian media has started to call Araújo’s growing isolation a “cordon sanitaire.”
The USSR Standing between Brazil and Russia
Given the budding internal confrontation, it is extremely hard to predict the course that Brazil–Russia relations will take. Unlike China, Russia was not criticized directly by the new President, but this might be due to the fact that Russia was not mentioned at all during Bolsonaro’s campaign. We can only guess as to his attitude towards the country.
As an ardent anti-communist, Bolsonaro is certain to view Russia at least with some suspicion because of its Soviet past. Russia probably does not quite realize it, but the USSR still remains an important fact in bilateral relations. Even though 2019 will mark 28 years since the collapse of the USSR, Brazil’s right-wing politicians and a significant chunk of the population still view President Vladimir Putin as a Soviet apparatchik who never cut his functional ties to the KGB. The fact that the KGB has itself been defunct for over a quarter of a century does not matter at all, since its successor has not yet gained comparable publicity (which is probably for the better) and the KGB continues to be a grim symbol of all things Soviet.
Although influential Brazilian analysts, such as the economist Mailson da Nobrega, insist that “true socialism” died in 1991 and that Bolsonaro’s crusade is pointless, for many Brazilians, the spectre of communism still lives in the Kremlin.
The support that Russia is extending to Nicolás Maduro’s seriously battered government helps feed this phantasmagoria. In an interview with Brazilian TV several weeks ago, Bolsonaro expressed concern about Russia’s military manoeuvres in Venezuela and, in this connection, even announced he could consider having a U.S. military base in Brazil.
This is the unstable background against which relations between Brazil and Russia are developing. Naturally, at this stage there is no initial data that would allow us to make accurate forecasts for the development of Russia–Brazil relations, but at least three major movement vectors from this bifurcation point can be seen, each of which may noticeably oscillate when confronted with an unpredictable reality. Let us call them horizons: their outlines are already visible, but it is not yet clear what lies beyond.
The First Horizon: Is a “Holy Alliance” Possible in the 21st Century?
Part of Brazil’s new ruling elite considers Putin’s Russia as a state that is closer to religious conservatism (linked with the Orthodox clergy) than to left-wing liberalism that ideologically stems from the “Red May,” i.e. the events of May of 1968. This group is headed by Chancellor Araújo. Back in 2018, before assuming the ministerial office, he proposed a “Christian pact” with the United States and Russia. He thought that such an alliance would challenge the “globalist axis” created by China, Europe and the American left. This statement was part of a single ideological package that also included criticism of Brazil’s participation in multilateral international forums and the announcement of the country’s withdrawal from the UN Global Compact for Migration.
It is quite possible that this impression of moral and political alignment which, according to the Chancellor, could happen between Brazil and Russia (Bolsonaro and Putin) was bolstered by the courtesy of the Russian side in congratulating Bolsonaro on his election victory. Bolsonaro replied to the congratulations from @KremlinRussia_E on Twitter, writing “Thank you, President Putin!” in his personal account on October 29, 2018. In addition to the tweet, the Russian President also sent a congratulatory telegram.
Although Putin probably views the mercurial Bolsonaro with a certain caution, he extended a hand again in a letter sent in late December 2018 emphasizing the possibility of a strategic partnership between Brazil and Russia. A few days later, Speaker of the State Duma of the Russian Federation Vyacheslav Volodin and his deputy Olga Yepifanova represented Russia at the President’s inauguration. The Russian delegation also met with the incumbent President of the Chamber of Deputies of Brazil Rodrigo Maia, who plans to be re-elected to the office with the support of Bolsonaro and his party (the Social Liberal Party).
If top level contacts do make it possible to overcome ideological fears and improve mutual understanding, Araújo is likely to pay much attention to an alliance with Russia, including possibly in the BRICS format. Brazilian diplomacy may need Russia as a counterbalance to China’s influence in the bloc. For Brazil’s right-wing politicians, China remains a source of a far greater number of phobias than Moscow. Despite opening its economy in recent decades, formally, China remains a communist country and is the greatest epitome of the “Red Scare” for Brazil’s anti-communists. In a highly controversial article written when he was only a nominee for the office of the Chancellor, Araújo claimed that “Maoist China had to be opposed.”
The Second Horizon: Realpolitik Brazilian Style
If Araújo is side-lined and the Realpolitik promoted by Vice-President Hamilton Mourão moves to the foreground, then, as surprising as it is, roads leading to Moscow still remain, although they might not be quite as straight.
In a recent interview, Mourão said he did not understand the point of an accelerated rapprochement between Brazil and Israel. It directly contradicted the idea of opening Brazil’s embassy in Jerusalem, which Bolsonaro proposed in support of a similar move by Trump. In the same interview, he quite unexpected asked, “Are we ready to pay any price to be fans of the Americans?”
Could Russia consider such statements as an invitation to engage in a dialogue? We believe it could.
Such a dialogue could take place at the upcoming 11th BRICS Summit, which will be held in Brazil in 2019. Mourão, who is fluent in English, could be a useful interlocutor for the bloc partners. He pays less attention to “anti-communism” and, unlike Araújo, does not think that the issues of global warming and sustainable development that had been discussed at the 10th BRICS summit are “hijacked by left-wing ideology.” Russia should use this chance to build bridges.
The Third Horizon: Getting Personal
If we forget about all groups and consider the personal impressions that the two countries’ leaders can produce on each other, then Brazil–Russia relations still have a future.
Like Chancellor Araújo, Bolsonaro is an avowed admirer of President Trump. Trump has an equivocal, yet generally positive attitude towards Putin. Behind his criticism of Russia’s policies and politics and the reserved attitude towards Russia that stems from domestic political factors, one can periodically glean Trump’s respect for Putin and even a desire to emulate his style.
This is probably very similar to what Brazil’s new president feels about the Russian leader. There is no doubt that Bolsonaro at the very least respects Putin, and probably, deep down, admires him. The similarities in their political styles appear to overcome their differences. Their supporters value their images of patriot warriors that bravely and ruthlessly fight against “enemies of the nation.”
Brazilian fans who attended the World Cup in Russia were amazed by the number of souvenirs bearing Putin’s image. These images are almost universally aggressive, associated with a demonstration of brute force (take the famous image of Putin riding a bear, for instance). It is possible that this practice was partially borrowed for Bolsonaro’s presidential campaign, at least in the images that are spread on social networks and forming a similar cult around the new president. The two leaders are becoming increasingly similar in terms of being viewed as “saints” and “the chosen ones” by their supporters.
Bolsonaro’s personal contacts with Putin and President of the People’s Republic of China Xi Jinping will certainly give him a more realistic feel for geopolitics. Maybe then he will evaluate the possibilities afforded by bilateral and multilateral talks and the global community will eventually come to understand that the ideological structures erected around him are nothing but a “Potyomkin village,” or smoke and mirrors.
*Alexander Korolkov, PhD in History, Expert on Latin America expert, RIAC expert
First published in our partner RIAC