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Coronavirus Pandemic Worries BRICS

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On April 28, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov held an extraordinary meeting of BRICS Ministers of Foreign Affairs (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) via videoconference as part of important events planned this year after Russia took over the chair-ship from Brazil.

The BRICS Foreign Affairs Ministers who took part in the meeting included Dr. Subrahmanyam Jaishankar represented India; Ernesto Araújo Foreign Affairs Minister of Brazil; Wang Yi, State Councilor and Foreign Minister of China and Ms. Grace Naledi Pandor, Minister of International Relations and Cooperation of the Republic of South Africa.

The ministers reviewed the impact of the current global crisis provoked by the outbreak of COVID-19 on the system of international relations and agreed that there is no alternative to using both bilateral and multilateral forms of cooperation, unite behind efforts without any hidden agenda, in finding a collective response to the challenges and threats posed by the coronavirus pandemic.

The meeting exchanged in-depth views on possible joint measures on how to contain COVID-19 and deal with the financial, trade, economic and social consequences of the pandemic. They discussed important issues related to developing a five-way cooperation, including the calendar of events for Russia’s BRICS Chairmanship in 2020.

“We believe that it should become a very good reinforcement for our countries’ economies when they’re coming out of the crisis stage and resume economic operations,” Lavrov noted after the meeting.

The international community should unite to ensure the most positive outcome of efforts in tackling the crisis, but acknowledged that such efforts are being undermined by sanctions imposed on some countries, and suggested that the sanctions should be lifted or removed.

In the opening speech, Lavrov emphasized the priority in dealing with the COVID-19 outbreak, protect people’s lives and health as well as the global economy. “The need to uphold multilateral principles and rely on international law in formulating solutions to current cross-border threats is an urgent challenge. We are convinced that it is very important to strengthen the solidarity of BRICS countries,” he said.

The BRICS heads of state adopted a decision a couple of years ago to expand cooperation in the fight against infections and the joint production and use of vaccines, according to Lavrov, and suggested “BRICS has to accelerate the implementation of this initiative.”

Cooperation on countering infectious diseases has long been a priority for BRICS. For instance, the final declaration of the 2015 BRICS summit in Ufa, Russia, contains instructions by the leaders to jointly work on managing the risk of disease outbreaks, including the current new coronavirus.

“We are concerned about growing and diversifying global threats posed by communicable and non-communicable diseases. They have a negative impact on economic and social development, especially in developing and in the least developed countries,” the 2015 BRICS declaration adopted in Ufa, Russia. It was the Seventh BRICS Summit, held under the theme “BRICS Partnership – a Powerful Factor of Global Development” under the chair-ship of Russia.

That declaration  further stated: “In this context, we commend the efforts made by the BRICS countries to contribute to enhanced international cooperation to support the efforts of countries to achieve their health goals, including the implementation of universal and equitable access to health services, and ensure affordable, good-quality service delivery while taking into account different national circumstances, policies, priorities and capabilities.”

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi echoed Sergey Lavrov’s call for unity and solidarity. In an official statement released by the ministry, Wang said that the BRICS should “stand firm by multilateralism, by the UN-centered international system” and “champion the approach of consultation and cooperation.”

“Through joint efforts, we will safeguard the legitimate rights and interests and space for development not just for ourselves but also for all other emerging market and developing countries,” Wang Yi said.

With its rapid spread in many parts of the world, COVID-19 has put lives and health of people around the world under grave threat, seriously disrupted the global economy, and posed severe challenges to BRICS, the minister said, while acknowledging further that “as representatives of major emerging countries with global influence, BRICS countries must act in the interest of the well-being of humankind, and stand by justice and equity.”

Wang Yi, however, proposed the following:

First, uphold multilateralism and improve global governance. The sudden onslaught of COVID-19 reminds again that BRICS interests are, closely entwined and the future. A challenge that respects no border and makes no distinction of ethnicity has only made global governance more important, not less, building a community with a shared future for mankind.

China’s strategic assessment is that COVID-19 will not change the theme of the times which remains peace and development; it will not cut short the historical trend toward multi-polarity and globalization, and still less will it deter humankind from its firm pursuit of civilization and progress.

In a time of crisis, BRICS must stand firm by multilateralism, by the UN-centered international system, and by the purposes and principles of the UN Charter. BRICS needs to sustain coordination in the UN, the G20 and other multilateral frameworks to keep up secure and smooth functioning of global industrial and supply chains, and defend the multilateral trading regime with the WTO as the cornerstone.

BRICS should continue to work for making development the centerpiece of the global macro policy agenda, and expedite the delivery of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

Second, BRICS should come together in the spirit of partnership to combat COVID-19. Under the personal leadership and direction of President Xi Jinping, the Chinese government and people have fought a people’s war against COVID-19. China has acted according to the principle of shoring up confidence, strengthening unity, ensuring science-based control and taking targeted measures.

As the virus hits more countries around the world, China is doing everything it can to help those in need. In spite of substantial demand at home and growing pressures to meet foreign orders, China has provided a large amount of medical supplies to fellow BRICS countries, and facilitated the purchase of such supplies through commercial channels.

Going forward, China is ready to step up the sharing of information and experience with BRICS countries and conduct joint research and development of drugs and vaccines, respecting each other’s sovereignty and national conditions.

Third, BRICS should uphold unity and coordination to forge a powerful synergy. President Xi Jinping stated that the virus is a common enemy of humanity and can be defeated. Living in a global village, no one could stay safe when others’ houses catch fire.

Likewise, in fighting COVID-19, victory can only be secured when the virus is brought under control in all countries. China has been a strong force behind international anti-epidemic cooperation because its own experience has made it fully empathetic with other peoples suffering from similar difficulties.

As countries battle the disease in light of their own situations, China called for mutual understanding and respect for these efforts, and sharing and learning from each other’s experiences. The global community should never be distracted in its collaborative response by finger-pointing or the blame game, allow new tensions and divisions to be created as a result of politicization or stigmatization.

In view of the weaknesses and inadequacies exposed during this crisis, BRICS needs to enhance global public health governance, make it a higher priority on the international agenda, and work together to build a community of health for all.

Fourth, China will work with all BRICS members to support Russia’s Chairmanship. China also supports Russia’s initiative to formulate a Strategy for BRICS Economic Partnership 2025.

On his part, Indian Foreign Affairs Minister Dr. Subrahmanyam Jaishankar noted that BRICS, which brings together almost 42 percent of global population, with impressive growth, investment and trade share, has an important role to play in shaping the global economic and political architecture.

He highlighted the initiatives and various decisive steps taken early by India. For example, India is providing pharma assistance to nearly 85 countries, including many countries in Africa, on a grant basis, to support their response to the pandemic. This has been widely welcomed.

He further emphasized that the pandemic is not only posing a great risk to the health and well-being of humanity but is also severely impacting global economy and output by disruption of global trade and supply chains. Economic activity across sectors has been negatively impacted leading to loss of jobs and livelihoods.

He emphasized the need to provide support to businesses, especially small and medium scale enterprises, and the efficacy of traditional medicine systems to strengthen immunity be recognized and that BRICS should support these efforts.

Jaishankar emphasized the current challenge that underlines the need for reform of multilateral systems and that a reformed multilateralism was the way forward. He referred to the centrality of development and growth in the global agenda. India reaffirmed its support for Russian BRICS Chair-ship in 2020 and under the theme “BRICS Partnership for Global Stability, Shared Security and Innovative Growth.”

The BRICS member countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) collectively represent about 26% of the world’s geographical area and are home to 3.6 billion people, about 42% of the world’s population and with a combined nominal GDP of $16.6 trillion.

MD Africa Editor Kester Kenn Klomegah is an independent researcher and writer on African affairs in the EurAsian region and former Soviet republics. He wrote previously for African Press Agency, African Executive and Inter Press Service. Earlier, he had worked for The Moscow Times, a reputable English newspaper. Klomegah taught part-time at the Moscow Institute of Modern Journalism. He studied international journalism and mass communication, and later spent a year at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations. He co-authored a book “AIDS/HIV and Men: Taking Risk or Taking Responsibility” published by the London-based Panos Institute. In 2004 and again in 2009, he won the Golden Word Prize for a series of analytical articles on Russia's economic cooperation with African countries.

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Putin’s post-Soviet world remains a work in progress, but Africa already looms

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Russian civilisationalism is proving handy as President Vladimir Putin seeks to expand the imaginary boundaries of his Russian World, whose frontiers are defined by Russian speakers and adherents to Russian culture rather than international law and/or ethnicity.

Mr. Putin’s disruptive and expansive nationalist ideology has underpinned his aggressive

 approach to Ukraine since 2014 with the annexation of Crimea and the stoking of insurgencies in the east of the country. It also underwrites this month’s brief intervention in Kazakhstan, even if it was in contrast to Ukraine at the invitation of the Kazakh government.

Mr. Putin’s nationalist push in territories that were once part of the Soviet Union may be par for the course even if it threatens to rupture relations between Russia and the West and potentially spark a war. It helps Russia compensate for the strategic depth it lost with the demise of communism in Europe and the collapse of the Soviet Union.

However, equally alarmingly, Mr. Putin appears to be putting building blocks in place that would justify expanding his Russian World in one form or another beyond the boundaries of the erstwhile Soviet Union.

In doing so, he demonstrates the utility of employing plausibly deniable mercenaries not only for military and geopolitical but also ideological purposes.

Standing first in line is the Central African Republic. A resource-rich but failed state that has seen its share of genocidal violence and is situated far from even the most expansive historical borders of the Russian empire, the republic could eventually qualify to be part of the Russian world, according to Mr. Putin’s linguistic and cultural criteria.

Small units of the Wagner Group, a private military company owned by one of Mr. Putin’s close associates, entered the Centra African Republic once departing French troops handed over to a United Nations peacekeeping force in 2016. Five years later, Wagner has rights to mine the country’s gold and diamond deposits.

Perhaps surprisingly, the Russian mercenary presence persuaded President Faustin-Archange Touadera that the African republic should embrace Russian culture.

As a result, university students have been obliged to follow Russian-language classes starting as undergraduates in their first year until their second year of post-graduate studies. The mandate followed the introduction of Russian in the republic’s secondary school curriculum in 2019.

Mr. Touadera is expected to ask Mr. Putin for Russian-language instructors during a forthcoming visit to Moscow to assist in the rollout.

Neighbouring Mali could be next in line to follow in Mr. Touadera’s footsteps.

Last month, units of the Wagner Group moved into the Sahel nation at the request of a government led by army generals who have engineered two coups in nine months. The generals face African and Western sanctions that could make incorporating what bits of the country they control into the Russian world an attractive proposition.

While it is unlikely that Mr. Putin would want to formally welcome sub-Saharan and Sahel states into his Russian world, it illustrates the pitfalls of a redefinition of internationally recognised borders as civilisational and fluid rather than national, fixed, and legally enshrined.

For now, African states do not fit Mr. Putin’s bill of one nation as applied to Ukraine or Belarus. However, using linguistics as a monkey wrench, he could, overtime or whenever convenient, claim them as part of the Russian world based on an acquired language and cultural affinity.

Mr. Putin’s definition of a Russian world further opens the door to a world in which the principle of might is right runs even more rampant with the removal of whatever flimsy guard rails existed.

To accommodate the notion of a Russian world, Russian leaders, going back more than a decade, have redefined Russian civilisation as multi-ethnic rather than ethically Russia.

The Central African Republic’s stress on Russian-language education constitutes the first indication in more than a decade that Mr. Putin and some of his foreign allies may expand the Russian world’s civilisational aspects beyond the erstwhile Soviet Union.

Some critics of Mr. Putin’s concept of a Russian world note that Western wars allegedly waged out of self-defense and concern for human rights were also about power and geopolitical advantage.

For example, pundit Peter Beinart notes that NATO-led wars in Serbia, Afghanistan, and Libya “also extended American power and smashed Russian allies at the point of a gun.”

The criticism doesn’t weaken the legitimacy of the US and Western rejection of Russian civilisationalism. However, it does undermine the United States’ ability to claim the moral high ground.

It further constrains Western efforts to prevent the emergence of a world in which violation rather than the inviolability of national borders become the accepted norm.

If Russian interventionism aims to change borders, US interventionism often sought to change regimes. That is one driver of vastly different perceptions of the US role in the world, including Russian distrust of the post-Soviet NATO drive into Eastern Europe and independent former Soviet states such as Ukraine.

“People with more experience of the dark side of American power—people whose families hail from Guatemala, Chile, Brazil, Haiti, or Mexico, where US guns have sabotaged democracy rather than defended it—might find it easier to understand Russian suspicions. But those Americans tend not to shape US policy towards places like Ukraine,” Mr. Beinart said.

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Neighbours and Crises: New Challenges for Russia

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Through all the discussions that accompanied the preparation of the Valdai Club report “Space Without Borders: Russia and Its Neighbours”, the most clear question was whether Russia should or should not avoid repeating the historical experience of relations with its near abroad. This experience, in the most general terms, is that after Russia pacifies its western border with its foreign policy, the Russian state inevitably must turn to issues related to the existence of its immediate neighbourhood. With a high degree of probability, it will be forced to turn to its centuries-old method for solving problems that arise there: expansion for the sake of ensuring security.

Now Russia’s near abroad consists of a community of independent states that cannot ensure their own security and survival by relying only on their own forces; we cannot be completely sure of their stability. From Estonia in the west to Kyrgyzstan in the east, the existence of these countries in a competitive international environment is ensured by their link with one of the nuclear superpowers. Moreover, such connections can only complement each other with great difficulty. As the recent developments in Kazakhstan have demonstrated, they are not limited to the threat of an external invasion; even internal circumstances can become deadly.

The dramatic events in that country were intensified by external interference from the geostrategic opponents of Russia, as well as international terrorists, but it would be disingenuous to argue that their most important causes are not exclusively internal and man-made. We cannot and should not judge whether the internal arrangements of our neighbours are good or bad, since we ourselves do not have ideal recipes or examples. However, when dealing with the consequences, it is rational to fear that their statehood will either be unable to survive, or that their existence will take place in forms that create dangers which Russia cannot ignore.

In turn, the events experienced now in relations between Russia and the West, if we resort to historical analogies, look like a redux of the Northern War. The Great Northern War arose at the beginning of the 18th century as the result of the restoration of Russia’s power capabilities; the West had made great progress in approaching the heart of its territory. Within the framework of this logic, victory, even tactical victory, in the most important (Western) direction will inevitably force Russia to turn to its borders. Moreover, the reasons for paying more attention to them are obvious. This will present Russia with the need to decide on how much it is willing to participate in the development of its neighbours.

The developments in Kazakhstan in early January 2022 showed the objective limits of the possibilities of building a European-style sovereign state amid new, historical, and completely different geopolitical circumstances. More or less all the countries of the space that surrounds Russia, from the Baltic to the Pamir, are unique experiments that arose amid the truly phenomenal orderliness of conditions after the end of the Cold War. In that historical era, the world really developed under conditions where a general confidence prevailed that the absolute dominance of one power and a group of its allies creates conditions for the survival of small and medium-sized states, even in the absence of objective reasons for this.

The idea of the “end of history” was so convincing that we could accept it as a structural factor, so powerful that it would allow us to overcome even the most severe objective circumstances.

The Cold War era created the experience of the emergence and development of new countries, which until quite recently had been European colonies. Despite the fact that there are a few “success stories” among the countries that emerged after 1945, few have been able to get out of the catch-up development paradigm. However, it was precisely 30 years ago that there really was a possibility that a unipolar world would be so stable that it would allow the experiment to come to fruition. The visible recipes of the new states being built were ideal from an abstract point of view, just as Victor Frankenstein was guided by a desire for the ideal.

Let us recall that the main idea of our report was that Russia needs to preserve the independence of the states surrounding it and direct all its efforts to ensure that they become effective powers, eager to survive. This desire for survival is seen as the main condition for rational behaviour, i.e. creating a foreign policy, which takes into account the geopolitical conditions and the power composition of Eurasia. In other words, we believe that Russia is interested in the experiment that emerged within the framework of the Liberal World Order taking place under new conditions, since its own development goals dictate that it avoid repeating its past experience of full control over its neighbours, with which it shares a single geopolitical space.

This idea, let’s not hide it, prompted quite convincing criticism, based on the belief that the modern world does not create conditions for the emergence of states where such an experience is absent in more or less convincing forms. For Russia, the challenge is that even if it is technically capable of ensuring the immediate security of its national territory, the spread of the “grey zone” around its borders will inevitably bring problems that the neighbours themselves are not able to solve.

The striking analogy proposed by one colleague was the “hallway of hell” that Russia may soon face on its southern borders, making us raise the question that the absence of topographic boundaries within this space makes it necessary to create artificial political or even civilisational lines, the protection of which in any case will be entrusted to the Russian soldier. This January we had the opportunity to look into this “hallway of hell”. There is no certainty that the instant collapse of a state close to Russia in the darkest periods of its political history should be viewed as a failure in development, rather than a systemic breakdown of the entire trajectory, inevitable because it took shape amid completely different conditions.

Therefore, now Russia should not try to understand what its further strategy might be; in any case, particular behaviour will be determined by circumstances. Our task is to explore the surrounding space in order to understand where Russia can stop if it does not want to resort to the historical paradigm of its behaviour. The developments in Kazakhstan, in their modern form, do not create any grounds for optimism or hopes for a return to an inertial path of development. Other states may follow Ukraine and Kazakhstan even if they now look quite confident. There are no guarantees — and it would be too great a luxury for Russia to accept such a fate.

This is primarily because the Russian state will inevitably face a choice between being ready for several decades of interaction with a huge “grey zone” along the perimeter of its borders and more energetic efforts to prevent its emergence. It is unlikely that Moscow would simply observe the processes taking place on its immediate periphery. This is not a hypothetical invasion of third forces — that does not pose any significant threat to Russia. The real challenge may be that in a few decades, or sooner, Moscow will have to take on an even greater responsibility, which Russia got rid of in 1991. Even now, there seems to be a reason to believe that thirty years of independence have made it possible to create elements of statehood that can be preserved and developed with the help of Russia.

from our partner RIAC

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Do as You’re Told, Russia Tells the Neighborhood

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The Kremlin has always argued that it has special interests and ties to what once constituted the Soviet space. Yet it struggled to produce a smooth mechanism for dealing with the neighborhood, where revolutionary movements toppled Soviet and post-Soviet era political elites. Popular movements in Georgia, Ukraine, Moldova, Kyrgyzstan, and most recently Kazakhstan have flowered and sometimes triumphed despite the Kremlin’s rage.

Russia’s responses have differed in each case, although it has tended to foster separatism in neighboring states to preclude their westward aspirations. As a policy, this was extreme and rarely generated support for its actions, even from allies and partners. The resultant tensions underlined the lack of legitimacy and generated acute fear even in friendlier states that Russia one day could turn against them.

But with the activation of the hitherto largely moribund six-nation Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) in Kazakhstan seems to be an entirely different matter. Here, for the first time since its Warsaw Pact invasions, Russia employed an element of multilateralism. This was designed to show that the intervention was an allied effort, though it was Russia that pulled the strings and contributed most of the military force.

CSTO activation is also about something else. It blurred the boundaries between Russia’s security and the security of neighboring states. President Vladimir Putin recently stated the situation in Kazakhstan concerned “us all,” thereby ditching the much-cherished “Westphalian principles” of non-intervention in the internal affairs of neighboring states. The decision was also warmly welcomed by China, another Westphalia enthusiast.

In many ways, Russia always wanted to imitate the US, which in its unipolar moment used military power to topple regimes (in Afghanistan and Iraq) and to restore sovereignty (in Kuwait.) Liberal internationalism with an emphasis on human rights allowed America and its allies to operate with a certain level of legitimacy and to assert (a not always accepted) moral imperative. Russia had no broader ideas to cite. Until now. Upholding security and supporting conservative regimes has now become an official foreign policy tool. Protests in Belarus and Kazakhstan helped the Kremlin streamline this vision.

Since Russia considers its neighbors unstable (something it often helps to bring about), the need for intervention when security is threatened will now serve as a new dogma, though this does not necessarily mean that CSTO will now exclusively serve as the spearhead of Russian interventionist policy in crises along its borders. On the contrary, Russia will try to retain maneuverability and versatility. The CSTO option will be one weapon in the Kremlin’s neighborhood pacification armory.

Another critical element is the notion of “limited sovereignty,” whereby Russia allows its neighbors to exercise only limited freedom in foreign policy. This is a logical corollary, since maneuverability in their relations with other countries might lead to what the Kremlin considers incorrect choices, like joining Western military or economic groupings.

More importantly, the events in Kazakhstan also showed that Russia is now officially intent on upholding the conservative-authoritarian regimes. This fits into a broader phenomenon of authoritarians helping other authoritarians. Russia is essentially exporting its own model abroad. The export includes essential military and economic help to shore up faltering regimes.

The result is a virtuous circle, in the Kremlin’s eyes. Not only can it crush less than friendly governments in its borderlands but it also wins extensive influence, including strategic and economic benefits. Take for instance Belarus, where with Russian help, the dictator Aliaksandr Lukashenka managed to maintain his position after 2020’s elections through brutality and vote-rigging. The end result is that the regime is ever-more beholden to Russia, abandoning remnants of its multi-vector foreign policy and being forced to make financial and economic concessions of defense and economics to its new master. Russia is pressing hard for a major new airbase.

A similar scenario is now opening up in Kazakhstan. The country which famously managed to strike a balance between Russia and China and even work with the US, while luring multiple foreign investors, will now have to accept a new relationship with Russia. It will be similar to Belarus, short of integration talks.

Russia fears crises, but it has also learned to exploit them. Its new approach is a very striking evolution from the manner in which it handled Georgia and Ukraine in 2008 and 2014, through the Belarus and Armenia-Azerbaijan crises in 2020 to the Kazakh uprising of 2022.

Russia has a new vision for its neighborhood. It is in essence a concept of hierarchical order with Russia at the top of the pyramid. The neighbors have to abide by the rules. Failure to do so would produce a concerted military response.

Author’s note: first published in cepa

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