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Is there a case for stronger Brazil-Russia relations?

October 10, 2010

In June 2010, a visa-free travel agreement between Russia and Brazil came into effect, which aims to boost tourism and business travel between the two BRIC countries. While the number of travelers will remain low in the near future, the agreement is rich in symbolism and its significance should not be underestimated. There are few countries outside of the former Soviet bloc that enjoy this special treatment by Russia, a nation traditionally loathe to make such sweeping concessions. The agreement is meant to reduce the ‘trust deficit’ between the two countries by increasing contact between the two societies, and it shows both governments’ desire to upgrade Brazil-Russia relations. Yet, what is the potential for stronger ties? And what is the rationale behind it?

Ties between Russia and Brazil have been virtually dormant for most of their history.  Except for a few Brazilian Marxist intellectuals who travelled to Moscow during the Cold War,  ties between the two rarely exceeded basic commercial exchange. In the Soviets’ eyes, Brazil has too closely aligned with the United States. It certainly did not help that the Brazilian government outlawed the Brazilian Communist Party (PCB) in 1947. It took until the 1970s for Brazilian governments to overcome their antipathy towards the Soviet Union. This resulted in a first cooperation agreement between the two. Brazil began to import Soviet oil,  and mutual trade in 1976 stood at $ 440 million, but it remained far lower than between the Soviet Union and Argentina. Brazil’s generals continued to react sensitively to communist subversive elements at home, and the PCB remained illegal.


There are certainly some striking similarities between the two.  Both continental countries and self-declared regional leaders, Russia and Brazil are extremely rich in natural resources, a characteristic that makes them important suppliers to China. While China has helped them weather the recent recession, both Russia (oil, gas) and Brazil (soy, iron ore) will need to be extremely careful not to enter in an unequal relationship with China, which buys up natural resources and sells value-added products in return.

But Russia and Brazil also differ fundamentally. Russia is perhaps the best example of a country with lots of hard power and virtually no soft power. It retains one of the largest armies nuclear stockpiles in the world, and two years ago it did not hesitate to use force against its Georgian neighbor. It is also increasingly autocratic, the opposition and the press is harassed, nationalism and racism are rife, and life expectancy is the lowest in the entire developed world. The “Russian narrative” is not exactly one many countries seek to emulate. Russia’s long-term prospects are bleak: Unable to promote innovation or to diversify, no Russian government has been able to wean off the economy from oil and gas, and Russia will be at the mercy of global commodity prices. In addition, little can be done about a historic demographic decline that makes it ever harder for Russia to populate its Far East.

Brazil, on the other hand, lacks a large army or the nuclear weapons of the other thee BRIC countries, but its strong democratic institutions, respect for human rights and vibrant civil society give Brazil, despite its flaws, the power of example. Corruption, a lack of decent universal education and unacceptable levels of socio-economic inequality and violence need to be tackled more effectively by future governments, but there is a general expectation, both at home and abroad, that Brazil is up to the task.


Despite these differences, the nineties saw a rapprochement between Brazil and Russia. In 1997 until a series of meaningful agreements were signed to promote economic cooperation, motivated by President Cardoso’s f conviction that Brazil would need to diversify its partnerships in an unstructured, quickly globalizing post-Cold War scenario. Similarly, Russia had undergone a historic liberalization process in the early 1990s and was eager to broaden its economic ties.

The Brazilian-Russian friendship grew even stronger after President Lula took over. In 2005, he met Putin in Moscow to proclaim a ‘strategic partnership’. Since then, Brazil and Russia have started working together in the areas of space and defense technology. They are also bound to increase collaboration in the fields of reactor development and uranium exploration technology, where Russia could help Brazil develop its uranium industry. Brazil’s  uranium deposits are said to be the sixth-largest in the world. In addition, aircraft construction and air transport, the energy sector, satellite technology, infrastructure projects, and medicine are promising and attractive areas for bilateral business cooperation. In 2008, Russian exports amounted to $ 2 billion while imports stood at $ 4.7.


Despite their leaders’ best efforts, the Brazilian-Russian project is no shoe-in. Ties on the society level are likely to remain low, even though tourism may increase significantly since visa rules have eased. With regards to the most pressing global challenges– climate change, nuclear non-proliferation, poverty and the democratization, there are few areas where the two can agree. While Brazilians are increasingly aware of the necessity to deal with climate change pragmatically, this notion has yet to gain traction in Russia. With regards to nuclear proliferation, it is not Russia, but Brazil who is unlikely to support stricter monitoring by the IAEA, the UN’s watchdog. In the realm of aid diplomacy,  Brazil is beginning to turn into an ’emerging donor’, while combating poverty across the world is not a priority for Russia. Finally, despite Russia’s rhetoric, it will not actively support a reform of global governance. This is understandable, as Russia is a nuclear weapon state under the NPT, a permanent member of the UN Security Council and a member of the G8. It is thus a classic ‘status quo’ power with limited interests to help Brazil undo current structures. While economic ties in some areas such as defense and nuclear technology may intensify, expectations in the political realm should therefore be managed carefully.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Pokua permalink
    October 10, 2010 11:30 pm

    Rising economic status certainly creates strange bed fellows – and Brazil better keep one eye open, and the other half-close while ‘in bed’ with Russia. Like the article points one, Russia comes to this friendship as a former super power eager to regain past glory, probably by any means necessary.


  1. Politics & Government « Brazil Weekly

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