On Dec. 10, a new president assumes power in Argentina – the opposition politician Mauricio Macri. Does this mean that Russia will once again have to work on building good relations with this large Latin American country?
Argentina's President-elect Mauricio Macri attends a meeting with Brazilian and Argentine businessmen at the Sao Paulo's Industries Federation, in Sao Paulo, Brazil. Photo: AP
The second largest country in Latin America – Argentina – is getting a new president: 56-year-old businessman Mauricio Macri, an opposition politician and representative of the moderate right-wing circles of the country. He assumes office on Dec. 10 after the second round of elections, which were held on Nov. 22, gave victory to him.
Against the backdrop of the much-discussed threat of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Greater Syria (ISIS), the elections in Argentina did not receive wide coverage in either the American or European mass media. However, the results of this election in the second largest country in Latin America could significantly change the political direction of the Latin American continent, and thus have a major impact on the global agenda.
The elections put an end to the remarkably long 12-year reign of Kirchnerism, named after the former President Nestor Kirchner and his wife, Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner. Nestor Kirchner ruled the country from 2003 to 2007, and then handed over the reins to his wife Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, and she remained the head of the Casa Rosada Presidential Palace for two consecutive terms.
In the elections this year, the majority of Argentines voted against the “model of continuity” in the country. In short, they voted against the authoritarian style of the Mistress of the Casa Rosada Presidential Palace, who was often called “Hugo Chavez in a skirt” (after the name of Venezuela's former President Hugo Chavez, who was well-known for his authoritarian style and leftist views), and against her aggressive style in dealing with the press.
In doing so, they voted against the growth o problems in the financial sector, which led to ever-increasing budget deficits (in October the deficit reached $1.13 billion) and double-digit inflation, against the artificial self-isolation of the country, against her anti-Americanism and growing affinity with countries such as Russia, Iran and China.
Tango for two: Putin and Kirchner
Good Russian-Argentine relations in recent years were fueled largely due to the personal affinity between Kirchner and Russian President Vladimir Putin. The world community watched with interest the communications between the Argentine widow and the divorced Russian President.
The press noted the admiring glances that Christina was throwing at Putin, who during a visit to Buenos Aires played the accordion just for her, and she, during her visit to Moscow, gave him a bandoneon, a musical instrument symbolizing the Argentine tango. A month ago, the two leaders took part in a videoconference, on the occasion marking 130 years since the establishment of relations between Russia and Argentina. And Putin could not resist once again praising Kirchner.
“Not long ago, we saw how you danced at a recent event,” the Russian president said. “This only helped to embellish, in my opinion, the political landscape of the country.”
Not long ago, Russian media reported on Kirchner’s indirect support for Crimea’s joining of Russia, and also wrote about the possibility of building a Russian military base in Argentina, which was later denied by the Kremlin.
Will relations between the two countries now need adjustment after the recent elections? Putin sent a telegram of congratulations to the new President of Argentina, Macri, in which he stressed that, “Russia and Argentina have embarked on the development of a comprehensive strategic partnership.”
However, it is possible that such an assessment does not reflect the actual state of bilateral relations of the two countries, but was more an expression of good intentions on the part of Russian leadership.
A new era in Argentina
Curiously enough, prominent Russian specialists on Latin America were quite skeptical about the results of the activities of Kirchner, both domestically and in the international arena.
“The victory of the opposition candidate was expected,” said Vladimir Sudarev, deputy director of the Institute of Latin American Studies at the Russian Academy of Sciences.
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“The previous era has come to an end. And it ended at a time when Argentina finds itself in a very difficult economic and geopolitical situation – the country has been virtually isolated from all of the intensive integration processes that were taking place in the world. The country’s economy under the current president, and before that, under her late husband Nestor Kirchner, was too closed, too protectionist,” says the expert.
This harmed relations with Brazil and with other countries of the southern hemisphere. Argentina “has remained aloof from the Pacific Community Association, and nothing was achieved with Brazil," Sudarev said, adding that the idea of creating common trade zones with the Southern Cone (a geographic region composed of the southernmost areas of the South America – Argentina, Chile and Uruguay) and Europe also went downhill.
Russian experts also note that Argentina was unable to dramatically increase its exports of agricultural products to Russia, which would have replaced products from Western Europe, which were banned for import by Russia. Despite the fact that the initial response to the Russian appeal had been very positive, Argentina could not fill the niche freed up by European companies. Prices on its products increased by 30-40 percent, which put into question the desirability of increasing trade between Russia and Argentina.
Opinions of Russian experts on the future of relations between the two countries are divided.
“The new head of Argentina is fully a pro-American politician,” says Alexander Gusev, director of the Institute of Strategic Planning. “Mr. Macri is purely pro-American, and this can be felt from the sentiments he has been expressing for a long time. Of course, Mr. Macri will operate primarily within the framework of the agreements that have been concluded with the United States.”
Mikhail Belyat, a researcher at the Russian State University for the Humanities (RSUH), also feels that the coming to power in Argentina of an opposition candidate can break the “strategic partnership.”
“Macri is a stranger to the Social-Democratic rhetoric of the ruling forces in Argentina,” Belyat argues. “He advocates greater cooperation with the United States and Canada. The orientation of the country’s foreign policy will, of course, change.”
At the same time, other Russian experts on Latin America believe that Macri’s victory will not lead to any significant changes in the country’s foreign policy.
“We buy a lot of products and foodstuffs from Argentina,” says Vladimir Travkin, chief editor of Latin America Magazine. “The Argentines buy energy products and equipment from us – and for them, this is very important. In addition, we have been developing cooperation in the military-technical sphere. On the whole, our relations are mutually beneficial, and are at a high level.”
Travkin predicts that there will be no major changes happening in relations between Moscow and Buenos Aires.
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Macri’s future strategy is not yet clear. However, one can assume that any accelerated strengthening of bilateral relations with the United States would endanger, in particular, the plans for military-technical cooperation between Russia and Argentina.
It is also not certain whether Macri will support the ambitious plans to construct Russian nuclear power plants in Argentina. Nevertheless, of course, this Latin American country, with the third largest economy on the continent, will seek to expand the market for its export products, and Russia occupies a prominent place in this market.
Macri against Maduro
Along with all this, the victory of the right-wing politician in Argentina may have a significant indirect impact on Russian positions in Latin America. Macri is known as an implacable opponent of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro. Already during his election campaign, he threatened to raise the issue of expelling Venezuela from the economic bloc MERCOSUR, if the authorities of this country refuse to release opposition leaders from prison.
After winning the election, Macri further toughened his anti-Venezuelan rhetoric. He declared that at the next MERCOSUR Summit, which will be held on Dec. 21 in Asuncion, the capital of Paraguay, the participants will “inevitably raise the question of compliance of Caracas policies with democratic norms of the bloc, as well as severely condemn the harassment of opposition politicians in Venezuela and the serious violations of freedom of speech rights.”
“The election results in Argentina have become a powerful blow to all other populist regimes in Latin America,” says Julio Maria Sanguinetti, former president of Uruguay. The coming to power of a right-wing politician in Argentina, he notes, comes against a background of a setting sun of the “stars” of leftist forces.
In Brazil, this is due to turmoil in the economy and corruption scandals, in which many prominent leaders of the Workers’ Party were involved. Then there are the conditions of unprecedented social and economic the crisis that Venezuela is now going through.
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Not that long ago, supporters of left-wing forces in political circles and the expert community in Russia enthusiastically painted over two-thirds of the Latin American continent, if not red, then at least pink. Now they have to reconsider their approach. Argentina, which was also listed in the camp of the “pink,” is now falling out of the zone of Russian influence, and setting course towards the north. And on its way, it may well shake the dominant role, in the alliance of populist nationalist regimes in Latin America, of Venezuela – a country that really is an important Russian ally on the continent.