Russian experts are keeping a close eye on the presidential election in Peru, where Russian political and economic influence appears to be waning.
Presidential candidate Keiko Fujimori waves at supporters during her closing presidential campaign rally in Lima, Peru. Photo: AP
Last week, Peru announced the surprising results of the first round of its presidential election: the majority of votes went to 40-year-old Keiko Fujimori, the daughter of former Peruvian president Alberto Fujimori, who is currently serving a 25-year prison sentence. If Keiko Fujimori becomes the president of Peru, it could have significant implications for Russia’s attempts to boost its influence in Latin America.
The Fujimori legacy
Peru’s ex-president made history not only due to his active economic reforms implemented in the 1990s, but also for curbing inflation and fighting crime. In 1999, Fujimori decided to run for a third term in violation of the nation’s Constitution. Through his protégés in the Congress and the Supreme Court, he managed to change the constitution, which led to his reelection. In his fight to hold onto power, Fujimori became a dictator. He mainly targeted independent media and the opposition and prosecuted them with the help of the military and special services.
His political history supplies the background that is critical for understanding the meaning behind his daughter's first round victory. Some Russian experts who tend to see similarities between Peruvian and Russian politics believe that the people of Peru are longing for "a firm hand" that could set things right in the country. For example, Vladimir Davydov, the director of the Russian Academy of Sciences Institute of Latin America, thinks that Keiko Fujimori is capitalizing on Peru's desire to see a ruler with "a firm hand that could put an end to corruption, abuse and unhealthy criminal situation in the country."
"The people of Peru expect to have an authoritarian president who will rule with an iron fist and uphold order in domestic affairs when necessary," according to Andrei Manoilo, a professor at the Lomonosov Moscow State University.
However, many Peruvians are wary of Keiko because they believe that Fujimori's daughter will implement the classic Latin American populist policy with all of its typical attributes, such as a charismatic personality and strong stance against crime along with complete disregard for the political elite and economic rules. As Latin American literary great Mario Vargas Llosa put it, "Keiko's victory in the second round will be a disaster for Peru because it effectively means the revival of her father's dictatorship."
Restoring relations with Moscow
What effect will Keiko's victory have on her country's foreign policy, in particular its relations with Russia? This is a very relevant question because Peru is one of Moscow's main trade partners in Latin America. Shortly before the election, Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke on the phone with the President of Peru, Ollanta Humala. The leaders pointed out that, in spite of the negative tendencies in the global economy, trade between Russia and Peru actually grew by 40 percent last year.
Humala is seen as the disciple of Peru's famous president and die-hard nationalist Velasco Alvarado, whose rule (1968-1975) was the high point of bilateral Russia-Peru relations. However, according to "New Alliance with Russia," an article published in the Peruvian newspaper Diario El Men, after General Alvarado's resignation, virtually all cooperation with the Soviet Union ceased, and his successors took to criticizing Moscow.
Alberto Fujimori was among those critics, but to be fair, the decline in bilateral relations was mostly caused by the collapse of the Soviet Union and the economic recession in Russia.
Under Humala, Peru revived its cooperation with Moscow, in the form of new economic projects. For example, Russian truck manufacturer Kamaz launched its bus production line in Peru, and Avtovaz started exporting its products to the countries of the Andes region. With the assistance of Russian specialists, Peru launched Chaski 1, its first satellite.
The two countries have also signed contracts on military technology modernization. As a result, Peru is expected to receive anti-tank guided missiles and attack helicopters from Russia. In the beginning of this year, Russia fulfilled its obligations under the 2013 contract by supplying Peru with 24 Mi-171 helicopters at a total cost of $528 million.
According to Russian military journalist Tatiana Rusakova, Russia and Peru now have an increasingly robust relationship when it comes to buying and selling military hardware. In addition to direct supplies of technology, Russia is working on developing joint ventures in Peru, such as a joint center for helicopter production and maintenance that is scheduled to open in 2016.
The future of Russian-Peruvian relations
Keiko's potential victory in the second round of voting in the beginning of June does not necessitate the deterioration of Peru-Russia relations. In contrast, her rival Pedro Pablo Kuczinski, an economist and former World Bank employee, is certain to shift the country's foreign policy towards the U.S.
That is a major factor, since Latin America is undergoing political changes that give Russian businesses, politicians and political scientists alike reasons for concern. If Latin American countries shift towards the U.S., it will weaken their ties with Russia, which will affect bilateral economic relations with specific countries.
For example, Moscow interpreted Caracas' recent decision to reconsider its $500 million oil contract with Russian company Rosneft as an extremely alarming and unfavorable trend in Russia-Venezuela relations. The change of power in Argentina when Christina Kirschner, who was friendly towards Russia, was replaced with the right-wing candidate Mauricio Macri did nothing to give Russian specialists on Latin American any more reasons to be optimistic. Now it is Peru's turn.
Unfortunately, Moscow has developed the habit of accepting or rejecting Latin American leaders based on their political views: left, right or center. If the rejected politicians win, many Russian experts believe that they will take the pro-American stance.
"If liberals and democrats propped up by the U.S. come to power, they will open their country to American corporations and thus revert back to colonial times, and no one in Latin America agrees with that," Manoilo insists.
While such an approach might be outdated, the concerns of Russian politicians and experts regarding Latin America are often based on oversimplifications. The continent is going through a democratization process, so Latin American political elites constantly alternate according to the political cycle. Over the long term, this means that there is no real threat to the region's political and economic relations with Moscow.
It is important that Russia abandon past ideological patterns and offer Latin American countries an efficient and competitive model of political, commercial and economic cooperation. Peru could provide an example of a pragmatic political and economic partnership that works regardless of who is in power at the moment.