The impeachment of Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff may not lead to a re-thinking of Brazil’s relationship with Russia, but it could fundamentally alter Brazil’s role within the BRICS and lead to greater U.S. influence within the nation.
Residents protest against Brazil's President Dilma Rousseff near the Brazilian congress in Brasilia, Brazil. Photo: Reuters
Russian political scientists are closely following the impeachment of Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff. What will political changes in Latin America's largest country bring for Russia, now that leftist political forces appear to be in retreat?
Michel Temer, who will be acting President for the next 180 days, is well known in Moscow. He has visited Russia three times, the last time in September 2015 when he was received by Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, the chair of the Brazil-Russia cooperation commission. Temer represents Brazil on the commission and, therefore, has had an opportunity to interact closely with Medvedev.
During the 2015 visit, Temer's delegation expressed special interest in Russian investments into Brazilian infrastructure. He personally pointed out Russia's successful implementation of agricultural projects and praised the support of Brazilian small and medium businesses.
The Russian media portrayed Temer as an experienced politician, the leader of the largest political party in Brazil, and a strong advocate for the development of bilateral relations between Russia and Brazil. Yet, keep in mind that he came to Russia as a representative of Rousseff's government and her Workers' Party, not as the leader of the country.
Brazil’s unpopular new leader
Will the new leader change his view of Russia now that he is, albeit temporarily, in charge of the country? What can Russia expect of him if in November the Brazilian Senate relieves Rousseff of her post and Temer becomes President until the next election scheduled for 2018?
The former Vice President's track record indicates that he cannot claim consistent political loyalties as one of his virtues. While Rousseff was bitterly fighting for her political survival over the past six months, Temer, who was right there with her at the 2010 and 2014 elections, was fully engaged in drafting his future plans and quietly working on forming a new national government. He sent the rehearsal of his presidential speech to his friend over the instant messaging platform WhatsApp, and it leaked out to the media.
In the speech, Temer addressed his compatriots and suggested that he form a "national salvation" cabinet. Brazilian papers wrote that he practiced the speech standing in front of the mirror with a replica of the presidential ribbon pinned on his chest. That happened before the lower chamber of the Brazilian Congress voted to initiate the impeachment procedure against Rousseff in December 2015.
In addition, according to Brazilian media, Temer is widely unpopular. Datafolha sociological center reports that if Temer were to enter the presidential race, he would be supported by only 1-2 percent of voters. He is openly disliked for his bombastic speeches, lack of sincerity, narcissism and extreme lust for power.
At the same time, the leader of the centrist Brazilian Democratic Movement Party is generally perceived as "a friend of the free market." As a result, after he claimed the presidential seat, Brazil's market indices went up. Still, it remains to be seen what the new government's choices will be as far as international relations are concerned.
Ludmila Okuneva, an expert on Brazil at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO University), believes that Temer should not be expected to introduce dramatic changes into the country's economic policy. We already know the names of those who will occupy key positions in the new cabinet. They will represent nine right wing and right-of center parties, which indicates that Brazil's policies might be shifting to the right, and, therefore, some of its actions will go directly against current policies that have a leftist orientation.
According to documents recently published by WikiLeaks, ten years ago Temer provided the U.S. with confidential information through the American consulate in São Paulo. In his notes, he criticized Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who was President at the time, for excessive dedication to large-scale social projects.
No reason to expect an abrupt change in priorities
In any case, the possible change in the country leadership should not result in an abrupt change in Brazil's foreign policy priorities, according to Okuneva. "That is not likely to happen based on Brazil's actions during all previous regime changes in the 20th and 21st centuries," the expert points out. We can expect that the new government will adopt a pragmatic approach and not choose to throw away all that has been achieved in Brazil-Russia relations.
Of course, when Rousseff, who actively advocated the development of relations with the BRICS countries, stepped down, it was an unpleasant, albeit expected event for Russia. Still, based on Moscow's reaction, it is ready to cooperate with Brazil regardless of who is in power there.
For months now, there have been some legitimate concerns about the weakening of the BRICS due to the impeachment of the Brazilian President. First, the organization was struck by the recession, and then its activity took a hit from internal political and economic problems in Brazil, Russia and China.
So far it has been unclear what the new Brazilian government is going to do about the BRICS. A number of upcoming meetings will reveal Temer's stance on the matter. The BRICS ministers of labor will meet in June, the meeting of ministers of emergencies and disaster relief is scheduled for August, and the ministers of education will convene in September.
Moscow appears to believe that the removal of Rousseff is not critical for the BRICS. Georgy Toloraya, executive director of the National Committee for BRICS Research, points out that there is some uncertainty about Brazil's level of involvement in the organization, not its membership.
Leftist geopolitical defeat
At the same time, the ouster of Rousseff, which will likely result in her ultimate resignation in the fall, is definitely the most serious defeat of the left-wing forces that have been Russia's natural allies in Latin America.
Rousseff's impeachment could not have come at a worse time for them. Venezuela is in deep recession due to a sharp drop in oil revenues and incompetent populist policies of Hugo Chavez' successor Nicolas Maduro. The country is not just nearing a technical default - it might experience a full economic collapse. Although Brazil was never a part of ALBA, a radical left coalition in South America that included Venezuela, Ecuador, Nicaragua, Bolivia and Cuba, previous Brazilian leaders were close to it ideologically. ALBA's "godfather" Marxist professor Marco Aurelio Garcia was no foe to left Colombian drug rebels from FARC and served as an advisor to Lula da Silva and Rousseff.
Rousseff's impeachment casts ALBA a crushing blow, which is why the organization's leaders were so outraged at the results of the Brazilian Senate vote on the early termination of Rousseff's authority. ALBA countries interpreted this as a coup. In protest, Venezuelan and Salvadoran authorities even recalled their ambassadors from Brasilia. Havana is also deeply concerned. It blamed "American imperialism" for the political prosecution of Rousseff. The Cuban concerns arise from the fact that Brazil provided the nation with a $10 billion credit for the construction of the first national free trade zone in Mariel; in addition, Brazil employs 10,000 Cuban physicians, whose earnings go a long way to fill the country's budget coffers.
Possibly, the weakening of leftist forces will provide the U.S. with an opportunity to return to Latin America, a region formerly known as "Washington's backyard," even though Latin America's role in its North American neighbor's foreign policies greatly diminished once the U.S. shifted its focus to other regions.
For example, Russian experts believe that American oil companies have a lot to gain from the rise of right-of-center forces within Brazil.
Moreover, Washington has been clearly dissatisfied with the strengthening military and technical cooperation between Brazil, other countries of the region and Russia, as well as the commercial and economic expansion of China, which unseated the U.S. by becoming the top trade partner for many Latin American countries.
Americans are now trying to remedy the situation, which means that Moscow will have to work with Latin America’s most important countries under more challenging competitive conditions. That, however, does not mean that Brazil is now off limits to Russia.