The Brazilian presidential elections were the most highly anticipated and closely watched in recent times, and were described as the "most important in decades". In a close contest, former Brazilian President Lula da Silva (PT - Workers’ Party), defeated his opponent, current President of Brazil Jair Bolsonaro (PL - Liberal Party). Never before in the history of Brazil has the country faced such striking political polarisation and violence. These features could be a reflection of a country that has lost relevance in recent years and now needs to seek international insertion in an increasingly challenging and unstable world.
Relations between Brazil and Russia have historically been marked by periods of estrangement and rapprochement. The US and its influence in Latin America has been a constant element in the relationship between the two countries. Hence, the nature of the relationship (rapprochement or distancing) between Moscow and Brasilia is a direct reflection of the political and ideological changes in the diplomatic landscape.
The current government of Jair Bolsonaro illustrates this trend. During the first years of Bolsonaro's administration, it leaned towards the United States; an automatic alignment with Washington's policymakers during Trump’s tenure. During this period, Brazil became a major non-NATO US ally and dismantled the main regional integration projects of previous governments, submitting Brazilian regional leadership to the Organisation of American States (OAS). In addition, Brazil shed its character as a developing country when it decided to apply to join the OECD. Another feature that characterises this alignment with the West, during the first years of Bolsonaro’s tenure was its support for a Mercosur-European Union free trade agreement. In this sense, the initial years of Bolsonaro's term were characterised by a readjustment to the Euro-Atlantic system, which clashes with the very reformist and contestatory nature of the BRICS countries. In this aspect, during the PT governments, the BRICS group was seen as a catalyst for achieving greater international insertion, championing Brazil in the search for changes in the Western structures of global governance. Paradoxically, in the first term of Bolsonaro's government, the BRICS lost importance in the Brazilian foreign policy agenda and were relegated to a platform for bilateral trade.
The victory of Jair Bolsonaro, a pro-US right-wing reactionary politician in Brazil’s late-2018 presidential elections, caused certain concerns among many experts about the country's future participation in the BRICS and the future of the association in general. However, in making such predictions, it would not be entirely correct to rely on existing stereotypes about the left-right dichotomy or the new Bolsonaro administration in particular when considering the role of Brazil in the world and in BRICS.
Russian diplomacy was quite professional in dealing with the shift in Brazil’s foreign policy posture, and sought to draw Bolsonaro into bilateral partnerships with Russia. Such rapprochement was contextualised by the relative isolation of the Brazilian President when Trump was defeated in the US elections. The Kremlin recognises Brazil as an important partner of Russia in Latin America that cannot be lost to external or internal intemperateness, and seeks to give Brazil a position as an indispensable ally in the design of the multipolar world.
Brazil's pragmatism and regional leadership during the Lula administration were responsible for laying the foundations for a strategic relationship between Brazil and Russia. Moscow’s position becomes even more relevant in the current context of Western sanctions against Russia, and Brazil must play an important role that can benefit both countries. For these reasons, Russia is not interested in a weakened Brazil, subordinated to the US.
In this sense, it is important to note that the Lula administration is recognised for initiating a range of South American integration projects that limited and/or diminished North American influence in the South American decision-making process. These factors were viewed favourably by the Russians.
However, the world in which Lula ruled Brazil, in 2003 to 2011, no longer exists; the once and future president of Brazil will have to make even more concessions if he wants to ensure governability.
These circumstances stand in the way of a resumption of a Brazilian regional leadership role in a period in which Lula will have to focus more attention on domestic affairs. The economic challenges that Brazil faces and the election of a majority congress opposed to Lula will force him to seek external support and investment. This reality may lead to greater interference by the United States and the EU in Brazil's international policy agenda, thus curbing Brazil's participation in an order that challenges neoliberal and Western structures of global governance.
Brazil's official position on the conflict in Ukraine will remain pragmatic under Lula’s presidential administration. This fact is attested to by the way Brazil voted in the UN and the PT government's positions during the unfolding of the 2014 Maidan crisis. Brazil’s ministry of foreign affairs is unlikely to take a more assertive position in supporting either of the parties involved in the conflict, because Brazil needs fertilizer imports from Russia and, at the same time, is very dependent on trade with the US and the EU. The possibility of interlocution between Zelensky and Lula das Silva is also quite unlikely. The elected President of Brazil is considered “persona non grata” in the Ukrainian government for pointing out Ukraine's responsibility in the current situation, and Bolsonaro has been criticized for Brazil's neutrality. At this point, Zelensky and the West have managed to unite opponents as antagonistic as Lula and Bolsonaro, forcing a cohesion among Brazilian political elites that is not favourable to a signalling of a change in the stance toward Ukraine.
In this sense, the future of Brazil-Russia relations is also conditional upon the Russian ability to deal with the Western pressure that the new term of Lula da Silva will be subjected to, in addition to the Western diplomatic inability in building fruitful interlocution with Brasilia.
On October 6, the Valdai Club held an expert discussion on the presidential elections in Brazil. The moderator was Oleg Barabanov, Programme Director of the Valdai Discussion Club. He noted that the presidential elections underscored the actual split of the country into two parts.