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Can BRICS Overcome Members' Political and Economic Differences?

FILE - President of China Xi Jinping (R) and South African President Cyril Ramaphosa (L) attend the China-Africa Leaders' Roundtable Dialogue on the last day of the 2023 BRICS Summit in Johannesburg on August 24, 2023.

WASHINGTON — Analysts are raising the alarm over the inclusion of many of the newly inducted members into the BRICS bloc, fearing their lack of tolerance for civic engagement poses threats to multilateralism.

Last week, the five nation developing bloc, Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa, announced the admission of six countries into its fold — Argentina, Egypt, Ethiopia, Iran, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

Their membership is expected to become effective in January 2024.

Of the six states, four — Egypt, Ethiopia, Saudi Arabia and Iran — are known to heavily clamp down on dissenting voices. Their inclusion, coupled with Russia and China's Western image on the global stage as running authoritarian regimes with an almost non-existent engagements by independent civil society groups due to repression, has analysts concerned.

Neil Melvin, director of International Security Studies at London-based Royal United Security Institute, or RUSI, the UK’s oldest defense and security think tank, told VOA that the selection of these six nations attest to the vested interests being championed by BRICS.

"Argentina is there because of its neighbor Brazil. Russia and China also want to bring in Iran. And Egypt is there primarily because of the centrality of the hydrocarbon sector to many of the BRICS countries. And, for South Africa, it’s likely it wanted Ethiopia because of its central area for African diplomacy," he said.

"We do see a group of countries that certainly have a democracy problem, and this is strengthening non-democratic trends in the BRICS, and a human rights problem."

This, Melvin added, may have an impact on the ability of the selected states to operation in a multilateral context.

The Committee to Protect Journalists' for example, has cited Ethiopia, Iran and China among the ten most censored countries for journalists in the world. Like analysts, the journalism body wants openness on the part of BRICS leaders.

The CPJ's advocacy and communications director Gypsy Guillén Kaiser told VOA that because BRICS make up "a significant portion of the world's population," it is imperative for member states — "many of which are repressive regimes," to accept that their people want to be informed.

"The public wants transparency and accountability. Journalists provide this every day, with reporting that moves markets and allows people to make informed decisions," she said.

"BRICS leaders must accept that ultimately, their chokehold on the flow of information isn't grounded in reality and it is in their interest to embrace a free press," Guillén Kaiser added.

Melvin says the expansion of BRICS might be a signal in the light of Russia's invasion of Ukraine and the non-aligned posture in the aftermath by some countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America, of its resolve to lead a new kind of Global South movement to broaden its legitimacy.

"But I think this is going to be a very difficult agenda because it is relatively easy to complain about the existing (world) order."

Melvin says if the bloc expects to "deliver something else," it will have to address the challenges faced by its incoming members — Argentina’s economic crisis, and Ethiopia and Egypt's massive debts — and find an inclusive way which is different from the West.

"Because the West has been struggling with this for many years. So, can China, Russia and the rest actually put something together? That’s the question they have put on themselves, and they're going to have to answer that," he said.

Mandeep Tiwana, chief officer for evidence and engagement at CIVICUS, a global civil society alliance, told VOA that the resolve for a "people-centered decision" is in peril as many of the newly inducted BRICS member states have a record of suppressing human rights and dismantling the democratic aspirations of its people.

"BRICS, is in a sense, trying to reframe global governance, but by deciding to admit Iran, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, it is undermining the aspiration of creating an equal world order," he said, adding that one challenge with BRICS is that "there’s no overt connection on what their values seem to stand for."

"Because when you have governments that are totalitarian in nature, it is going to create more challenges for people around the world rather than resolve challenges or create a better life for all."

FILE - A general view of flags of (From L to R) South Africa, Brazil, Russia, India and China during the 2023 BRICS Summit at the Sandton Convention Centre in Johannesburg on August 24, 2023.
FILE - A general view of flags of (From L to R) South Africa, Brazil, Russia, India and China during the 2023 BRICS Summit at the Sandton Convention Centre in Johannesburg on August 24, 2023.

Tiwana said with Russia and China having disproportionate influence on the developing bloc, it is still not clear if democratic member states like Brazil, India and South Africa could likely offer support to undemocratic states by sharing best practices.

"The leaders have not openly spoken about this, and our research show that four of the countries BRICS is admitting have serious civic space restrictions, and so it doesn’t auger well for people-centered decision making when you practically have no independent civil society in these countries," he said.

"Our hope is that countries with democratic traditions within the BRICS alliance can influence the others to be more open to civil society so they can involve people in their decision making."

Officials say some 40 countries expressed interest in joining BRICS ahead of last week's summit. South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa says BRICS will expand more in the future.