An Anti-American Dictatorship: The Russian Concept of Sovereignty
The regime is sovereign, not the people, and only if it does not seek to benefit from cooperating with the US
November 9, 2017
Vladislav Surkov. Photo courtesy of Dmitry Azarov/Kommersant
Recently, after a long silence, Vladislav Surkov made another public appearance in print. The article itself, entitled “A Crisis of Hypocrisy” and written in a style typical of intellectually pretentious picture magazines, is not very interesting. It is not that Surkov rebukes the west for insincerity. That would be like the pot calling the kettle black. He does claim, however, that the effectiveness of hypocrisy as a means of control has been forfeited in modern democracies. Surkov thus finds himself agreeing with “prophetic comics” and other authoritative sources that a king of the west might appear to forcibly lead the world out of chaos. A good example, perhaps, of how such a king might act is Surkov’s own work in the Donetsk People’s Republic and the Luhansk People’s Republic.
As many of you will remember, until his forced immersion in the affairs of a neighboring country, Surkov laid claim, albeit not very successfully, to the role of the current Russian regime’s ideologue. It was Surkov who back in the day coined the controversial term “sovereign democracy,” which was supposed to be either an alternative to western democracy or a variation on it. In this case, Surkov messed up royally, as was pointed out to him with appropriate severity by his more senior comrades. The point of Russian electoral authoritarianism, like electoral authoritarianism anywhere else, is to feign being a democracy without actually being a democracy. Since everyone realizes there really is true democracy in the west, any juxtaposition is invidious. Russia has democracy, and that is that. It is no worse than other democracies. It is just like them. There is thus no need to qualify it with any adjectives.
Now Surkov, being a person who is, on the one hand, quick on the uptake and, on the other, not averse to particular flights of fancy, has adopted the politically correct stance while creatively elaborating on it in the sense that democracy in the west is on its last legs, even as Russia still cherishes the ideal of people power. Naturally, there is no point in debating the nature of democracy when the issue is put this way, and sovereignty comes to the fore as in Surkov’s original take on the matter. Sovereignty is the central concept of modern Russian ideology.
Sovereignty is now the talk of the talk of the town, the favorite topic not only of the media but even of those people who speak from the highest bully pulpits. The Russian concept of sovereignty includes two axioms that we should examine thoroughly. I should note in advance that neither of these aspects is unique. Each of them is ordinarily found in any logically consistent concept of sovereignty. The whole trick is how they are applied specifically to modern day-to-day circumstances.
The first axiom states that all decisions about power in a given country are taken at a purely national level. The point is incontestable. It suffices to have a look at how acutely the Americans react to any outward attempts to shape their own politics to be convinced that they, too, operate in full accordance with the axiom. The specific nature of the Russian interpretation, however, is nevertheless apparent. To detach it from its basic content we should look at the events in Syria.
The cause of the events was the crisis generated by the extremely brutal, truly barbarous dictatorship established in Syria by the Assad family. Only an intellectually unscrupulous person could publicly state the Assad regime had been the choice of the Syrian people, at least at some point in time. The Assads came to power in a military coup and were elected to the country’s presidency solely on an uncontested basis, under circumstances in which all opposition was quashed. An uprising took place in 2011. The regime survived it, but was unable to crush it completely. A civil war broke out. It is characteristic of modern civil wars in more or less important countries that they involve outside actors.
The last point has been at the heart of the Russian concept of sovereignty. Frightened out of their wits at one time by the specter of “color” revolutions, the Russian authorities, first, regard any regime in any country, except Ukraine, as legitimate, and any attempt to overthrow it, however bloody and tyrannical it may be, as solely the result of outside interference. I would again underscore that outside interference is a perpetual occurrence, but nor does Russia miss its own chance to catch fish in troubled waters. This aspect is always secondary, however. Western political thought has traditionally argued the people’s sovereignty consists, in particular, in its ability to put down tyrannies. Since elections in such circumstances are not a tool for doing this, all that remains is civil disobedience and insurrection. If we approach the matter differently, the notion of sovereignty has been replaced by the notion of the regime’s sovereignty. This is exactly how sovereignty is treated in modern Russian ideology.
Second, the Russian concept of sovereignty consists in the notion that all decisions on foreign policy must be taken at the national level. When expressed in such concise form, the claim is also indisputable. However, when it is applied in Russian public discourse, the claim is more controversial: since most national governments take the interests of the US (or, alternately, the EU) into account when making foreign policy decisions, their sovereignty is limited.
The problem with this interpretation is that it is advantageous to pay attention to the interests of the United States or the European Union, or both. This coincides with the preferences of most governments. They themselves limit their freedom to maneuver when it comes to foreign policy. Take one of Russia’s biggest grievances against the west: Nato’s eastward expansion. It is true that when the Eastern European countries joined Nato, they limited their freedom to operate, but they did this not merely voluntarily, but with colossal enthusiasm. They applied to join Nato and celebrated their joining the alliance as if it were a national holiday. Ask Donald Trump why they wanted to get in. He would tell you what percentage of the alliance’s expenditures are footed by American taxpayers. It is not even worth enlarging on the fact that the new European Union members received certain perks. Actually, back in the old days, even Vladimir Putin was given to saying it would not be a bad idea for Russia to join the western alliances. It follows that he saw the benefits.
For it would be wrong to say no one takes Russia’s interests into account. Even some of the Eastern European countries, which the Russian media arrogantly disparages as satellites of the western powers, occasionally express a dissenting opinion on issues sensitive to Russia, such as sanctions. When they do this, are they limiting their own sovereignty in favor of our country? No, they are just taking care of their own business. The general rule, however, is that most countries regard the interests of the US as more important than Russia’s interests. There are exceptions: Iran, North Korea, Syria, and five or six other countries. By a coincidence that is hardly strange there is not a single democracy amongst them. All of these countries are small or medium sized. It is naive to believe China is one of these countries. China regards the US as more important.
We no longer speak of sovereign democracy. The idea has not vanished, however, but has merely acquired a more appropriate guise as an anti-American dictatorship. It is this guise that has become Russia’s own political pole star. And why not? It is a matter of choice. We should be aware, however, that how you define yourself defines how people treat you, taking this into account when assessing the prospects for improving relations with the rest of the world.
Grigorii Golosov is a professor of political science at the European University in St. Petersburg. Translated by the Russian Reader