Ideological Rivalry or Trash Discourse?

23 september 2014

The Normative Power of Europe vs Russia as a Great Power

Yelena Pavlova, Ph.D. in Political Science, is a senior research fellow at the University of Tartu, Estonia

Tatiana Romanova is Associate Professor at the European Studies Department, Saint-Petersburg State University; and Head of Jean Monnet Centre of Excellence, Russia.

Resume: The current situation is a result of a prolonged process of careless and reckless attempts to involve Russia in the system of Western values. Meanwhile, analyzing Russian discourse solely from the standpoint of Western standards, which are regarded as universal, makes absolutely no sense.

“However much we sang, we were dumb.”

Boris Grebenshchikov 

The ongoing turmoil in Ukraine has contributed to the hackneyed debate concerning various interests and values in relations between Russia and the European Union. Since the start of the 21st century, Moscow has traditionally been presented both inside Russia and abroad as an actor relying exclusively on its interests, while Brussels – as the center of the European Union – focusing on values. This idea is central to statements by politicians, expert discussions, and, quite often, fundamental studies.

However, those who support this viewpoint make two methodological mistakes. First, in analyzing Russia they think it is logical to apply the methodology of realism (Russia’s fundamental foreign policy documents emphasize national interests as the basic category of realism), while in evaluating the European Union they rely on a blend of realism and constructivism (since the 1970s the EU has claimed that its global activities are based on values projected to its neighbors). In our opinion, the discrepancy between Russian and EU discourse practices cannot serve as a basis for methodological eclecticism within the research framework. In other words, a uniform system of methodological principles should be applied to both Russia and the European Union.

Second, no policy can exist outside of the normative framework and no policy can rest on predeclared values as the only benchmark. As a matter of fact, pragmatism and rationalism are quite tangible, and are based on values. As Friedrich Kratochwil keenly observed, defining something as rational implies a commitment in terms of certain norms and moral perceptions. Thus, before defining something as rational, we should identify the rational proper and the criteria of reckoning this or that event in this category. Accordingly, the awareness of one’s interest proceeds exclusively from the actor’s perception of the world and of one’s values at the given moment.

An awareness of the tight inter-connection of interests and values, and of the fact that they are inherent in all actors in international relations, including Russia and the European Union, is extremely important in the modern context, where the competition of values, models, and norms acquires a global dimension and becomes one of the main resources for all actors on the international stage. Even the 2013 concept of Russian foreign policy mentions “rivalry between different benchmark values,” although this is understood in line with the realism conception.

In the Ukrainian events of 2013-2014, Russia first put the emphasis on economic leverage (the price of gas, lending, and the customs war), as well as the impermissibility of interference in the internal affairs of a neighboring state regarding demands for reform. These actions are based on a certain normative factor, on the very same pragmatism, of which the belief in the infinite opportunities of Russia’s positioning in the Eurasian continent is an integral part. As the context of events in Ukraine changed, Russia stepped up its normative and later outspokenly value-oriented rhetoric (anti-Nazism) to a more clearly formulated position and criticism of the EU (here, too, from the perspective of Russian values – noninterference in internal affairs, the priority of the economy over politics, the inviolability of the results of World War II, etc.). On the contrary, by virtue of intra-Ukrainian shifts the European Union was forced, under the slogan of its own normative priorities, to take some pragmatic steps (provision of aide, discussion of the IMF’s involvement parameters, and lower customs duties on Ukrainian exports to the European Union) and to get involved in a purely geopolitical rivalry.

Any speculation that one player’s policies are based exclusively on interests, and the other’s policies rely exclusively on values is meaningless. Both Russia and the European Union (just as any other actor in international relations) are guided in their respective actions by both factors.

This article focuses on the normative clash between Russia and the European Union, which has vividly manifested itself in the events in Ukraine, but which is also present elsewhere. Also, the article will explore how experts and scholars interpret this clash. 


Central to the ideological collision of Russia and the European Union are two discourses: “the normative power of Europe” and “Russia is a great power in the Eurasian space.” These are twin concepts that, to an equal degree, form the parties’ foreign policies and offer opportunities for outside criticism.

The seeds of the concept of “the normative power of Europe” were sown as far back as in the 1950s, when Western European countries embarked on the path of reconsidering history and sought to establish mechanisms that would guarantee the prevention of another global war. The concept took firm root in the 1970s, when European Economic Community countries began to coordinate their activities on the international stage and the need arose for a cementing idea. It was in the 1970s that European communities for the first time formulated the idea of proper correlation of domestic and foreign policy, and of the latter’s reliance on human rights, democracy, the rule of law, firm resistance to warmongering, and its task to promote those principles worldwide. The concept was finalized only at the turn of this century when the European Union was actively expanding.

Russia’s equivalent of European normative power as the groundwork for a new phase of an active foreign policy started to regain ground during Vladimir Putin’s presidency. Economic stability made it possible to identify new ideological guidelines, while the internal political situation and the desire of the Russian elites and ordinary people to belong to a great power equal to the Soviet Union in stature and global influence required the country to do so. As in the case of the European Union, that concept was not completely new; rather it was a result of putting to use historical heritage, particularly the concepts of Eurasianism and Slavophilism, and the specific Russian Enlightenment. It came as a new understanding of the country’s geographic position and its resources (military, energy, cultural, and intellectual).

At the same time, Russia has not yet generated a clear concept similar to the discourse of “the normative power of Europe.” In this respect Russia’s political studies are distinguished by a greater diversity. For the past several decades political scientists at home have been alternately enchanted by conceptions like “a Eurasian power,” “the Russian world,” “Russian civilization,” and other no less high-sounding ideas. Here one also finds the ideas of restoring Russia’s status as a world power and protecting “Russian compatriots” (ethnic Russians) abroad. However, as in the case of the European Union, discussions are obviously not about foreign policy as such, but are largely about the essence of Russian statehood and identity.

Both the concept of Europe’s normative power and Russia’s idea of a great power in the Eurasian continent are focused on the normative aspect and postulate the idea of one’s own normative superiority. Both the EU and Russia validate this idea with their respective special policies: the success of integration processes in Europe, and Russia’s sovereign, special path of development. They both reflect the trend towards forming a foreign policy proceeding from identity guidelines, and legitimizing political steps domestically and internationally. Remarkably, the aims proclaimed by Europe and Russia are similar: Europe claims its ability to determine what is normal (the core of normative power), while Russia purports to save Europe from collapse and restore justice and genuine (conservative) universal values.

References to Russia’s “energy blackmail” and its “imperial” economic projects in the CIS are tantamount to “political predetermination” professed by the European Union, or its association agreements. As a matter of fact, for both actors these formulas are helpful instruments used to popularize their values.

The irreconcilable antagonism of two integration projects that manifested itself in Ukraine should be viewed in the same vein. It is worth recalling that for a long time Russia called for jointly devising a way to adjust the two projects (the Customs Union and the association agreement with the EU), whereas the European Union systematically rejected the idea. In this context it is appropriate to quote the frequent argument between European politicians to the effect that “Moscow seeks to restore Russia’s influence across the space of the former Soviet Union, and this violates the principles of a free and peaceful Europe.” The lack of a critical analysis of the Russian project, which is being rejected, albeit reluctantly in the Ukrainian context, only exacerbates mutual misunderstanding.

Basically, the Russian and EU discourses are built on their own norms, set off against those existing in other communities as the definition of “other” is the main criterion of identity. However, the European Union goes much farther and defines its norms in accordance with Ians Manners (who coined the term Normative Power Europe), as the ability “to shape conceptions of normal in international relations,” which prompted many to declare that a new type of actor has emerged on the global arena. Russia looks far more modest. It postulates what one of its senior officials described as the ability to propose “new models of cooperation.” Russia’s modesty, though, is more a result of certain self-doubt than lack of ambition.

A major difference between the normative discourses of Russia and the EU lies in their respective core issues. The European side is trying to find answers to the questions: WHAT is normative for us?; WHAT are we struggling for?; and WHAT can be the basis for discussion and deeper cooperation? The answer is believed to lie in the realm of human rights, democracy, and the rule of law – the way they are understood and exercised in the Old World, while presented as having a universal nature.

Russia emphasizes the WHO questions: WHO determines these norms? and WHO has the right to establish the criteria of normality? (in the vein of Dostoyevsky’s dilemma “Am I a trembling creature or have I the right?”). Russia also asks to what extent the existing world order is democratic at a time when values and “normality” are determined only by the West (which lends a new meaning to the term ‘democratic’ and takes us back to its roots – to direct democracy, to the participation of all in running the nation). It is not accidental that the current concept of Russian foreign policy declares the intention to advance a “fair and democratic international system, based on collective principles in addressing international problems.” Moscow lays claim to this right by virtue of its historical past and geographic and cultural specifics. However, the WHO question restricts the opportunities for outward extrapolation of Russian norms.

In his article “The Specifics of Russian Soft Power” (Russia in Global Affairs, No. 3/2012), Konstantin Kosachev states that Russian compatriots abroad sympathize with and specialize in studying Russia. The WHAT question here is substituted by a WHO question. Moving a little ahead let us note that the biased nature of Russia’s modern political science results in the same effect, because critics tend to evaluate not so much the content of political actions, but the author. In fact, the liberal-minded public behaves precisely in the way that most Russians do, with the sole difference that unconditional support for Putin’s actions gives way to categorical negation: “Putin can never say or do anything the right way.”

Therefore, the main feature that distinguishes the dominant Russian and European discourses is a different degree of inclusiveness. The emphasis may be placed on the maximum involvement of various social groups; i.e. attracting the largest possible number of adepts, or, alternatively, it may be placed on exceptions and exclusiveness. The trend towards social self-isolation (in line with Max Weber’s concepts) is an integral part of both projects. The only difference is the ability of discourse participants to focus attention on the normative component, and not on the identification factor. In this respect Russian practices lose to European. In its claim to universality European normative power may count on greater inclusiveness; in other words, on a readiness to support any communities that demonstrate commitment to European values. Entirely reliant on the WHO question and on its history and geography, Russia has to be content with the regional level, and only within the framework of neo-imperial logic.

Thus, the question of whether a discourse is right or wrong is irrelevant: there can be no right or wrong discourses because the category of verity is utterly unacceptable here. Both European and Russian discourses equally deserve to be a subject of close study. And the claim that the topic has been exhausted has nothing to do with reality. Also, it would be absurd to say that Russia has no norms of its own and that it can acquire them only by importing the normative space of the European Union or the West. 


Any emerging political project is usually a result of a certain social demand to which the academic community responds. Indeed, each time it starts adapting already existing narratives to current public sentiment. Naturally, any such project simultaneously exists at different levels of the social discourse and may be used by political elites as representatives of that society. Very often the circle closes right here, because in an attempt to translate the project into reality, the academic community begins to study it and uses as a starting point specific statements of the political elite, separately from existing narratives. Here a problem emerges to which Michele Foucault pointed: the discourse is considered as a collection of signs and the question of studying the discourse practices that form objects is neglected.

Each of the two ideas analyzed in this article (“the normative power of Europe” and “a great power in the Eurasian continent”) appeared in the course of a philosophical and political evolution and was later transformed into a number of ideological projects. However, these days they are increasingly often used as the last argument, as a dogma, and not only by politicians, but, regrettably, by scholars as well. Moreover, the big problem is that critical analysis is often replaced by demonstrations of academics’ own political stance since it seems radical opinions are in great demand. The discouraging fact is that it hinders the search for constructive solutions; society is growing ever more radicalized and polarized, narrowing opportunities for breaking the vicious circle. All of these factors have boldly manifested themselves in the coverage of current events in Ukraine.

From an academic viewpoint, there is no difference between the formula “We stole Crimea” (Olga Kokorina’s post that has been widely discussed in social networks), on the one hand, and rhetoric about “Europe’s caveman mentality” (Mark Entin), on the other. In both cases the authors demonstrated a degree of intolerance and self-righteousness that is quite surprising for scholars and analysts. True, such rhetoric can be blamed on time-serving political factors and the author’s personal likes and dislikes, but the question remains why the author is so certain there will be an audience eager to applaud such ideas.

The problem of modern Russian science and of the expert community is that for the past twenty years we have preferred to borrow Western ideas, and not methodology. This resulted in an ugly symbiosis: the use of each concrete theory became inseparably linked with a certain political stance. The work involving constructive methodology and discourse analysis goes hand in hand with the pro-Western liberal position, while analysis carried out in the vein of realism, even if it matches the latest trends, usually advocates conservative values and protection of Russia’s special position in world politics.

The ideas of Russia’s great future, which are quite popular with the Russian public, in some works acquire almost religious connotations. Western actions are interpreted in line with conspiracy theories and vulgar realism as a “psycho-historical special operation” aimed at generating Russophobic Slavs as a “psycho-cultural type and political force, whose task is to “tear Ukraine away from Russia and set it in opposition to Russia as “anti-Russian Rus.” (Andrei Fursov). Hence the supporters of such an approach come to the following logical conclusion: “Irrespective of the availability or absence of resources for conducting the geopolitical game, Russia should go ahead with it. The country simply has no way out, and if Russia fails to unite Eurasia in this or that form, it will become a target of alien geopolitics.” (Igor Shishkin). Interestingly enough, Russian studies in the West are just as lopsided with analysis conducted exclusively through the prism of Russian nationalism and suspicion of intentions to restore the empire.

When methodology is borrowed, it appears clumsy and not very meaningful. Russian enthusiasts of Europe’s normative power do not even try to understand an alternative approach and see a different normativeness. Quite often they ignore the fact that earnest scholars have long discarded the idea of Europe’s normative power as “good power,” which campaigns for “everything good against everything bad.” Similarly, not a single leading analyst in the West denies the possibility of the use of force as a viable counter to “normative power.” The obvious need for a more flexible approach to European norms and the renunciation of unequivocal and unconditional support for the concept of normative power as the only correct one is extensively discussed in Europe, but enjoys no special demand in Russia or Eastern Europe.

Absolutization of the Western normative space, which in practice is an approach as religious as the Russian superpower rhetoric, sometimes produces a situation in which an analysis of Russia’s current policies that does not unconditionally condemn the Putin regime is seen as pro-Putin propaganda. Russian history is often vulgarized and downgraded to claims that the Russian people have always cherished the “policy of ruining Western society,” “at times camouflaging this inner beast with liberal phrases.” (Grigory Gutner). Russia is presented as a country that has confirmed “its status of Absolute Evil – a den and patron of the most ugly outcasts from around the world, on the one hand, and an enemy of everything free and progressive, on the other” (Yuri Nesterenko).

Moreover, a new term has been coined – trash-discourse, which the adherents of the liberal West and Europe’s normative power use in relation to any trend in Russian political thought that is different from Western standards. It never occurs to those who invent such terms that analyzing Russian discourse solely from the standpoint of Western values and standards, which are regarded as universal, makes absolutely no sense given the support Putin and the concepts he advances enjoy at the moment. Sometimes they just refuse to hear what the supporters of the opposing side are saying, and avoid inviting them to conferences and other events or publishing their articles. They fear that in this way the “bad” discourse will become legitimate. They do not admit even the simple thought that a constructive exchange of opinions might help find points of agreement between the two discourses and ways out of the dead end.

It is this vicious practice that is largely to blame for the widespread propaganda on both sides. The situation we are witnessing today is not only a result of the current tensions in relations between Russia and the West for various reasons, including the unrest in Ukraine. It is a result of a prolonged process of careless and reckless attempts to involve Russia in the system of Western values. The current situation also stems from a systematic defiance of the methodological basis of modern political science and international relations by domestic researchers. Analyzing the political situation in the country is not an act of simple extrapolation of normative ideas of different origin, but is an attempt to develop an in-depth understanding of the circumstances and main trends of existing discourse practices. We believe attempts to deconstruct Russian discourse may pave the way out of the current existential crisis in research.

Of course, it would be unfair to claim that fundamental efforts to rethink the Russian discourse do not exist at all, but they are catastrophically few and invariably are drowned in a flow of publications where the author’s personal evaluation of political processes plays the leading role.

A final remark. Quite possibly, as was noted in an academic discussion in social networks, “when trash triumphs, an attempt at scholarly criticism looks utterly out of place, for it is pretty much like an attempt to join one’s voice to a chorus of illiterate xenophobes.” But have we not been saying this to ourselves for too long to excuse our own inactivity?

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