Russia as the «Other Europe»
No. 4 2007 October/December
Ivan Krastev

Chairman of the Centre for Liberal Strategies, Sofia, Bulgaria; Permanent Fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences, Vienna, Austria


Let us
consider the question: What does Russia really want? Is Russia a
neo-imperial power that wants to dominate its weaker neighbors, or
is it a post-imperial state that is simply trying to defend its
legitimate interests? Does Moscow view the European Union as a
strategic partner or does it view it as a threat to Russia’s
ambitions in Europe? How stable is Putin’s regime, how sustainable
is Russia’s economic growth, and what are the Kremlin’s long-term
interests and short-term fears?


Martin Malia has said that “the West is not necessarily most
alarmed when Russia is in reality most alarming, nor most reassured
when Russia is in fact most reassuring.” The West is most alarmed
when it is confused about Russia’s interests and


Russia is frightening precisely because it is
confusing.  Russia is, at the same
time, a rising global power and a weak state with corrupt and
inefficient institutions. The contradictions go further: Putin’s
regime can be described as rock solid and also extremely
vulnerable. Russia’s economic growth looks both impressive and
unsustainable. Russia’s foreign policy is a puzzle. Even as Russia
becomes increasingly capitalist and Westernized, its policies
become increasingly anti-Western.




A new
reality in Europe is the re-emergence of Russia as a threat to its
neighborhood, a major player that is seen to be unfriendly and
unreliable. At the same time, however, it is an indispensable
interlocutor of the West.


resurgence is occurring at a time when the global hegemony of the
U.S. is in decline and the European Union is suffering a profound
crisis of self-confidence. It comes at a time of “fundamental
heterogeneity and contradiction pertaining both to the nature of
political units and the character of the tensions, solidarities and
oppositions between these units.” So, the question is: How serious
is the Russian challenge and how did the current crisis in
relations between Russia and the West arise? Is Russia a rising
power, or is it a declining power that is merely enjoying a
temporary revival?


gas and oil prices have made energy-rich Russia more powerful, less
cooperative and more arrogant. The petrodollars that have floated
the state budget have dramatically decreased the Russian state’s
dependence on foreign funding. Today, Russia has the third largest
hard currency reserves in the world. Moreover, it is running a huge
current account surplus and paying off the last of its debts
accumulated in the early 1990s. Russia’s reliance on Western loans
has turned into Europe’s reliance on Russian oil and


military budget has increased six times since the beginning of the
21st century, and Russia’s intelligence network has penetrated all
corners of Europe. For now at least, Chechnya has been pacified and
Russia has succeeded in regaining the strategic initiative in
Central Asia. Russia’s influence in global politics has also
increased dramatically. The Security Council deadlock over the
status of Kosovo is the latest demonstration of the new reality:
Russia can no longer be ignored. In short, Russia is a rising power
that will no longer accept lectures from others. Today, Russia
wants to lecture.


economic growth is mainly due to rising energy prices; the level of
technological modernization is still very low. Meanwhile, energy
exports finance about 30 percent of the Kremlin’s budget. Russia is
a classical oil regime that is suffering from corruption and
inefficiency. A lack of investment in developing oil and gas fields
threatens the prospects for future increases in energy exports.
This also creates the risk of shortages on the domestic


For many
Russians, the standard of living has increased, but yet Russia
remains a poor country. Social inequality is skyrocketing, while
the condition of the educational system continues to deteriorate.
No Russian university ranks amongst the leading universities of the
world. Alcoholism compounded by a collapsing healthcare system is
fuelling a demographic catastrophe: the Russian population has been
declining by 700,000 a year for the past eight years, while the
country’s HIV/AIDS epidemic has not yet peaked. Male life
expectancy is among the lowest in the world.


regardless of its recent foreign policy initiatives, Russia remains
relatively isolated in global politics. In short, this makes Russia
a declining power in a dangerously unpredictable

A look
back at the historical pattern of Russia’s presence in
international politics shows that the country has been a first-rate
international force in only two periods of its history: from Peter
the Great to 1815, and from Russia’s victory at Stalingrad in 1942
to the 1980s. In both periods, Russia succeeded because the
coercive authority of the state mobilized the country’s meager
resources to the maximum degree possible. Moreover, in both cases
Russia sought to counterbalance its poverty by appropriating
Western techniques and organizational methods, while at the same
time avoiding political dependence on the Western powers. Is
history simply repeating itself? Will Russia’s greatness once again
be at the expense of the rights and liberties of its


Lost in
the labyrinth of the contradictions of Russia’s unexpected revival,
Western policymakers are torn between their desires to “talk tough”
and “teach Russia a lesson,” and the realization that the West has
limited capacity to influence Russia’s policies. The urgent
question now is no longer what to do with Russia; the question now
is what to do about Russia. Unfortunately, the current debate on
Western policies on Russia is bewildering, driven by complexes and
ultimately unproductive.


prescriptions are reduced to two choices: “contain Russia” or
“engage Russia.” Not that anybody knows what “containment” means
today. Nor has Russia agreed to be engaged on Western terms. The
current debate is characterized by a profound misunderstanding of
the sources of the current crisis in the relationship.
Increasingly, the West analyzes Russia as a geopolitical and
economic player but pays less and less attention to the nature of
its regime and to the link between Russia’s foreign policy and its
domestic politics. Criticizing Putin’s regime is not a substitute
for understanding it.




Russia is not a trivial authoritarian state. It is not “Soviet
Union Lite” even if the music of the new Russian anthem is the same
as the old Soviet version. Nor can it be described as a
transitional democracy. It is, however, a ‘managed democracy’ or,
shall we say, an ‘over-managed democracy.’ The term captures the
logic and the mechanisms of the proliferation of power, and the way
that democratic institutions are used and misused to preserve the
monopoly of power. But the concept of ‘managed democracy’ also
falls short. It cannot illuminate Putin’s Russia, if viewed as a
political project as opposed to a political machine.


The term
‘managed democracy’ fails to explain why Putin resists becoming
president-for-life as his Central Asian colleagues have done, thus
risking the stability of the whole political edifice that he has
built. The notion of managed democracy is also useless in assessing
the future stability of the regime. What strikes the observer of
the political processes in today’s Russia is the
stability-fragility dialectics of the current status quo. There
seems to be no alternative to Putin’s way. The opposition is
marginal and marginalized, lacking ideas and public support. At the
same time, Moscow elites seem to be nervous and insecure. The
“succession” has paralyzed their imagination. Why are the elites so
scared if the regime is so stable?


“succession dilemma” can be summarized in the following way: If
Putin wants to maintain the European identity of his regime, and if
he cares about the long-term stability of the country, he should
carry out his pledge to step down from power after the end of the
second term of office as prescribed in the Constitution. But if he
wants to prevent the short-term destabilization of the regime, he
should either stay president for life or take up residence on the
moon. Putin’s departure from power would unavoidably lead to the
emergence of a second center of power at the heart of Russia’s
managed democracy. There would be a newly elected president and
president Putin. This power pluralism destroys the fundamentals of
the current regime, the fundamentals that Vladislav Surkov is
tempted to define as the key elements of Russian political culture
in general: the centralization of state power, non-pragmatic
(utopian) legitimization of the political system; and
personification of the institutions of power.


attempts to make sense of Putin’s Russia lack an insight into the
political imagination of the current political elite in Moscow.
They also lack an interest in the arguments used by the regime to
claim legitimacy. Putin’s critics inside and outside Russia are
inclined to dismiss the intellectual substance of the
Kremlin-promoted concept of ‘sovereign democracy.’ In their view,
‘sovereign democracy’ has only propaganda value; its only function
is to protect the regime from Western criticism. The assumption is
that the Kremlin’s only ideology is cynicism, which allows it to
stay in power and be rich. But is this really the case?


In our
view, the concept of ‘sovereign democracy’ can be the key to
understanding the ambitions, fears and constraints of Putin’s
regime. The concept of ‘sovereign democracy’ succeeds in
confronting the Kremlin’s two ideological enemies of choice: the
liberal democracy of the West and the populist democracy admired by
the rest. It pretends to reconcile Russia’s urgent need for
Western-type modernization and Russia’s will to defend its
independence from the West. The source of the Russia-EU crisis is
in the logic of sovereign democracy more than that of competing




to national origin, the concept of ‘sovereign democracy’ is
Ukrainian. It originated in the Kremlin’s conceptualization of the
November 2004 to January 2005 Orange Revolution (“Orange
Technologies” in the Kremlin’s terms) in Ukraine. Sovereign
democracy is Moscow’s response to the dangerous combination of
populist pressure from below and international pressure from above
that destroyed the regime of Leonid Kuchma. The Kyiv (Kiev) events
embodied the ultimate threat: long-distance controlled popular


preventive counter-revolution that followed marked a “regime
change” in Russia. In the regime of directed democracy that Putin
inherited from Boris Yeltsin, the elites deployed many of the
institutional elements of democracy, including political parties,
elections, and diverse media for the sole purpose of helping those
in power to stay in power. Elections were held regularly, but they
did not provide an opportunity to transfer power, only to
legitimize it.


directed democracy of the 1990s, in contrast to the classical
models of managed democracy, did not imply a ruling party to manage
the political process. The key to the system was the creation of a
parallel political reality. The goal was not just to establish a
monopoly of power, but to monopolize the competition for it. The
key element in the model of directed democracy was that the sources
of the legitimacy of the regime lay in the West. Imitating
democracy assumes that the imitator accepts the superiority of the
model he is imitating. Being lectured by the West was the price
paid by the Russian elite for using the resources of the West to
preserve that elite’s power.


In its
social origins, directed democracy reflected the strange relations
between the rulers and the ruled in Yeltsin’s Russia. Stephen
Holmes has acutely portrayed this relationship: “Those at the top
neither exploit nor oppress those at the bottom. They do not even
govern them; they simply ignore them.”


democracy was a political regime that liberates the elites from the
necessity of governing and gives them time to take care of their
personal business. It was perceived as the best instrument for
avoiding a bloody revolution; at the same time, it created room for
the “criminal revolution” that transferred much of the nation’s
wealth into the hands of a few powerful insiders. It was the most
suitable regime for a “non-taxing state.” There were taxes in
Russia, but nobody really cared to collect them; there were
elections, but they were not allowed to represent real


post-Communist elites discovered the irresistible charm of state
weakness. Russia was a weak state, but it was also a cunning state,
one that was quite selective in its weakness. It failed to pay the
salaries of workers, but was strong enough to redistribute property
and even to repay foreign debts when this was in the interests of
the elites. The regime’s strategy was to keep up the illusion of
political representation, while at the same time preventing the
interests and sentiments of the transition’s losers from being
represented. The model of directed democracy made the elites
independent of the citizens’ legitimate claims. None of the reforms
implemented in Russia in the heyday of directed democracy was
initiated by pressure from below. The most vulnerable aspect of
Russia’s system is this total disregard for the basic needs of the


In the
West’s current discourse on Russia, Putin’s authoritarianism is
usually contrasted with the imperfect democracy of Yeltsin’s Russia
much in the same way that tyranny is contrasted with freedom. In
reality, Yeltsin’s liberalism and Putin’s sovereigntism represent
two distinctive but related forms of unrepresentative political
systems. They differ in the perceived role of the state in public
life and the sources of legitimacy of the two regimes. Another
difference is the price of oil.


regime busied itself by dismantling public expectations of the
state. Putin’s regime, born out of soaring energy prices and an
urgent need to prevent the total collapse of the social
infrastructure, was determined to reconnect the prosperity of the
elites with the glory of the state. Yeltsin’s “faking democracy”
was replaced by Putin’s consolidation of state power through
nationalization of the elite and the elimination or marginalization
of what Vladislav Surkov calls “offshore aristocracy.”


nationalization of the elite took the form of de facto
nationalization of the energy sector, total control of the media,
de facto criminalization of Western-funded NGOs, Kremlin-sponsored
party-building, criminal persecution of Kremlin opponents (as with
the case of Mikhail Khodorkovsky) and the creation of structures
that can secure active support for the regime in time of crisis
(such as the Nashi [Ours] movement).


offshore oligarchs were replaced by state-serving oligarchs. This
transformation explains one of the puzzles of today’s Russia: the
form of property – private or public – does not matter when it
comes to the big Russian companies. They all are state-minded
companies and their economic policies reflect the priorities of the
Russian state. The Communist one-party state has been replaced by
Putin’s one-pipeline state. Putin offered consumer rights to
Russian citizens, but not human rights; state sovereignty, but not
individual autonomy.


to some Western accusations, the Kremlin (which is populated by
many non-Russians) has not based its regime-building project on
mobilizing ethnic Russian nationalism. The relationship between
Russian nationalism and the Kremlin’s notion of sovereign democracy
is much more ambiguous and complex. Putin uses traditional Russian
nationalism when required, but basically the Kremlin is in the
business of controlling this nationalism, not mobilizing


While the
government is quite “theatrical” in repressing its liberal and
pro-Western opponents (mainly to show the West that it will not
tolerate interference in its domestic politics), the Kremlin is
efficient and ruthless in repressing nationalists. Sovereign
democracy, in the Kremlin’s view, is the Russian version of
European civic nationalism. The pillars of the project are natural
resources, the memory of the Soviet victory in WWII, and the
promise of sovereignty.


In the
view of the Kremlin, sovereignty is not a right; its meaning is not
a seat in the United Nations. For the Kremlin, sovereignty means
capacity. It implies economic independence, military strength and
cultural identity. The other key element of a sovereign state is a
“nationally-minded” elite. The nature of the elite, in the view of
the Kremlin’s ideologues, is the critical component of a sovereign
state. The creation of a nationally-minded elite is the primary
task of sovereign democracy as a project. Moreover, the need for a
nationally-minded elite requires a nationally-minded democratic
theory. Putin’s Kremlin has never seen the new democracies of
Central Europe as a model for the political development of Russia
because, in Moscow’s view, the small states of Central Europe have
no capacity to be sovereign. They are doomed to gravitate around
sovereign poles of power. In this context, Moscow is ready to
acknowledge that membership in the European Union represented a
real opportunity for small countries like Bulgaria or Poland, but
is not a real option for post-imperial Russia.




In the
concept of sovereign democracy, what is really fascinating is not
the regime that it tries to legitimize, but the intellectual
framework of its justification. In the past two decades, Russia’s
marketplace of ideas was never short of theories arguing the
uniqueness of its culture and history, as well as reflections on
Russia’s mission in the world. There were many voices insisting
that Russia should break its ideological dependence on Western
theories. What is telling is that the ideologues of sovereign
democracy are not interested in the various theories of “Russia’s
uniqueness” in building their project. The Kremlin’s revolt against
the Anglo-Saxon theory of liberal democracy, centered on individual
rights and the system of checks and balances of power, is rooted
neither in criticism of democracy as a form of government nor in
theories of Russia’s exceptionalism. In constructing the
intellectual justification for the model of sovereign democracy,
Kremlin ideologues turned to the intellectual legacy of continental
Europe – the French political rationalism of Francois Guizot’s and
Carl Schmitt’s “decisionism.”


Guizot and
Schmitt surprisingly emerge as the intellectual pillars of the
Kremlin’s idea of sovereign democracy. What attracts Surkov and his
philosophers to the legacies of Guizot and Schmitt is obviously
their anti-revolutionism and their fundamental mistrust of the two
concepts of the present democratic age – the idea of representation
as the expression of the pluralist nature of the modern society,
and the idea of popular sovereignty that defines democracy as the
rule of the popular will. Anti-populism and anti-pluralism are the
two distinctive features of the current regime in Moscow. Following
Schmitt (1888-1985), the theorists of sovereign democracy prefer to
define democracy as “identity of the governors and the


following Guizot, “sovereign” for them is not the people or the
voters, but the reason embodied in the consensus of the responsible
national elites. In the Kremlin-concocted mixture of Guizot’s
anti-populism and Schmitt’s anti-liberalism, elections serve not as
an instrument for expressing different and conflicting interests,
but in demonstrating the identity of the governors and the
governed; not as a mechanism for representing people, but one for
representing power before the people. What is at the heart of the
Putin’s regime is governmentalization of the state. The Kremlin
does not think in terms of the citizen’s rights, but in terms of
the population’s needs. The concept of population is contrasted
both to the notion of rights at the core of the liberal democratic
project and the notion of “the people” that is at the core of the
nationalist projects. The rights of the citizen-voter that are at
the foundations of liberal democracy are, in Putin’s Russia,
substituted by the rights of the consumer, tourist and Russian


definition of the sovereign as “he who decides on the state of
exception” perfectly fits the almost metaphysical role of the
figure of the president in Russia’s present political system.
Schmitt’s definition of democracy in terms of identity, not in the
terms of representation, does not allow a meaningful distinction
between democracy and dictatorship. The Kremlin’s theorists of
democracy could also see this as an advantage.


to the assertions of Putin’s critics, the concept of sovereign
democracy does not mark Russia’s break with European tradition. It
embodies Russia’s ideological ambition to be “the other Europe” –
an alternative to the European Union. The Kremlin has developed an
ideological project that is not only attractive for many in
post-Soviet Europe, but a project that presents an existential
challenge to the European Union.


“Russia is
very old Europe,” wrote Carnegie analyst Dmitry Trenin, “it could
be reminiscent of Germany in the 1920s, with its vibrancy and
intense feeling of unfair treatment by others; France in the 1940s,
when it was trying to heal its traumas; or Italy in the 1960s, as
far as the nexus of power, money, and crime is concerned.” Russia
is a very old Europe. It embodies nostalgia for the old European
nation-state and nostalgia for a European order organized around
the balance of power and non-interference in the domestic affairs
of other states. In this sense, Russia’s sovereign democracy is a
direct challenge to the European Union. The United States can
afford to analyze Russia in classical realist terms. The European
Union cannot. The conflict between Russia and the U.S. can be
reduced to a 19th century trial of strength over resources and
national pride. The conflict between Russia and the European Union
cannot. What is threatening in Russia’s concept of sovereign
democracy is that, in reality, it regards the European Union as a
temporary phenomenon, an interesting experiment with no future.
Russia’s European strategy is based on the expectation that
sovereign nation-states will determine Europe’s future.




“What came
to an end in 1989,” wrote Robert Cooper, summarizing Europe’s new
consensus, “was not just the Cold War or even, the Second World
War. What came to an end in Europe (but perhaps only in Europe)
were the political systems of three centuries: the balance of power
and the imperial urge.”


The elite
who commanded European policy assumed that the end of the Cold War
meant the emergence of a new European order. The key elements of
this post-modern European system include a highly developed system
of mutual interference in each other’s domestic affairs and
security based on openness and transparency. The post-modern system
does not rely on a balance of power; nor does it emphasize
sovereignty or the separation of domestic and foreign affairs. The
legitimate monopoly of power that is the essence of statehood is
thus subject to international, but self-imposed,


The Treaty
on Conventional Forces in Europe and the OSCE, based on intrusive
inspections and active monitoring, were the major instruments for
integrating Russia into the post-modern system. They made Russia
resemble a modern state that has accepted the post-modern
imperatives of openness and interdependency. Russia’s weakness has
created the illusion that Moscow subscribes to this system. The
reality, however, has turned out to be very different. Russia chose
to build its statehood according to European practices and
ideologies of the 19th century rather than the European ideas of
the 21st century.


view of the European order is a mixture of nostalgia for the days
of the “Concert of Europe” and envy for China, which is managing to
balance openness to the West with a rejection of Western
interference in its domestic politics. Russia is opting for a world
in which Kremlin-friendly oligarchs will own English soccer clubs,
and the Russian middle class will freely travel all over Europe. At
the same time, however, international companies will not be allowed
to exploit Russian natural resources, and the Kremlin’s domestic
critics will be expelled from European capitals. The regime of
sovereign democracy is absolutely incompatible with the post-modern
hegemony. Russia’s decision to withdraw from the Treaty on
Conventional Forces, together with Moscow’s deliberate efforts to
block the work of the OSCE, marked the end of the post-Cold War
order in Europe. They are manifestations of the logic of sovereign


The real
source of the confrontation between Russia and the European Union
today is not primarily rival interests or unshared values. It is
political incompatibility. Russia’s challenge to the European Union
cannot be reduced to the issue of energy dependency and Moscow’s
ambition to dominate its “near abroad,” which happens to be the
European Union’s “new neighborhood.” At the heart of the current
crisis is not the clash between democracy and authoritarianism
(history demonstrates that democratic and authoritarian states can
easily cooperate), but the clash between the post-modern state
embodied by the EU and the traditional modern states embodied by


controversies that involve the Energy Charter and the Anglo-Russian
test of nerves over the “Litvinenko murder case” are not rooted in
differences of interests or Cold War nostalgia. They are the
expression of the different mindsets of the modern and post-modern
state. In the way that the European Union, with its emphases on
human rights and openness, threatens the Kremlin’s “sovereign
democracy” project, Russia’s insistence on balance of power as the
foundation of the new European order threatens the very existence
of the European Union. Faced with the invasion of Russian
state-minded companies, EU member states are tempted to fence-off
certain sectors of their economies, such as domestic energy
markets, thus threatening the liberal economic order that is at the
center of the European project.


contrasting nature of the political elites in Russia and Europe
today is one more reason for concern over the future of the
relationship. Unlike the late Soviet elites who were bureaucratic,
risk-adverse and competent when it came to international relations
and security policies, the new Russian elite are made up of the
winners of the zero-sum game of the transition. They are highly
self-confident, risk prone and immensely wealthy. Europe does not
know how to deal with these people. European political elites, who
built their careers by practicing compromise and avoiding
conflicts, are facing elites that are proud of their
take-no-prisoner philosophies. Mutual misperceptions and
misunderstandings seem unavoidable.


In short,
the clash between Russia and the West is ideological in its nature.
The difference with the Cold War period is that the current
ideological clash is not between democracy and dictatorship. The
clash is between the post-modern state embodied by the European
Union and Putin’s regime of sovereign democracy. The Kremlin feels
threatened by the policy of openness and interdependency in
international relations promoted by the European Union. Meanwhile,
the European Union’s very existence is threatened by Russia’s
insistence on the dominance of the sovereign state in European
affairs. For the post-modern state, “sovereignty is a seat at the
table.” For Russia, sovereignty is the right of the government to
do what it wants on its territory and to execute its enemies in the
center of London. Moscow feels encouraged by the resurgence of
nationalism and sovereignism in some of the EU member states and
expects the European Union to pass into history just as the Soviet
Union did in the early 1990s. In Moscow’s view, the EU is just one
more utopia whose time has expired. Brussels, on its part, is
convinced that Russia’s sovereign democracy is a pathetic attempt
to cheat history, and that the opening up of the Russian state is
just a matter of time.


co-existence between European post-modernity and Russia’s sovereign
democracy could become more difficult and dangerous than the
co-existence between Soviet Communism and Western
We should all take note.