Sovereignty vs Democracy?
No. 4 2005 October/December
Vladimir Ryzhkov

Vladimir Ryzhkov is Co-Chairman of the RPR-Parnas party and is a former State Duma Deputy representing the Altai Territory.


The issue of Russia’s
sovereignty has recently come into the foreground of the country’s
national politics. This is a surprising development, which requires
explanation and analysis. The Russian leadership, despite its
earlier pronouncement that it had considerably strengthened

Russia and its international positions over the last few years,
as well as averted the threat of the country’s disintegration and
international isolation, nevertheless introduced the sovereignty


factor making this move surprising is that
major political forces, including those from the political
opposition, have never doubted the sovereignty of the

Russian Federation – nor has any entity abroad. Thus, why the
sudden fears concerning the future of
sovereignty? Alternatively, does it all mean something entirely


The first
time the Russian president spoke about external threats to

Russia’s integrity and independence arose when terrorists
seized a secondary school in Beslan in September 2004. In his
address to the nation, the head of state mentioned several powerful
external forces that were seeking to weaken and even
Russia. Although he did
not name those forces, his emphasis on the possibility of an
external threat was very strong.


sovereignty became an even more acute issue following Victor
Yushchenko’s victory in
Ukraine’s presidential
elections. Many official commentators and those close to the
Kremlin explained the defeat of Moscow-supported Victor Yanukovich
by external (that is, Western) interference, and called for
preventing such developments in
Russia. The head
Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB), Nikolai
Patrushev, addressed the State Duma, warning the legislature about
the situation and naming international organizations and
foundations, which he said, organize ‘colored’ revolutions. The
Kremlin interpreted the developments in Georgia and

Kyrgyzstan in the same manner.


In his
April 25, 2005 address to the Federal Assembly, Vladimir Putin
stated that the sovereignty issue was brought to life by active
discussions about “freedom and democracy” in Russian society and
abroad. The president described the discussions as simulated,
adding that they exaggerated the difficulties faced by the
democratic processes in contemporary
Russia. At the same
time, he said
has a right to establish the pace and
form of its move toward democracy. The address contained a hidden
reaction to the developments in
Ukraine. The president
said: “Democratic procedures should not develop at the cost of law
and order, at the cost of stability, achieved with so much
difficulty, or the consistent implementation of the chosen economic
line. Here is the independent nature of the democratic path we have
chosen. And this is why we will keep moving forward, taking into
account our own internal circumstances and certainly relying on the
law, on constitutional guarantees.”


to the president, “
Russia will decide itself
how it can implement the principles of freedom and democracy,
taking into account its historical, geopolitical and other
specificities. As a sovereign state,
Russia can and will
independently establish for itself the timeframe and conditions for
moving along this path.” The head of state warned all political
forces against resorting to “unlawful methods.” The president said,
“The state will react to them in a lawful and tough


The chief
of the presidential staff, Dmitry Medvedev, said in an interview
with Expert magazine in April 2005 that the main and only task of
the Russian state and the political elite is “the preservation of
effective statehood within the existing borders.” He described “the
destabilization of public life, caused by acts of terror and gross
economic mistakes, taking place amidst an all-out struggle between
the elites” as the primary threat to
Russia. Several
months later, he went even further, suggesting that the threat to
the state’s stability might result from general elections.
Russia’s leadership began
to make a connection between the preservation of state sovereignty
and the preservation of state control; this includes

Russia’s control over the major industries – from extraction
and pipelines to communications and banks.


In a
recent speech, one of the Kremlin’s main ideologists, Vladislav
Surkov, elaborated on a new concept for state power – the concept
of “sovereign democracy.” Here are its main elements.


globalization processes have made the concept of national (state)
sovereignty partially outdated. Yet, nation-states continue to play
a very important role, for example, in preserving national cultures
or combating terrorism. The “national elite” must lead the state
(as opposed to the “offshore aristocracy” which actually runs the
country from abroad). Domestic capital or the state must dominate
the strategic industries, as
Russia’s “sovereign
democracy” will face bitter competition from other states.

Russia attaches great significance to historical memory and,
most importantly, concerning its imperial greatness. This fact
makes it impossible for
Russia to equate itself
with small European nations.
Russia must move toward
democracy cautiously, under permanent control by the authorities,
in order to prevent any destructive and unqualified forces from
coming to power. (“We are checking [democracy] not artificially, as
many think,” stated Vladislav Surkov. “We are simply afraid.”)
Democracy will continue to strengthen as society objectively
prepares for it. Presently, however, there is no such readiness
(“The democracy issue does not only mean painting democratic
institutions, but the people must also be ripe enough to reach such
a culture.”)


links the haste with which democracy has been developing in

Russia with the possible exacerbation of certain threats. Among
them, he named not only terrorism, but also the loss of

Russia’s economic competitiveness and economic independence.
He then cited the country’s breakup, the chaos of a parliamentary
republic caused by the low culture of political coalitions and
agreements, and the coming to power of religious radicals in
individual regions of the
Russian Federation.


Tretyakov, a well-known pro-Kremlin analyst, writing in a series of
articles published in the Rossiiskaya Gazeta in June 2005, summed
up the preliminary results of this intriguing discussion. He named
Russia’s loss of its international and even domestic sovereignty
among the four main threats faced by the country today (along with
the threats of the country’s breakup or cession of its territories,
extinction, and moral, legal and state

draws a simple conclusion – the country needs, among other things,
a leader who will effectively counter these threats. For now, there
is no other candidate in sight, apart from Vladimir Putin, who
could at least remotely fit that description. This means that
Putin’s power must extend beyond 2008. Otherwise, Tretyakov warns,
Russia would simply “not survive!”


all these problems intertwine in a tight knot. Moscow’s primary
task is maintaining the country’s integrity and sovereignty, which
requires promptly averting threat against national sovereignty. The
main source of these dangers is possible public protests, including
those taking place in the form of democratic procedures (for
example, mass disorders or elections). Of course, democracy is the
best form of statehood for Russia. There are doubts, however, that
Russian society is “ripe” for such a move; democracy may be a
source of various dangers. Therefore, preserving the country’s
sovereignty requires a special Russian model for democracy known as
“sovereign democracy,” the essence of which calls for government
supervision over the methods and rates of democratic institutions
and procedures being introduced. In other words, “sovereign
democracy” is nothing more than democracy under the authorities’
supervision. Finally, if there is no other candidate who could
reliably preserve the country’s sovereignty, the task of preserving
state sovereignty requires “imperatively” (Tretyakov) preserving
the incumbent authorities.


Here we
see a bitter clash between two concepts and value paradigms, both
of which are equally dear to the heart of every patriot and
citizen. One of them is freedom and independence of Russia, or its
state sovereignty. The other is political and civil freedoms of the
Russian people, or Russian democracy. Inconceivably, these concepts
have come to be in direct opposition to each other! Tretyakov
writes unambiguously that in order to solve the problems of
strengthening the state, ensuring the citizens’ safety, and
establishing order in the country, the president “has worked out
and actually implemented a policy that calls for selective
limitations on some civil rights and freedoms.” Tretyakov likens
this policy to “freezing to some extent public and political


Russia has had no other way for strengthening the state and its
sovereignty than by “freezing to some extent democracy.” On the
contrary, “rampant democracy,” like that experienced by Russia in
the 1990s, poses a direct threat to Russia’s existence, not to
mention its sovereignty!




democracy really threaten the sovereignty of a state? Moreover, can
the task of saving sovereignty justify limitations on

The French
jurist Jean Bodin introduced the notion of sovereignty into
political and legal thought with a work entitled Six Books of the
Commonwealth (1576).


In Book I,
Bodin gave his famous definition of a state as “the rightly ordered
government of a number of families, and of those things which are
their common concern, by a sovereign power.”


elements of Bodin’s definition are important. “Right ordering”
emphasizes the law-based nature of the state. (Bodin distinguishes
a state from a band of pirates or robbers, denying them the right
to proclaim themselves a state.) “Government” means
“non-possession” through the right of ownership; this distinguishes
a rule-of-law state from despotisms and states based on
inheritance. Sovereigns rule, as well as own everything, including
people in their states. Government limits the state’s ability to
interfere in the property and private affairs of the subjects, thus
establishing the right to private life and


Bodin defines “sovereignty” as “absolute and perpetual power.” The
sovereign is one who has absolute and perpetual power without any
limitation. A sovereign may make the decision to give this power to
another individual for a period of time and within determined
limits. Bodin makes the qualification, however, that “even while
they enjoy power, they cannot properly be regarded as sovereign
rulers, but only as the lieutenants and agents of the sovereign
ruler, till the moment comes when it pleases the prince or the
people to revoke the gift. The true sovereign remains always seized
of his power. Just as a feudal lord who grants lands to another
retains his eminent domain over them, so the ruler who delegates
authority to judge and command, whether it be for a short period,
or during pleasure, remains seized of those rights of jurisdiction
actually exercised by another in the form of a revocable grant, or
precarious tenancy.”


Hence, the
conclusion that state bodies, even dictatorships, do not have the
rights of sovereign power.

to Bodin, there can be only three forms of sovereignties. “If
sovereignty is vested in a single prince, we call the state a
monarchy. If all the people share in it, it is a popular state. If
only a minority, it is an aristocracy.”


lived in an epoch when absolute monarchies reigned throughout
Europe; for him, a sovereign monarch was the ideal form of state
government and a guarantor against defeat in the ongoing wars of
religion at that time. He perceived absolute monarchy as a
rule-of-law state that protects the legitimate rights and property
of its subjects.


The later
development of the state sovereignty theory continued along the
lines established by Bodin; his ideas were expanded and further

legal and political philosopher Georg Jellinek, for example, wrote
that state power is power that knows no superior power; therefore,
it is independent and supreme power. He distinguished between
external sovereignty (independence of a state) and internal
sovereignty (the sovereign’s right to arbitrarily decide any issue
pertaining to domestic development).


moves to limit state sovereignty are more often than not
insignificant and conditional measures. For example, the right to a
pre-emptive strike against a sovereign state can materialize only
when the policy of the targeted state seriously threatens
international stability; the approval of the UN Security Council is
also required. Outside interference in the domestic affairs of a
sovereign state is found acceptable only if the state commits human
rights violations en masse or for other critical reasons – and,
again, on UN approval. The limitation of the sovereignty of
nation-states within the frameworks of interstate associations, for
example, the European Union, is voluntary. The EU member states
have delegated their powers to the EU bodies in Brussels
voluntarily; theoretically, they can revoke these powers at any

sovereignty remains a generally recognized foundation of
contemporary states, including Russia.




Undoubtedly, the sovereign in Russia (that is, the owner of
power and jurisdiction) is its people. The Constitution of the
Russian Federation unambiguously states this – according to it the
multinational people of Russia is the only bearer of sovereignty
and source of power in the country.


state sovereignty cannot be confused with state power as it is done
by many members of Russian society and even some specialists.
Thinking that sovereignty is the property of state power is a
serious error.


In our
case, the sovereign is the people of Russia, and its interests are
represented by the entire state. Individual state bodies – from the
president of the country to a district judge – perform their
powers, received for a strictly specified period of time and in
keeping with the law, on the people’s behalf and within the
frameworks established by it. In other words, state power does not
have sovereignty in Russia (within the frameworks of the
scientifically recognized triad: popular sovereignty – state
sovereignty – state power).


understanding that the people are the only sovereign in
contemporary Russia has the following important

First, it
is necessary to consider the fundamental significance of the
present Constitution adopted by the people in a December 1993
referendum. The Constitution proclaims the basic political and
civil rights of the Russian people, including the right to power
through free elections and referendums. Everything preventing the
guarantee of the people’s right to elections and referendums is
unconstitutional and limits the sovereign right to power. Hence,
the doubtful constitutionality of the latest version of the Law on
Referendums; it makes a people-initiated referendum a virtual


doubtful are the latest innovations in the legislation concerning
elections, in particular the liquidation of single-member
constituencies (together with the right of every citizen to run for
the State Duma), raising the election barrier for political parties
to seven percent and the possibility of reducing the required voter
turnout to less than 20 percent. There is also the possibility of
abolishing the “against all” option found on ballot lists. Add to
this the difficulties with the registration of political parties
and candidates; the facilitation of procedures for taking
candidates out of the election race; and limitations on public
control over elections. Along with the abolition of general
elections of regional governors and the formation of the Federation
Council [the upper chamber of the Federal Assembly] from unelected
people, these innovations create the impression that state
authority, not having the rights of a sovereign, hired only for a
certain period of time and having limited powers, has been
consistently and systematically removing the true sovereign from
governing the state that wholly belongs to


the dubious policy of limiting the citizens’ rights and
freedoms,  notoriously known as
“freezing of democracy” in the name of preserving and strengthening
state sovereignty.


As we have
concluded, the sovereign in contemporary Russia is its people,
which perform its power through democratic elections and
referendums. Limiting its sovereign power in the name of Russia’s
sovereignty is outright nonsense! The genuine sovereignty of Russia
is the full-fledged power of the sovereign, that is, the people –
full-fledged democracy without any exemptions! Sovereignty does not
contradict democracy; on the contrary, it is democracy. The fuller
the democracy, the fuller the sovereignty.


limitation of democratic freedoms by the state is comparable to the
limitation of a landowner’s rights by his own tenant. The
Constitution classifies such things as usurpation, which is a
crime. The Constitutional Court and other courts of Russia, which,
regrettably, do not always perform their public duty in good faith,
must protect the rights of the sovereign people. In particular, the
Constitutional Court has not yet reacted to the abolition of the
elections of regional governors, the ambiguous situation with the
Federation Council, and to the contradiction between the political
structure of the State Duma and the outcome of the parliamentary
elections. Furthermore, there are antidemocratic innovations in the
electoral legislation, as well as gross transgressions against the
Constitution by the state.


involves the full and irrevocable right of the people to implement
its sovereignty with regard to the state in general, and state
authority in particular.

When the
state abuses the powers entrusted to it for a certain period, that
is, it usurps the rights of popular sovereignty and begins to
violate the people’s inalienable rights, then the people have the
right to resort to civil disobedience against such an authority and
to remove it from power, even before its term of office


Constitution, for example, provides for the people’s right to
resistance, up to and including the use of force. This is a lesson
learned by the German people from their horrible experience of the
1930s when the Nazis usurped power and dragged Germany into the
most dreadful abyss in its history.

Russian Constitution does not provide provisions of this kind, but
this does not mean that the Russian people do not have a right to
resist an unlawful authority. The power of the sovereign, the
people, has supremacy over the state authority, and the people have
the full right to deprive the authority of its powers, even before
its term has ended, if the abuses of power become significant and
obvious. This is especially justified if the authority violates the
basic rights of its citizens, for example, the right to free and
unlimited access to information, as well as the right to choose and
elect candidates in corrupt-free elections. Thus, what happened in
Ukraine or Georgia was nothing else but the restoration by the
sovereign peoples of their violated rights. In this sense, their
actions were unquestionably constitutional.


In the
same way, the people have the right to stage “unsanctioned rallies”
if receiving approval for one becomes dependent on the “law,” which
actually violates the constitutional rights of citizens and makes
the citizens’ right to rallies and demonstrations dependent on the
will of bureaucrats. In this case, we witness “unlawful law”
typical of unlawful states, when the state authority – the usurper
of the sovereign people’s power – adopts “laws” of an unlawful
nature. Regrettably, we have witnessed the rapid growth of such
“unlawful laws” in Russia in the last few years, which testifies to
the usurpation of power in the country by government




On the
face of it, internal sovereignty can be limited in order to
preserve external sovereignty. Everybody is familiar with “martial
law,” that is, when all the resources of the state mobilize for a
victory over an enemy, while the rights of the citizens


and civil freedoms, however, are not always restricted during a
war. Besides, contemporary Russia is not in a state of war.
Therefore, there are no grounds today for restricting the civil and
political rights of citizens and the whole of the sovereign


World War II, the British Empire underwent all the hardships and
privations of wartime – from food rationing to the mass
mobilization of the female population for difficult industrial
work. The imperial government, led by Winston Churchill, was given
broad additional powers, yet Churchill emphasized that the
government used those powers under permanent parliament control,
while society had the right to the freedom of opinion. He pointed
out that Britain’s public figures were proud that they were
servants of the people. Churchill said that his government was open
to sound criticism from anyone wishing to win the war, and that
there is nothing more dangerous than the fear of


British democracy and the principle of popular sovereignty were
fully subordinated to the cause of the defense of state
sovereignty, without any conflict between the two important aspects
of sovereignty – internal and external.


never divided the struggle for external and internal freedom. In
July 1940, he spoke proudly that he led a government that
represented all the parties in the state, all religions, all
classes, and acceptable movements in public life, adding that his
government was supported by a free parliament and free


viewed dictatorships and regimes that suppressed freedom as weak
and doomed to defeat. The fear of criticism poses the greatest
danger for dictatorships, he said. They stifle criticism, so people
at the top often receive only the facts that they want to hear.
Scandals, corruption and mistakes remain in the shadows, since any
independent voices that could expose them are non-existent. Instead
of exposing problems as they appear, they continue to rot behind
the pompous fa?ade of the state, Churchill


struggle for the preservation and consolidation of Russia’s
external sovereignty is not in conflict with the development of
Russian democracy. On the contrary, the development of democracy
and the ensuing consolidation of the Russian state will better
promote the strengthening of the country’s international positions
than the dubious experiments for limiting political freedoms under
the ambiguous slogan of “sovereign


* *


The notion
of “sovereignty” has been absolutely distorted in Russia of

First, the
sovereignty most often discussed is external sovereignty, that is,
the integrity and independence of the state of Russia. The threat
to this independence is often exaggerated or invented in order to
impose various kinds of domestic


Second, in
the name of the struggle against a non-existent external threat,
the people must live according to wartime laws interpreted by the
limitations of political and civil freedoms. Even if there were a
war in progress, the justifiability of such limitations would not
be obvious.


Third, an
unconstitutional principle of “sovereign democracy” is replacing
the constitutional principle of popular sovereignty. This trend
implies the limitation of democracy and political competition, and
the wish to keep the incumbent government in power whatever the


this is a barely disguised attempt to usurp power in the state, an
attempt to replace the power of the sovereign people with the power
of specific groups that have been brought to the top of state power
by fate.


Unfortunately, such attempts have a long-standing tradition in
Russian history. The best-known examples of the unlawful usurpation
of power are the seizure of power by the Bolsheviks in October 1917
and the dissolution of the generally elected Constituent Assembly
in early 1918. A 70-year rule by the usurping party ended in the
natural breakup of the state, since no lawful sovereign was present
to protect it.


attempts to usurp the people’s sovereign power in contemporary
Russia may have similar consequences. By a merciless twist of fate,
those who seize power under the slogan of saving Russia are unable
to maintain their power and, at the same time, place Russia on the
brink of disaster. The unconditional implementation of popular
sovereignty through free and honest elections protects the
independence and integrity of Russia, together with its inner
strength and freedom.