Russia as the "Other Europe"

17 november 2007

Ivan Krastev is Chairman of the Centre for Liberal Strategies, Sofia, Bulgaria, and Permanent Fellow at the IWM, Institute of Human Sciences in Vienna, Austria.

Resume: 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 interests.


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?


Historian 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 strategies.


Putin’s 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.


Russia’s 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?


Soaring 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 gas.


Russia’s 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.


Russia’s 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 market.


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.


Thus, 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 world.

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 citizens?


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.


Policy 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.




Putin’s 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?


The “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.


Western 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 interests.




According 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 revolt.


Putin’s 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.


The 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.”


Directed 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 interests.


The 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 people.


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.


Yeltsin’s 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.”


The 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).


The 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.


Contrary 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 it.


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 governed.”


And, 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 soul-owner.


Schmitt’s 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.


Contrary 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, constraints.


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.


Russia’s 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 democracy.


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 Russia.


The 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.


The 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.


The 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 democracies. We should all take note.

Last updated 17 november 2007, 11:24

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