Arguing over political terminology: wasted words


“Those who don’t talk, listen – and those who listen, obey.” Vladislav Surkov, deputy head of the presidential administration, said this at a conference entitled “The Sovereign State in Globalization: Democracy and National Identity,” held at the offices of the Rossiiskaya Gazeta newspaper. The quote has been repeated by all the national media.

As Rossiiskaya Gazeta notes, the disucssion was “at the very highest representative level” – attended by “senior representatives of all the major political parties, and leading political analysts.”

The direct pretext for the forum was an article by Constitutional Court Chairman Valery Zorkin, published in Rossiiskaya Gazeta in 2004: “A Vindication of the Westphalian System.” Zorkin argued that in the wake of September 11, the politics of multilateral agreements has been replaced worldwide by the principles of global security, which frequently contradict the concepts of non-intervention and sovereignty.

On the other hand, according to Zorkin, the term “sovereign democracy,” recently introduced into Russia’s political lexicon, “carries a deep meaning, and understanding what lies behind these words is extremely important for everyone who is directly or indirectly involved in developing strategy and tactics for national development.”

According to Vladislav Surkov, “in Russian tradition, and in our ideological matrix, sovereignty is largely associated with our allies – the Army and Navy – and consequently the term has this military-police connotation.” (Quoted in the Vedomosti newspaper.)

As Surkov emphasizes, “Unless we in Russia can create our own discourse, our own public philosophy, our own national ideology that is acceptable to the majority of our citizens – then others simply won’t talk to us or take us into account. Why talk with someone who’s mute?”

Valery Anashvili, chief editor of the Logos journal of philosophy, commented for Vedomosti on this quote from Surkov’s speech: “In talking of creating ‘our own discourse,’ Surkov is expressing nostalgia for the times when Soviet philosophers, using Marxist language for social rhetoric, served as a beacon for Western intellectuals.”

Surkov went on to give his own evaluation of the “sovereign democracy” concept, stressing that it “appeals to the dignity of the Russian people and the Russian nation.”

Dmitri Badovsky from the Social Systems Research Institute, told Vedomosti that the West finds the “sovereign democracy” term incomprehensible, and First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev criticized it in a July interview with Ekspert magazine, and even the United Russia party, controlled by Surkov, has expressed doubts about whether its policy program can be based on this concept.

According to the Kommersant newspaper, criticism of “sovereign democracy” is being actively supported by Sergei Sobyanin, the head of the presidential administration, “who is trying to increase his influence as federal elections approach.”

Moreover, says Kommersant, these views are shared by prominent United Russia functionary Oleg Morozov, head of the party’s ideology commission – which has been instructed to collate and integrate all versions of the party’s new policy program.

Kommersant reports that United Russia’s general council instructed several groups to write their own versions of a policy program: the Social-Conservative Policy Center, the November 4 Club, the party’s ideology commission, the Social Planning Institute, and the party’s expert council. Kommersant says: “By doing this, United Russia enables itself to balance between several versions of the program, rather than having to follow one version only – Surkov’s version.”

Nezavisimaya Gazeta reports that at the “Sovereign State” forum, United Russia general council presidium member Andrei Isayev, chairman of the Duma’s labor and social policy committee, said that “sovereign democracy” will be one of the basic elements in the party’s revised policy program.

Isayev emphasized that the choice of this combination of words is due to the need to dissociate United Russia from the “ordinary democracy” concept, discredited in the 1990s – in other words, to overcome “a certain stage of national humiliation.”

According to Nezavisimaya Gazeta, Isayev’s statements also contained a hint at a practical application of this postulate: sovereign democracy should “help United Russia decide when the levers of power should be shared with the opposition.”

Isayev didn’t promise the opposition an easy time: “When we can see that the opposition accepts basic values like democracy and sovereignty, that’s when we’ll relax our tight grip – and then, some day, you’ll defeat us in elections.”

But Rossiiskaya Gazeta notes that “none of the political party representatives challenged the argument that Russia need sovereign democracy” – even though their views regarding its essence and meaning are very different.

Ivan Melnikov, deputy chairman of the Communist Party (CPRF) Central Committee and member of the CPRF faction in the Duma, expressed his party’s credo as follows: “The Communists are in favor of national sovereignty. The Communists are in favor of democracy. And while no one has ever doubted the former thesis, I can explain the latter as follows: the Communists, perhaps more so than anyone else, have drawn conclusions from the lessons of the past and now support natural competition in politics, ideology, and the economy.”

But Melnikov refuses to recognize the “authoritarian transformations” happening in Russia as “special Russian standards of democracy.” According to Melnikov, Russia needs to create conditions that “stimulate a natural competitive environment, not self-reproduction of the authorities.”

The Gazeta newspaper quotes Union of Right Forces (URF) leader Nikita Belykh as saying that “the experessions and terms used by the conference participants did not indicate a mechanism for shaping any kind of national idea.” In Belykh’s opinion, the conference discussion essentially came down to participants seeking to show off their erudition, and for most ordinary citizens their talk would have sounded like “the twittering of birds.”

Moreover, Belykh agreed with the opinion expressed by Yabloko party representative Sergei Ivanenko, “who pointed out, correctly, that the use of the term ‘sovereignty’ in the strong-state context has increased simultaneously with the rise of oil prices.”

Despite these skeptical comments from prominent politicians, Dmitri Orlov, general director of the Political and Economic Communications Agency, told Gazeta that Surkov “succeeded in establishing a very powerful energy field around himself,” so that party political leaders – including Melnikov and Belykh – essentially supported the doctrine of “sovereign democracy.”

“No one forced them to do that,” said Orlov. “They might have expressed some polemical arguments instead.”

An example of such an argument can be found in Nezavisimaya Gazeta, which quotes a statement from Gennadi Gudkov, chairman of the Duma security committee: “To be honest, I’m with Medvedev – I don’t understand what ‘sovereignty of democracy’ is supposed to mean. There is democracy: it evolves, and several options are possible. There is a more liberal regime, there is social democracy, now known as one of the most popular forms of democracy. But what is sovereign democracy? It’s another example of Russians reinventing the political wheel.”

Gudkov maintains that “all this has been invented by others before us, and we don’t have to come up with anything from scratch.” As for present-day democracy in Russia, “we’re having some major problems with that.”

However, in the same issue of Nezavisimaya Gazeta, Gudkov’s comments were countered by Sergei Markov, prominent political analyst and Public Chamber member: “The term means, firstly, that Russia will be a democratic country. Secondly, it means that Russia will manage its domestic and foreign policy on its own – it won’t be chosen by the US government, the Eurobureaucracy, or the head of any transnational corporation.” Markov added: “We are stating that our sovereignty does not contradict democracy: meaning that we should continue with normal ideological work, as the Americans and Europeans do.”

This seems like direct implementation of Surkov’s thesis: “Unless we in Russia can create our own discourse, our own public philosophy, our own national ideology that is acceptable to the majority of our citizens – then others simply won’t talk to us or take us into account. Why talk with someone who’s mute?” (Quoted in Nezavisimaya Gazeta.)

Surkov notes that “the question of terminology and producing images is a sign of an effective nation,” because “unless a people produces its own images and sends messages to other peoples, it doesn’t exist in the political and cultural sense.”

Impressive words, surely – but Logos editor Valery Anashvili points out that although the task of coming up with its own political terminology is relevant for Russia, it’s unlikely to be achievable “at the stage when Western democratic discourse is dominant.”

Dmitri Badovsky told Vedomosti that Surkov’s speech essentially acknowledged that “sovereign democracy” is ineffective as a “mobilization term,” since it’s clearly “insufficient to convince the public during the 2007-08 election period.”

This sounds plausible. Public Opinion Foundation (FOM) poll results published in Gazeta indicate that over half of Russian citizens aren’t prepared to vote for any of the existing political parties. Gazeta says: “Average voters find it hard to understand the objective situation in Russian politics, let alone name all the leading players.”

And the trend is strengthening. In a mid-January poll, the All-Russian Public Opinion Research Center (VTsIOM) found that 27% of respondents couldn’t see any point in the existence of political parties. In the latest FOM poll, 29% of respondents said they don’t know how they would vote if an election were held now, and 22% said they wouldn’t vote at all. Thus, says Gazeta, “to use a business metaphor, the holder of the controlling interest (51% of FOM poll respondents) refuses to approve the deal: that is, the Duma election.”

Of those respondents who do know how they will vote, a quarter (25%) say they will vote for United Russia, 9% for the CPRF, and 7% for the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR).

As for Motherland (Rodina) and the Russian Party of Pensioners (RPP), which recently joined the united “relevant left” party (working title: the Union of Confidence), FOM reports that they can only expect 2% support each. The third participant in the alliance – the Russian Party of Life (RPL), led by Sergei Mironov, is even worse off: it scores zero percent (support too low to measure).

According to Kommersant, even after unification, support for the “relevant left” will still be around the margin of statistical error. Igor Eidman, PR manager at VTsIOM, told Kommersant that only 4% of respondents in the latest poll say they’re interested in the three-party merger process, and only 3% definitely intend to vote for the new party.

However, as Eidman told Kommersant, “the leftist project is potentially quite promising, since the Communist Party’s support rating is nowhere near what it was five or six years ago, while left-wing ideas are becoming more popular.”

Moreover, as Andrei Ryabov from the Carnegie Moscow Center told Kommersant, Sergei Mironov primary interest in uniting left-wing forces is shared by “the fairly influential figures standing behind him, who haven’t had any influence in party politics until now.” These figures are from the Kremlin faction known as the St. Petersburg security and law enforcement people (siloviki) – “trying to muscle in on an area which has been controlled entirely by Vladislav Surkov, who belongs to a different Kremlin faction.”

And the increasing popularity of leftist ideas is certainly motivating the Kremlin to create its new political project – capable of “channeling the people’s discontent,” according to Nezavisimaya Gazeta.

Besides, as Strategic Evaluations Institute president Alexander Konovalov told Vremya Novostei, “United Russia also needs to be restrained somehow.”

According to Konovalov, any “political Frankenstein’s monster” of this kind starts out by addressing the applied tasks set for it, but then takes on a life of its own. In this case, “United Russia now has over a million members, and when United Russia’s leaders meet with Putin they keep hinting that it’s time for them to form a government – how can they be a ruling party when they have no power to do anything?” But Putin isn’t ready to make such a decision.

Consequently, as Kommersant notes, if the “relevant left” can’t perform acceptably in the upcoming regional elections, despite the efforts of all interested parties, President Putin would probably have to assign the Kremlin’s experienced party-builders, headed by Surkov, to help promote the new project.

The party unification project’s current leader, Federation Council Speaker Sergei Mironov, is just as attentive as Surkov to terminology and underlying concepts.

“The Russian language is very diverse,” said Mironov at a press conference held to launch the unified party. “Opposition can take various forms – from the hardline to the constructive.” Mironov promised that the Union of Confidence will “develop a form of opposition to United Russia in the form of political struggle, and, most importantly, working with the public.” (Quoted in Vremya Novostei.)

However, as Novaya Gazeta notes in an article about the three-party merger, Mironov also promised to continue supporting “the policy course set out in President Putin’s addresses to parliament,” although he challenges the idea that “one political force should exercise a monopoly as that policy course is implemented.”

Such statements are sure to be heard – especially when made by “one of President Putin’s most trusted allies,” as leading political analyst Stanislav Belkovsky describes Mironov.

The Argumenty i Fakty weekly quotes Belkovsky as saying: “Putin himself wants to ensure a loyalist majority in the next Duma, but he doesn’t want to be a hostage to one party – United Russia.”

And that’s precisely why it’s hard to dispute the opinion of URF leader Nikita Belykh that all the arguments over terminology, national ideals, “sovereign democracy,” and Russia’s paths of development really are mostly academic – at any rate, as applied to domestic political practice.

Those who know how to listen will hear. And obey.