The sovereign democracy debate and the game of status

The United Russia party and its Kremlin handlers have been drawn into a debate over terminology with a successor favorite, First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev. This article concludes that the debate only works to Medvedev’s advantage.

President Vladimir Putin is behaving strangely. He’s either deliberately confusing the political elite, or testing its endurance. The United Russia party is his firmly-established and most powerful support base – but now he’s scaring it with the prospect of an alternative party. He’s pitting his subordinates against each other like so many fighting cocks. Having distanced himself from the expression “sovereign democracy” (saying that “sovereignty” and “democracy” are concepts from different fields, and the whole issue is best left to political analyst anyway), President Putin has allowed his subordinates to argue about this topic.

United Russia released its new policy program last week, and sovereign democracy is one of its fundamental concepts. United Russia’s leader, Duma Speaker Boris Gryzlov, explained in his own name and in a more aggressive form that sovereign democracy is “axiomatic” – a “concept with no alternative” for Russian citizens – and actualy set out in the Constitution, unlike other forms of democracy, characteristic of Western nations. Why all the emotion?

Of course, there is plenty to discuss here. Sovereign democracy is a metaphor for a non-free political regime which sacrifices civil rights for the sake of sovereignty and some sort of national interests. But this hasn’t been the issue for some time already. Ever since First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev spoke out against sovereign democracy, attitudes to this concept have become a key identifier within the political elite and the bureaucracy: are you for it or against it? So far, everyone apart from Medvedev is for it.

Medvedev pointedly refrained from arguing over substance, saying only that the term itself seems one-sided to him. In a climate of frozen political debate, this proved to be enough to start an argument. The issue doesn’t really matter; the important point is that the argument is happening. Swift’s characters, for example, argued over which end of an egg to break first. So it doesn’t matter whether Gryzlov is any good as a political analyst. What’s important is that he has launched an offensive against Medvedev, who is considered a favorite to become Putin’s designated successor. So now any talk of sovereign democracy essentially becomes a question of status and ambitions.

For Vladislav Surkov, who coined the term, it’s a question of his personal authority – especially since an anti-Surkov opposition has already formed within United Russia, according to party sources. In practice, Gryzlov does not run the party. Both within United Russia and in the Kremlin, the long-established opinion is that Gryzlov doesn’t really engage in politics – he only carries out Putin’s orders. Gryzlov is not in the pool of Putin’s most likely potential successors; but he’s in the second echelon, and he’s bound to have some ambitions, being who he is. A person can’t be the speaker of the parliament and a party leader (even a nominal leader) without caring about his prospects.

So the dispute over sovereign democracy is another manifestation of the Year 2008 Problem. There’s a lack of clarity here. There seems to be no sign of a solution to the crisis over Putin’s departure, but there is some logic to internal developments. Before Vladimir Ustinov was dismissed from the post of prosecutor general, the two leading successor candidates – Sergei Ivanov and Dmitri Medvedev – tended to form a united front against the idea of keeping Putin as president beyond 2008. The Central Electoral Commission has now settled the arguments over a third term by disallowing a referendum on the issue – and the successor favorites have switched to direct rivalry. Ivanov, the “conservative,” is a strong-state proponent by virtue of his office as defense minister, and he’s generally opposed to any changes. Medvedev, the civilian “liberal,” seems to be in favor of change: his economic views do appear to be more progressive than the Kremlin party’s paternalist economic policies. United Russia itself has no opinion: it’s in favor of sovereign democracy, and military might, and the national projects, and increasing state spending. It’s simply in favor of the status quo.

Whom will Putin designate? That remains a mystery. In the remote race, however, Medvedev seems to be half a length ahead of Ivanov. Medvedev’s status is higher, he has a broader range of powers, and the National Projects Council functions like a substitute government. The Council is more active than the Cabinet, at least. Television broadcasts and pollsters also give preference to Medvedev. Both potential successors have established public profiles. The Public Opinion Foundation (FOM) has found that Medvedev is gaining public confidence more rapidly; the pollsters say this is because citizens pay close attention to social policy issues. The Levada Center agency shows Medvedev leading the presidential support polls (when Putin isn’t among the available options): 14% of respondents say they would like to see Medvedev as president, compared to 6% for Ivanov. This isn’t really an expression of confidence, so much as a wager: more and more people (although they remain relatively few) are getting used to the idea that Putin will designate Medvedev.

But this isn’t just a question of status, powers, or numbers. Being a successor is difficult. He needs to distinguish himself from the others. He needs to be visible. And he needs to be unique. This became established practice in the post-Soviet era. Yeltsin opposed Gorbachev and the CPSU. And despite all the talk of continuity in 1999, public opinion did see Putin as unique and different: he represented something new.

We’re in a different era now. The winds of change have blown in a different direction. The next president will be elected by only one voter, and the entire opposition has been relegated to outcast status. Medvedev doesn’t oppose Putin, of course. Yet he’s the one and only member of Putin’s team who is making it clear that he objects to the triumphant logic of restoration. He’s unique in that. And the terminology debate, gathering pace, is at least lending the Year 2008 Problem some historical continuity.

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