Considering the case for sovereign democracy

Vladislav Surkov, deputy head of the Kremlin administration, has responded to all the critics of his “sovereign democracy” ideology and expressed his own opinions on key issues in Russia’s development. Surkov’s article is entitled “Nationalizing the Future: paragraphs in favor of sovereign democracy.”

Vladislav Surkov, presidential aide and deputy head of the Kremlin administration, took almost 25,000 characters (about 4,500 words) to respond to all the critics of his “sovereign democracy” ideology and express his own opinions on key issues in Russia’s development. Surkov’s article, entitled “Nationalizing the Future: paragraphs in favor of sovereign democracy,” was published in the latest issue of Ekspert magazine. Although Surkov noted that it is “open to debate,” he left his critics almost zero room for maneuver. On the very day the article came out, certain Kremlin-linked political analysts hastened to express the opinion that this text would now be “published in brochure form” and “taught in schools.”

Apparently foreseeing this reaction, Surkov emphasized that his article “contains almost no requirements, and nothing didactic at all” – it’s only “one interpretation of our recent past and immediate future.” But the peculiarities of Surkov’s writing style are such that those eager political analysts are likely to prove correct. Judge for yourself.

“The dignity of a free individual demands that the nation with which he associates himself should also be free, in a justly-ordered world. Supreme independent (sovereign) government by the people (democracy) is intended to correspond to these strivings and demands at all levels of civil activity – from the individual to the national.” This statement, at the very start of the article, essentially forms the foundation for Surkov’s entire concept – and it does indeed beg to be included in political science textbooks. So does the following: “The concept of sovereign democracy aspires to express the strength and dignity of the Russian people, via the development of civil society, a reliable state, a competitive economy, and an effective mechanism for influencing world events.”

No Russian citizen of sound mind and keen memory is likely to argue against the idea that our country should be competitive and influential in the international arena, and that its citizens should live in freedom and prosperity. On the other hand, by no means all of our citizens are prepared to sacrifice their rights for the sake of achieving these goals. And that’s what Surkov’s most aggressive critics have accused him of doing: rolling back the democratic institutions of government by the people. He responds to them by explaining that sovereign democracy is “a form of political life in which government, its bodies, and its actions are elected, constituted, and directed solely by the Russian nation.” Surkov even comes up with two synonyms which might be easier for the politically unsophisticated reader to understand: “the people’s autocracy” and “government of free people.” In other words, sovereign democracy is not a challenge to plain democracy in the broader sense of the term. However, Surkov claims that there’s no such thing as plain democracy in the modern world.

“A shift of emphasis to particular components of the democratic process is inevitable and necessary at each new point in historical space-time.” That is Surkov’s response to his numerous (and occasionally high-ranking) critics (including First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev) who maintain that “democracy doesn’t require any adjectives – it’s either present or absent.” Surkov reminds them of “pluralist democracy” and “majoritarian democracy” – generally accepted terms which describe various stages of development in Western society. And the emphasis here is on the adjectives. Surkov proposes emphasizing the word “sovereign” in the very same way, since he contends that “by their very existence, the global fruits of enlightenment (economic, media, and military instruments of globalization) generate not only the hope of prosperity for all, but also the temptation of global dominance. Among those who are tempted are certain governments.”

In other words, no country can be a democracy if it’s actually ruled by external forces. The hint is very transparent: the 1990s, when Russia’s halls of power were flooded with Western (primarily American) advisers, and many important state decisions were made by “the Washington Politburo.” On the other hand, how great is the threat of external government now, in the Putin era? That is open to question. Surkov stresses that “the people to the West of Russia are different: some seek to subjugate Russia, while others hope for a mutually beneficial partnership. Our democracy is capable of countering the former with a resolute defense of our sovereignty, while offering the latter our openness and flexibility for productive cooperation.” What’s more, “remaining within Europe, holding to the West – that’s a substantial element in the construct of Russia.” However, the greatest threat to Russia’s independence these days does not emanate from abroad.

Surkov maintains that this threat is serious. Russia is now facing the threat of at least two forms of coup: bureaucratic and oligarchic. Despite the differences between their participants and declared goals, both forms are actually aimed at “removing Russia from the future, attempting to hide it in the past – hide it from the ‘nightmare’ of global competition.” In other words, removing Russia from the international political arena, turning it into either a raw materials appendage for transnational corporations (the oligarchic version) or a closed society, like the Soviet Union or North Korea, which many members of the bureaucratic clan would prefer. According to Surkov, “restoration concepts are inspired by cowardice and lack of faith (promoted as ‘common sense’); they hold that certain corporate factions have the privilege of appropriating political power; they assume that modernization will fail, and threaten to lead to Russia’s disintegration, with all the unfortunate consequences that would entail.” Surkov also lashes out at “the charlatans who preach about the delights of ethnic self-isolation – they’re actually trying to remove ethnic Russians from the multiethnic Russia. Where do they want Russians to go? A ‘Russian republic’ within the borders of Muscovy? An ethnographic reserve where no one can touch us, with a ‘Do not disturb’ sign on the fence?”

Surkov counters all these plans with his own concept: “The sovereign democracy project is a project that assumes we do have a future – and not just any future, but a distinctly national future. That’s because the people has not authorized the generations alive today to bring its history to an end.” The proposed project’s objectives are set out with a frankness that is rare for one of the president’s closest aides: “Terrorism hasn’t been entirely defeated. Infrastructure is aging. Hospitals and schools are impoverished. Technology lag and disorder in daily life are frustratingly large. Creative forces are sparse and scattered… As yet, hydrocarbon prices are greater than the goals we are achieving or the values we uphold. Our carbonated economy seems to tone and refresh. But if and when it goes flat, we’ll see how much its products are worth – fizzing ambitions, sparkling rhetoric, and inflated prosperity… Our present greatness is not indisputable, and our future greatness is not self-evident.”

Surkov doesn’t say much about how all this can be overcome, but what he does say is categorical: “We must build the foundations for an innovation culture, a system of creating unique knowledge, since knowledge is power and capital for saving the people. That applies to the present and to the inevitable post-petroleum future. We must convert our raw materials economy into an intellectual economy, in order to pave Russia’s way upward, into the future, into the community of creative nations that direct history.”

Perhaps it isn’t an ideologue’s job to develop specific economic strategies. At the end of the article, Surkov emphasizes the following: “The only point on which this text insists is justice for every person in Russia, and justice for Russia in the world. The only purpose it aims to facilitate is the development of effective practice for reproducing the intellectual, moral, political, and economic resources of freedom.”

The ideology of sovereign democracy: basic principles

1. Russia cannot develop as a competitive state without democracy.

2. The conditions for democratic development cannot be ensured without Russia’s political and economic independence.

3. The chief objective is “to maintain sovereignty without damaging democracy.”