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The Imperial Swagger of Sovereign Democracy

Everywhere you look these days, the Russian state is showing off its false arrogance. From bullying foreign investors in Sakhalin, to interference in the energy trade, to the ever increasing hostilities toward Georgia and other former satellites, to the continued use of the Gulag and exile as in Czarist times, Russia is making a clear statement to the world that it shall do whatever it likes. Blinded by the belief that energy markets move in only one direction, Moscow is currently marketing a popular hubris to its citizens not seen since the tragic leviathan of the Soviet empire. But toward what end? And guided by what principles and objectives? Some have taken the perspective that the New Russia is at its essence ideology-less – nothing more than an oil-driven authoritarian, corporate state, linked together with disparate partners such as Iran and Venezuela who share no values, only a common affinity for domestic political repression, a managed economy, and distaste for a rule-based international system. I don’t necessarily agree. Russia’s renewed rise to power features some rudimentary ideological underpinnings, which, although meaningless, are repeated over and over from the top of the Kremlin on down. Whether talking about relations with the EU or absurd bans on Georgian and Moldovan wines, Moscow is singularly focused on explaining away these actions by selling the idea of “sovereign democracy.” surk.jpg This week United Russia, Putin’s rubber-stamp party, unveiled its campaign platform with “sovereign democracy” as its centerpiece. The ideological godfather of the concept is Vladislav Surkov, the No. 2 man in the Kremlin. The arguments behind sovereign democracy are only deceptively complex – in truth it is nothing more than a long conversation that goes nowhere (somewhat like “energy egotism“) and concludes that democracy for Russia needs to be adapted to serve Russia’s needs – a total bastardization of the very principle, and a euphemism for authoritarianism and repression. As the Financial Times writes: What Mr Surkov calls “sovereign democracy”, [is] roughly translatable as “We’ll do it our way”. The baffling incoherence of sovereign democracy is based in that fact that while it rejects isolationism, it also refuses to engage in any kind of transnational structure or community of nations. While Russia is happy to trade, own property, and powerfully influence policy outside its own borders, it is deathly afraid of submitting itself to anyone else’s rules. Moscow is trying to order globalization a la carte, when in fact it is a prix fix. The result: a paradox of asymmetry that although stable for now, will begin to show serious fissures in the near future. However in these quasi-religious incantations of the empty ideology, we are seeing the emergence of a new form of ideological symbolism. Surkov’s sovereign democracy is the Brezhnev Doctrine revisited – a convenient rationale to ignore international norms and practices in diplomacy, business, and human rights. brezhnev.jpg The strangest part is that this self-serving ideology is achieving the desired effect in Europe. Germany’s reaction to the movement of sovereign democracy in Russia has been to reinstitute a policy of Ostpolitik – seeking a Brandt-like incantation of integration and rapprochement. With open arms toward Russia, Germany has given up any hope of real change or social improvement in Russia, removed human rights from the bargaining table, and sent a clear signal to Moscow that yes, indeed, continue doing whatever you like and we won’t complain. It is decidedly weak, dystopic, and shameful for Germany to abandon so many newly independent friends to the whims of their mighty neighbor. Sovereign, perhaps, but democratic? Not even close.