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About Ivan Krastev

Ivan Krastev is chairman of the Centre for Liberal Strategies, Sofia, and permanent fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna (IWM).

His latest books in English are Democracy Disrupted (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014) and, In Mistrust We Trust: Can Democracy Survive When We Don't Trust Our Leaders, (TED Books, 2013); The Anti-American Century, co-edited with Alan McPherson, (CEU Press, 2007) and Shifting Obsessions: Three Essays on the Politics of Anticorruption (CEU Press, 2004). He is a co-author with Steven Holmes of a forthcoming book on Russian politics.

Articles by Ivan Krastev

This week's editor

NSS, editor

Niki Seth-Smith is a freelance journalist and contributing editor to 50.50.

Constitutional conventions: best practice

1914 versus 1938: how anniversaries make history

Drop into any of the big bookstores in London or Berlin and discover that they are literally occupied by books about the Great War. But how does this affect European attitudes to Russia’s involvement in Ukraine today?

Bulgaria, protest for the future

Bulgarian citizens are protesting across the country against the capture of their government and for a meaningful democracy. A memorandum from Sofia outlines the heart of their case.

Is China more democratic than Russia?

On paper, Russia’s political system is an impressive reproduction of Western representative democracy, while the Chinese system remains an unreconstructed autocracy. The reality of the situation is much more complex, says Ivan Krastev.

Would democratic change in Russia transform its foreign policy?

The incompatibility of an anachronistic and arbitrary regime with the modern world is leading many to consider that democratic change is possible — likely even — in Russia. But those expecting that a new ‘democratic’ government would somehow take a softer line on foreign policy should think again, says Ivan Krastev. 

European dis-Union: lessons of the Soviet collapse

Europe's crisis is being felt at multiple levels, from the future of the eurozone and divisions between member-states to the rise of populist forces. But is the crisis likely to lead to the European Union's disintegration? The precedent of the Soviet collapse offers some lessons, says Ivan Krastev.

Gleb Pavlovsky: the final act

Russian “political technologist” Gleb Pavlovsky is considered a master of political intrigue and backstage games, yet on April 27 found himself dismissed as a Kremlin advisor. His fall from grace was reportedly linked to indiscreet comments made about the 2012 presidential elections (and supposedly for making his support for Dmitry Medvedev known). A short while before his exit, Tatiana Zhurzhenko and Ivan Krastev took an interview with him, not expecting the conversation would be his last major interview as a Kremlin adviser. That context and the dialogue’s frequently candid nature make for fascinating reading.

A co-publication with Eurozine and Transit

Arab revolutions, Turkey’s dilemmas: zero chance for "zero problems"

Turkey’s ambition of becoming a regional power with global relevance is reflected in the domestic and foreign policy of its confident political elite. But changing realities at home and abroad present new problems, says Ivan Krastev. In particular, the Arab democracy wave exposes the limits of Turkey’s “zero problems with neighbours” approach.

The Shape of Europe's Future

In today's Europe, unlike that of the Cold War, the 'Finlandization' of the post-Soviet space does serve the interests of the West, Ivan Krastev reflects, taking issue with Ronald Asmus' book A Little War that Shook the World

The guns of August: non-event with consequences

It took less than a hundred days for the Russia-Georgia war of 8-12 August 2008 to be eclipsed as a history-shaping event. The guns of August were silenced by the thunders on Wall Street. A war that seemed momentous at the time became subject to instant amnesia: a non-event. But it was a non-event with consequences.

Russia and the Georgia war: the great-power trap

Europe has entered the new 19th century. The Russia-Georgia war of 8-12 August 2008 has acted as a time-machine, vaporising the "end of history" sentiment that shaped European politics in the 1990s and replacing it with an older geopolitical calculus in modern form.

Europe’s other legitimacy crisis

Europe's trance of unreality

There is something unreal and profoundly disturbing about the latest crisis in the European Union. In theory the results of the Irish referendum held on 12 June 2008 are a fatal blow to the Lisbon treaty and the prospects of reforming the European Union. In theory the only logical outcome of the referendum should be either a Europe of "two speeds" or a paralysed Europe. In reality, however, nobody believes that the Irish vote will bury the Lisbon treaty.

The world's choice: super, soft, or herbivorous power?

An ambitious survey of public opinion around the world contains valuable findings of great interest to the world's citizens and policymakers alike. The project, conducted by Voice of the People for the European Council on Foreign Relations and released on 25 October 2007, has discovered:

Sleepless in Szczecin: what’s the matter with Poland?

The party of Poland's prime minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski is, from the evidence of the immediate pre-election opinon surveys, unlikely to emerge victorious in the parliamentary elections of 21 October 2007. Even if it does not, the appropriate frontpage headline in Le Monde in the aftermath might be a variant of its post-9/11 declaration of solidarity: "We are all Poles now".

The global drama and the human damage of the two situations may be incomparable but the sense of engagement and confusion is not. Europe in these tense pre-election days in indeed painfully asking: what's the matter with Poland? Citizens of many countries In western Europe are becoming as acquainted with the bizarre circumstances of Polish politics as are their new neighbours from the large, mainly young Polish diaspora.

Russia vs Europe: the sovereignty wars

Russia's "decade of humiliation" is over. Her "still terrible thirst for greatness" is back. The new reality in Europe is the re-emergence of Russia as a great power and the end of the post-cold-war European order. So, the question is: in reality, how serious is the Russian challenge? Is Russia a rising power, or is she a declining power enjoying a temporary comeback? Is Russia a neo-imperial power aiming to dominate her weaker neighbours, or is she a post-imperial state trying to defend her legitimate interests? Does Moscow view the European Union as a strategic partner or does it view it as a threat to her ambitions in Europe? How stable is Vladimir Putin's regime, what are the Kremlin's long-term interests and short-term fears?

Europe's new Ostpolitik: a Polish echo

Anna Politkovskaya, the renowned Russian journalist and critic of the Kremlin, was assassinated in Moscow on 7 October 2006. Alexander Litvinenko, a former FSB agent and another foe of the Kremlin, was poisoned in London on 1 November and died twenty-two days later. Russia's defence minister proudly announced that two of the Kremlin's in-house so-called liberals - Vladimir Surkov and Dmitri Kozak - are in fact siloviki who either work or used to work for Russia's notorious military intelligence body, the GRU. 

'Sovereign democracy', Russian-style

Vladimir Putin's Russia is not a trivial authoritarian state. It is not "Soviet Union lite". It is not a liberal democracy either. It is, however, a "managed democracy". The term captures the logic and the mechanisms of the reproduction of power and the way democratic institutions are used and misused to preserve the monopoly of power.

But the concept of managed democracy is also insufficient. It cannot illuminate Vladimir Putin's Russia considered not as a power machine but as a political ambition. It cannot explain why Putin resists becoming president-for-life; why, unlike his central Asian colleagues, he has declared his intention to step down at the end of his second constitutional term in 2008. It cannot explain what distinguish Putin's concept of sovereign democracy and Hugo Chàvez's concept of sovereign democracy.

What is missing in western attempts to make sense of Putin's Russia is an insight in the political imagination of the current political elite in Moscow. What is missing is an interest in the arguments with which the regime claims legitimacy. Carl Schmitt could be right when some fifty years ago he noted that "the victor feels no curiosity".

Sovereignty, a recently published volume of ideological writings edited by Nikita Garadya presents a promising opportunity to glimpse into the political imagination of Putin's elite.

The volume is a compendium of excerpts from the president's state of the union speeches, newspaper interviews with one of his possible "successors" (deputy prime minister Dmitry Medvedev), the legendary February theses of Kremlin's ideologue-in-chief Vladislav Surkov delivered in front of the activists of United Russia, and a dozen essays and interviews in the tradition of enlightened loyalism.

The book's ambition is to define and develop the master-concept of Kremlin's newfound ideology: the concept of sovereign democracy. The contributors - philosophers, journalists and military strategists - are regarded as key members of Putin's ideological special forces.

The unexpected presence in the book is François Guizot (1787-1874), French political philosopher and the country's prime minister in the days of the July monarchy. Guizot missed the opportunity to become a trusted member of Putin's inner circle but the decision of the editor to include excerpts from his writings on sovereignty in the volume is the real message of the book.

Carl Schmitt (1888-1985) - the crown jurist of the Third Reich and the leading figure of the modern European anti-liberal tradition - is the other powerful intellectual presence that can be detected in the official philosophy of the new Russian sovereignists. His influence can be felt in many of the pages of the book but his "Nazi connection" made him unpublishable in a Kremlin-inspired book.

The truth is that in comparison with the masterpieces of ideological literature such as Stalin's Short Course on the History of the Russian Communist Party (Bolsheviks), Sovereignty is a clumsy and mediocre reading. The new Kremlin's ideologues are not philosophers but public-relations specialists. Reading their reflections on the merits of sovereign democracy is not intellectually inspiring.

But a sarcastic response would be to miss the point. Sovereign democracy is an ideologically potent concept. Its ambition is not to explain the world but to change it. It succeeds in confronting Kremlin's two ideological enemies of choice: the liberal democracy of the west and the populist democracy admired by the rest.

Ivan Krastev is chair of the Centre for Liberal Strategies in Sofia, Bulgaria. He served as the executive director of the International Commission on the Balkans, chaired by Giuliano Amato

A version of this article was published in Russian in the journal Pro & Contra

Also by Ivan Krastev in openDemocracy:

"We are all Brits today: Timothy Garton Ash's Free World"
(September 2004)

"Ukraine and Europe: a fatal attraction" (December 2004)

"The European Union and the Balkans: enlargement or empire?" (June 2005)

"Russia post-orange empire" (October 2005)

"The new Europe: respectable populism, clockwork liberalism" (March 2006)

"The end of the 'freedom century'" (April 2006)

"The energy route to Russian democracy" (June 2006)

"Between elite and people: Europe's black hole" (4 August 2006)

"Sovereign democracy": the political origin

By nationality the concept of sovereign democracy is Ukrainian. It has its origin in the Kremlin's conceptualisation of the orange revolution (orange technologies in Kremlin's terms) of November 2004 to January 2005 in Ukraine. This lineage can be tracked in Surkov's thesis, reprinted in Sovereignty. Sovereign democracy is Moscow's response to the dangerous combination of populist pressure from below and international pressure from above that destroyed the Leonid Kuchma regime.

The Kyiv (Kiev) events embodied the ultimate threat: long-distance controlled popular revolt. Putin's preventive counter-revolution that followed marked a profound transformation of the regime of managed democracy in Russia.

In the regime of "directed democracy" that Putin inherited from Boris Yeltsin, elites deployed such institutional elements of democracy as 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 legitimise 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 monopolise 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. The project of faking democracy assumes that the faker accepts the superiority of the model he fakes. Being lectured by the west was the price that Russian elite paid for using the resources of the west to preserve its 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 few powerful insiders. It was the most suitable regime for a "non-taxing state".

When government taxes people, it has to provide benefits in return: beginning with services, accountability, and good governance, but ending with liberty and representation. This reciprocal exchange between taxation and representation is what gives government legitimacy in the modern world. Russia's directed democracy in the 1990s succeeded in perverting this logic.

There were taxes in Russia, but nobody really cared to collect them; there were elections, but they were not allowed to represent real interests. 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 citizens' legitimate claims. None of the reforms implemented in Russia in the heyday of directed democracy was initiated by pressure from below. It is this total disregard for the basic needs of the people that constitutes the most vulnerable spot of Russia's system.

In the current western discourse on Russia, Putin's authoritarianism is usually contrasted with the imperfect democracy of Yeltsin's Russia in the way that tyranny contrasts with freedom. In reality, Yeltsin's liberalism and Putin's sovereigntism represent two distinctive but related forms of managed democracy.

Yeltsin's "faking of democracy" was replaced by Putin's consolidation of the state power through nationalisation of the elite and the elimination or marginalisation of what Vladislav Surkov calls "offshore aristocracy".

The nationalisation of the elite took the form of de facto nationalisation of the energy sector, total control of the media, de facto criminalisation of the western-funded NGOs, Kremlin-sponsored party-building, criminal persecution of Kremlin's opponents (the case of Mikhail Khodorkovsky) and the creation of structures that can secure active support for the regime in the time of crisis (such as the Nashi [Ours] movement).

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 is a capacity. It implies economic independence, military strength and cultural identity.

The other key element of the 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 the sovereign state. The creation of the nationally-minded elite is the primarily task of the sovereign democracy as a project. Moreover, the need for a nationally-minded elite requires a nationally-minded democratic theory.

Also in openDemocracy on Vladimir Putin's Russia:

Mary Dejevsky, "The west gets Putin wrong" (2 March 2005)

Artemi Troitsky, "Alice-in-Wonderland Russia"
(14 March 2005)

"An exchange on Russian democracy", Nikolai N Petro & Mischa Gabowitsch (13-24 February 2006)

Geoffrey Hosking, "Russians in the Soviet Union: rulers and victims" (22 June 2006)

Zygmunt Dzieciolowski, "Mikhail Khodorkovsky's shadow" (3 April 2006)

George Schopflin, "Putin's anti-globalisation strategy"
(10 July 2006)

Christoph Neidhart, "Vladimir Putin, 'Soviet man' who missed class" (24 October 2006)

Sovereign democracy: the intellectual origin

What is really fascinating in the concept of sovereign democracy is not the regime it tries to legitimise but the intellectual framework of its justification. In the last two decades Russia's market of ideas was never short of theories arguing about the uniqueness of her culture and history and 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 "Russian uniqueness" theories in building their project. The Kremlin's revolt against the Anglo-Saxon theory of liberal democracy centred on individual rights, and the system of checks and balances of powers, is not rooted either in criticism of democracy as a form of government or in the theories of Russia's exceptionalism.

In constructing the intellectual justification of the model of sovereign democracy Kremlin's ideologues turned to the intellectual legacy of continental Europe - the French political rationalism of Francois Guizot and Carl Schmitt's "decisionism".

Guizot and Schmitt surprisingly emerge as the intellectual pillars of Kremlin's idea of sovereign democracy. What attracts Surkov and his philosophers in the legacies of Guizot and Schmitt is obviously their anti-revolutionism and their fundamental mistrust towards 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" (see Jan-Werner Müller, A Dangerous Mind: Carl Schmitt in Post-War European Thought, Yale University Press, 2003). And, following Guizot, the sovereign for them is not the people or the voters but the reason embodied in the consensus of the responsible national elites (see Pierre Rosanvallon, Democracy Past and Future, Columbia University Press, 2006).

In the Kremlin-made 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 an mechanism for representing people but one for representing power in front of the people.

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 the Russian political system today. Schmitt's definition of democracy in the terms of identity and not in the terms of representation does not allow a meaningful distinction between democracy and dictatorship. And this could also count as an advantage in the eyes of Kremlin's theorists of democracy.

Russia's model for Europe?

Putin's critics inside and outside Russia are inclined to dismiss the intellectual substance of the concept of "sovereign democracy". What they are interested is the nature of the regime and not how the regime tries to represent and legitimise itself. In their view "sovereign democracy" has only propaganda value. Its only function is to protect the regime from the criticism of the west. In other words sovereign democracy is defensive weaponry.

A close reading of Sovereignty can profoundly change this perception. The Kremlin is not in a defensive mood. The concept of sovereign democracy embodies Putin's Russian nostalgia for the power of ideological attraction enjoyed by the Soviet Union. The search for soft power is what characterises Russia's return to the world stage. The dynamism of the energy sector and the attractiveness of sovereign democracy are the two weapons of choice in Russia's current march on Europe. 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.

This raises a key question: could Putin's cocktail of Guizot and Schmitt appeal to European elites demoralised by the rise of populism and the pressure of globalization? Could Russia's political model - the combination of elite control and classical state sovereignty - become a pole of attraction for the people and elites of Europe disenchanted with the magic of the post-modern state embodied in the European Union?

The politically correct answer is that democratic Europe could not be seduced by the model of Putin's sovereign democracy. The right answer is that time will tell. What is safe to predict is that "sovereign democracy" as a concept and as a reality would be more attractive to the elites than to the peoples of Europe.

Between elite and people: Europe's black hole

The elites dream of limiting the people's voting rights. The people dream of revenge on the elites' misrule and corruption. Ivan Krastev sees in central Europe’s strange new politics a crisis of democracy itself.

The energy route to Russian democracy

In an attempt to explain the Russian revolution to Lady Ottoline Morrell, Bertrand Russell once remarked that, appalling though Bolshevik despotism was, it seemed the right sort of government for Russia: "If you ask yourself how Fyodor Dostoevsky's characters should be governed, you will understand". In explaining the recent resurgence of authoritarianism in Russia one does not need to reread Dostoevsky or draw on the Bolshevik legacy. It is enough to take into account the rise of the price of oil.

The end of the "freedom century"

Many intellectuals saw the post-cold-war world as the dawn of a new era of freedom and democracy. The war on Iraq is forcing a rethink. Two new books – Paul Berman's "Power and the Idealists" and Francis Fukuyama's "America at the Crossroads" – attempt to make sense of what went wrong. Ivan Krastev assesses them.

The new Europe: respectable populism, clockwork liberalism

Populism is on the rise all over Europe. Populist parties of left and right are winning more votes than ever. A populist Zeitgeist helped fuel the "no" votes in France (29 May) and the Netherlands (1 June) that killed the European constitution in 2005. Moreover, a populist agenda is prevailing at the centre of many countries' national politics, and establishment parties are trying their best to recapture the outright populists' themes and messages.

Russia's post-orange empire

“The political personality of Soviet power as we know it today”, George Kennan wrote in his now famous “Mr X” long telegram of February 1946, “is the product of ideology and circumstances.” The political personality of Russian power as we know it today, in October 2005, is the product of a lack of ideology and…circumstances. The devil is in the circumstances.

The European Union and the Balkans: enlargement or empire?

A crisis is approaching in the Balkans that is both dangerous and timely. What makes it dangerous is the fact that the European public is totally unaware of it. What makes it timely is the fact that this is the crisis that the European Union badly needs at the moment.

Ukraine and Europe: a fatal attraction

The “orange revolution” in Ukraine is not the last of Europe’s post-1989 “velvet revolutions” but the first of the European Union-inspired revolutions of the 21st century, says Ivan Krastev.

We are all Brits today: Timothy Garton Ash's 'Free World'

The world of a London bookstore can seem to the visitor as mysterious and rivalrous as the world of global politics. The shelves seem torn between passion and fashion, between classics and (university) classes, between the order of the alphabet and the order of demand. The arrangement of the “current affairs” section, for example, reveals more about the ideological temptations of rank–and–file intellectuals and other readers of last resort than a dozen opinion polls.

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