Russia vs Europe: the sovereignty wars

Ivan Krastev
5 September 2007

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?

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

Also by Ivan Krastev in openDemocracy:

"We are all Brits today: Timothy Garton Ash's Free World" (7 September 2004)

"Ukraine and Europe: a fatal attraction" (16 December 2004)

"The European Union and the Balkans: enlargement or empire?" (8 June 2005)

"Russia's post-orange empire" (20 October 2005)

"The new Europe: respectable populism, clockwork liberalism" (21 March 2006)

"The end of the ‘freedom century'" (27 April 2006)

"The energy route to Russia democracy" (13 June 2006)

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

"'Sovereign democracy', Russian-style" (16 November 2006)

"Europe's new Ostpolitik: a Polish echo" (21 December 2006)

Lost in the contradictions of Russia's unexpected revival, western policymakers are torn between their desires to "talk tough" and "teach Russia a lesson" and the realisation that the west has limited capacity to influence Russia's policies. Soaring prices of gas and oil have made energy-rich Russia more powerful, less cooperative and more arrogant. The oil money that has floated the state budget has dramatically decreased the Russian state's dependence on foreign funding. Today, Russia has the third largest hard-currency reserves in the world, is running a huge current-account surplus and is paying off the last of the debts accumulated in the early 1990s. Russia's reliance on western loans has turned into Europe's reliance on Russian energy resources.

The outcome is the return of "realism" in the Russia-west relationship. Increasingly, the west analyses Russia as a geopolitical and economic player and pays less and less attention to the nature of its regime and to the link between Russia's foreign policy and its domestic politics. The ideas and ideological concepts that have captured the imagination of the Russian elites are considered irrelevant. The new-born realists tend to agree that the Kremlin's foreign policy is the least ideological foreign policy in Europe due to the fact that the "people who rule Russia are the same people who own Russia".

Putin's critics inside and outside Russia are inclined to dismiss the intellectual substance of the concept promoted by the Kremlin: "sovereign democracy" (see Andrei Okara, "Sovereign Democracy: A New Russian Idea or a PR Project?", Russia in Global Affairs / 2, July-September 2007). In their view "sovereign democracy" has only propaganda value; its only function is to protect the regime from western criticism and any closer study of the new Kremlin's ideology is just a waste of time. But is this really the case? "Imperial ideologies", wrote the renowned historian Dominic Lieven, "are both fascinating in themselves and vital to empire's survival. The rise and fall of empires has much to do with the history of ideas: it is very far from being the mere story of power defined in crudely material terms."

Contrary to the current consensus, the concept of "sovereign democracy", synthesised in the Kremlin's ideological laboratory, can indeed be the missing key to understanding the sources of the growing tensions in European Union-Russia relations (see "'Sovereign democracy', Russian-style", 16 November 2006). The ideology of "sovereign democracy" is not just a fundamental element of Putin's regime. It is a continuation of the Russians' historical struggle to carve out an authentic, independent, and distinct niche for themselves within modernity. Against the assertions of Putin's critics, the concept of sovereign democracy does not mark Russia's break with democratic Europe. It embodies Russia's ideological ambition to be "the other Europe" - an alternative to the European Union.

Russia as other Europe

"Russia is very old Europe", writes the Carnegie analyst Dmitri Trenin; "it could be reminiscent of Germany in the 1920s, with its vibrancy and intense feeling of unfair treatment by others; France in the 1940s, when it was trying to heal its traumas; or Italy in the 1960s, as far as the nexus of power, money, and crime is concerned". Russia is in fact a very old Europe. It embodies the nostalgia both for the old European nation-state and for a European order organised around the balance of power and non-interference in the domestic affairs of other states.

Russia's view of the European order is a mixture of longing for the time of the "concert of Europe" and envy of present-day China, that is managing to balance opening to the west with rejection of any western interference in its domestic politics. For the Kremlin, the end of the cold war meant a return to the pre-cold-war European order.

Among openDemocracy's many articles on Russia politics and society under Vladimir Putin:

Alena V Ledeneva, "How Russia really works" (16 January 2002)

Geoffrey Hosking, "Russians in the Soviet Union: rulers and victims" (26 June 2006)

Zygmunt Dzieciolowski , "How Russia is ruled" (14 March 2007)

Zygmunt Dzieciolowski, "New Russia, old Russia" (5 April 2007)

Oksana Chelysheva, "Russia's iceberg: a Nizhny Novgorod report" (25 April 2007)

Tanya Lokshina, "Russian civil society: an appeal to Europe" (30 April 2007)

George Schöpflin, "Russia's reinvented empire" (3 May 2007)

Armine Ishkanian, "Nashi: Russia's youth counter-movement" (30 August 2007) This vision runs contrary to Brussels' vision for 21st-century European order. "What came to an end in 1989", writes Robert Cooper in summarising Europe's consensus, "was not just the Cold War or even the Second World War. What came to an end in Europe (but perhaps only in Europe) were the political systems of three centuries: the balance of power and the imperial urge" (see Robert Cooper, "The Post Modern State", Foreign Policy Centre [2002]). The European policy elite assumed that the end of the cold war meant the emergence of a new European order. The key elements of this post-modern European order are a highly developed system of mutual interference in each other's domestic affairs, and security based on openness and transparency. The post-modern system does not rely on balance of power; nor does it emphasise sovereignty or the separation of domestic and foreign affairs. It rejects the use of force as an instrument for settling conflicts and promotes a deliberate increase in mutual dependence and vulnerabilities between European states.

Russia in the 1990s was not a post-modern state, but it was part of this new European order. The adapted treaty on conventional forces in Europe (signed in November 1999) and the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), based on intrusive inspections and active monitoring, were the major instruments for integrating Russia into the post-modern system. They made Russia look like a modern state that has accepted the post-modern imperatives of openness and interdependency. For its part, Russia's weakness in this decade created the illusion that Moscow ideologically subscribes to this system.

The reality turned to be very different. Russia chose to build its statehood according to European practices and ideologies of the 19th century rather than the European ideas of the 21st century. Russia is opting for a world in which Kremlin-friendly oligarchs will own English football clubs and the Russian middle class will freely travel all over Europe, but international companies will not be allowed to exploit Russian natural resources and the Kremlin's domestic critics will be expelled from European capitals.

The rhetoric of EU-Russia cooperation and partnership cannot mask the fact that the regime of sovereign democracy is absolutely incompatible with the post-modern hegemony. Russia's comeback has taken the form of an open challenge to the European order. Russia's decision in July 2007 to suspend its application of the conventional-forces treaty and Moscow's determined efforts to block the work of the OSCE marked the end of the post-cold-war order in Europe.

Putin's regime of sovereign democracy and its foreign policy presents a profound challenge to the post-cold war European order. It is the clash between the logic of the post-modern state embodied in the European Union and the logic of sovereign democracy that are at the heart of the current tensions between Moscow and the EU.

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 means capacity. It implies economic independence, military strength and cultural identity. The other key element of a sovereign state is a "nationally-minded" elite armed with a nationally-minded democratic theory. In the case of Vladislav Surkov's concept of sovereign democracy, this new the democratic theory is an explosive mixture of anti-populism of the 19th-century French political thinker Francois Guizot (who was condemned in the Communist Manifesto) and the anti-pluralism and decisionism of the German political philosopher Carl Schmitt (who sided with Hitler).

Putin's Kremlin has never seen the new democracies of central Europe as a model for the political development of Russia because, in Moscow's view, the small states of central Europe have no capacity to be sovereign. The hopes of 1990s Russian liberals to organise the post-Soviet state on the model of the EU are also dead. In the Kremlin's view the smaller states are doomed to gravitate around one or another of the sovereign poles of power. In Russia's perspective only a great power can be truly sovereign. And the spheres of influences are an undeniable element of balance-of-power politics.

While the European Union emerged as a response to the dangers of nationalism and the rivalries of European nation-states in the first half of the 20th century, Russia's foreign-policy thinking is shaped by the failure of post-national politics and the disintegration of the Soviet Union. European nightmares are rooted in the experience of 1930s. Russia's nightmares resemble Russian experience in 1990s.

A contest of political logics

In relation to domestic politics, what is at the heart of Putin's regime is the governmentalisation of the state. The Kremlin thinks not in terms of citizens' rights but in terms of the population's needs. The concept of population is contrasted both to the notion of rights that lies at the core of the liberal-democratic project and the notion of "the people" that is at the core of nationalist projects. The rights of the citizen-voter that are at the foundations of liberal democracy are substituted in Putin's Russia by the rights of the consumer, the tourist and passport-holder of a great power. The 19th-century German notion of "blood and soil" in Putin's Russia has been transformed into "oil and soul". Sovereign democracy, in the Kremlin's view, is the Russian version of European civic nationalism. Natural resources, the memory of the Soviet victory in the "great patriotic war" of 1941-45, and the promise of sovereignty are the pillars of the project.

What is threatening in Russia's concept of sovereign democracy is that, in reality, it regards the European Union as a temporary phenomenon, an interesting experiment with no future. Russia's European strategy is based on the expectation that sovereign nation-states will determine Europe's future. This explains Moscow's stress on bilateral relations with big European member-states and its growing reluctance to deal with the EU. The European illusion from some years ago that Russia can be EU partner in a struggle for a multi-polar and an international-law-based world society is dead. For Moscow, the support of multilateralism and the advocacy of a multi-polar world are simply tactical weapons useful for contesting American hegemony. In reality Russia's foreign-policy instincts are more American than European. Russia believes in power, unilateralism and the unrestrained pursuit of national interest.

In this context the real source of the confrontation between Russia and the European Union today is not primarily rival interests or unshared values. It is political incompatibility. Russia's challenge to the European Union cannot be reduced to the issue of energy dependency and Moscow's ambition to dominate her "near abroad", which also happens to be the European Union's "new neighbourhood". At the heart of the current crisis is not the clash between democracy and authoritarianism (history demonstrates that democratic and authoritarian states can easily cooperate) but the clash between the post-modern state embodied by the EU and the modern state embodied by Russia.

The controversies around the European commission's energy charter, the treaty on conventional armed forces and the Anglo-Russian test of nerves over the death of Alexander Litvinenko are not rooted simply in differences of interests or cold-war nostalgia. They are the expression of the different logics of the modern and post-modern state. If the European Union, with its emphases on human rights and openness, threatens the Kremlin's "sovereign democracy" project, Russia's insistence on a balance of power as the foundation of the new European order threatens the very existence of the European Union (see Timofei Bordachev, "The European World After 1989", Russia in Global Affairs / 2, July-September 2007). Russia's European policies stimulate the re-nationalisation of the foreign policy of the member-states (be it Germany or Poland). EU member-states, faced with the invasion of Russia's state-minded companies, are tempted to ring-fence certain sectors of their economies (such as domestic energy markets), thus challenging the liberal economic order that is at the centre of the European project.

The contrasting nature of political elites in Russia and Europe today is one more reason for concern over the future of the relationship. The new Russian elite, winner of the zero-sum games of the transition, is very different from its late-Soviet predecessor - whose members were bureaucratic, risk-adverse and competent when it came to international relations and security policies. The new elite's cadres are highly self-confident, risk-prone and immensely wealthy. Europe does not know how to deal with these people. European political elites, which made their careers in practicing compromise and avoiding conflicts, are facing elites that are proud of not taking hostages. Mutual misperceptions and misunderstandings seem unavoidable.

In short, the clash between Russia and the EU is ideological in its nature. What is at stake is the nature of the new European order. For the post-modern state, "sovereignty is a seat at the table". For Russia, sovereignty is the right of the government to do what it wants on its territory and to eliminate its enemies in the centre of London. Moscow feels encouraged by the resurgence of nationalism and sovereigntism in some EU member-states and expects the European Union to pass into history just as the Soviet Union did in the early 1990s. Post-Soviet Russia does not share Europe's enthusiasm for post-national politics.

Brussels, for its part, is convinced that Russia's sovereign democracy is a desperate attempt to cheat history, and that the opening up of the Russian state is just a matter of time. In the European view, Russia's sovereign democracy runs against the very logic of globalisation and cannot be sustained.

The future of the relationship promises to be a troubled one. Europe's effort to bring Russia to agreement to its principles of conducting foreign relations will be interpreted as "double standards" and an attempt at achieving "regime change". Russia's unrestrained pursuit of the national interest and its legal revisionism will be interpreted in Europe as a manifestation of traditional Russian imperialism. In short, the coexistence between European post-modernity and Russia's sovereign democracy could become more difficult and dangerous than the cold-war coexistence between Soviet communism and western democracies.

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