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Russia: Ideological Doctrine Paves Kremlin's Course

(RFE/RL) Two developments have become obvious in the wake of the recent G8 Summit in St. Petersburg: Russia's rising political and economic clout, and growing concern in the West about how the Kremlin might use it. But talk of a reversal in Russia's intention of following its own democratic path may be misguided.

PRAGUE, August 4, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Moscow's new diplomatic assertiveness was on display for the world to see during last month's G8 summit in St. Petersburg.

And one controversial topic that dominated the run-up to the summit has remained in the spotlight -- Russia's repeatedly stated intention of following its own democratic path, dubbed "sovereign democracy."

The concept was formulated by Vyacheslav Surkov, the deputy chief and prime ideologue of President Vladimir Putin's administration. Surkov began floating the new ideology during speeches to activists of the pro-presidential Unified Russia party in February and May.

Sovereign Democracy

As outlined by Surkov on the website, sovereign democracy centers on Moscow's right to restrict the impact of international law, global economic bodies, and world public opinion on Russia's domestic policies.

Surkov has said he borrowed the name for the concept from Che Guevara, who in 1960 wrote that some states have all formal attributes of democracy, but remain dependent on transnational corporations and foreign political forces.

Surkov suggests that that Russia can materialize its sovereign democracy in the economic sphere by putting under the state's control or dominance "such vital sectors of the national economy as strategic communications, pipelines, the national electricity grid, railroads and federal highways, the financial system, and broadcast television."

As for foreign policy, Surkov believes Russia must restore its global influence, for geopolitical reasons and because of its imperial tradition. In this context, Surkov notes that for 500 years Russians have been a "state-forming nation" and that "Russians always have matters beyond their borders."

Surkov has also suggested that sovereign democracy could form the base of Unified Russia's political platform. The role of the president was not mentioned in Surkov's outline of his ideology, but, in fact, President Putin has already begun to implement it in Russia's assertive foreign-policy course.

Political Dispute Or PR Game?

Russia's stated intention of following a course centered on sovereign democracy was the source of harsh criticism in the run-up to the July 15-17 G8 summit.

During a visit to Vilnius in May, U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney accused Russia of backtracking from democracy. And as the summit neared, criticism from the West increased as defensive responses from Russia became sharper.

Just days before the event, Putin personally articulated the basic provisions of the new doctrine. In an interview with major U.S. and European television networks on 12 July, Putin countered that in 1990s, when Russia was economically and politically weak, the West had many levers of influence on Russia's domestic and foreign policies.

Today, he argued, the situation has changed. The levers of influence have disappeared, "but the [West's] desire for influence remains. We are categorically against using political tools for intervention into our internal affairs," Putin concluded.

Many Russian politicians also publicly touted the policy, including Deputy Prime Minister and Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov, a close confidant of Putin and a potential candidate to succeed him as president.

Writing in "Izvestia" on 13 July, Ivanov said that Russia's current policies are based on three concepts: Russia's efforts to become an energy superpower, to develop a strong army, and to follow sovereign democracy, a concept it would defend by any means, including by force.

Post-Summit Reversal?

Such statements were not taken lightly by Russia's fellow G8 members assembling in St. Petersburg.

On the sidelines of the summit, U.S. President Bush expressed disagreement with Russia's claim to a special type of democracy.

According to Irina Yasina, a former leader of the organization Open Russia who took part in a meeting between Bush and several Russian human right activists 16 July, Bush told participants that "there is no sovereign or a special [kind] of democracy," "Novoye ruskoye slovo" reported on July 16. "There are fundamental democratic values based on which democracy either does exist or not," she quoted the president as saying.

Unexpectedly, another hopeful to succeed Putin as president, First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, in an interview with "Ekspert," No. 28, expressed his distaste for the term "sovereign democracy," describing it as "unsuccessful."

Medvedev explained that "sovereignty" and "democracy" belong to different philosophical categories and that they should not be combined.

Surkov (center), seen here during a Public Chamber session, is considered a Kremlin ideologue (ITAR TASS)

Some observers took Medvedev's comments as an indication of a split between Surkov and the Kremlin. But in his interview with "Ekspert," Medvedev said any difference with Surkov's ideology was more in style than in substance. This led others to suggest that Medvedev was merely positioning himself as a "liberal" in Putin's camp to appease Western politicians and to counter domestic opponents who had earlier rejected the concept of sovereign democracy.

Unified Russia's Future Face

Despite Medvedev's comments, the evidence accumulated both before and after the G8 summit indicates that sovereign democracy is here to stay.

Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov, one of the co-chairmen of Unified Russia, lent his support to the doctrine when he suggested on July 13 that the West should look anew at Russia and change its attitude toward its rising power.

Luzhkov's comments were significant, considering that the political heavyweight has already announced his intention to leave his mayoral post in 2007. Some observers thus consider him to be another prime candidate to succeed Putin, for the simple reason that he does not have to prove to anyone abroad or at home that he is capable of running the country.

Unified Russia General Council Secretary Vyacheslav Volodin stated on July 25 that sovereign democracy is key aspect of his party's ideology, and that it would be a "basic element" of the party's program.

Medvedev's and Unified Russia's "strategic vision for the country's future coincides," he added. The incorporation of sovereign democracy into the party's program is of key importance because Surkov has suggested that after leaving office in 2008, Putin might became the leader of Unified Russia, and thus remain in politics as the head of the "ruling party."

Oleg Morozov, the head of Unified Russia's Ideological Commission, on July 27 added a new twist to the party's adoption of sovereign democracy. He described the party as a "party of historical revanche," noting that "revanchism is a very good starting point, a very powerful driving force."

The Church And State

The concept of sovereign democracy has received considerable support from another rising ideological force within Putin's camp -- Metropolitan Kirill. Speaking at the 10th World Congress of Russian People in April, Kirill universality rejected Western democratic values and defended Russia's "specific" vision of democracy and human rights.

Furthermore, in an article titled "It Is Time For The End Of Dithering Diplomacy" published in July by, Kirill bluntly criticized the democratic political system. "I place in question that the division of power and a multiparty system relates to common human values," he said. "We should end dithering diplomacy, which requires that we always have to justify ourselves. Our official and public diplomacy always considers it a victory when we manage to prove to the West that we are like them -- but this is simply disinformation and the wrong [thing to do]."

It is also noteworthy that the Kremlin and its political allies adopted the doctrine of sovereign democracy at a time when a new generation of Russians is emerging -- one that is not familiar with communism or a totalitarian regime influencing their social and political lives.

The future of democracy in Russia may depend on whether the Kremlin will truncate this new generation by succeeding in imposing sovereign democracy upon it, or whether this new generation will succeed in rejecting it.

Russia And The West

Russia And The West


COOPERATION, CONFLICT, CONFRONTATION: Relations between Russia and the West are notoriously volatile. "To see the kind of relationship that presidents Bush and Putin have developed and to see Russia firmly anchored in the West, that's really a dream of 300 years, not just of the post-Cold War era," then-national security adviser Condoleezza Rice said in May 2002.
But observers have increasingly called into question the extent of the shared values between Russia and the West, particularly on issues relating to the transformations going on in other former Soviet countries.


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