Of Spiders and Flies: One More Time about “Sovereign Democracy”

"Our sovereighnty [defines] who we are in the world net: spiders or flies" (Vladislav Surkov)

Russia’s president Vladimir Putin’s Munich speech last weekened has proven that Russia still matters (or matters again, if you wish).  The Washington Post, for instance, has broken a record of a kind by publishing, within one-week interval, five op-eds covering Putin’s speech: from lunatic ranting by Anders Aslund ("Talking Tough to Stay in Power", February 18) to "what-I-hate-is-bad-for-America" preaching by Charles Krauthammer ("The Putin Doctrine", February 16) to sincere attempts to understand what Putin set out to say by David Ignatius ("Putin’s Moment to Seize", February 14; "Russia’s Course: Still Uncertain", February 16).

It was Ignatius, a rare example of WP‘s columnist who would visit a country before writing about it, who found another way to underscore the significance of Putin’s performance in Munich: Russia is back.

One of the best interpretations of Putin’s speech came from Dr. Vlad Sobell (DAIWA Institute of Research, London), the world top expert on post-Communist transition in Eastern Europe and Russia.  Here is Sobell’s opinion, which he expressed on a panel of Russia Profile experts on February 16:

That Putin’s speech came down like a cold shower is a disturbing reflection on contemporary affairs. While illustrating the extent to which our supposedly open democracies have been unable to adjust to the new global realities – the rise of post-totalitarian Russia and China – it also points to an alarming degeneration of political discourse. Instead of being welcomed as a breath of fresh air, Putin’s “un-diplomatic” address has been interpreted as a declaration of new Cold War.

Although everyone knows that the “unipolar” order is creaking at the seams, with the United States facing a catastrophe of its own making in the Middle East, along with an unwinnable war in Afghanistan, it has taken Putin, the “enemy,” to actually deliver the message to the august gathering of Western grandees.

While Iraq is burning, the United States seeks solutions in more of the same, and signals a determination to confront yet another chain in the “axis of evil,” Western officials continue to deliberate in PC-laden codes, fearing upsetting the Leader. On the other hand, Putin, accustomed to plain speaking in the robust discourse of Russia’s raw democracy, felt free to dispense with this charade. I am convinced that, although Westerners will endlessly talk about the Russian threat and Putin’s “impudence,” a growing number of them will privately wish they had leaders of Putin’s presence and intelligence.

However, this is not merely about the criticism of Washington. Above all, Putin has publicly promulgated a coherent and attractive alternative, capable of displacing the tired and visibly failing Western orthodoxy. Far from delivering a provocative declaration of Cold War, he outlined a credible path to a more harmonious future.

While Washington’s orthodoxy preaches that the world must be divided into democracies (the good guys) and anti-democracies (the bad guys), with the latter to be converted, by force if necessary, Putin advises caution, inclusion and patience. In the critical case of Iran, he wants to ensure that this ancient and proud civilization is not needlessly pushed into friendless isolation. He has good reasons to do so, since his own country and China have proven that totalitarianism can be overcome without the need for external intervention. This is a revolutionary message, albeit haughtily rejected by the Washington pundits.

Putin also sees the United Nations, and not the United States, as the ultimate enforcer of international law, even if this is a messy and slow process. That patience and negotiation are preferable to war has been amply demonstrated in the Iraq fiasco, while the power of multilateral UN-approved action, if and when it materializes, is irresistible. In his interview with Al Jazeera, Putin argued that, when confronted with this force, even a radical anti-Israel organization such as Hamas would eventually negotiate. Surely this is preferable to another round of bombing.

Contrary to what the hostile Western pundits may say, Putin’s speech is a call for peace, not a new Cold War. He advocates global unity in the face of the one common enemy – terrorism. Unfortunately, Russia’s efforts will be spurned, owing largely to the misguided view that Russia itself constitutes a part of the “axis of evil.”

Looking for an idelogical backing of the newly-acquired Russia’s assertiveness, I would argue that Putin’s "Munich theses" were an "export" version of "sovereign democracy", a concept recently articulated by Putin’s deputy chief of staff, Vladislav Surkov.  Interestingly, Ignatius mentioned Surkov in one of his articles, however, in a completely different context

I would further argue that one cannot understand and, more importantly, predict Russia’s behavior without trying to apprehend the concept of "sovereign democracy."  It is however naive to expect that Surkov’s writings on the subject — written, admittedly, in a convoluted Russian — will be read by more than a few Western pundits.

One therefore would welcome any honest attempt to present to the Western readers the essence of Surkov’s "sovereign democracy."  A commendable effort in this direction has been made by Dr. Vlad Ivanenko, a trade and investment consultant in Ottawa. 

In an assay  ("An Alternative Platf orm") published in Russia Profile on February 8, Ivanenko explains the main postulates of "sovereign democracy" and follows its genesis from Surkov’s early experiments with direct civil governance.  More importantly, Ivanenko places establishing "sovereign democracy" into a broader framework of problems and challenges facing Russia in its still long and wavy road to "democracy without adjectives."

Naturally, there can be so many diferent interpretations of Surkov’s writings as people who bothered to read them.  In my personal view, the most visionary of all Surkov’s ideas is his proposal for a "New Deal" between the state and what Surkov calls "national bourgeoisie."

In one of his recent articles, Surkov wrote that the state sovereignty would ensure that in the global net, Russia would be a "spider", rathen than a "fly."  It is quite fortunate that this passage has been so far missed by Putin’s Western critics.  One could easily picture an Economist cover with Putin as a great ugly spider and his "opponents" (Politkovskaya, Litvinenko, Khodorkovsky, etc.) as either struglling or dead flies.

Let’s forgive Surkov his politially incorrect metaphor.  But if strong signals recently emanating from Moscow teach us something, one would be advised not to mistake Russia for a fly.

About Eugene Ivanov

Eugene Ivanov is a PMI-certified Innovation Management Consultant who helps organizations increase the efficiency of their internal and external innovation programs.
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