‘Liberal Empire’ vs. ‘Sovereign Democracy’

In my last column, I talked about how Russia’s great power illusion clashed with the facts of American power. I argued that, in present circumstances, its foreign policy should be designed to conciliate and please, not threaten and annoy. This is not the way Russia’s policy makers see things. Today I want to unpick two complementary doctrines which form the ideological basis of Russian foreign policy: Anatoly’s Chubais’s ‘liberal empire’ and Vladislav Surkov’s ‘sovereign democracy’. What is striking is the virtual identity of vision between the leader of the liberal right wing party (SPS) and the Kremlin’s chief ‘politologist’.

Chubais’s theory of ‘liberal empire’ (2003) borrows from current American discussion. Chubais argued that Russia should construct a ‘liberal empire’ of its own from the pieces of the old Soviet Union. Russia’s ‘mission’ should be to promote Russian culture and protect Russian populations in its ‘neighbourhood’; establish a dominant position in their trade and business; and guarantee its neighbours’ ‘freedom and democracy’. Only through ‘liberal empire’, Chubais argued, ‘can Russia occupy its natural place alongside the United States, the European Union and Japan, the place designated for it by history’.

Surkov’s phrase ‘sovereign democracy’ dates from a ‘secret speech’ in 2005. The coupling adroitly joins the two buzz words of contemporary political discourse, but gives them a typical Russian twist. By democracy, Surkov means not western democracy with its ‘artificial checks and balances’, but something much more like ‘independence’. Surkov explains Russia’s claim to sovereignty as follows: ‘For 500 years [Russia] was a modern state. It made history and was not made by it’. Evidently some states are more ‘independent’ than others. ‘We differ strongly’, Surkov says, ‘from Slovaks, Baltic nations and even Ukrainians –they had no state system’. Surkov’s view of the world is the same as Chubais’s: some states are destined to be sovereigns others subjects.

Several factors have gone into the new Russian ideology of greatness. One, of course, is most Russians’ refusal to accept that the Cold War ended in a Russian defeat. A second is Russia’s perception that ‘the west does not love us’: hence it must accept a ‘Eurasian’ destiny. A third is the realization of its potential as an ‘energy superpower’ playing off Europe against China.

However, the doctrine has severe problems. Russia’s claim to be protector of all the Russians of the old Soviet Union carries the seeds of dangerous conflict –not only with countries like the Ukraine, currently in turmoil, but with the United States in the Caucasus and Central Asia. Nor is Russia a plausible guarantor of ‘freedom and democracy’. Not only is it neither liberal nor democratic now, but it won’t easily be able to expunge the memory of centuries of autocratic, then totalitarian, rule. Finally, both Chubais’s ‘liberal empire’ and Surkov’s ‘sovereign democracy’ conflict with Russia’s ostentatious commitment to the UN Charter based on the idea of equal sovereignty.

De Gaulle rightly said that pride was a tangible factor in a nation’s efforts. He spent most of his presidency trying to restore French pride shattered by France’s expulsion from Indo China, the Suez fiasco, and the surrender of Algeria. But De Gaulle didn’t try to revive the defunct French empire. He formed an axis with Germany which has run the European Union ever since. For all its cosmetic adaptation to reality, current thinking on how to restore Russian pride remains obstinately stuck in the grooves of Tsarist and Soviet thinking. Russian policy-makers cannot yet contemplate a genuinely different future. The leadership is heavy with superpower nostalgia. Of Russia it can be said, as Dean Acheson said of Britain in 1961, ‘It has lost an empire, but has not yet found a role’.