A Ghost Wanders About Europe, A Ghost of Sovereign Democracy


The new government of Georgia has revealed the first signs of a confrontation with the West. True, Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili and his Georgian Dream political coalition have, in a similar manner to the previous government, declared their loyalty to Euro-Atlantic integration and a strategic partnership with the United States, but recent critical comments coming from these international partners have proved very painful.

The government has not taken heed of concerns expressed by the NATO Secretary General, the NATO Parliamentary Assembly and influential Western media regarding the selective arrests of former officials, the attacks on regional self-government bodies or the refusal to cohabitate with the President of Georgia.

Bidzina Ivanishvili and his team do not accuse the West of having a hostile attitude towards Georgia, they have merely put the concerns expressed by Georgia’s international partners down to lobbying efforts from the former government. Despite this, ordinary supporters and members of the Georgian Dream coalition have not refrained from anti-Western rhetoric. “Let everyone take care of their own country and we will take care of ours… Let them [the West] stop imposing such things which are not accepted in their country,” member of the Georgian Dream Keti Dolidze said to one of the Georgian editions. The aggression of Georgian Dream supporters towards the West was well displayed in comments made on the Facebook wall of the NATO Secretary General. Moreover, articles have appeared in the print media on issues that were “taboo” under the previous government – such as criticizing US foreign policy.

The new government of Georgia may thus be faced with setting a similar objective to that which Russia did several years ago – to convince society that Georgia must follow its own path towards democracy, without any excess care and interference from the West.

The notion of “sovereign democracy” first came to Russia in 2005, soon after developing into the dominant political doctrine. It became the official ideology of the ruling Edinaya Rossiya (United Russia) party and of President Vladimir Putin.

“Russia, by its own will and wish, moved from the Soviet system onto a new stage of development – the stage of simultaneously building a democratic, free (sovereign) and fair state and society. The Russian state and its people will themselves define the terms, stages and conditions of this development,” wrote Russian political scientist Vitaly Tretyakov in his 2005 article, Sovereign Democracy – On Putin’s Political Philology.

In November 2006, Vladislav Surkov, the Kremlin’s chief ideologue and, at the time, the Chief of the Russian Presidential Administration, extensively explained the essence of sovereign democracy in his programme article called The Nationalization of the Future: Paragraphs on Sovereign Democracy.

“The dignity of free people requires that the nation to which they belong should also be free in a justly organized world,” was how Surkov formulated the principles of sovereign democracy. Consequently, “sovereign democracy is a society's political life where the political powers, their authorities and decisions are decided and controlled by a diverse Russian nation.”

Much discussion has occurred in Russia about the concept of sovereign democracy, with various academic articles being published dedicated to substantiating it.

The Fear of Revolution

The Georgian Dream has two things in common with the Russian ideologues of sovereign democracy – their total rejection of criticism from the West and their attitude towards the Rose Revolution. An overwhelming majority of Georgian Dream coalition members, in contrast to Georgia’s Western partners, entertain very negative attitudes towards the Rose Revolution in 2003 and they do not recognize the subsequent progress made by the country.

It was the color revolutions that first nudged Russia towards building their own, Russian-style “sovereign” democracy and to eschew the well-established forms of democracy that function in the West. Kremlin ideologues were sure that the Rose Revolution in Georgia in 2003 as well as the Orange Revolution in Ukraine in 2004 were the result not of social protests but rather of a series of special operations conducted by the US State Department, whose final target was Russia.

For the Kremlin, the Orange Revolution in Ukraine “embodied the ultimate threat: long-distance controlled popular revolt,” said Bulgarian political scientist Ivan Krastev. He believes that with “sovereign democracy” Putin pitted a “preventive counter-revolution” against such events occurring in Russia.

In his programme article, The Nationalization of the Future, Vladislav Surkov said that full sovereignty is not an objective of every nation and that many small nations traditionally exist under the protection of a larger nation, changing their protectors time and again. Consequently, “the multiplication of entertaining ‘revolutions’ and democracies governed by external forces, which seems artificial, is a precisely natural fact in such countries.” In Russia, however, Surkov believes that “long-lasting foreign rule is inconceivable.”

“In contrast to color revolutions, which are used for toppling non-U.S.-friendly regimes under the disguise of the fight for democracy, the concept of sovereign democracy can be used only by those countries which develop democratic political institutions on their own terms and on their own soil,” wrote Russian political scientist Andranik Migranyan, a supporter of the concept of sovereign democracy, in October 2008.

Yet another Russian political scientist, Sergei Markov, believes that sovereign democracy is “an ideological response to color revolutions and the techniques of creating dependent political regimes.” In his view, by adopting this doctrine, Russia will thus attain democracy without losing its sovereignty.

Similarly, some of the leaders of the Georgian Dream believe that the Rose Revolution was organized by external forces. On 23 November 2011, a current MP from the Georgian Dream, Zakaria Kutsnashvili, welcomed the idea of organizing a protest rally outside

the U.S. Embassy in Tbilisi, although he did add that he had always believed that the Rose Revolution “was not only a desire of the United States to bring those people to power but also a desire of Russia.” In November 2012, Kutsnashvili and other members of the parliamentary majority welcomed the fact that the anniversary of the Rose Revolution was not celebrated in a festive manner this year.

The Image of the Enemy

The concept of sovereign democracy, which served the aim of building an ideological basis for distancing Russia from the West, emerged at the time when the US and other Western countries were stepping up their criticisms of the human rights situation in Russia.

In particular, the establishment of the notion of sovereign democracy coincided with the initiation of legal proceedings against Russian businessmen Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Platon Lebedev. They were arrested on charges of tax evasion and fraud in 2003 with the first court ruling on the Khodorkovsky case being delivered in May 2005. These prosecutions resonated across the world.

In November 2005, the U.S. Senate, at the initiative of then-Senators Barack Obama, Joe Biden and John McCain, adopted a resolution concerning the prosecution of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, noting that the Russian judiciary was a tool in the hands of the Kremlin and, as such, the courts could not be deemed independent.

In February 2006, after the arrested Russian businessmen were charged with additional counts, the U.S. State Department said that the prosecution of Khodorkovsky and the subsequent breakup of his company raised “serious questions” about the rule of law in Russia as well as “a number of concerns over the arbitrary use of the judicial system” and the inviolability of private property. During this time, Senator Tom Lantos asked the Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights to designate Khodorkovsky a political prisoner.

Supporters of the concept of sovereign democracy explained that such demands Washington was making to Moscow were a product of the general animosity of the West towards Russia and of their desire to subject Russia to their influence in order to get hold of Russia’s vast natural resources.

According to Andranik Migranyan, “in the 1970s, the United States made ensuring the rights and freedoms of people in other countries into its universal foreign policy, which in turn served their goal of meddling with other countries’ affairs.” He contends that the main goal of the concept of sovereign democracy is to prevent the US from such meddling.

Migranyan further explains that Russia’s key goal is to build liberal-democratic institutions and that Russia will “determine the sequence of steps taken in that direction by itself” without any “management from the outside”.

The West, Migranyan continues, is unable to understand the idea of sovereign democracy because it is interested only in sovereignty, not democracy. “The West does not want Russia to have sovereignty in the full meaning of the word,” he concluded.

"We sometimes hear" says Surkov for his part, "that no one is interested in taking away our sovereignty (or that this is an unreal threat), but the universal and daily need for resources and security is so great, and our supply of these is so rich, that excessive complacency here hardly seems appropriate."

Anti-Western rhetoric was also common among Georgian Dream members in the pre-election period. For example, Soso Jachvliani, a current MP, said that the close relationship with the United States was damaging for Georgia. He stated that the United States should be blamed that “one fifth of the [Georgian] territory was lost; Russia turned into our enemy and, finally, we have been left with nothing else but the authoritarian regime.” According to him, “Licking the boots of the Americans during the past twenty years has brought about the ruin and demise of Georgia.”

Last year, the Chairperson of the Georgian Dream political party, Manana Kobakhidze, claimed that the United States sees Orthodox Christianity as an impediment to Georgia’s development and criticized the former government for trying to win the heart of the USA by defending the rights of minorities. She was also critical of “European countries [who] consider everyone as ordinary equal members of society. It is difficult for us to accept that because such an attitude runs counter to Orthodox morals.”

A number of Georgian Dream members have been against Georgia’s NATO integration for years. For example, Gogi Topadze stated that Georgia has been “ruined” by its aspirations toward NATO, while Gubaz Sanikidze and his party members declared as early as 2007 that this aspiration was tantamount to treason and, if realized, would disintegrate the country into nothing more than zones of influence.

Labels for Democracy

The concept of sovereign democracy has been criticized both inside and outside Russia. In August 2006, one of the leaders of Russia’s political opposition, Mikhail Kasyanov, declared that the aims of that doctrine were crystal clear – to maintain political power and wealth by hook or by crook. “The results are already apparent – the reign of populism, the consistent demise of social and state institutions and the denial of the principles of the rule of law, democracy and market economy,” Kasyanov said.

“Sovereign democracy is a Kremlin coinage that conveys two messages: first, that Russia's regime is democratic and, second, that this claim must be accepted without demanding any proof, period. Any attempt at verification will be regarded as unfriendly and as meddling in Russia's domestic affairs,” wrote the Washington Post on 15 July 2006.

“I get nervous when people put labels in front of democracy,” said Daniel Fried, Assistant Secretary for European and Eurasian Affairs, in 2007. “Sovereign democracy, managed democracy, people's democracy, socialist democracy, Aryan democracy, Islamic democracy – I am not a big fan of adjectives. Managed democracy doesn't sound like democracy. Sovereign democracy strikes me as meaningless.”

Richard Pipes, a Polish-American academic who specializes in Russian history, particularly the Soviet Union, speaking to Russian Ekho Moskvy radio in 2009 stated, “I do not understand the term ‘sovereign democracy’ – democracy either exists or does not exist… In Greek democracy means ‘government of the people’ – government of the people either exists or it does not.”

Thanks to Bidzina Ivanishvili, democracy has recently gained one more “label.” In his first ever TV interview given to Reuters in October 2011, he said that the democracy he would build in Georgia would “amaze Europe.” Since coming to power, this “amazing democracy” has acquired a different connotation – the steps taken by the new Georgian government have indeed amazed the West, but not in a way that Ivanishvili would have wished for.

Sovereign Democracy in Action

Russian President Vladimir Putin began the implementation of the concept of sovereign democracy with his infamous “Munich Speech” – the address he delivered to the Munich Security Conference on 10 February 2007, often considered a watershed moment in the relationship between Russia and the West.

It was at that conference that the Russian leader, for the first time, lashed out at the “unipolar world,” U.S. foreign policy and NATO. “One state and, of course, first and foremost the United States, has overstepped its national borders in every way. This is visible in the economic, political, cultural and educational policies it imposes on other nations,” Putin declared.

President Putin also accused the West of unfair treatment of third world countries: “one hand distributes charitable help and the other hand not only preserves economic backwardness but also reaps the profits thereof,” and went on to criticize the OSCE and other international organizations for being transformed into “a vulgar instrument designed to promote the foreign policy interests of one or a group of countries.”

“Russia is a country with a history that spans more than a thousand years and has practically always used the privilege to carry out an independent foreign policy,” Putin said in the speech that certain political analysts perceived to be a signal of the start of a new cold war.

Putin and the Kremlin have indeed done a lot in demonstrating “sovereignty” in both domestic and foreign policy. The poisoning of former Russian security officer Alexander Litvinenko with polonium; the assassination of journalist Anna Politkovskaya; its aggression against Georgia; the near constant violations of human rights inside the country; the death of attorney Sergei Magnitsky in police custody; the imprisonment of the young performance artists of the punk-rock band Pussy Riot – the Russian government has ignored Western criticism over all these actions. In December 2011, after mass protests in Moscow, Vladimir Putin accused the United States of provoking these disturbances. Government-censored TV channels aired a series of propaganda films about how the West was trying to ruin Russia using the hands of the political opposition. In his pre-election campaign for his third presidential term Vladimir Putin chose to continue this trend of belligerent anti-Western rhetoric.

Georgia’s Choice

Even though dissatisfied with the statements of Western politicians, Bidzina Ivanishvili has refrained from making openly anti-Western statements. He has, however, expressed his dissatisfaction about the Western media’s coverage of his government’s activities and about the former government’s “lobbying” efforts in the West. Ivanishvili has repeatedly expressed assurances that this situation will soon improve and “that the process” (criticism from the West) will soon stop.

The Georgian Dream, however, does not seem to be willing to give up those methods which brought the criticisms from the West. And if the current government takes no heed of warnings of the West, relations with both the United States and Europe will inevitably deteriorate.

If that happens, we should expect a “Munich speech” from Ivanishivili and the development his government’s own concept of “sovereign democracy”, which the democratic world will surely reject.

And in that event, Georgia will be left with only one option – to align itself with those who also reject criticism from the West; to stand shoulder to shoulder with the likes of Vladimir Putin and Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenka. With them, within the Eurasian Union, Georgia’s government would then soon have to seek a source of external legitimization.

But, were this to happen, in rejecting Western democracy Georgia would be unable to maintain its sovereignty and, by returning into the sphere of Russia’s influence, Georgia would definitely lose its independence.


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