Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Russia - a sovereign democracy?

In recent years, sovereign democracy has become a key ideological tenet in Russian politics and society. As the ideology for the party in power - United Russia - sovereignty is perceived as a precondition for democracy. In my recent report on the state of democracy in Russia, Ryssland - en suverän demokrati? (Russia - a sovereign democracy?), this theme is addressed from the perspective of constitutionality and funtionality, to ascertain whether Russia's specific model of democracy has any essence.

In current Russia, the political elite has chosen the path of sovereign democracy. The argument goes as follows: The precondition for democracy is sovereignty in terms of state capacity. Without the capacity to rule oneself, no real democracy can exist. Democratic decisions can be made, but if they cannot be implemented, democracy only becomes a game with words. To become truly democratic, Russia first needs to become master in its own house.

Russia's choice is perhaps not as simple as between a United Russia and Another Russia. In the longer perspective, the question must perhaps instead be reformulated in terms of functionality and governance capacity, at least if accepting the Russian elite's own points of departure. Despite diverging views, there are certain general preconditions for a working democracy. It is a question of whether democracy fulfills its purpose, regardless of the actual form in which it is enacted. The question is whether "sovereign democracy" can fulfill this role.

For those of you, who do not master the Swedish language (in which the report regrettably is written), or do not have the time or the inclination to read some 100 pages, you may instead read the following abstract on my findings.

Sovereign democracy is the ideological and political basis for elite consensus in current Russia. Sovereign democracy holds that sovereignty logically precedes democracy. Sovereignty – as state capacity or function – is regarded a precondition for democracy. In order for democracy to evolve, the constitutional order must be upheld. In accordance with the Russian constitution, the president is the guarantor of the constitutional order. It is the president’s – or sovereign’s – prerogative to decide on the rule of the exception, in his obligation to safeguard the constitutional order. Consequently, constitution and function of the political system are fundamental to Russian perceptions of democracy and democratisation.

Accepting these postulations, the study departs from the concepts of constitutionalism and functionalism – viz. state capacity in terms of sovereignty – as fundamental prerequisites for democracy, and accordingly analyses the results of Russia’s sovereign democracy policy. It illustrates how the rule of the exception has been applied, by complementary legislation, to limit the basic political rights and freedoms of the Russian constitution. In functional terms, the study indicates a decline in governance – i.e. state capacity. This decline comprises most vital and mutually dependent areas of governance such as government effectiveness; regulatory quality; control of corruption; rule of law; and voice and accountability. A positive trend is discernable in terms of, on the one hand, political stability and absence of violence and, on the other hand, economic development. In combination, the study finds that Russia’s constitutional and functional decline coincides in time, forming a consistent downturn since 2003-2004.

Having completed its initial bureaucratic stage in attaining political stability, the policy of sovereign democracy is now entering the phase of modernisation. By means of the so called Putin plan, Russia is to re-conquer its position as a political and economic great power in the world. The goal of modernisation is to be achieved by expansive economic policies to stimulate the economic incentives of the middle class and attain the structural development necessary for long-term growth. Russian economy is to become more dynamic, diversified and sustainable. A nationally-minded elite is to activate the potential of the country, in terms of people and resources, and develop civil society and local self-government to redress system deficiencies in state and society. By a policy of stability and growth the elite seeks to rely on the expansion of a conservative middle class as a means to preserve the social and political order. By providing opportunity of wealth to the middle class, modernisation without democratisation in the liberal sense is to be achieved. The strategy of sovereign democracy thus challenges the theoretical argument that a growing middle class will lead to democratic development. By introducing alternative consultative mechanisms to traditional forms of representation and deliberation, liberal democracy is to be substituted by democracy by rule of consent. However, modernisation rests on the assumption of continued economic growth and political stability. It relies heavily on continued high oil and raw material revenues to diversify Russian economy and make it less dependent on these resources. The policy also faces the potential pitfall of inflationary setbacks. Simultaneously, political stability is threatened by decline in other sectors of governance underpinning it.

The results of the study – even if far from conclusive – imply that democratic decline might lead to a decline in governance. They indicate that the greater formal control by government the less actual control it has. This is a paradox of control beyond control. It would thus seem that sovereign democracy policy instead of increasing sovereignty – viz. state capacity – might actually reduce it.

Svenska Dagbladet, editorial blog, 6 May 2008.
Press statement, Swedish Defence Research Establishment, 7 May 2008.
Svenska Dagbladet, editorial, 8 May 2008.
Hudiksvalls Tidning, editorial, 8 May 2008.
Blekinge Läns Tidning, editorial, 10 May 2008.
Dagens Nyheter, editorial column, 19 June 2008.
Blekinge Läns Tidning, editorial, 18 February 2009.