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Sovereignty understood "in Russian"

By Dimitar Vatsov, Veronika Dimitrova, Ljubomir Donchev, Valentin Valkanov, Milena Iakimova

Blog (Based on a larger study)

"Sovereignty" is the main temptation that Russian propaganda offers to local national audiences in small countries - the icing on the cake. "Don't listen to the Masters from Washington and Brussels - be sovereign!". And the local national-populists seem to inevitably intercept the sovereigntist rhetoric. And yet, what is sovereignty, understood "in Russian"?

The way of present-day propaganda uses was paved by the concept of "sovereign democracy," first mentioned way back in 2006 in a speech by Vladislav Surkov, Putin's trusted ideologue and adviser. This concept, coined with the hope to be an alternative to Western liberal democracy, dominated the minds of the Kremlin elite for about a decade, but it never managed to become a consistent ideology. Today, even the phrase "sovereign democracy" has fallen out of use - in fact, "democracy" has fallen out of it, but "sovereignty" has remained a supporting pillar in the modern Russian propaganda package.

According to Ivan Krastev, "sovereign democracy" was introduced by Surkov after the Orange Revolution in Ukraine of 2004-2005: "Sovereign democracy is Moscow's answer to the dangerous combination of populist pressure from below and international pressure from above that destroyed Leonid Kuchma regime"[1]. In 2006, the Kremlin felt that the "facade" or "directed democracy" they had been practicing since Yeltsin's time - and that was the Kuchma regime - was still not immune to an outbreak of civil discontent. And civil grievances against the corrupt governments seem to inevitably receive support and legitimization from the international democratic community.

Therefore, the Kremlin elites are trying to rebrand their power through the concept of "sovereignty". They need this term in order to confirm in the first place that the state power is and should be independent of any external influences - in the "Westphalian" sense, no one from outside has the right to interfere in their territory. In the Kremlin, with the word "sovereignty" they specifically say that they should not comply with the international democratic community, with the West. A sovereign is one who can oppose the USA and the "collective West".

But they further inverted the meaning of "sovereignty": and went on instigating that sovereign is that power which is independent not only from external but also from internal oppositions. Why? Well, because internal resistances are presented as external: anyone uncomfortable is presented as a conduit of foreign influence, a puppet of external forces, a foreign agent.

In the Kremlin, by "sovereignty" they do not understand freedom scattered among citizens, which, after being temporarily delegated by a social contract, becomes state sovereignty. The modern layers in the meaning of the concept have been erased. Sovereign is the state embodied in a single person - Putin, and not the citizens[2].

In fact, the pre-modern concept of indivisible and absolute sovereign power (with added decisionism in the line of Carl Schmitt: as a “sovereign dictatorship”) is being rehabilitated, which power does not and should not tolerate opposition: neither from below, from civil protests and insurgences, nor from outside, from international norms and institutions. Pure imperial power.

Hence, a main ideological catchphrase of Russian propaganda today is that all velvet and color revolutions, all civil pro-European and pro-democracy protests are "a coup against the legitimate authority, orchestrated by the West". By the way, the word "Maidan" is re-connoted in this way - as a coup led by the West. And any civil activist or journalist who dares to challenge the authority of the sovereign (understood as lordship) is accordingly a "foreign agent”.

But there is a second important feature of Kremlin usages:

Moreover, sovereignty, we said, rests with the state, but not every state has sovereignty. Already in 2006, Krastev noticed: "According to the Kremlin, sovereignty is not a right; its meaning is not a seat in the United Nations. For the Kremlin, sovereignty is a capacity. It presupposes economic independence, military power and cultural identity." (ibid., 116) Sovereignty de iure - as a status of international law - is a fiction, a facade, if it cannot be won by force de facto. Small countries - those that practically fail to achieve economic and military self-sufficiency - are internationally incapacitated, do not achieve "subjectivity". "Subjectivity" becomes an ideological-propaganda synonym for "sovereignty".

Small states in that sense are not even states - they are "quasi-states". They are artificial and temporary entities that are doomed to decay, or, if they do not decay, yet they are incapable of activity of their own, but doomed to spin by inertia in the gravitational field of some real sovereign. Thus, Ukraine was supposed to break up as an independent state and return to the "Russian world", and the countries of Eastern Europe, according to the Russian security doctrine from 2021, were to leave NATO and, if they did not directly return to the sphere of Russian influence, at a minimum, to declare "neutrality".

Moreover, according to Russian propaganda, small states cannot compensate for their lack of self-sufficiency and strengthen their sovereignty by participating in supranational alliances such as the EU and NATO. Because by presumption these are not unions between equals, but forms of dictation of another sovereign - the unions are presented as systems of vassalage. At the same time, this other sovereign is worse - he has the claim to be a world hegemon, to dictate everything to everyone.

Here is another ideologue, Alexander Dugin, quoted by Pogled-info: "And most importantly: the current leadership of the White House and the globalist elites of the European Union categorically do not accept even a hint of sovereignty from their vassals or from their opponents. All who are willing to submit to the West are required to completely relinquish sovereignty in favor of a supranational decision-making center. That's the law"[3].

Small countries can therefore strive for sovereignty in only one sense - by giving up liberal-democratic values and withdrawing from the West. Even bigger countries like Turkey have subjectivity i.e. sovereignty, only insofar as they partially oppose the West and balance with Russia - however, if Erdogan had fallen in the May elections and the opposition had come to power, then Turkey would "lose its subjectivity and become another anti-Russian springboard".[4]

Small countries, if they imagine that they have sovereignty, look pathetic and ridiculous. This is how pathetic and funny Georgia looks in March this year, during the pro-European protests there: "A small republic, Georgia, decided that it should live like the USA. To have sovereignty, independence in foreign policy, liberal values. Teach us, they said, America, to be like you. This address was a fatal mistake. Georgia is now on the verge of being thrown into the furnace of war with Russia, led by the West."[5].

In fact, small countries, if they imagine that their sovereignty is to defend a liberal-democratic order, inevitably become an "anti-Russian" instrument and, accordingly, are dragged by the West into a war with Russia. Lavrov directly threatens the neighbors of the Russian Federation: "[A]ll the countries located around the Russian Federation must draw conclusions from how dangerous is the course of drawing them into the area of responsibility, into the area of interests of the United States.”[6]

"Getting involved in the war" is also a favorite cliché of local pro-Russian politicians in Europe (of Radev, Kostadinov, Ninova, etc. in Bulgaria, but not only). Small countries, if they wish to insist on their sovereignty, are displayed by Kremlin propaganda as victims of illusion who are dragged into war. Thus, for Kremlin and its propagators, fictitious sovereignty is understood as support for Ukraine and pro-Western orientation and it is equated to war, while real sovereignty is equated to refusal of support for Ukraine and to withdrawal from democratic values – this is pervertly said to be "peace and neutrality". The only real sovereignty for the little ones is to renounce active sovereignty and seek "neutrality" - to let the "Great Powers" fight each other without taking a stand. After all, the marches for peace and neutrality, organized by pro-Russian organizations throughout Europe, understand sovereignty in exactly this way: as a refusal to actively oppose imperialist aggression, as "neutrality". And "peace" in this parlance means that Ukraine should surrender immediately.

The pro-Russian “science fiction writer” - and Pogled-info journalist - Simeon Milanov already sees "The death of liberalism as the revival of Westphalian-type sovereignty"[7]. In the happy multipolar world of the future, Bulgaria - now "deprived of subjectivity within the dying unipolar world" - will "regain its international subjectivity" through "balances" and "partnerships with international giants and poles such as Russia and China, and why not a future independent Germany and more" (the EU will be obviously have collapsed). In this happy world, "Northern Macedonia, which is unviable as a state," will be forced to bow to Sofia, which will establish "a sort of, let's say informal protectorate over Skopje". Russia, which will have unleashed the potential of its sovereignty and in order to protect its interests in the Balkans, will have captured not only the Ukrainian, but also the Romanian Black Sea coast, in order to connect with a land corridor with brotherly Bulgaria and Serbia. Moreover, as a sign of goodwill, Russia will give Bulgaria Northern Dobrudja - in this dream "Bulgaria expands with a territory of 15,500 sq. km, receiving the most fertile lands of the Balkans, a secure geostrategic rear of the Danube Delta, expanding its aquatoria by hundreds of nautical miles, acquiring also oil and gas deposits that are now in the Romanian zone." In the "Westphalian" multipolar world of Milanov’s future, borders are being redrawn, regions and populations are being assimilated ethnically and culturally, countries are dying and being born, but Bulgaria never suffers, but only flourishes in its fertile proximity to Russia.

Only one thing fails to notice the Sci-Fi master Milanov in his wonderful world of the future. Namely, that the sovereignty in it is not even of the Westphalian type. Because the Westphalian peace treaties, which ended the religious wars in Europe, were in fact the first modern acts of limiting sovereignty. Through them, the European monarchs of the 17th century limited their sovereignty only to the territory and population of the state they already ruled - by refusing a sovereign "export of religion" abroad.[8] This marks the beginning not only of the modern international order (of mutual respect for territorial sovereignty between states), but also of the political history of modernity more generally. Because modern political history consists of nothing else but the inventing of new and new - already internal, democratic - restrictions over the possibility of anyone enjoying absolute sovereignty (restrictions such as the rule of law, the separation of powers, the mandates and practically all the basic values and institutional principles of liberal democracy). The history of modernity, of the emergence of liberal democracy - although this history is certainly not coherent and uncontradictory - is precisely this: it is the history not of the destruction of sovereignty, but of the search for ways to limit it by dispersing it among citizens and between states.

On the contrary, Russia's current military territorial expansion as a practice, as well as sovereignty in the speeches of Russian propagandists as a "theory", do not recognize borders and limitations. Sovereignty is understood as an actual military and economic power that expands as far as it can - until another actual power stops it. It has no moral or legal limitations. Sovereignty understood "in Russian" is pure, i.e. an ever-expanding empire. It leaves no room for free small states, nor for free citizens.

[1] Krastev, Ivan. “‘Sovereign Democracy’, Russian-Style.” Insight Turkey, vol. 8, no. 4, 2006, pp. 113–17. JSTOR, Accessed 3 July 2023. [2] Even the greatest challenges - even Prigogine's rebellion - only confirmed the pure power of the sovereign: "an armed rebellion, although unsuccessful, although it ended with a full pardon of the participants by the sovereign" - Accessed 7 July 2023. [3] Accessed 23 July 23. [4] Accessed 23 July, 23. [5] Accessed 7 July 2023. [6] Accessed 7 July 2023. [7] Accessed 7 July 2023. [8] This is how the principle "Cuius regio, eius religio" should be read - the sovereign can impose his religion only on the territory of his kingdom.


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