Russia: a ‘soft power’ running out of gas?

Recent news from Russia are not positive at all. Somehow it feels as if Russia is marching back to Soviet times. The list is long and truly worrying:

Economically, the country is run by a handful of oligarchs. Energy is used as a political weapon with a little help of the dubious state controlled Gazprom. Putin is constructing a kind of authoritarian “managed democracy” with a high level of corruption and nepotism. Restrictions on NGOs were imposed and freedom of speech seems to exist only on paper. Large scale human rights abuses in Chechnya as well as in the Russian army are not even mentioned in the press anymore. Also, Russia’s’ neo-imperial foreign policy approach towards its neighbors has become normal. Relations with the EU and in particular with Poland are not good at all. Critics of the government such as Anna Politkovskaya and Alexander Litvinenko were assassinated.

In order to understand all these things it might be helpful to have a look into current debates of political philosophy in Russia. Both, Ivan Krastev and Nicu Popescu analyse the ideological battle that is going on. For Ivan Krastev the concept of sovereignty is central:

For the Kremlin, sovereignty is a capacity. It implies economic independence, military strength and cultural identity. The other key element of the sovereign state is a “nationally-minded” elite. (…) The creation of the nationally-minded elite is the primarily task of the sovereign democracy as a project. Moreover, the need for a nationally-minded elite requires a nationally-minded democratic theory.

Quite logically, the Russian elite is trying to construct a new political theory since “Russia should break its ideological dependence on western theories”. Interestingly, the French political rationalism of Francois Guizot and Carl Schmitt’s “decisionism” are the main pillars of this theory of a Russian style “sovereign democracy”.

Nicu Popescu links this approach with Joseph Nye’s soft power concept which traditionally is used to explain the power of the EU or the behaviour of the USA in the 1990s.

The idea of ‘sovereign democracy’ has a number of functions. The first is to provide Putin’s authoritarianism with respectable ‘democratic’ clothes in order to strengthen it internally and insulate it from international criticism. The second is to challenge the West’s idea of democracy and human rights as a set of universal values and practices. As a result of the ‘colour revolutions’ in Ukraine and Georgia, Russia’s leaders learned that crude manipulation might not be enough to remain in power, that ideas matter and that NGOs can make revolutions. They have also learned that a ‘legitimacy deficit’ can undermine the elites. Thus the Kremlin had to develop its tools for ideological manipulation, enhance control of the circulation of ideas and the NGOs in a more proactive manner.

Therefore, Russia promotes its very own concept of “Eastern Democracy” also abroad.

Russia invests in the development of NGO infrastructure, and enhancing its channels to bring across the Kremlin’s message at all levels. Various Kremlin supported organisations are mushrooming. The scope of their activity is truly all-encompassing. Russia-friendly and Russia-financed NGOs and think-tanks have emerged in many CIS states and even in the secessionist entities.

Interesting examples of this policy can be found here. (The article also contains very interesting quotations of members of the Russian elite!) According to Nicu Popescu these soft power instruments

are designed to create an intellectual milieu of sophisticated, though tricked, ideological support for the current Russian authorities. They also serve as a source of ideology for the Kremlin’s pragmatists. The latter are driven by financial and power interests, not ideas or norms. But they seek to strengthen further their power by complementing it with a ‘soft’ dimension. It is the new face of ‘smart authoritarianism’ that speaks the language of Western norms and is very flexible, but has very little to do with the values of democracy, Eastern- or Western-style.

And if you are now thinking: Why are they doing all these efforts? Is it not easier to use the well-known energy weapon? Well, quite wrong, because What if Russian gas runs low?


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