The End of Sovereign Democracy in Russia: What Does it Mean for U.S.-Russia Relations?

Read Dr. Sontag’s working paper here:

The End of Sovereign Democracy in Russia

CGI held the second meeting of its Rising Experts Task Force on June 19, 2013, with a presentation by Dr. Raymond Sontag on the end of sovereign democracy in Russia. Sontag received his Ph.D. from Oxford University in 2011 and currently works as an independent analyst in Washington, D.C. In attendance were several young scholars and professionals from Washington D.C.’s leading universities, think tanks, and NGOs. Sontag discussed the emergence of an anti-Western trend in Russian politics and argued that President Vladimir Putin’s turn to a more restrictive political model over the past two years would add significant new challenges to the U.S.-Russia bilateral relationship.

Sontag drew on his academic background and on-the-ground experience as a program officer for the National Democratic Institute (NDI) in Moscow to discuss the transition in Putin’s political strategy. He argued that “sovereign democracy,” the Kremlin’s preferred term for the tightly managed political system that existed in Russia during the post-Yeltsin years, has been abandoned in Putin’s third term. The more explicitly autocratic model that has taken its place has three critical consequences for the Russian state: first, it makes the government less able to respond to social pressures and demands; second, it tarnishes Putin’s image as a “uniter,” which had been a powerful contributor to his widespread popularity; and third, it deprives Putin and the Kremlin leadership of a narrative about the future direction of the Russian political system.

Sontag explained that the political elite has set aside the narrative of “gradual transition,” which called for a slow incorporation of aspects of democracy into Russian politics based on the idea that Russia was not ready for rapid change after 70 years of communist rule. Putin’s third term has demonstrated that there is no larger trend towards a Western-style democracy in Russia. Rather than courting the affluent, Western-oriented parts of society, politicians have refocused on courting the general population with an openly anti-American stance. Sontag noted that the past two years have seen a marked increase in the willingness of Russian officials to invoke and rely upon anti-American rhetoric in public.

These shifts have already led to changes on the level of international relations. Sontag argued that the bilateral relationship would continue to suffer from these Russian domestic changes, at least in the short term. He noted, however, that both countries have a tendency to see the U.S.-Russia relationship as something of an abstraction, taking ideological positions on issues mostly for domestic purposes in an approach that often contributes to increased tension between the two countries. While both countries struggle with this problem, Sontag said it is Putin’s recent reliance on anti-Americanism domestically that will make it even harder to maintain a focus on “real” issues in the relationship, such as common security concerns or nuclear nonproliferation efforts.

After the presentation, attendees discussed the future of the Russian political system and the potential courses the U.S. might pursue in its foreign policy toward Russia. Sontag questioned the purpose of a “normative” approach to foreign policy, recently supported by many in the American policy-making community, by suggesting that we need a more realistic assessment of the extent to which the U.S. can influence domestic politics abroad. He also noted that the unspoken sentiment among American political analysts, academics, and practitioners, summarized by the phrase “we have values, they have interests,” injects a moralizing aspect into many policy considerations and often becomes a serious hindrance to effective and productive partnerships with foreign nations.