Accessibility links

Yeltsin asserts 'Legal Continuity' for Russia

  • Paul Goble

Washington, March 19 (RFE/RL) - In his official response to the Duma resolution calling for the restoration of the USSR, Russian President Boris Yeltsin argued on Saturday (March 16) that such a step would cost the Russian state its "legal continuity" and thus threaten a variety of international arrangements. Yeltsin is undoubtedly right on that point, but his own argument also has consequences, some of which he does not appear to have considered.

Ever since the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, Russian officials have consistently insisted that the Russian Federation is a successor state as defined by the Vienna conventions of 1969 and 1973. These accords define the rights of countries that have emerged from imperial devolution or national disintegration. As such and under these established principles of international law, Moscow has been able to argue and the world has been willing to accept that the Russian Federation inherited both the rights and responsibilities of the Soviet Union.

But in all this time, Russian leaders and Russian legal scholars have seldom mentioned as Yeltsin now has the principle of legal continuity.

There are at least three reasons for their reticence: First, most Russian authorities apparently have assumed that the question of continuity need not be raised. As long as everyone accepted Russia's claim under the Vienna conventions, they could assume that all its international responsibilities appeared to be covered. Second, few have been interested in raising the question of legal continuity given the murkiness of legal questions in what was obviously a revolutionary situation. And third, Russian officials and scholars have been quite interested in rejecting claims of legal continuity raised by the three Baltic states.

But now under pressure from a Russian parliament that wants to revisit and reverse the events of 1991, Yeltsin and his advisors apparently have decided that the principle of legal continuity must be raised and maintained. That raises some interesting questions for Russia itself, for the former Soviet republics, and for Moscow's relationships with the Baltic states, where claims on this basis are especially salient.

By suggesting that the Duma's action last week might call into question the legal continuity of the Russian state, Yeltsin is in effect making the decision to dissolve the USSR into the birth certificate of the Russian Federation. Not only does that make Russia just as much a "newly independent" state as any of the other former Soviet republics, but it also could lead to questions about Yeltsin's own standing since he was elected president of a pre-existing entity but not of the Russian Federation as such. While that may be of only legal interest, it could lead to some political questions about his right to act as he did after 1991 and especially during his conflict with the old Russian Supreme Soviet in October 1993.

Moreover, by raising the question of legal continuity of the Russian Federation, Yeltsin has willy-nilly put that question on the table for the other former Soviet republics that are now independent and internationally recognized states.

In most cases, these countries have not focused on the issue of legal continuity either, and Yeltsin's comments will be of interest only for legal specialists. But in the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, where the principle of legal continuity has been at the center of national self-definition, Yeltsin's decision to raise this issue could matter and even backfire on Moscow.

In the Baltic case, the principle of legal continuity from the 1920s was and has remained the basis for statehood. It also lay at the foundation of the West's policy of non-recognition of the forcible incorporation of the Baltic states into the Soviet Union. And at present, it remains a bone of contention between Moscow and her Baltic neighbors.

Nowhere is this more true than in Moscow's ongoing disputes with Estonia. Tallinn has insisted that the 1920 Treaty of Tartu be the basis for legal continuity of the Estonian state. Moscow continues to dispute that and explicitly rejects the principle of legal continuity for Estonia from 1920. But now that President Yeltsin has raised the issue of legal continuity for Russia, the Estonian side will certainly advance its case more vigorously -- something Yeltsin certainly did not intend when he raised the issue in the first place.