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Russia: Analysis From Washington -- Sovereignty Shared Or Suppressed

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 5 September 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Russia's federal affairs minister said this week that it makes no sense to have one sovereign state within another, a statement that is contradicted by the experience of other federal countries around the world but that threatens popular sovereignty in Russia itself.

Speaking in Ufa on 2 September, Russian Federation Affairs, National and Migration Policies Minister Aleksandr Blokhin said that Bashkortostan, a republic in the Middle Volga region, has no sovereignty because the location of one sovereign state within another is "nonsense," RFE/RL's Tatar-Bashkir Service reported. Only the Russian Federation is sovereign, Blokhin said, not any of its constituent parts.

Blokhin's remarks appear to reflect part of Moscow's drive under President Vladimir Putin to restore central government control over the far-flung regions and republics of the Russian Federation. But there are three reasons why his comments are both problematic and threaten the very notion of popular sovereignty that lies at the basis of a democratic society.

First of all, the sovereignty declarations of the republics within Russia adopted a decade ago as the Soviet Union was disintegrating have played a key role in helping to manage the devolution of power from the hyper-centralized Soviet state. Moreover, as Bashkortostan's "Kyzyl tang" newspaper reported last week, these declarations, and especially the one by neighboring Tatarstan, helped the republics to affirm popular sovereignty and thus promoted federalism.

Had the republics not issued such declarations of sovereignty, the paper suggested, there would have been only two choices in the last decade: either the continuation of control from Moscow or a drive toward independence by the republics. These declarations, the paper continued, in effect prevented both, a contribution Blokhin ignores.

Second, Blokhin's assertion that there cannot be one sovereign state within another simply does not square with international practice. In most federal systems, including most prominently that of the United States, both the individual member states and the country as a whole are sovereign. Thus, the state of Virginia describes itself as a sovereign commonwealth, and the United States of America is also a sovereign nation.

That is possible because the sovereignty referred to at both the state and federal level refers to popular sovereignty, the rule of the people as expressed through their democratically elected representatives. In the U.S., there is a continuing tug of war between the powers of Washington and the powers of the state government, but no one on either side of the divide challenges the existence of what Russians might call matryoshka nesting-doll-like federalism.

Indeed, over the last decade there has been a revival of discussions of American federalism that identifies these shared sovereignties as being at the core of the nature of the American republic. Precisely because the states are sovereign, they can take actions that are not simply copies of central government plans. That not only allows for more variety and experimentation, but it serves as a check on the power of the central government.

And third, Blokhin's comments in the Bashkortostan capital call attention to a tendency in contemporary Russian political thought that may constitute one of the most serious obstacles to the development of liberal democracy in that country.

For Blokhin and for those who share his approach, sovereignty is less about popular rule than about the power of the state, an entity which stands above and beyond the society over which it rules. Such a conception of political life has a long history in Europe and Russia itself, but because it minimizes the role of the people in governing themselves, this conceptualization of sovereignty can represent a potentially serious threat to the prospects for democracy.

If the state rather than the people is the sovereign, as Blokhin maintains, then the state can swallow up the society rather than serve as the expression of the will of the people. And in that event, comments like Blokhin's in a Middle Volga republic this week may be the harbinger of something far more troubling than the simple cancellation of the sovereignty declarations adopted by Russia's republics a decade ago.