Iseseisvusdeklaratsioonid 1776–1918. The Estonian Declaration of Sovereignty: An Example of the Civilizing Force of Hypocrisy

Hent Kalmo


Sovereignty has been characterised as a form of “organized hypocrisy”, a system governed by a set of rules that are generally recognised as binding and yet are continually infringed upon by the most powerful actors. This idea can be extended to analyse the role of sovereignty within the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union was nominally governed by a Constitution which endowed the Union Republics with the right of secession, but there was no realistic possibility of exercising this right. One should not rush to conclude, however, that the actual wording of the Soviet Constitution of 1977 was entirely without relevance. As Jon Elster has argued, hypocrisy can have a “civilizing force” when the need to appear impartial and to retain public credibility forces actors to choose a strategy they would not choose otherwise. A good example of this kind of argumentative constraint is offered by the dilemma faced by the Soviet leadership after the mid-1980s, as it became reluctant to use military force to suppress independence movements within the Baltic States while, at the same time, promising to give more weight to the Soviet Constitution and respect the “sovereignty” of the Union Republics. In this setting, the ambiguity of the word “sovereignty” could be played upon by a whole gamut of political movements in order to further their agenda, from local communists eager to expand their autonomy within the Soviet system to those making an explicit bid for the restoration of independence. Significant legal and political changes could be justified as mere conclusions from the constitutionally recognised status of the Union Republics – a strategy which was all the more effective as Moscow struggled to formulate an alternative line of constitutional interpretation that could be used to counter the Baltic claims. This exchange of opinions escalated into a constitutional conflict in November 1988, when the Estonian Supreme Soviet responded to proposed amendments to the Soviet Constitution (that would have curbed the rights of the Union Republics) by adopting a Declaration of Sovereignty, which effectively made the application of Soviet legal acts optional in the terrirory of the Estonian SSR. The Soviet leadership reacted in a confused manner, as it first responded positively to the Declaration, then condemned it as illegal, but also admitted that it was an expression of legitimate concerns. The fact that the notion of sovereignty was an important part of the orthodox Soviet constitutional doctrine, and the apprehension that the Estonian interpretative position might diffuse into other Union Republics, induced the Politburo to orchestrate a highly publicised denunciation of the Declaration. But this had the paradoxical effect of casting the Declaration as something that could be discussed, i.e. as something that deserved an argued rebuttal. In a way, the Politburo thus contributed to making the Estonian Declaration into a model that was later copied by almost all the Union Republics as they started either to head towards independence or jockey for a better position in the negotiations over the new Union Treaty, drafted in haste by the part of the Soviet leadership that was willing to opt for a confederate solution. The debate over the nature of Soviet federalism and its political aftermath illustrates the fact that a constitution which lies dormant under an authoritarian regime as a document of cynical hypocrisy has the potential to become a focal point for the formulation of political demands when circumstances change. The options open to the Soviet leadership in responding to the steps taken by the Baltic independence movements were clearly influenced, at least to some extent, by the vocabulary it was able to draw on to justify its response, especially since it had recently vowed to take the Soviet Constitution seriously in the future. Under propitious circumstances, its own hypocrisy could indeed exert a civilizing force on the behaviour of an authoritarian regime.

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