February 17, 2020

Russia’s Ambivalent Position in International Law:  A Civilizational Narrative

By Punsara Amarasinghe

Russia’s unique geographic position and its own diverse culture twisted with Euro-Asian values have placed the country at the nexus of different civilizational norms. Perhaps, the obvious question that one can raise is the exact validity of a civilizational perspective on deciding the international image of the country. In such a context the civilizational legacy embedded within Russia throughout its history should be taken into consideration as the most pivotal fact in carving its global role. In particular, its history stemming from Orthodox roots that legitimized the centrality of the ruler and the importance of authority has always been Russia’s guiding principle in its history. The values which are predominantly important to Western democracies such as individual liberty, freedom of expression and personal space have always been regarded with a sense of skepticism in Russia. Nevertheless, it was not because Russia does not value liberty or human freedom, but it is important to understand Russia’s approach to human rights, international law and other global political practices that are a consequence of Russia’s civilizational uniqueness.

Especially, the Russian approach to international law and its existing anomalies with the Western notion of international legal standards is an interesting topic regardless of its complex nature. The twisted geographic position that paved the path to create Russia as a thriving civilization between Europe and Asia is a notable factor that kept Moscow aloof from the political developments that took place in Europe. It is not an exaggeration to say that Russia was not touched by the effects of Westphalia till Peter the Great exposed the country to Europe, with the famous jurist of his court Peter Shafirov codifying the first international legal text of the Russian Empire. However, the international legal scholarship and Russia’s role in European international law-making, such as the Hague conferences 1899 and 1905, were completely uprooted by the events that took place in 1917. The state that emerged in the aftermath of the Bolshevik revolution was grounded in Marxist-Leninist ideology which inherently rejected the faith in international law as an oppressive tool operated by capitalist states. However, the reluctance of admitting the universality of international law and its norms were withered away during the Stalinist period with the emergence of new jurisprudential schools that accepted the applicability of international law as a tool to advance the socialist cause. As an example, Soviet jurist Grigori Tunkin advocated for the peaceful co-existence of states through international law.

However, Russia and its juristic approach to international law have always taken a rather ambivalent position regardless of its time-space. From the imperial Tsarist regime up until the end of the Soviet era, Russia showed its civilizational uniqueness in adhering to international law. Many anticipated with some sanguine hopes that Russia would return to Europe after the collapse of their communist empire: a hope that was fuelled by the sense of optimism shown by Boris Yeltsin when Russia officially joined the European Court of Human Rights in 1998. Many pundits described it as an act symbolizing Russia’s yearn to embrace European values as she did under Peter in the 18th century.

Nevertheless, Russian’s interpretation of international law in the post-Soviet space did not entirely transform its stance into a more lenient one. This became fully evident with the invasion of Georgia and the annexation of Crimea, coupled with the constant reports on human rights abuses that have raised a big question mark before contemporary international legal arenas. It seems to indicate that Russia’s historical uniqueness of being separated from western Europe still shapes its legal thinking. For instance, Russia’s denial of admitting individuals as a subject of international law stands as a pivotal feature in post-Soviet confrontation with western international law. The abundant attention upon state sovereignty over any other right has not been forsaken in the post-Soviet era. Perhaps, in examining Russia’s role in the aftermath of the Crimean crisis, it would be easy to conclude that Russia has fervently deviated from European liberal values. President Putin’s remarks at the Federal Assembly in 2002 on upholding its state supremacy can be interpreted as a continuation of Russia’s state policy on maintaining their vastness as it was preserved under the Tsars and Communists. In addressing the Federal Assembly in 2002, President Putin said “All our historical experience testifies: such a country as Russia many live and develop in the existing borders only if it is a powerful state. Maintenance of the state in a vast space, preservation of the unique community of the people while keeping strong positions of the country in the world – that is not only enormous work”.

Above mentioned statements made by Putin in 2002 aptly show why Russia is heavily concerned about her territorial sovereignty while keeping low enthusiasm over issues such as individual and human rights. Nonetheless, the civilizational lense examining the differences between Russia and the West is a double-edged sword as Russia’s real position in international law appears more and more ambiguous. In fact, we cannot entirely exclude Russia from the European civilization and its intellectual influences but, at the same time, locating Russia entirely in the Asian geopolitical space gives us even less room for evaluation. This twisted dilemma has perhaps sharpened Russia as a unique civilization and the sui generis practice Russia upholds in international law can be regarded as an offshoot of this civilizational uniqueness. The argument I illustrated above regarding the reluctance of Russia throughout its history in denying to accept individuals as subjects of international law shows the country’s dogmatic views inevitably clashing with western values and, ironically, this position has undergone few changes in the annals of history, from the Tsarist regime to the present-day Russian Federation.

During the period of the Soviet Union, any effort to uplift individual rights or admitting individuals as subjects of international law was nipped in the bud by the vehement opposition of Soviet jurists. The latter in fact argued that bringing individuals as a subject of international law would ultimately lead to the demise of state sovereignty and the propagation of capitalist, western liberal values. However, the fact that state-centrism prevails in Russian international law scholarship even after the fall of communism proves the continuity of Soviet tradition as an inherent part of modern Russian international law.

In seeking the civilizational roots of the Russian approach to international law, we need to further investigate the puzzling debate that remains unanswered about Russia’s destined position in the civilizational order. Contemporary Russia keeps one foot in European space, with its institutional legacies being intrinsically tied to  Peter’s Europeanization. However, simultaneously, the country keeps its other foot well planted within its unique civilization, in part as a demonstration of its critique of European liberal values. The old-aged antagonism between Orthodox Russia and Europe seems to have been resurrected as Russia still adheres to its Muscovy tradition of Orthodoxy while Europe reciprocates it with a sense of skepticism. It is, therefore, a fact and not a conjuncture that the notion of civilization has solidly made a strong impact on Russia’s attitude to international law.

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