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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 Russia as a country with a blend of civilizational values. Perhaps, the obvious question that one can raise is the exact validity of a civilizational perspective on deciding the international image of a country. In such a context the civilizational legacy embedded upon 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 appreciated the centrality of the ruler and legitimacy of authority has always been Russia’s guiding points 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 the liberty or human freedom, but it is important to understand Russia’s approach human rights, international law and many other global political practices have been born out 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 complex nature. The twisted geographic position that paved the path to create Russia a civilization thrived between Europe and Asia is a notable factor which kept Russia aloof from the political developments took place in Latin Europe. It is not an exaggeration to say that Russia was not touched by the effects of Westphalia till Peter the Great exposed Russia to Europe and the famous jurist of his court Peter Shafirov codified the first international legal text in Russian empire. However, the international legal scholarship and Russia’s role in European international law making such as Hague conferences 1899 and 1905 were completely uprooted by the events that took place in 1917. The state emerged in the aftermath of Bolshevik revolution was grounded on Marxian 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 school that accepted the applicability of international law in world 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 rather ambivalent position regardless of its time space. Since the imperial Tsarist regime to the Soviet era, Russian had shown their civilizational uniqueness in adhering to international law. Many anticipated with some sanguine hopes Russia would return to Europe after the collapse of their communist empire and this hope was fuelled by sense of optimism shown by Boris Yeltsin when Russia officially joined 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 18th century. Nevertheless, Russian position of international law in Post-Soviet space did not entirely transform into a lenient one. Especially, the crisis erupted after annexation of Crimea and the constant reports on human rights abuses have raised a big question mark before international legal practice in contemporary Russia.

It seems to indicate that Russia’s historical uniqueness of being away from Latin 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 rights has not been forsaken in post-Soviet era and perhaps in examining Russia’s role in the aftermath of Crimean crisis that one can regard Russia has fervently deviated from European liberal values. President Putin’s remarks at Federal Assembly in 2002 on upholding its state supremacy can be regarded as Russia’s state policy on maintain their vastness as it was preserved under Tsars and Communists unchanged. 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 statement made by Putin in 2002 aptly convinces why Russia is heavily concerned about her territorial sovereignty while keeping low enthusiasm over issues such as individual rights, human rights. The civilizational difference between Russia and the West has become double edged sword as Russia’s real civilizational position in international law appears ambiguous. In fact, we cannot entirely exclude Russia from European civilization and its intellectual influences, but in the same time the space to locate Russia in Asiatic geo political space gives less significant factors. 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 some less changes in the annals of history since Tsarist regime to present Russian federation.

During the period of Soviet Union that any effort to uplift individual rights or admitting individuals as subjects of international law got nipped in the bud with vehement opposition of Soviet jurists. Soviet opposition pointed out brining individuals as a subject of international law would lead to undermine state sovereignty and propagate western liberal values. However, the stanch state centrism prevails in Russian international law scholarship even after the fall of communism convinces 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 remains unanswered about Russia’s destined position in civilizational order. Contemporary Russia keeps one foot in European space and its institutional legacies reminding of Peter’s Europeanization, but simultaneously it keeps other foot in its unique civilization as a critique of European liberal values. The old aged antagonism between Orthodox Russia and Latin Europe seems to have resurrected from a different way as Russia still adheres to its Muscovy tradition of orthodoxy while Europe reciprocates it with a sense of scepticism. It is a fact and not even a conjuncture that notion of civilization has solidly made some strong impacts in Russia’s attitude to international law.

Punsara Amarasinghe is a PhD researcher at institute of law and politics, Scuola Superiore Sant Anna in Pisa, Italy. He holds LL.M in International Law from South Asian University, New Delhi and completed one year fellowship at faculty of law, Higher School of Economics in Moscow.

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