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

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Abstract:

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 i

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