War of Laws

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The War of Laws (Russian: Война законов, Voyna zakonov)[1] was the series of conflicts between the central government of the Soviet Union, and the governments of the Russian Federation and other constituent republics during the so-called "parade of sovereignties" in the last years of the USSR (1989–1991), which eventually contributed to the dissolution of the union. When Soviet premier Mikhail Gorbachev and the Communist Party of the Soviet Union decided to formally release their control of Soviet Socialist Republics, the individual governments began to reassert their own sovereignty and dominance in their respective areas. This included making their own laws separate from the USSR and refusing to pay taxes to the Moscow government. This worsened the Soviet Union's economic disintegration, and was a major factor in its 1991 collapse.[2]

Early conflicts[edit]

In 1989-91 legislative gridlock developed between the Soviet government and its union republics. Multiple laws were passed by the republics' governments giving them jurisdiction over their own territory; these were overturned by Moscow as unconstitutional. In response, the republics officially stated that Moscow's rulings were not relevant to the matter over which the original law had been passed. This led to a constant conflict over constitutional wording and whether the republics or Moscow were supreme in the law.

The republics began to assert their sovereignty over their regions: first Estonia in 1988, followed by the other 14 in 1990. Native languages were readopted instead of Russian, alienating some large cities made up of Russian citizens, which in turn led to attempts to create or recreate even more individual, smaller republics. These new governments continued the war of laws by rejecting new laws passed by Moscow and creating their own. While sometimes the laws passed by the republics were contradictory, they were largely almost identical to those being passed in Moscow, forming a system of what was termed "parallel power".[3]

For instance, Tatarstan, having a plurality population of Muslim Tatars, declared itself an independent state with the right to self-determination in 1990 and claimed ownership of its massive oil reserves. It set itself free of Russian law and Russian taxes as did many of Russia's 89 regions.[4][5]

Collapse of the USSR[edit]

As the splits became more and more pronounced, the Soviet government began speaking of returning to the status quo by means that wouldn't have been considered before. Gorbachev responded to this by putting marketization and reform on hold in order to focus on reorganizing the USSR in order to maintain its unity. The Treaty of the Union was made that gave more control to the republics over their own affairs, an attempt to keep them in the Union. However, this act was far too late and no amount of publicizing made the republics change their minds from withdrawal.[3]

The vacuum of power that had been created was filled with the arrival of Boris Yeltsin, who attempted to gain support for himself while denouncing Gorbachev. Gorbachev, and the Kremlin, responded with a censure of Yeltsin and his remarks.[6]

The anti-government feelings were influenced further by the August Coup that involved the attempted overthrow of Gorbachev. It was put down, but with the effect of destabilization that reduced Gorbachev's power drastically. Control of the situation moved toward the republics and Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia were given independence. The other twelve republics settled on much less strict forms of Soviet governance. The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics was declared ended officially with the signing of the Belavezha Accords between Russia, the Ukraine, and Belarus.

The result of the signing was the Commonwealth of Independent States, which still exists today, and the resignation of Gorbachev. He was replaced by Boris Yeltsin, new leader of a post-Soviet Russia.

Issues in a new Russia[edit]

While Yeltsin's rise was timely and seemed to express a new future for Russia, he faced considerable opposition in implementing laws vital to the continuance of Russia. Those members previously Soviets were largely stripped of power, replaced with other Russian citizens, though many Soviets were able to switch over to a nationalistic stance and retain their positions.

After the new government reorganized itself, Yeltsin found himself in a position that should have offered him the ability to change Russia as he saw fit, but this was undermined by the Russian parliament. Another war of laws began between Yeltsin and parliament, a conflict that also trickled through the lower echelons of the government. Pressured to find a way to go around the parliament, Yeltsin made major concessions to his subject regions with the signing of the Federal Treaty in an attempt to gain their favor in his legal battle. He even went further with the creation of the Russian Constitution that gave more powers to the republics still affiliated with Russia.[7]

The Georgia-Abkhazia War[edit]

Georgia, a country in the Caucasus region, near where the Middle East meets Europe and Asia, has frequently been the source of conflict in recent decades. These conflicts have arisen between itself and its seceded partially recognized republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The ongoing war between Georgia and Abkhazia has resulted in repeated interventions from Russia, the regional power.

With Abkhazia originally part of the Georgian republic, its people were under the rule of the Georgian government and, consequently, under the rule of Stalinist Russia. The migration of Russians to Georgia and then the further movement of Georgians into the region of Abkhazia raised nationalistic fears there. Petitions to Moscow for allowed separation went unanswered, but a policy preferential toward the Abkazians began to emerge. The ethnic tension that resulted because of this, especially during détente, was a sign of the oncoming war.

As the latter half of the 1980s ended, the Soviet Union began showing signs of its imminent fall. 1988 saw the creation of numerous national movements in both countries, often aimed harmfully at the other. Georgia began the movement of separation from Russia at the expense of the Abkhazians. In response, the Abkhazians officially announced their secession from the Georgian republic.

The Soviet intervention on April 9, 1989, resulted in the "Tbilisi Massacre". This event pushed the Abkhasians even further away from Georgia in an effort to show themselves as pro-Soviet and the Georgians as offending anti-communists. In an effort to stave off further resentment against itself for invading again, Russia left the region alone to its own whims. What came from this was a war of laws between Georgia and Abkhazia.[8]

Russia's modern War of Laws[edit]

With Vladimir Putin's rise to presidency in 2000, a much more rigid, "unified" Russia was expected to form. While the constituent republics had obtained a large amount of autonomy and sovereignty after the USSR collapse, their constitutions still considered them to be unified with Russia in one form or another. Putin's presidency led to the passing of several regulations pushing reintegration.

Tatarstan was the republic that led the way for regional autonomy, the main region pushing for the policy of "official asymmetry." This stance was imperiled by the creation of legislation known as "federal intervention", in which the president of Russia can remove any leader of a republic and dissolve the republic's legislature if the region twice refuses to obey court decisions in Moscow.

In response, the courts were bombarded with cases in an attempt to change the law, but this only led to further disintegration of laws protecting the regions. Tatarstan was forced to reword its constitution to foster closer ties with the Russian government. The capital, Kazan, made these conciliatory moves while still remaining independent in some forms. However, nationalistic movements sprouted among the people and the reintegration of Tatarstan became one filled with strife and conflict.[9]


  1. ^ Война законов (War of Laws) in a Russian on-line legal dictionary
  2. ^ The Revenge of the Past: Nationalism, Revolution, and the Collapse of the Soviet Union, Ronald Grigor Suny, Stanford University Press, 1993, ISBN 0-8047-2247-1 Retrieved on 2009-04-25
  3. ^ a b Sharlet, Robert S. (1992). Soviet Constitutional Crisis: From De-Stalinization to Disintegration. M.E. Sharpe, Inc. p. 89. ISBN 1-56324-063-7. Retrieved 2009-04-25.
  4. ^ Bohlen, Celestine (2000-03-09). "Russian Regions Wary as Putin Tightens Control - The New York Times". nytimes.com. Retrieved 2009-04-25.
  5. ^ "Declaration On the State Sovereignty of the Republic of Tatarstan : The Republic of Tatarstan". tatar.ru. Retrieved 2009-04-25.
  6. ^ Fein, Esther (1991-02-21). "Kremlin Hits Back At Yeltsin Demand - The New York Times". nytimes.com. Retrieved 2009-04-25.
  7. ^ Ross, Cameron (2002). Federalism and democratisation in Russia. Manchester University Press. p. 173. ISBN 0-7190-5870-8. Retrieved 2009-04-25.
  8. ^ Petersen, Alexandros (August 2008). "The 1992-93 Georgia-Abkhazia War: A Forgotten Conflict". Caucasian Review of International Affairs. cria-online.org. 2 (3): 187–199. Retrieved 2009-04-25.
  9. ^ Hahn, Gordon M. (2002-03-29). "Russia's and Tatarstan war of laws". The Russia Journal. russiajournal.com (154). Retrieved 2009-04-25.