Nastuh Abootalebi

Researcher Sevanna Poghosyan’s PhD project discussion

We are happy to invite everyone to the researcher Sevanna Poghosyan’s PhD project discussion
On Monday, 17 June 2024 at 16:00 a research kitchen event will take place in which PhD student at the University of Tartu School of Sevanna Poghosyan introduces her soon to be ready PhD project “Soviet and Russian Approaches to Democracy and Self-Determination in International Law".

The supervisor of the PhD thesis is Professor Lauri Mälksoo.

The event will be in zoom only.  If you are interested in attending the event, please register by Friday, 14 June 2024 at


Soviet and Russian Approaches to Democracy (and Self-Determination) In International Law

The central objective of this dissertation is the investigation of the characteristics of Soviet and Russian approaches to democracy and self-determination within the framework of democratic entitlement theory in international law. This objective is grounded on the assumption that Soviet and Russian approaches share similar traits, given the doctrine of state continuity in international law, which Russia claimed formally following the collapse of the USSR. This research first examines the international legal framework on democracy and self-determination, followed by Soviet and contemporary Russian interpretations and applications of these concepts in international law, primarily focusing on their state practice and legal doctrine. Ultimately, the study aims to see whether there has develped a distinct Russian approach to democracy in international law. It focuses on focal points when Soviet and Russian approaches to international law were distinctly pronounced and challenged the universality of international law (the Soviet position during the decolonisation period and Russia’s position in the post-2000 period). The main findings reveal a rather complex and multifaceted picture of Moscow’s approach to democracy (and self-determination) in international law, which can be summarised as follows, 

  1. During the period studied, the Soviets formally advocated a distinct approach to democracy and self-determination in international law, rooted in Marxist-Leninist principles and counter-Western socialist international law and having a classless communist society rather than the political independence of nations or individual rights as end goals. In international law, the Soviets emphasised collective, specifically social and economic rather than political rights. They also underscored an external dimension of democracy that emphasised anti-imperialism and favoured sovereignty and non-interference in national governance. Nevertheless, their practice was somewhat flexible and reflected double standards domestically and abroad, aligning with foreign policy goals and self-interests. This conclusion is primarily supported by an analysis of the Soviet Union’s participation in the negotiations of the UDHR and the 1966 ICCPR. The examination of the writings of Soviet legal scholars further reinforces it.
  2. The contemporary Russian approach to democracy and self-determination, despite assertions of continuity with Soviet doctrine, has formally evolved along the lines of Western liberal democratic ideas, albeit without accepting democracy as a hard legal right under public international law. However, Russia’s approach is remarkably flexible, advocating for a blend of universalist and particularist principles that simultaneously critique and reinforce Western ideas of democracy and self-determination in international law. In contrast to the distinct alternative proposed by the Soviets, modern Russia has not presented a clear conceptual divergence from its Western counterparts. Russia, just like the Soviets, emphasises sovereignty and non-interference in domestic affairs and utilises the antiimperialist discourse, focusing predominantly on the external dimensions of democratic relationships within international law. Its international legal practice also shared similarities with the Soviets in revealing double standards domestically and abroad, serving geopolitical end goals. This assessment is primarily based on statements from high-ranking Russian officials and the views of legal scholars.
  3. The Soviet and Russian approaches to democracy, while distinct in their ideological origins and foundations, share a common emphasis on sovereignty and non-interference, rejecting any external scrutiny over their domestic matters. This similarity manifests in their state practices, which are selective and ambiguous, tailored to achieve realist objectives. Nevertheless, despite these commonalities, it is challenging to assert the existence of a distinct, unique Russian approach to democracy that also encapsulates the Soviet approach. Even focusing solely on contemporary Russia, the characteristics observed throughout this dissertation do not sufficiently diverge from established standards in international law to qualify as a unique approach. Instead, contemporary Russian strategies formally largely align with the prevailing international status quo, offering no new or solid conceptual alternatives. 
  4. While Russia has not developed a unique approach to democracy (and self-determination) distinct from the international legal framework grounded on Western liberal principles, it still paradoxically challenges and simultaneously affirms these Western principles through its flexible legal discourse and practice. This ambiguity has far-reaching effects on the universalisation of democratic entitlement in international law, as maintaining uncertainty around the definition application may dilute its original intent and create diverging legal standards.  Conversely, it also underscores and reinforces the fundamentally contested nature of democracy in international law, a tale that has not started nor will end with Russia.



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