Russia's membership in the United Nations
after the dissolution of the Soviet Union
in 1991, was the succession of the Soviet Union
's seat, including its permanent membership on the UN Security Council
. The succession was supported by the USSR's former members and was not objected to by the UN membership; Russia accounted for about half the Soviet Union's economy and most of its land mass; in addition, the history of the Soviet Union
began in Russia. If there was to be a successor to the Soviet seat on the Security Council among the former Soviet republics, these factors made Russia seem like a logical choice. Nonetheless, due to the rather inflexible wording of the United Nations Charter
and its lack of provision for succession, the succession's technical legality has been questioned by some international lawyers.
Chapter V, Article 23 of the UN Charter, adopted in 1945, provides that "The Security Council should consist of fifteen Members of the United Nations. The Republic of China
, The French Republic
, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics
, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland
, and the United States of America
shall be permanent members of the Security Council."
(Actually, this is the amendend version. Originally there were only to be eleven members on the Security Council.)
The USSR collapsed in the early 1990s. Eleven of the twelve members of the Commonwealth of Independent States signed a declaration on December 21, 1991 agreeing that "Member states of the Commonwealth support Russia in taking over the USSR membership in the UN, including permanent membership in the Security Council." One day before the resignation of President Mikhail S. Gorbachev, Ambassador Y. Vorontsov transmitted to the UN Secretary-General a letter from President of the Russian Federation Boris Yeltsin stating that:
- the membership of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics in the United Nations, including the Security Council and all other organs and organizations of the United Nations system, is being continued by the Russian Federation (RSFSR) with the support of the countries of the Commonwealth of Independent States. In this connection, I request that the name 'Russian Federation' should be used in the United Nations in place of the name 'the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics'. The Russian Federation maintains full responsibility for all the rights and obligations of the USSR under the Charter of the United Nations, including the financial obligations. I request that you consider this letter as confirmation of the credentials to represent the Russian Federation in United Nations organs for all the persons currently holding the credentials of representatives of the USSR to the United Nations.
The Secretary-General circulated the request among the UN membership. There being no objection, the Russian Federation took the USSR's place, with Boris Yeltsin personally taking the Russian Federation's seat at the January 31
Security Council meeting.
The legality of the succession has been called into question by international lawyer Yehuda Z. Blum, who opined that "with the demise of the Soviet Union itself, its membership in the UN should have automatically lapsed and Russia should have been admitted to membership in the same way as the other newly-independent republics (except for Belarus
)." The elimination of Soviet (and subsequently Russian) membership on the UN Security Council would have created a constitutional crisis
for the UN, which may be why the UN Secretary-General and members did not object. This situation could have been avoided had all the other nations but Russia seceded from the USSR, allowing the USSR to continued existing as a legal entity.
A mere change of name by itself, from the USSR to the Russian Federation, would not have barred Russia from succeeding the USSR. Zaire changed its name to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and retained its UN seat. A change in the USSR's system of government likewise would not have prevented the succession; Egypt and many other countries have made a transition from monarchy to republic without jeopardizing their positions in international organizations. However, Blum argues that a key difference between these situations is that the Soviet Union was terminated as a legal entity. The 11 former members nations that supported the transfer of the seat to Russia also declared that "with the formation of the Commonwealth of Independent States the Union of the Soviet Socialist Republics ceases to exist." The poorly-defined rules on state succession make the legal situation murky.
Professor Rein Mullerson concluded that the succession was legitimate, identifying three reasons: "Firstly, after the dissolution, Russia is [sic] still remains one of the largest States in the world geographically and demographically. Secondly, Soviet Russia after 1917 and especially the Soviet Union after 1922 were treated as continuing the same State as existed under the Russian Empire. These are objective factors to show that Russia is the continuation of the Soviet Union. The third reason which forms the subjective factor is the State’s behaviour and the recognition of the continuity by the third States."
The Vienna Convention on Succession of States in respect of Treaties was not a factor in the succession because that Convention did not enter into force until 1996.
Effect on the United Nations
The transition led to increased debate on the relevance of the 1945 system of a Security Council dominated by five permanent members to the present world situation. Russians abroad notes that Russia is "only half the size of the former Soviet economy"; the transition thus marked a significant change in the entity exercising this permanent seat.
Mohamed Sid-Ahmed noted that "one of the five powers enjoying veto prerogatives in the Security Council has undergone a fundamental identity change. When the Soviet Union became Russia, its status changed from that of a superpower
at the head of the communist camp to that of a society aspiring to become part of the capitalist world. Russia's permanent membership in the Security Council is no longer taken for granted. The global ideological struggle that had for so long dominated the international scene is no more, and the new realities have to be translated into a different set of global institutions."
The years following the breakup of the Soviet Union have seen a dramatic increase in the number of proposals for Security Council reform. In 2005, Kofi Annan's report In Larger Freedom proposed finalizing arrangement to add more permanent seats as soon as possible. Campaigns to abolish the veto have also gained support, although their adoption is unlikely in the near future, since it would require the consent of the Permanent Five.
Global Policy Forum has several statements from the Permanent Five on file giving arguments for why the current system should be maintained. Russia, for instance, states the veto is necessary for "balanced and sustainable decisions".
Interchangeability of terms
Even while the Soviet Union was still in existence, outsiders used the term "Russia", when, strictly speaking they should have said "Soviet Union". Even Mikhail Gorbachev himself made this slip of the tongue on at least one occasion, only to immediately correct himself.
- Blum, Yehuda Z.: Russia Takes Over the Soviet Union's Seat at the United Nations, European Journal of International Law.
- Mullerson, Rein: The Continuity and Succession of States, by Reference to the Former USSR and Yugoslavia, (1993) 42 AJIL, p 476
- Russia Vetoes the Abolition of the Veto, Statement by a Representative of the Russian Federation in the Open-Ended Working Group on Security Council Reform on Veto Issue, Mar. 24, 1999.
- Chapter 6. The Economy, Russianabroad.
- Sid-Ahmed, Mohamed: P-5 Veto Outdated, Cairo Al-Ahram, July 8-14, 1999.
- United Nations Charter
- Vienna Convention on Succession of States in respect of Treaties