What's the difference between declaring sovereignty and declaring independence? Aren't those the same thing? Please help me make sense of the following sentence (but keep in mind that my question is general, it's not about Belarus per se):

Amid the crisis of central authority in the U.S.S.R. in the early 1990s, the Belorussian S.S.R. declared sovereignty (July 27, 1990) and independence (August 25, 1991).

(from here)


Sovereignty means the right to self-rule. Independence means the right to sole rule. A state can have sovereignty within its borders but still be part of a larger union: e.g., the states of the USA, or the nations of the EU. The quote means that Belarus declared self-rule first, and then formally left the USSR a year later.

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    @TedWrigley, if you used a dictionary rather than some treatise on international customary law, I'm going to add another downvote. Legal usage might differ. – o.m. Feb 28 at 19:26
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    @o.m. Why would the dictionary meaning be different than the legal meaning? What reason would there be for the two of them to ever be different? – Joe W Feb 28 at 20:03
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    @JoeW, professions develop professional jargon to have clarity for all those trained in the profession, even if that confuses outsiders. Take lawyers talking about a "credible fear." And to a mathematician, almost all humans have three legs, in the sense of "all but a finite subset of them" ... or "countable subset," depending on context. – o.m. Feb 28 at 20:12
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    @o.m.: Generally I don't rely on dictionary definitions or wikipedia entries, but this question is simply asking for the difference between two terms, and that difference is clear and simple. This isn't something difficult (e.g., like asking for a definition of 'political power'). Sovereignty means self-rule (having a government of its own); independence means existing without external dependencies (not being part of a larger union). I was simply objecting to a pugnacious call for citations on something trivial. – Ted Wrigley Feb 28 at 20:43
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    The definition argument is a red herring. – Schwern Feb 28 at 21:24


Sovereignty is a slippery term that has evolved over the centuries. The modern meaning traces back to the end of the Thirty Years War and the Peace of Westphalia known as Westphalian sovereignty, although even this is disputed.

The supreme, absolute, and uncontrollable power by which an independent state is governed and from which all specific political powers are derived; the intentional independence of a state, combined with the right and power of regulating its internal affairs without foreign interference.

Basically it says the sovereign is the "supreme authority within a territory". Nobody else can come in and meddle in your sovereign affairs.

Without a recognition of sovereignty it's unclear who is in charge of what and where. Without territorial sovereignty the ruler of Hereistan might decide they can tell the people in neighboring Theresburg what to do; Theresburg probably won't like that and might have to go to war to stop them. If Hereistan recognizes the sovereignty of neighboring Theresburg they agree not to do that; that would be a violation of Theresburgian sovereignty. Hereistan has to get permission from Theresburg to act within Theresburg.

Of course this still happens all the time, but it's recognized to be wrong.


"Independence" is even more slippery. It usually means internal and external sovereignty; the sovereign has sole control over all affairs within its territory, there is no higher authority.

The status of a fully independent state should be contrasted with that of dependent or vassal states, where a superior state has the legal authority to impose its will over the subject, or inferior, state.

One can have sovereignty over only certain things. Sovereignty can be very roughly split into internal and external sovereignty.

Internal sovereignty means authority over your own internal affairs, but not your relationship with other sovereign states. For example, US states have sovereignty over most things which lie wholly within their borders; other US states cannot interfere, nor can the Federal government (very over-simplified).

External sovereignty is authority over your relationship with other sovereign states. US states do not have external sovereignty; they are not allowed to make treaties with foreign countries. That power is reserved by a superior; the US Federal government.

The US is independent, no other state has legal authority to tell it what to do. US states are not, the US Federal government has legal authority in certain affairs.

Note that voluntarily entering into a treaty with another sovereign state does not violate sovereignty. The sovereign state gives the treaty authority within its borders. Note that things we call "treaties" negotiated by force such as unequal treaties or those imposed upon a defeated nation do violate sovereignty and independence.


The Declaration of State Sovereignty was made on July 27th, 1990, but it did not yet carry the full force of constitutional law until August 1991. I don't see any particular reason to call one "sovereignty" and the other "independence", it all seems to be about independence.

Let's go through the four major relevant events in Belarus's sovereignty/independence, then you can decide.

  1. Declaration of independence by the Belarus Supreme Soviet.
  2. Elevation of the declaration by the Belarus Supreme Court to Constitutional law.
  3. Official recognition of independence by the Soviet Union (by dissolving).
  4. Adoption of a new constitution.

July 27th, 1990 - Declaration

The Declaration of State Sovereignty of the Belarus SSR is adopted by the Supreme Soviet of Belarus SSR and renames their nation to the Republic of Belarus. This was a full declaration of sovereignty and independence.

...hereby solemnly proclaims the full state sovereignty of the Republic of Belarus as the supremacy, the independence, and the absolute state power of the Republic within its territory, the competence of its laws, the independence of the Republic in foreign relations, and declares its determination to establish a state, based on law.

Article 7 (1) Within the territory of the Republic of Belarus, the Constitution and the laws shall have supremacy.

Article 9 (1) The Republic of Belarus shall be independent in deciding on the questions of culture and spiritual development of the Belarusian nation, other national communities of the Republic, and in organizing its own system of information, education, and upbringing.

Article 11 (1) The Republic of Belarus shall independently exercise the right to enter into voluntary unions with other states and to withdraw freely from these unions.

However, this is still all happening within the framework of the 1978 constitution (which I don't have an English copy of, so my knowledge here will be spotty). The declaration cannot yet override the existing constitution.

25 August, 1991 - Elevation

Following a coup attempt by Soviet hard liners in Moscow, the Supreme Court of the Republic of Belarus gives the Declaration the constitutional law status necessary for it to be acted upon. The Soviet Union does not react. Belarus now has de-facto independence.

8 December, 1991 - Recognition

The Belovezha Accords are signed, the Soviet Union ceases to exist and is replaced with the Commonwealth of Independent States. Belarus's independence from the Soviet Union is now de-jure.

15 March, 1994 - New Constitution

As required by Article 12 of the Declaration...

The provisions of the present Declaration shall be implemented by the Supreme Soviet of the Republic of Belarus through the adoption of a new Constitution (Fundamental Law) of the Republic of Belarus, and laws of the Republic of Belarus.

...Belarus enacts a new constitution to replace its existing one from 1978.

Article 3 On the day on which the Constitution enters into force, the articles of the 1978 Constitution, together with any subsequent amendments and addenda thereto, shall cease to apply, unless otherwise specified in this Law, as shall the articles of the Law on granting the status of a constitutional law to the Declaration of the Supreme Soviet of the Republic of Belarus on the State Sovereignty of the Republic of Belarus of 25 Aug 1991.

  • As I explicitly said, my question was GENERAL, it wasn't about Belarus – Sergey Zolotarev Mar 1 at 5:46
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    @SergeyZolotarev - But you explicitly mentioned Belarus, too. You've got your general answer now. – Jirka Hanika Mar 1 at 9:50
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    @SergeyZolotarev You got both. :) Because the terms are so slippery, one can't make sense of the sentence without knowing what it's talking about. I still can't figure out why they say one is sovereignty and the other is independence. – Schwern Mar 1 at 15:36
  • So, in a nutshell, independence is sovereignty over internal + external matters. But in the declaration of sovereignty, Belarus professed its freedom to decide on external issues too. Your answer, respectfully, is a bit confusing – Sergey Zolotarev Mar 1 at 15:59
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    @SergeyZolotarev The situation is confusing. Like I said, they're slippery terms; just read that Oxford essay trying to define sovereignty. I can't help what the document is named. Goes to show it's important to look beyond the name and at the content. It's possible something was lost in translating the title to English, or some subtlety of Soviet/Belarusian law I'm not grasping, or it was just a trick to not alarm the Soviets. I guess one can say "independence" is a specific sort of sovereignty. – Schwern Mar 1 at 16:03

Basically, in this context, the Russian declaration of sovereignty came first (on 12 June 1990 vs Belarus 27 July) and the text of the Russian one is more easily accessible in English. The gist of it is reasserting that Russia was voluntarily participating the (new) USSR and it reserved for itself the right to secede unilaterally.

solemnly proclaims the State sovereignty of the Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic throughout all of its territory and declares its resolve to create a democratic rule-of-law State within a renewed USSR. [...]

The Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic shall be united with other republics into a Union on the basis of a Treaty. The RSFSR shall recognize and respect the sovereign rights of the union republics and the USSR.

The RSFSR shall retain the right of free secession from the USSR in the procedure established by the Treaty of the Union and legislation based thereon. [...]

In order to ensure the political, economic, and legal guarantees of the sovereignty of the RSFSR there shall be established: the jurisdiction of the RSFSR when deciding all questions of State and social life, except for those which it voluntarily transfers to the jurisdiction of the USSR; [...]

(emphasis mine) So basically, it was reasserting that RSFSR could leave the "renewed USSR" (but that it wasn't doing that, yet).

In December 1991 the USSR basically collapsed in its final incarnation. As Wikipedia summarizes:

On December 8, the leaders of Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus secretly met in Belavezhskaya Pushcha, in western Belarus, and signed the Belavezha Accords, which proclaimed the Soviet Union had ceased to exist and announced formation of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) as a looser association to take its place.

Note that national ratification of the Belavezha Accords took a bit longer, e.g. in Russia:

On December 12, the Supreme Soviet of the Russian SFSR formally ratified the Belavezha Accords, denounced the 1922 Union Treaty, and recalled the Russian deputies from the Supreme Soviet of the USSR. The legality of this ratification raised doubts among some members of the Russian parliament, since according to the Constitution of the RSFSR of 1978 consideration of this document was in the exclusive jurisdiction of the Congress of People's Deputies of the RSFSR.

These attempts to dissolve the Soviet Union were seen as illegal by what remained of the Soviet federal government. Gorbachev himself [declared that illegal]:

[...] The statement that Unionwide legal norms would cease to be in effect is also illegal and dangerous.

Which didn't matter, of course, as his power had slipped away. Anyhow

all doubts about whether the Soviet Union still existed were removed on December 21, 1991, when the representatives of 11 of the 12 remaining Soviet republics—all except Georgia—signed the Alma-Ata Protocol, which confirmed the extinction of the Soviet Union and restated the establishment of the CIS. Given that 11 of the republics now agreed that the Soviet Union no longer existed, the plurality of member-republics required for its continuance as a federal state was no longer in place. [...]

However, for four more days a rump Soviet federal government continued to exist, and Gorbachev continued to hold control over the Kremlin. This ended in the early hours of December 25, 1991, when Gorbachev resigned and turned control of the Kremlin and the remaining powers of his office over to the office of the president of Russia, Yeltsin.

Basically, the 1990 declarations of sovereignty were a reminder that the constituent states were voluntarily participating in the USSR and reasserted their right to secede unilaterally, but did not exercise it right away. This is why they weren't called declarations of independence.

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    I think the last paragraph would work well as a first paragraph, because it gives the answer in a nutshell. and the rest of the answer provides the evidence to back it up. – IMSoP Mar 1 at 22:21

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