27th Sep 2021


What Libya can learn from the Baltic states' constitutions

  • Muammar Gaddafi was Libya's dictator for 42 years. The question is how the country can put this era best behind it? (Photo: Martin Beek)

On 4 May 1990, the Supreme Soviet of the Latvian Soviet Socialist Republic declared the restoration of the Republic of Latvia and the Satversme - the Constitution of Latvia.

The Satversme dated back 70 years to when it was adopted by the Constitutional Assembly in 1922.

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Four articles were initially reintroduced before the remainder was reintroduced in 1993. Two years later, Estonia ratified its constitution, drawing on elements of the constitutions of 1920 and 1938.

Its ratification followed a resounding referendum, which saw 91.9 percent approval. Lithuania's new 1992 constitution was approved by a 75 percent vote, drawing on Lithuanian tradition.

This capped a remarkable few years for the Baltics following the five-decade aberration that was Soviet rule.

In November 1988, Estonia's Supreme Soviet passed a declaration of sovereignty and two years later, Lithuanian independence was restored with its northern neighbour, Latvia, following.

Russia began to withdraw its troops from the Baltics in August 1993. When Russia completed the withdrawal of its remaining 2,000 troops in August 1994, the Baltics had finally, "thrown off the yoke of communism".

Old new constitutions

Based on the Weimar Constitution and the Swiss Federal Constitution, the 1922 Satversme established a 100-member parliament, the Saeima, elected on the basis of proportional representation.

In the same year, the Lithuanian Constituent Assembly adopted a democratic consolidation closely resembling Western European constitutions. It protected citizens' rights and freedoms alongside democratic elections and political pluralism.

A coup in 1926 began the 'authoritarianisation' of Lithuania, with the 1922 constitution set aside in 1927.

The 1920 Estonian constitution followed an earlier Soviet recognition of Estonian independence by the Treaty of Tartu.

Establishing a parliamentary form of government, the constitution provided cultural autonomy for all minorities, a step ahead of many Western European states.

Unfortunately, the Baltic states' constitutions were replaced in 1940 by bills based on the 1936 Soviet Constitution.

In Estonia and Lithuania, the 1940 aberrations were replaced by constitutions based on the Soviet constitution, which guaranteed the 'leading role' of the Communist Party. Its ostensible commitment to political and civil rights was a facade.

While other Soviet republics struggled to create political and economic institutions, the Baltics, able to draw on not-too-distant past constitutions, rapidly progressed.

Their institutional and constitutional memories allowed them to advance far quicker than states which had spent longer periods under communism.

In this sense, they more closely resembled the non-Soviet Central and Eastern European states which came under communist rule after WWII.

Initially members of the so-called 'mortality belt' in the 1990s, alongside Russia, Ukraine, Moldova, and Belarus, began to converge with Western European levels.

Today, Estonian life expectancy rates rank above the European average.

The three states were invited to join EU membership negotiations between 1997 and 1999, formally invited to join in 2002, and joined Nato and the EU in 2004.

Today, Estonia's Freedom House score is the best among ex-communist countries who have joined the EU. Latvia and Lithuania rank third and fourth.

Libya - returning to the 1951 constitution

There are clear parallels with Libya. Libya's 1951 constitution offered expansive political and social freedoms which wouldn't have been out of place in Western Europe.

Unfortunately, like the Estonian and Latvian constitutions, it was replaced by a distorted and damaging creed - former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi's "Green Book".

Libya came to be ruled by a personality cult detrimental to rights and freedoms, much like Stalin's personality cult.

Like the Baltics, Libya's development was hindered for four decades.

Unsurprisingly, Libyans resorted to burning copies of the book. 2011 for Libya was the equivalent of the early 1990s for the Baltics - a chance to cast off damage done by decades of repression.

While the Baltics - despite sizeable Russian minorities - were motivated by national unity and a clear idea of where they were headed, divided Libya has succumbed to internal strife.

But Libya could, like the Baltics, move forward, if only it had a similar symbol of national unity.

There is clear support in Libya for the restoration of the 1951 constitution, as evidenced by grassroots movements springing up in its favour.

To bring a close to a period of national trauma, Libya can restore the 1951 constitution, with the monarch as a symbol of national unity.

What was crucial in the Baltics was a clear path forward - Libya has just that in its 1951 constitution.

For the constitution's restoration to become feasible, the situation on the ground must be stabilised.

Scheduled elections would likely be an insurmountable challenge, with low turnout undermining the legitimacy of the process. National elections would more likely sow division than mark the start of national reconciliation.

Ashraf Boudaoura was right to urge the UN to "give a chance to a constitutional monarchy."

A representative government - run as a technocracy in the meantime - with a hereditary monarchy as a symbol of national unity is the best bet for Libya if it is to move forward.

As with the Baltics, the reimposition of a constitution would serve as societal 'glue', enabling Libyans to finally put the memories of a most tumultuous decade behind them.

Author bio

Mitchell Riding is an analyst at CRI Group, a London based corporate intelligence consultancy.


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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