Eurasia’s Unrecognised ‘States’: Terrorist Separatists or Nations in Waiting?

Will Burke-Nash questions whether Eurasia's unrecognised states may one day achieve legitimacy

The Presidential Palace in Tiraspol, Transnistria. Photo by Frans Sellies via Flickr.

The Presidential Palace in Tiraspol, Transnistria. Photo by Frans Sellies via Flickr.

Whilst the news of Russia’s interventions in the Ukraine dominated countless headlines in 2014, what is surprising is that these actions are far from exceptional. Unbeknownst to some, Russia’s territorial ambition within Eurasia has existed indiscriminately for over two and a half decades. Although intervention in the Ukraine was perhaps more patent to a wider world audience, Russia has continued to provide direct support for two of Georgia’s breakaway states following their ‘independence’ and, in 2008, even recognized them both officially.

Many people have never heard of Abkhazia or South Ossetia, but these are both de facto ‘states’ that are internationally recognised by Russia, along with other nations it has pressurised, a list which includes Nicaragua, Nauru, Tuvalu, Vanuatu and Venezuela. It is not entirely improbable that ‘Novorossiya’, a region located within Ukraine’s southeast, will be the next name to add to the growing archipelago of Eurasia’s unrecognised states. The wider regional situation solicits answers to the double-edged question, therefore: To what degree should statehood be conferred upon these unrecognised states, and do they present a wider security threat to neighbouring states and those further afield?

Welcome to ‘Transnistria’

At face value, these ‘unrecognised’ states don’t really look much different from their hosts, and many other ‘recognised’ states for that matter, in terms of their institutional structure and political and economic functions. Take Transnistria, for example, an autonomous 4160 km2 stretch of territory wedged between the Moldovan-Ukrainian border with an accompanying population of over half a million. Transnistria has existed as an unrecognised state for over two decades, over which time the government has built up state capacity by developing systems for taxation and redistribution of wealth, along with an environment with clear rules and basic infrastructure to facilitate economic development. Although still at a nascent stage of institutional development, some of these de facto states have, on the whole, begun to embrace democratic principles by holding multi-candidate elections and allowing opposition groups to be represented in parliament.

A process of ‘nation-building’ has also been implemented, fostering a unique identity and a feeling of belonging to multi-ethnic Transnistrian state complete with Transnistrian state symbols and markers of civic identity, such as a Transnistrian passport. Transnistria also has its own border systems, which run along the Dniester River, its own currency, the ‘Transnistrian Rouble’, and even has its own post cards and stamps. In other words, to the untrained eye, Transnistria very much resembles a state; except, of course, officially, it is not.

What is perhaps most remarkable is that the level of ‘democratic development’ in these de facto states is not much weaker than the ‘recognised’ states from which they are seeking to break. Taking the Freedom House index on political rights, for example, Abkhazia scores an index of 5, only one point lower than its host Georgia, whilst Nagorno-Karabakh scores 6, the same as its host Azerbaijan.

The Importance of ‘Patrons’

In order to endure, however, these unrecognised states are often highly dependent on ‘patrons’ – external countries that not only recognise the de facto state but also offer tangible assistance in their quest for independent statehood, principally in the form of military security. In Abkhazia, Russia has a military presence of somewhere between 4000-5000 troops, whilst recent estimates put a number totalling 3000-4500 troops stationed in South Ossetia. Similarly, the armed forces of Nagorno-Karabakh and its external patron, Armenia, are highly integrated. Consequently, an attack on Nagorno-Karabakh by Azerbaijan would, in effect, also constitute an attack on Armenia.

Patrons also help these unrecognised states with a range of practical and financial problems, which help to ensure that these territorial enclaves are not cut off from the wider world. For example, since the 1994 ceasefire agreement, the border between Azerbaijan and Nagorno-Karabakh has been sealed off, leaving contact with the outside world to be redirected via the Lachin Corridor. Unsurprisingly, the de facto states do not possess their own country codes for telecommunications and their postage stamps are not recognised internationally. Some patrons have allowed de facto state citizens to obtain ‘national’ passports and duel citizenship so they can travel internationally because aviation companies are prohibited from flying into these territories. Patrons also offer a range of infrastructural and financial support in the form of loans; in 2010, for example, South Ossetia’s budget was covered 98.7% by Russian aid.

 A Regional Security Threat?

The problem with these unrecognised states is that they serve as a continual security threat, not only for neighbouring states, but also countries further afield, and are often portrayed as ‘warlord-controlled’ criminalised domains. For neighbouring states, these territories have, in the past at least, functioned as conduits through which prostitutes and migrants are trafficked, and illicit goods, such as heroin from Afghanistan, are smuggled into the European Union.

More worryingly still, some of these de facto states also act as an illegal market for military equipment and small weapons, with a large amount of Military hardware left over from the former Soviet Empire. Some, such as Transnistria, have in the past even produced their own weapons with their domestic steel resources. Indeed, Hezbollah and other terrorist organisations, for example, have reportedly bought weapons off the Transnistrians. Whether these claims have been exaggerated or not, the media and governments across the region have continued to label these separatist regions as terrorist enclaves, and therefore a danger to wider regional security. If at any point in the future the wider international community were to hold any serious concerns that these de facto states were acting as conduits for terrorist activity, this could pose one of the greatest threats to their chances of future statehood.

The Chances of Future Statehood

For these unrecognised states to have any chance of gaining legitimate statehood in the future, it is crucial that their institutional and democratic credentials are fully intact. Due to the precedent of the UN’s ‘standards before status’ policy in Kosovo, if these ‘states’ continue to build up their institutional strength, as some already are, it is likely that after a certain period of time they will present their case to the international community, seeking to prove that they have ‘earned’ sovereign status.

At present, therefore, the authorities of these de facto nations are engaged in a waiting game. This involves the further cultivation of ‘national’ identities as well as the building of independent economies that serve to erect both practical and psychological barriers between any future attempts at ‘reintegration’. Accordingly, the longer these unrecognised states ensure that conflict with their host states, from which they seek to secede, remains ‘frozen’, the greater their chances of attaining the legitimacy they desire.