When is a state a state? There is a multi-layered debate in politics and political science itself on this relatively simple question. Does a state exist if it possesses the three elements of a state – the people, the territory and the power of the state? And why are there state entities that fulfil all these criteria and are still not recognised? These simple questions are backed up by questions of law and, above all, of international politics.
Non-recognised states: states of second order?
If we answer this question with a yes, we should not forget that basically many of today’s recognised states themselves broke away from other states or were unrecognised at a certain point in time. Many of the examples also point directly to European countries – from the successor states of the Habsburg Monarchy and Czechoslovakia to the new states from the Balkans. For this reason, there are two ways of thinking about the status of non-recognised states: One approach considers non-recognised states to be a phenomenon, an exceptional case, while the other perspective perceives temporary non-recognition as part of the state development process.
But how do non-recognised states differ from recognised ones in terms of domestic policy? In many respects, they fulfil the same functions as recognised states: This is especially true of foreign policy. Non-recognised states also have a foreign policy, whereby the highest and permanent goal of such states is the recognition issue. Non-recognition, and with it the almost non-existent access to international organisations, poses great challenges to non-recognised states.
In other ways, states may be recognised but not fulfil all the criteria of a functioning state. Here one can take the example of Somalia, which is recognised but is considered a failed state, and on the other hand Somaliland, which is not recognised but is indeed a functioning state. In some cases, the non-recognised states are institutionally and democratically even better developed and more stable than their parent states. Among other things, this has to do with the fact that the non-recognised states develop more stable and democratic structures despite and because of their isolation and internal legitimacy. That is manifested on the one hand in the example of Nagorno-Karabakh, which is classified as partly free by the Freedom House Index, and Azerbaijan, which is classified as not free.
Why non-recognised states are not recognised
Why these states are not recognised has less to do with the functioning of the states per se than with the global political situation. More precisely, it is a deadlock when it comes to the recognition of new states. The difficulty lies not least in the fact that almost 190 states have already established themselves and are taking a negative stance towards new states out of fear of motivating secessions in their own countries. The countries of the Soviet Union and the original policy of the Soviet leadership have pre-programmed these problem areas – often for tactical reasons.
The so-called parent states play an essential role in the overall structure. “Parent states”, to which these territories de jure belong, tend to portray the unrecognised states as anarchic, lawless entities without any legitimacy. The “parent states” try to present the often more stable unrecognised states as an international, regional risk that must be fought. When it comes to the survivability of the unrecognised state, the dependence on protectors, in the case of Nagorno-Karabakh for instance Armenia, is quite blatant. Through dependence or connection to the “protector”, non-recognised states bypass international isolation and can thus gain greater international acceptance. In many cases, the “protectors” support the non-recognised state politically, financially and militarily in order to maintain the status quo. If one assumes a large and strong “protector”, such as Russia”, the probability is high that de facto independence will be consolidated. If, however, there is no politically and militarily strong protective power for the non-recognised state, the probability is higher that the “parent state” will “reintegrate” the territories through military intervention.
Recognition does not always imply security: non-recognised states as geopolitical chump change
On the one hand, the widespread recognition of a state does not automatically lead to security guarantees and, at the same time, non-recognition does not automatically mean that these states are not viable. Israel, for example, is (partially) recognised or at least accepted by most states and the international community, but is still in a 70-year struggle for existence. Conversely, South Ossetia and Abkhazia, although hardly recognised internationally, are not facing an existential crisis due to Russia’s protective role. The price for this is political dependence.
Non-recognised states are also an important instrument for global and regional players to consolidate their position of power. This instrument is primarily – but not only – used by the Russian Federation as a means of exerting pressure to better control its immediate sphere of influence. Three main political tools are used here: on the one hand, Russia has consolidated its influence in these two unrecognised states by deploying peacekeepers in Abkhazia and South Ossetia and has gained leverage over Georgia through its military presence on the ground. Another instrument is the so-called passportisation of the population: citizens of the non-recognised states can obtain Russian citizenship through eased conditions. As a result, Russia can argue at the international level that a majority of Russian citizens live in these areas and that it feels obliged to ensure their protection. The protection of the Russian population abroad is part of Russia’s foreign policy doctrine and also offers good legitimacy under international law.
Non-recognised states function similarly as the recognised states, in some cases they are more stable. They often fulfil the criteria of statehood. And although they are largely isolated internationally, interactions between non-recognised states and international actors still occur. While non-recognition per se is not an ultimate obstacle to “inter-state” relations, it does pose political challenges for these states. International law as such is instrumentalised as a pawn of global players. Rather, international law is a political issue, a trial of strength between political blocs and a means to strengthen one’s own supremacy. The same international law that, in addition to the right of territorial integrity, provides the universal right of peoples to self-determination. It is always the people on the ground who suffer.