Unrecognized Geopolitics

7 february 2006

Sergey Markedonov, Ph.D. (History), is assistant professor at the Regional Studies and Foreign Policy department of the Russian State University for Humanities.

Resume: The problem of unrecognized states is often reduced to the formal, legal format. But unrecognized states as a phenomenon cannot be studied and understood exclusively in terms of formal jurisprudence. The very creation of those entities are facts of emotional, symbolic, social and cultural nature.

Unrecognized geopolitical entities (most importantly for our discussion, Nagorno-Karabakh, South Ossetia, Abkhazia and Transdniestr), if viewed from a formal, legal point of view, do not exist for the international community. Yet the “virtual” existence of those states does not prevent them from being real participants in the “Big Game” in the post-Soviet space. Many momentous events in Eurasia are connected in some way with political stratagems concerning ‘frozen conflicts’. The Americanization and Europeanization of the post-Soviet space was largely caused by the desire of the internationally recognized post-Soviet states (Georgia, Azerbaijan, Moldova) to regain military and political control over territories they had lost (unrecognized entities). The emergence of GUUAM (originally comprised of Georgia, Ukraine, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan and Moldova, and now known as GUAM after Uzbekistan withdrew from the organization in 2005) and the Community of Democratic Choice, which comprises nine countries from the Balkan, Baltic and Black Sea regions, as alternatives to the CIS was a reaction to Russia’s support for the unrecognized states.

The problem of unrecognized states is often reduced to the formal, legal format. Meanwhile, the issue is not simply a matter of complex legal cases. The conflicts between recognized and unrecognized states are not the usual interstate disputes. Unrecognized states as a phenomenon cannot be studied and understood exclusively in terms of formal jurisprudence. The very creation of unrecognized states and the beginning of the struggle for their recognition are facts of emotional, symbolic, social and cultural nature. Failure to take these facts into consideration makes impossible any effective settlement of ethnic conflicts that are an inevitable concomitant of these special state entities. The problem of unrecognized states is the best subject for research on the balance between legal and actual aspects of state-building (or nation-building, political legitimization). The 19th-century German writer and politician, Ferdinand Lassalle, spoke of two kinds of constitution – “formal” and “actual.” Analysis of the nature of unrecognized states would yield better results if made from the position of “actual” constitutional law.

Let’s start with the definition of the term “unrecognized states.” If it implies non-recognition by the international community, we must remember that today the international community itself, as an institution, is suffering a deep political, juridical and axiological crisis. Thus, both recognized and unrecognized states appeal to the international community, but they can hardly expect an intelligible answer. In the epoch of global postmodernism, which began after the collapse of the Yalta-Potsdam world system, the contours of the new world order are not clear yet; this hinders the development of criteria for the recognition of geopolitical entities as independent states.

What must be taken as the basic principle for an entity to be recognized as an independent state? Is the answer found in there being a single sovereignty over the given entity’s territory? But in that case, Georgia and Azerbaijan should not have been recognized as states because at the time of their official recognition neither exercised a single sovereignty over their entire territory. By 1991, Azerbaijan had actually lost control over the larger part of the territory of its Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Region (NKAO), and in 1994 it lost control over another seven of its administrative districts. In 1992, the Republic of Moldova lost control over the self-proclaimed Moldavian Republic of Transdniestr. In the same year, Georgia lost sovereignty over the larger part of its South-Ossetian Autonomous Region. In September 1993, Abkhazia proclaimed its independence from Georgia. In late 1991 to early 1992, and again in September 1996, Russia could confront similar problems when Chechnya left Russia’s legal and political space.


Russia, the European Union and the U.S. could act as guarantors to prevent the redivision of of property and power in the unrecognized states 


Incidentally, not all of the self-proclaimed states can ensure sovereignty over their territory. The boundaries of these states and those of the former Soviet autonomies (where the unrecognized states emerged) do not always coincide. In 1991, for example, the self-proclaimed Nagorno-Karabakh Republic (NKR), in addition to the territory of the former NKAO, included the Armenian-populated Shaumyan District. Presently, the NKR Self-Defense Forces do not control this district, as well as parts of the Mardakert and Martuni Districts of the former NKAO; hence the demands that Azerbaijan stop “the occupation of the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh.” The unrecognized sovereignty of Abkhazia does not apply to the Kodori Gorge (Abkhazian Svanetia). The administrative control of the unrecognized republic over the Georgian-speaking (or rather, Megrel-speaking) Gali District is very weak. South Ossetia does not actually control enclaves in the region populated by ethnic Georgians (for example, the Tamarasheni Village which in 2004 was visited by Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili’s wife Sandra Roelofs), while Transdniestr only partially controls the city of Bendery.

Political scientists and journalists often describe unrecognized entities as “self-proclaimed.” However, as political consultant Modest Kolerov reasonably remarked, this definition is not quite correct, because all major states in the contemporary world are “self-proclaimed.”

Perhaps it would make more sense to take the ‘credibility’ of a state as the main criterion for statehood? But then it will be obvious that state institutions (the army, police and bureaucracy) of the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic, for example, are much more effective than those of Azerbaijan. The same can be said for Abkhazia, whose state institutions are much more effective than Georgia’s (at least during Eduard Shevardnadze’s presidency), while Transdniestrian state institutions are no weaker than those of Moldova’s. In the opinion of German political scientist Stefan Troebst, the ‘credibility’ of unrecognized states is the main obstacle to proclaiming them as bandit enclaves; such enclaves do not need state symbols, or pretensions to legitimacy and, most importantly, connections to myths of state history. Meanwhile, the ideological systems of unrecognized states in the post-Soviet space are historical through and through. It would not be an idle question to ask: Which have more qualifications of a state – Afghanistan, Somalia and Liberia, which are nothing more than flags on the lawn in front of the United Nations headquarters, or the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic, Abkhazia or Transdniestr?

The biggest problem for the international community is that unrecognized states have been recognized by their citizens. One may accuse (and with good reason) the politicians of the NKR, Transdniestr, Abkhazia or South Ossetia of extremism, but their extremism rests on the mass support of the citizens of these states that do not officially exist. Any peace-making initiative aimed at settling disputes between the recognized and unrecognized states must take this extremism into account, otherwise the consequences may be grave.

Also, using such a criterion as ‘democracy’ to determine the legitimacy of a regime does not always work against the unrecognized entities. Authoritarianism and unrecognized entities are not synonymous. In the NKR, the head of the republic has already been elected three times (the last election was held in August 2002), and a precedent has been created for the transfer of the supreme republican power. The latest elections to the republican parliament were held in 2005.

Another example involves the UN-recognized mayoral elections in Yerevan, Armenia, which are only provided for by a package of constitutional amendments. By comparison, Nagorno-Karabakh has already held three elections to fill the posts of the local self-government bodies (in September 1998, September 2001, and August 2004). During the latest elections, Eduard Agabekyan, the leader of the oppositional Movement-88, was elected mayor of Stepanakert [the administrative center of the NKR]. Unlike internationally recognized Azerbaijan, the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic will never come out with an “Operation Successor” plan for the transfer of power from father to son, nor will it even discuss such a scenario. The unrecognized states of Abkhazia and South Ossetia have also created precedents for the transfer of supreme power through election procedures (noticeable from the transfer of power from Vladislav Ardzinba to Sergei Bagapsh, and from Ludwig Chibirov to Eduard Kokoity, respectively). At the same time, in internationally recognized Georgia all the post-Soviet presidents left their posts under coercion (the armed overthrow of Zviad Gamsakhurdia, and the revolutionary dismissal of Eduard Shevardnadze). The OSCE ignored the latest parliamentary elections in the Moldavian Republic of Transdniestr (December 11, 2005). Meanwhile, the new Election Code of Transdniestr provides for the obligatory presence of the “Against All” option in the ballot and clearly formulated procedures for recalling parliament deputies. In contrast to the recognized post-Soviet states, Transdniestrian laws provide that the invalidation of signatures in support of a candidate must be documented. Moreover, the chairman of an election commission of any level must sign all reports about violations (!).

Thus, the absence of formal international recognition of these contentious territories does not prevent them from being major political actors in the post-Soviet space.
Before we are able to solve the problem of unrecognized states, it is necessary to determine the reasons for their mass emergence in the early 1990s, which, in our opinion, involves an international and an internal factor (the latter is largely a socio-cultural one). This article does not analyze the reasons that led to the collapse of the Yalta-Potsdam system of international relations. Yet, several important aspects should be named. Two opposing processes usually explain the “funeral of the Yalta system:” the reunification of Germany and the breakup of the Soviet Union. However, it would be more correct to view the reunion of Germany’s “Ossies” and “Wessies,” and the disappearance of the superpower that occupied one-sixth of the planet’s landmass from the world’s political map, as a consequence. A more significant reason for the collapse of “the Yalta Peace” was the inner fundamental conflict within the “Yalta-Potsdam” international system – the conflict between the principles of territorial integrity and inviolability of the postwar international borders, on the one hand, and the right of ethnic minorities to self-determination, on the other. Both principles are fixed in all fundamental declarations and pacts of the United Nations.

The Yalta Peace was drafted by friends and rivals at the same time (the Versailles Peace did not know such a radical breach between recent allies) and was inevitably based on checks and counterbalances. In 1975, a summit meeting of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe in Helsinki sealed the results of the Second World War and solemnly proclaimed the postwar international borders inviolable.

At the same time, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights of the United Nations (adopted on December 16, 1966, and entered into force on March 23, 1976) says, “All peoples have the right to self-determination… In no case may a people be deprived of its own means of subsistence.” The Covenant legally sealed the right of a people to “its” territory and to the natural resources located within it. “Nothing in the present Covenant shall be interpreted as impairing the inherent right of all peoples to enjoy and utilize fully and freely their natural wealth and resources.”

This conflict opened up opportunities for double-dealing in international affairs. The Soviet Union, protecting the sacred right of ethnic minorities, appealed to freedom fighters for “national liberation” from the “colonial legacy,” while the U.S. and its allies were ready to defend “human rights” and the “values of freedom.” As a result, the two pillars of the Yalta Peace, who were at the same time the two “poles” of the international system, continued to strengthen through their actions the move toward ethno-separatism and, consequently, terrorism, in their struggle against each other.

In special cases it is possible to plead the need to preserve territorial integrity. Thus, the Soviet Union was right in suppressing various national movements in 1989-1991, including those in Georgia (the events of April 9, 1989) and Armenia (“Operation Ring” of the Soviet Union’s Ministries of the Interior and Defense in 1991 to disarm Armenian fedayeen units). In another case, this justification derived from the support of the ‘young democracies’ that had thrown down the gauntlet to the imperial regime. From the point of view of the Soviet Union’s need to protect its territorial integrity and state unity, one can agree with Abkhazian historians and political scientists who justify the position of the Abkhazians who sought to protect the territorial integrity of the Soviet Union against Georgia’s separatist efforts (in a March 17, 1991 referendum, Abkhazians voted for the preservation of the U.S.S.R.).

In any case, the defeat of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw bloc, together with the breakup of the external and internal Soviet “empires” (the liberation of Central and East European countries from the Soviet Union’s political control and the destruction of the Union itself) opened up the flood gates for the free navigation of ‘young democracies’ which built their ideologies on the principle of ethnonational self-determination. The new sovereign states of the former Soviet Union overtly or covertly converted the principle of nations’ right to self-determination into the principle of territorial integrity. Thus, ‘checks’ and ‘counterbalances’ were sacrificed for the cause of ‘nation-building.’

This volte-face resulted in ethnopolitical conflicts, which in some regions (especially in the South Caucasus) grew into armed hostilities. In the opinion of the president of the Georgian Foundation for Strategic and International Studies, Alexander Rondeli, these developments occurred because the elites in the newly independent states of the South Caucasus were unprepared for modern state-building. “The South Caucasus was a periphery of the Russian Empire; yet, it was more organically connected with the outer world than post-Soviet Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia, which turned sovereign states overnight, are connected now…” After the collapse of the Communist theory and practices in the ethnic republics of the Soviet Union, the idea of ‘internationalism’ was discarded, and the ideological vacuum was replaced by an idea supporting the ethnic ownership of land.

This new concept is centered on the idea of ‘one’s own’ land principle. The native land is viewed as a sacred thing, as something completely independent of its economic or geopolitical value. The Abkhazians are being offered a plan for the return of Georgian refugees to the Gali District where they used to make up an overwhelming majority. This is countered by an argument over Abkhazia’s ancient principality of Samurzakhano, which was one time populated largely by ethnic Abkhazians.

The Abkhazian elite is accused of carrying out ethnic cleansing against over 200,000 Georgians in 1993 (before the war, ethnic Georgians represented the largest ethnic group in Abkhazia, comprising more than 45 percent of its population). Abkhazia responds by citing statistics suggesting that in 1992, at the beginning of the armed conflict between Georgians and Abkhazians, Georgia had dominated the population of Abkhazia as a result of “Georgianization” of the Abkhazian territory, carried out by the leadership of the Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic. Abkhazia argues that Tbilisi’s coercive approach to the solution of the Abkhazian problem is unjustified, while Georgia reacts by saying that Abkhazia has always belonged to and been populated by the people of Georgia; thus nobody except Georgia, goes the argument, has the right to establish one’s will there. Similarly, Armenia argues that ethnic Armenians settled on the territory of present-day Nagorno-Karabakh earlier than the Azerbaijanis, while Azerbaijan insists that Azerbaijanis had states on the same territory (the Erivan, Nakhichevan and Karabakh khanates).

Given such approaches of the conflicting parties in the Caucasus, their socio-political “images” of the world will never coincide. For Georgians, for example, the struggle for South Ossetia will be the protection of Georgia’s Samachablo (the land of the Georgian princes Machabelis) or Shida Kartli (“Internal Kartli”), whereas for Ossetians this will be a struggle against the ‘smaller empire.’ Armenian “historiosophy” will focus on the anti-Armenian pogroms in Sumgait and Baku, while Azerbaijani “historiosophy” will place emphasis on the killings of Azerbaijanis at Khodjaly. Georgia will remember the ethnic cleansing of 1993, while Abkhazia will never forget the forced Georgianization, together with the invasion by Georgia’s State Council troops in August 1992.

As an ideological concept, ‘one’s own land’ presupposes the priority of ethnic collective ownership; the ethnos alone can be the supreme proprietor and manager of the land. As distinct from the substantiation of ownership rights in civil law, the ideology proclaiming the right to ‘one’s own land’ is interpreted arbitrarily, on the basis of historical presentism, without taking into account the real facts of the past. The fact that the constant application of the principle jus primae occupationis finally depreciates the concept of ‘one’s land’ is usually ignored. The leaders of the national movements do not perceive this as a logical contradiction. Indeed, if one follows this logic, Greeks will have the same right to Abkhazia as the Abkhazians or Georgians, while the Udis, an ancient Caucasian people, could also be recognized as an “interested party” in the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh.

The legitimacy of power in the new post-Soviet states was founded on the basis of the “blood principle” under the slogan of creating ‘one’s own’ states expressing the interests of ‘one’s own’ land. The implementation of this principle, however, ultimately planted a time bomb under the legitimacy of the new states and national entities. This legitimacy should be understood not only as the perception of power as legitimate, but also as the power expressing the interests of the citizens.

‘One ethnos, one state’ is not the best approach for ensuring the legitimacy of power in multi-ethnic and multi-confessional countries where there are many different ways to interpret the meaning of ‘one’s own land.’ Hence, the wish of the unrecognized states to build ‘their own land.’ These entities already have many attributes of actual statehood – state symbols, Cabinet, parliament, national budget, army, police and security agencies – and they have laid the foundation of their national ideology. However, born as a result of the “flight” from the illegitimacy of the recognized entities of the Commonwealth of Independent States, the unrecognized states now find themselves in the same trap. Abkhazia has proved to be alien to Georgians, just as Nagorno-Karabakh is alien to Azerbaijanis. It is a case of a vicious circle. Democracy Karabakh- and Abkhazian-style has proved to be ethno-democracy, that is, freedom for the ‘titular ethnos.’

However, it would be a serious mistake to interpret the expectations of the recognized and unrecognized entities in the post-Soviet space merely as utopias and illusions. After all, there is a thousand-year historical experience behind these utopias. Once the former Soviet republics gained their political freedom, these societies began to save what was most dear to them – their ethnic identity. However, while recognizing this fact one should not run into another extreme and overemphasize the civilizational and culturological “uniqueness” of the respective local mentalities.

If this “uniqueness” received impulses in an isolated geographical (geopolitical) space, that space could be recognized as a special ethnographic territory. But under the modern conditions of globalization, “challenges” deriving from the unrecognized states affect the interests of not only neighboring countries, but also European countries and the U.S. Hence, from pragmatic considerations, there is a need for international cooperation among the leading countries to ensure legitimacy in the post-Soviet space.

Russia’s support of seats of instability in the post-Soviet space has not brought it the predicted dividends. The pro-Armenian turn in Russian policy, together with Moscow’s support for the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic, backfired on Russia and resulted in the creation of the Cultural Center of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria (January 1995) and the Office of the Plenipotentiary of Ichkeria in Moslem Countries in Baku (1999). “Azerbaijan provided an invaluable help to us in accommodating refugees,” the head of the “Foreign Intelligence Service” of separatist Ichkeria, Hozh-Akhmed Nukhayev, said in an interview with the Baku-based Zerkalo newspaper in January 2000. Moscow’s efforts to correct the vector of its policy toward Baku in 2000-2001 led to the extradition of some Chechen separatists from Azerbaijan, together with the emergence of the Open Letter of Chechen Refugees to Azerbaijani President Heidar Aliyev. The letter lashed out at the Azerbaijan authorities for their “anti-Chechen policy.” In a separate event, Russia’s pro-Abkhazian policy backfired with the events in the Pankisi and Kodori Gorges in 2001-2002.

At the same time, it is obvious that the citizens of the unrecognized states pin their hopes for the solution of their social, economic and ethno-political problems on Russia. Simply “surrendering” them would be as inexcusable a mistake as was Moscow’s unilateral support in the early 1990s. The “surrender” of South Ossetia and Abkhazia would entail the destabilization of the ethno-political situation in North Ossetia, Adygea, Kabardino-Balkaria and Karachay-Cherkessia. Unilateral concessions from Russia in solving the Karabakh problem would prompt a strong negative reaction from the Armenian diasporas (the world’s largest, wealthiest and best structured).

How can the problem of unrecognized states be solved? First, for lack of mutual confidence and resources for the fulfillment of any guarantees, it is obvious that this problem cannot be solved through negotiations between these states and the countries from which they have broken away. This fact requires candid acknowledgement as opposed to politically correct hush-ups. Second, the solution requires pragmatic, rather than romantic, peacemaking. Otherwise, one can “let the inevitable occur” and resort to the “last argument of kings.”

Obviously, a “fatalistic scenario,” if implemented, would only bring about large-scale destabilization in the CIS. Thus, there is no alternative to pragmatic peacemaking. But pragmatic peacemaking will require giving up any speculative humanitarian plans, like an immediate return of refugees and granting special status to the breakaway unrecognized states. It must be understood that refugees are not “old men and small children,” but owners of commodities and property that was taken from them by other people long ago.

The introduction of refugees also means a change in the ethno-demographic situation and the inevitable question: “What was the use of all that struggle?” Obviously, questions like this are best left alone if one truly desires the interethnic conflicts to be settled. However, the refugees must be compensated, of course, for their material and moral damage, and international financial institutions must help fund their settlement in a new place.

However cynical such projects may seem, they offer the only chance to avoid a new redivision of property and spheres of influence, and an aggravation of interethnic relations in Abkhazia, Nagorno-Karabakh and, to a lesser degree, in South Ossetia and Transdniestr.

Alas, the results of ethnic cleansings of the early 1990s will have to be recognized in order to prevent new interethnic excesses and cleansings. The experience of Kosovo and the Republic of Serbian Krajina must be a lesson and a warning for post-conflict settlement in the post-Soviet space, while the Dayton Accords model can be used as a guideline. Russia, the European Union and the U.S. could act as guarantors to prevent the redivision of property and power in the unrecognized states. Obviously, the present elite of the unrecognized states, which enjoys its position due to military successes, will agree to its existence in a nested recognized state (according to the Dayton Accords model) only if it is given guarantees that the resources (and administrative rents) it has gained will be preserved.

Last updated 7 february 2006, 19:43

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