Recognition Is Not a Dogma
No. 4 2014 October/December
Sergey M. Markedonov

PhD in History
MGIMO University, Moscow, Russia
Institute for International Studies
Leading Research Fellow;
Journal of International Analytics


ORCID ID: 0000-0003-2298-9684

Will the Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics Remain Unrecognized?

The Ukrainian political crisis persists. Despite the peace process started in early September, the armed confrontation in southeastern Ukraine continues. There still remain tensions between Russia and the West as both view Ukraine as a kind of “moment of truth” in reconfiguring the post-Soviet space for the medium and long term. On the other hand, although the basic contentions behind the current conflict have not been settled, the intensity of military confrontation in Donbass has decreased, and various negotiation formats have been established to reach agreement.

In this context, chances are high that the Donetsk and Lugansk regions may turn into a “frozen conflict zone” where new unrecognized statehood will develop. At present, it is virtually impossible to predict the forms in which it will exist. Will it be two separate “people’s republics” (Donetsk and Lugansk) proclaimed in April 2014, or will they merge into one entity? Will there be a follow-up to the “Novorossiya” project, whose goals and tasks go beyond the territories now controlled by the rebels? Does Kiev have the capability to eliminate what it describes as “terrorist and separatist” enclaves? Will Moscow be able, despite the Western sanctions, to support the republics, which view it as a guarantor of their independent development and security and as a source of military and political support?

In order to answer these questions, one must take into account the changing international context, the ability of Ukrainian President Pyotr Poroshenko to build an effective government, and the willingness of “military managers” from Donetsk and Lugansk to build something greater than a federation of field commanders. One can already draw preliminary conclusions about a new practice of building unrecognized entities. And it is highly important to analyze the opportunities the “people’s republics” in Donbass have received.


The phenomenon of unrecognized statehood is not a product of the Soviet (or Soviet-Yugoslav) disintegration, as many analysts say. Entities which emerged as a result of revolutions, various practices of national self-determination (which was post-factum called liberation) or foreign policy games, but which did not gain broad or even limited recognition, had existed long before 1991. Even some European countries, such as France (after the French Revolution), the Netherlands, Belgium, and Ireland, were not recognized for some time in the past. The Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic and the U.S.S.R. existed for some time without international recognition (for example, the United States recognized the “new realities in Eurasia” only in 1933). The People’s Republic of China had no representation in the United Nations from 1949 to 1971. China’s interests were represented by the Republic of China (Taiwan). The situation changed only after the U.N. General Assembly passed Resolution 2758 “Restoration of the Lawful Rights of the People’s Republic of China in the United Nations” on October 25, 1971.

However, the Soviet Union’s disintegration produced an impressive list of entities that exist in reality but lack recognition by U.N. member countries. At present, there are four such entities: Transnistria (or the Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic), Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic; two of which have received limited recognition by individual countries. They have survived conflicts with the countries from which they broke away, formed their own governments and security agencies, and held more than one election. But most importantly, they have received legitimacy from their “unrecognized citizens.”

Apart from these entities, the 1990s saw several unsuccessful attempts by some territories at independence, its armed defense and internal institutionalization (the most glaring example is the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria in the North Caucasus).

In August 1990, even before Transnistria came into being, the Gagauz Republic was proclaimed on the territory of Moldova. Yet Gagauzia (one of the “pioneers” among unrecognized self-proclaimed entities in the Soviet Union) never seceded from the Republic of Moldova. In 1994, the parliament of Moldova passed a law on the special legal status of Gagauzia (Gagauz Yeri), giving the region, populated mainly by the Gagauz, the status of an autonomous territory. And today most of its political forces no longer call for separation from the mother state.

Unrecognized entities that emerged as a result of the Soviet Union’s disintegration were “rhymed” with ethno-political confrontations. In 1992, ceasefires were reached in the areas of the Georgian-Ossetian and Moldovan-Transnistrian conflicts. In 1994, the same was achieved in Abkhazia and Nagorno-Karabakh, and in 1996, in Chechnya. However, although large-scale military hostilities ended, political solutions were never found. The conflicts (and the status of the unrecognized entities) were frozen – in some cases due to a military-political balance established between the conflicting parties (Nagorno-Karabakh); in others there were socio-psychological and legal reasons, along with military ones (as in the case of Chechnya with its status deferred for five years). However, the “freezing” of the conflicts could not last long, as the parties that viewed themselves as the losers were interested in changing the balance of force. The desire to change the situation sprang up as those wishing revenge accumulated the necessary resources.

Far from all of these entities have built up enough resources to date (Georgia is in the worst position in this respect, and Azerbaijan’s situation is only a bit better). Some of the countries made attempts to change the “frozen state” of the conflicts: Russia in Chechnya in 1999-2000, and Georgia in Abkhazia in 1998 and 2001 and in South Ossetia in 2004. Unlike Moscow and Tbilisi, Azerbaijan focused on changing diplomatic formats of peace settlement and achieved good results (even though by excluding Stepanakert from the Karabakh settlement talks with Yerevan). Meanwhile, as Russian political analyst Dmitry Trenin wrote, “the unrecognized republics have acquired all the attributes of statehood – from constitutions and cabinets of ministers to police and armed forces.”

In August 2008, Russia recognized the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, thus setting a precedent for the revision of borders (turning inter-republican borders to interstate ones). Since then, several partially recognized states have emerged in the former Soviet Union, that is, entities which are not U.N. members but which have been recognized as independent by some of the countries. Apart from them, there are unrecognized states such as Nagorno-Karabakh and Transnistria. The aforementioned conflicts (including those where the sides have gained partial recognition) have not been settled politically. This factor naturally evokes concern among foreign actors, because disputes over the status and prospects of entities with “contested sovereignty” (as defined by Gail Lapidus) or “suspended sovereignty” (the term coined by Alexandros Yannis) may turn them into hotbeds of instability.

Of course, the aspirations of unrecognized republics were supported by external forces which pursued interests of their own. In conditions of a direct military-political confrontation between a mother country and its territories seeking secession, which can upset the balance of power and status quo in a given region, external interference is inevitable. Incidentally, this practice is not a Russian invention. Take, for example, the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus supported by Ankara, or Serbia’s former Autonomous Province of Kosovo whose independence would have been problematic without direct support from the U.S. and the EU.


The Ukrainian crisis has not only caused the regime change in Kiev and a new round of confrontation between the West and Russia, but also provoked a serious political identity crisis among citizens of independent Ukraine. Again, like in the early 1990s, there emerged a demand for self-determination and new statehood, even when the viability of such a project without external support was far from obvious and in fact questionable.

In April 2014, the Donetsk, Lugansk, Kharkov, and Odessa People’s Republics were proclaimed. However, after Kiev had launched “an anti-terrorist operation” (as the Ukrainian authorities called their actions against the supporters of the breakaway entities in Donbass), only Donetsk and Lugansk held referendums on their status. After the tragic events of May 2 in Odessa, it became clear that the pro-Russian “anti-Maidan” in the city and the region did not have sufficient resources. In another breakaway region, the Kharkov People’s Republic, its leaders “failed to reach agreement on issues and wording” with representatives of the two Donbass republics, according to a member of the Kharkov coordinating council, Yuri Apukhtin.

As a result, only the Donetsk and Lugansk regions held referendums on their status. After an armed conflict with the central government (which climaxed in July and August of this year), the two territories lost control over many towns, including Mariupol, Slavyansk and Kramatorsk. But this struggle radicalized the rebels and, despite the existing differences among them, seriously complicated their dialogue with Kiev. As of September 5, 2014, when the Minsk Protocol was signed, the two Donbass republics controlled a territory of 16,000 square kilometers with a population of 4.5 million. This territory included the regional capitals of Donetsk and Lugansk, and key towns such as Novoazovsk, Gorlovka and Makeyevka.

Formally, the two republics in Donbass have not been recognized even by Moscow. Back at the initial stage of the conflict, at a joint press conference with the OSCE Chairman-in-Office on May 7, 2014, President Vladimir Putin asked the leaders of Donetsk and Lugansk to postpone the referendums on their independence, scheduled for May 11. Moscow’s May 12 reaction to the choice made by the residents of the two regions was also restrained. The Russian president’s press service said that Russia “respects the expressed will of the population of the Donetsk and Lugansk regions…” and believes that its practical implementation will proceed through dialogue between representatives of Kiev, Donetsk and Lugansk.” “Any mediation efforts, including those by the OSCE, aimed at establishing such a dialogue would be welcome,” the Kremlin said. The “Minsk process” documents signed in September are written in the same spirit. Moreover, the Russian Foreign Ministry, traditionally critical of any Ukrainian initiatives, supported the bill “On the Special Status of Self-Government in Some Regions of Donbass,” submitted by Poroshenko to parliament. “We hope that all provisions of the law will be responsibly observed,” the ministry said in a statement.

At the same time, Moscow actually poses as a military-political guarantor of the existence of the Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics. Had it not been for its pro-active position, the offensive by Ukrainian troops and the National Guard on Donetsk and Lugansk in late August could have been a success. Russia’s policy as regards the armed conflict in Donbass is sometimes described as irrational and incomprehensible. However, Moscow’s approach can be easily explained. On the one hand, after the incorporation of Crimea and the subsequent several rounds of sanctions against the Russian Federation, its leadership is not interested in aggravating the already sharp differences with the West. Moreover, open incorporation of Eastern Donbass (with a population exceeding that of Crimea and with infrastructure destroyed over many months of hostilities) would be an additional burden on Russia’s budget (incommensurate with indirect support for the two unrecognized republics).

On the other hand, the Kremlin will not accept a scenario similar to that played out in the Republic of Serbian Krajina in1995 when separatist forces oriented towards the “patron state” suffered a crushing defeat and their infrastructure was obliterated. In a situation like this, the “patron state” loses any possibility of influencing a neighboring country and engaging in international diplomatic bargaining over that country’s prospects, with due account for its own interests. This explains why Russia supported the “Minsk status quo” as the best possible option.

However, two things should be mentioned in this respect. Both the protocol and the memorandum concluded by the Trilateral Contact Group on Ukraine in Minsk were signed by representatives of the Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics. While not being officially recognized, they are responsible for implementing the truce accord (as well as for exchanging captives and observing the ceasefire). They (and who else?) are regarded as parties to the “inclusive national dialogue” in Ukraine. Kiev itself has made a certain contribution to the institutionalization of the two republics. I mean, above all, two bills – “On the Special Status of Self-Government in Some Regions of Donbass” and “On the Prevention of the Prosecution and Punishment of Participants in the Events on the Territories of the Donetsk and Lugansk Regions.” Poroshenko’s critics opposed these bills for a good reason as the documents indirectly (not legally but politically) recognized a special status of the territories controlled by the two Donbass republics, as compared to the other regions of Ukraine.


Representatives of the Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics insist that “their” territories comprise not only the areas currently under their control but the whole of the Donetsk and Lugansk regions (the “Novorossiya” project goes even further). However, as we know, politics is the art of the possible. In fact, other unrecognized entities are faced with the same problem: the territories they claim do not match the territories they actually control. For example, in the hostilities with Azerbaijan in the early 1990s Nagorno-Karabakh lost control over the Shahumyan region. South Ossetia until August 2008 did not control villages in the so-called “Liakhvi corridor” and the Akhalgori region, while Abkhazia did not control the Kodori Gorge.

The current crisis over Ukraine is far from settled. The situation may swing in either direction, depending on the wide range of problems (energy, the West-Russia confrontation, relations between Kiev and Moscow, elections to the Verkhovna Rada, differences within the Ukrainian elites, and much more) that exist there now. But if the de-escalation process, launched in Minsk, is implemented, even though with difficulty, Donetsk and Lugansk will have a real chance to build statehood of their own, albeit within their present boundaries.

There are no guarantees that this process will be successful. First, there is a consensus among Ukrainian politicians, regardless of their party affiliation, on the territorial integrity of Ukraine – even on the status of Crimea, let alone Donbass. “We need the ceasefire to last as long as possible to obtain domestically produced high-precision instruments, and military and financial assistance from the West,” said an adviser to President Poroshenko, Yuri Lutsenko. Naturally, his statement, made a few days before the parliamentary elections, should be considered within the context of the tough election campaign amid an armed conflict. Nevertheless, this is now the prevailing approach in Ukraine’s domestic discourse. In this regard, a scenario where force can be used to change the “Minsk status quo” is more than realistic. It may either take place in the “Serbian Krajina” format (bringing success to the central government and defeat to the two unrecognized republics) or resemble Saakashvili’s reckless venture in South Ossetia, which resulted in the recognition of the former Georgian autonomous region and the failure of his policy of “gathering lands.”

However, apart from the Kiev factor and the Western support for Ukraine’s territorial integrity, there are internal political realities that are also important. They helped Abkhazia, Transnistria and South Ossetia survive and, conversely, became obstacles to the development of the Ichkerian nation-state project.

Speaking of domestic resources for development, it should be noted that the two republics in Donbass exceed any of the existing breakaway territories in the former Soviet Union in terms of population and area. For comparison, the area of Transnistria is 4,163 square kilometers, and its population is estimated at 555,000 people. Abkhazia has an area of 8,700 square kilometers and a population of 243,000 people (Georgian statisticians estimate it at 178,000). South Ossetia has an area of 3,840 square kilometers, and its population is estimated, according to various sources, at 8,000 to 72,000 people. Nagorno-Karabakh has a more complex political and geographical configuration due to the occupation of five whole districts and parts of two more districts outside the former Nagorno-Karabakh autonomous region, and to the loss of some areas of the “declared territory.” But its population is estimated at 137,737 people.

The Donbass breakaway territories are now often compared to Transnistria. As Eric Livny and Tom Coupe wrote, “Both Donbass and Transnistria have been the mining and industrial centers of their parent states and have rather similar human capital and factor endowments. Designated for manufacturing by the Soviet planner, both have been magnets for internal migration by (mostly Russian) engineers, technicians, miners and steelworkers. This Soviet legacy puts them at an advantage relative to three tiny ethnic enclaves in the South Caucasus which have been historically specialized in tourism (Abkhazia) and agriculture (South Ossetia and Karabakh).” But, apart from some external similarities, there are also fundamental differences between them. At the origins of the Transnistrian project stood industrialists (“red directors”) with extensive managerial experience at regional and national levels (not to mention the status of members of Moldavian parliament). By the time the Soviet Union broke up, the future leaders of the Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic had already had two years’ experience of political struggle, which helped them crystallize their ideology and priorities (the state language issue, support for the preservation of the Soviet Union and, after its collapse, relations with Russia and Ukraine, and the presence of the 14th Russian Army in Transnistria). But even compared with Crimea, where the movement for joining Russia was headed by leaders who had made successful political or business careers after Ukraine had gained independence (Sergei Aksyonov, Alexei Chaly and Vladimir Konstantinov), Donbass lacks experienced politicians. The key roles in the region are now played by those who were in the shadows or were sidelined by members of the Party of Regions – that is, by those who had for many years successfully converted their “pro-Russian position” into loyalty to Kiev and who had in the last few years, before the “second Maidan,” represented the whole of Ukraine.

Unlike Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Nagorno-Karabakh, the armed conflict in Donbass has no ethnic background. Both Russians and Ukrainians are fighting on both sides. But the factor of territorial consolidation, which works in Transnistria where there are no clear ethnic dividing lines and where the Transnistrian project brought together Igor Smirnov, an ethic Russian, Yevgeny Shevchuk, an ethnic Ukrainian, and Grigore Maracuta, an ethnic Moldovan, should not be overestimated in Donbass. People from this region can be found both among the rebels and in Ukrainian volunteer battalions and the National Guard. The population of Donbass is divided over their vision for the future of the region and Ukraine as a whole. At the same time, people who fought for the Donbass republics included not only Russian citizens but also residents of other regions in Ukraine, outraged by the “second Maidan” and the policies of the new authorities. Also worth noting is the passivity of a large part of the population that is ready to support any force that will eventually win.

Meanwhile, a de-facto state implies not only conflict and military field management experience but also the ability to curb the military zeal when it is time to consolidate power and channel people’s revolutionary energy into routine work (as it was in Nagorno-Karabakh during the presidency of Arkady Ghukasyan). Otherwise, there will be a “federation of field commanders”, Ichkerian style. Therefore, there will be no statehood without attracting “specialists” (including the former regional and local bureaucracy), because heroic deeds alone cannot solve economic and social problems, and any glory tends to diminish when confronted with everyday reality. Both the Transnistrian project and the nation-building in unrecognized entities of the South Caucasus were accompanied by the development of their own “historical policies” (these efforts involved professional historians, journalists, and political scientists), and economic strategies. Contrary to stereotypes, Moscow did not always support unrecognized statehood (especially in the 1990s and early 2000s amid the conflict in Chechnya), and self-proclaimed entities relied largely on their own recipes for survival and resource mobilization.

Importantly, institutions of the two Donbass republics will begin to be built at a time when the region is de-facto divided and its people are split. In this context, the power of example in choosing loyalties would be extremely important. No wonder many Ukrainian experts, who do not tend to disparage the breakaway areas and who do not indulge in demonstrative patriotism, suggest letting Eastern Donbass go and giving it a positive example. Clearly, there is a shortage of anything positive in present-day Ukraine and appealing to the experience of West Germany of 1949-1989 seems to be unreasonably far-fetched, but there is a grain of good sense in these arguments. Having no elites of their own and relying entirely on Moscow’s military and political support, Donetsk and Lugansk will not create attractive images of themselves and will not become “another Transnistria.” This is why the now popular egalitarian ideas and the demonstrative disdain for “smart guys” (who are associated with pro-Kiev and pro-Western sentiment) need to be significantly adjusted, to say the least. Many experts rightly point out that this policy of the Donbass leaders has alienated many of those who could become their allies. These include university teaching staff, who resent the policy of Ukrainization and who do not accept the victory of the “second Maidan,” business people (scared by the Donetsk and Lugansk leaders’ repeated statements about “nationalization” and the need for businesses to “ante up for the people”), and managers who were initially prepared to “rise up against the coup in Kiev.” It is obvious that without these groups’ support it will be difficult to get things going, establish at least basic order and pose as an alternative to the Ukrainian state project. This is where Transnistria has partially succeeded in comparison with Moldova. It is no coincidence that even such an outspoken critic of Russian policies and Transnistrian “quasi-statehood” as Oazu Nantoi said in an interview with the International Crisis Group: “It is not that Transnistrian separatism is so strong, but that Moldovan statehood is so weak.”

The strength or weakness of the Ukrainian authorities will be a no less crucial factor in the development of the two breakaway regions. I do not mean hard military power. If Ukraine succeeds in economic reforms and nation-building, if it minimizes corruption, and achieves higher standards of living (no matter how unachievable these goals may seem), the authorities of the two unrecognized republics will find it hard to keep trumpeting the benefits of “belt-tightening” and the need to mobilize against the threat from Kiev – at least because they cannot exploit the ethnic factor, which is used in the South Caucasus.

Thus, the “Minsk process,” brought about by the impossibility of a Ukrainian blitzkrieg, on the one hand, and Moscow’s unpreparedness to recognize the Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics and to repeat the Crimean experience in southeastern Ukraine, on the other, have created a chance for Donbass to become a new proving ground for unrecognized statehood. The course of the two republics’ development is only being chartered and it has many complex variables that require effective solutions. Yet it is already obvious that if the self-proclaimed republics want to be taken seriously (their formal recognition is not so vitally important), they need to make effective efforts to build government institutions. They will also have to overrule the power of field commanders, establish economic activity and form elites that will understand their prospects (with all the resources and opportunities, limited as they are). In their development, the two areas may follow different scenarios, ranging from Chechnya and Serbian Krajina to the Transnistrian experience. Or they may build a unique Donbass model.