Unrecognized Geopolitics
No. 1 2006 January/March
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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.