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When Your Nation Does Not Exist

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Of all the kinds of denial in this world, one of the most dangerous and expensive is the denial of a nation. That is to say, when territories claim independence and break away from an existing country, if no country will recognize them, they face a daunting list of problems. Being a new and small country in today’s complex world is difficult enough if you have recognition, but if your regional neighbors and the international community refuse to see you as a peer then good luck getting normal trade relations, defined borders, or even a visa to visit another country.

In July 2011, the partially recognized nation of Kosovo sent border guards to take their posts in Northern Kosovo, a primarily Ethnic-Serb area. The guards were met with powerful resistance from Ethnic-Serbians who do not recognize the Kosovar government which declared independence from Serbia in 2008. 1 police officer was killed, several others were wounded, and a border post was burned down during the course of several days of clashes.

Last month the United Nations Cultural Organization (UNESCO) voted to formally recognize Palestine as a member state, thereby becoming one of the first institutions in the world to recognize the territory as an independent state. This decision was met with harsh criticism from Israel and its ally the United States, who saw this move as an attempt to bypass peace negotiations and be recognized as a country. The United States then declared it would be cutting off all of its funding for UNESCO as a reaction to this move. That meant the organization would be short $60 million in funding this year and face further money problems in the future.

If enough people say you don’t exist, it becomes very hard to fully exist, and sometimes even dangerous to try. Academic research on the topic of unrecognized states has examined the symptoms that lead to this paralysis-like status. One of the major conclusions is as follows: being denied recognition is almost cause enough to destroy a state. -Almost.

In reality, unrecognized or partially recognized states somehow manage to exist, albeit an extremely troubled existence. Smuggling, trafficking, lack of legitimate economic opportunities, and in some cases dangerous ethnic or political tension are among the problems that plague these nations. The list of names is long, some dating back to the beginning of the 1900′s, as is the case of the Republic of China (Taiwan), recognized by 22 UN member states. Others are more recent, like Kosovo (2008)-recognized by 85 UN member states, or Abkhazia (1999)- recognized by 6 UN member states. It most cases, these regions have broken away from a country who continuously refuse to recognize their new sovereignty.

They may also have a powerful patron state who officially support their claim of independence for political reasons, as is the case of South Ossetia and Abkhazia who are recognized as independent states and supported by Russia, who then stand in confrontation against Georgia the country both of these territories have broken away from which continues to refuse to recognize them. The political, economic, and military details are far more complex and the subject of ongoing debate, but for the moment the result are two unrecognized states suffering from the economic stagnation and related problems that come with this status. On top of all that, although being not recognized tends to mean some form of peaceful status, many regions are under the constant dark cloud that war could break out over territorial control.

Ben Graham and Ben Horne of the University of California, San Diego, are two researchers who have been working on the topic of unrecognized states. In particular they have been looking into frameworks that show how conflicting actors can bring a stable-but-stagnant status to such states, as well as how the international community could intervene in a peaceful and productive manner to help a state improve beyond a precarious unrecognized existence. Their goal is to be able to analyze individual cases using a clear structure and method. Their findings could help answer the question of what can be done to solve the problem of states who are not acknowledged by the world.

UA: You’ve pointed out that if the international community really wants to it can outweigh the power of the patron state that is committed to blocking recognition, generally speaking what are the tactics that would lead to this and is there an example where this occurred?

“We argue that it is usually the international community that seeks to avoid recognition of an unrecognized state: For example, the international community prefers reunification in the cases of Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Transdniestr, Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, Somaliland, and preferred that outcome (though not the brutal means of achieving it) in Tamil Eelam and Chechnya. The patron is generally committed to blocking reunification.

To answer the question more directly, though, to date the international community hasn’t been a strong player in this role. The willingness of the international community to spend to achieve their desired outcome is consistently lower than the willingness of the patron — knowing they will be outbid, they have no incentive to spend anything.

We argue in particular that positive inducements for reunification from the international community could be very productive, but they must be willing to spend decisively enough to overcome the influence of the patron.”

In terms of the patron countries and the deep scars and hatred that can exist towards those favoring statehood.. is there a viable strategy to heal these wounds, to decrease the hostility? In Georgian people believe very strongly that a injustice has been carried out on them and on Abkhazia (even if not all Abkhazians agree), to some extent South Ossetia as well. In Serbia, Serbian-Kosovars insist they’ve been wronged while Albanian-Kosovars insist they’ve been wronged and there is evidence supporting all these claims and everyone spends a lot of time hating each other and supposedly wanting revenge. How do you best get past this mix of trauma, hate, and denial, as a region?

“The precise means for achieving this kind of reconciliation is not something our work is well suited to speak to. What we can show is only the means through which the strength of this animosity increases the willingness of residents of the unrecognized state to bear the crushing economic costs of persistent non-recognition.

Our findings are not inconsistent with the belief that citizen-based peacebuilding and efforts of this nature could have a positive effect in easing resolution of these stalemates. However, it is hard to point to a historical case where these type of efforts have been particularly effective.”

Kurdistan is not considered an unrecognized state, or at least I don’t hear it mentioned as one in literature. How would you classify it? Can you foresee the unrecognized state of Kurdistan taking shape in the future?

BG: Kurdistan is not usually classified as an unrecognized state because its leaders do not formally seek recognition. Certainly, independent statehood is the preferred outcome for most Kurds, but so far they have not made that leap. If the Kurdish government were to declare independence unilaterally, they would (most likely) not be recognized by most members the international community, not gain membership in the UN or other bodies, lose access to international aid and support, and face a likely military confrontation with Iraq. This outcome is currently less palatable to them than autonomy within an Iraqi state, and the international community, including the US, hope that this will always remain the case.

In comparison.. South Sudan declared independence and Sudan recognized them almost immediately. What are the important events or characteristics that made that happen so seemingly… smoothly?

“The key factor is that South Sudan won the right to a referendum on independence on the battlefield. The central government conceded to the plan for referendum and it was enshrined in the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement that ended the civil war. Most unrecognized states are not militarily strong enough to force this concession from the home state militarily, but are strong enough to secure and hold control over (most of) the territory they aspire to rule.

What is reassuring about South Sudan, vis-a-vis the international community’s willingness to contribute resources to pushing these cases to peaceful resolution, is that the international community has invested significant resources in ensuring that the referendum was, in fact, carried out and honored. One of the means we suggest for the international community to resolve other conflicts — enforcing autonomy rights for unrecognized states if they agree to reunification — requires a similar commitment. The success in South Sudan will make future commitments by the international community more credible. This is important because in past cases, such as in the long promised referendum in Western Sahara, the commitment by the international community has meant little.”

With all the communication tools and information at our disposal in 2011, is the way unrecognized states emerge and are treated also changing? It seems like even though we can easily communicate across borders and outside the control of government, just as many people are prepared to argue and fight (and in a few cases die!) over the idea that certain countries will exist or be recognized.

“While information, goods, and services all move much more freely across borders now than they did several generations ago, people still care very much by whom they are governed. Variation between modes of national governance is dramatic, and ethnic identity remains very salient. Predictions of the end of the nation-state have been very much overblown, and I don’t see globalization as heralding the end of unrecognized statehood or wars of secession more broadly.”

It seems, although the list of success stories is small, even in our hyper-connected era filled with examples of international cooperation, there continue to be regions that toil as unrecognized states. Despite all the negative side effects that come with being a country only some nations recognize, groups of people around the world continue to choose this path. The nations they used to be a part of still wield power, either as supporters or more frequently, as obstacles to recognition. In between these competing forces, there is the international community, which has the power to tip the scales and bring about a respected and lasting solution. Newly independent South Sudan supported by the UN may prove to be an example of this power. While it is not yet clear if the Republic of Kosovo with the involvement of the EU will ever reach the goal of full recognition. One thing that looking at partial states in the world today tells us for sure, being unrecognized by much of the world is a risky and troubled existence.

Benjamin A.T. and Horne, Benjamin (2011). Unrecognized States: A Theory of Self-Determination and Foreign Influence APSA 2011 Annual Meeting Paper

-BY MARK FONSECA RENDEIRO

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