This book “Contested States in World Politics” investigates a phenomenon in world politics that is largely overlooked by scholars, namely entities lacking international recognition of their status as independent states. It includes case studies on the Eurasian Quartet, Kosovo, Somaliland, Palestine, Northern Cyprus, Western Sahara, and Taiwan.

By Deon Geldenhuys

Professor of Politics,

University of Johannesburg,

South Africa

Contested States In World Politics

Deon Geldenhuys

Contested States In World PoliticsAbout the Author

DEON GELDENHUYS is Professor of Politics at the University of Johannesburg, South Africa. Specializing in International Relations, he has published several books, including Deviant Conduct in World Politics.

© Deon Geldenhuys 2009

First published 2009 by PALGRAVE MACMILLAN


Table of Contents





Part I – Theoretical Perspectives

Chapter 1: Confirmed versus Contested States

Requirements of confirmed statehood

Attributes and categories of contested statehood

Alternative designations



Chapter 2: Origins of Contested Statehood

Conceptions of self-determination

The meaning of secession

International responses to secession

Other origins of contested statehood



Chapter 3: Alternative Destinations for Contested States

Points of departure

International reactions to contested states

Inter-state options



Free association

The Hong Kong option

Protected states and protectorates

International status

Regional entities

Territorial rightsizing

Intra-state arrangements


Other forms of territorial autonomy

Non-territorial autonomy

Consociational democracy


Further options



Part II Case Studies

Chapter 4: The Eurasian Quartet

Chapter 5: Kosovo

History’s stepchild

The final lap to independence

Contested statehood and war

International trusteeship

The Ahtisaari plan


Contested statehood, again

Alternative futures



Chapter 6: Somaliland

Chapter 7: Palestine

At the mercy of others

Enter the PLO

The first intifada

Peacemaking and homecoming

Ambiguity and fragility

The second intifada

Exit Arafat, enter Hamas

Economic costs of political conflict

Alternative futures



Chapter 8: Northern Cyprus

The road to rupture

Invasion and fragmentation

Enter the TRNC

International isolation

The EU dimension

International rewards

Renewed settlement efforts

Radical alternatives



Chapter 9: Western Sahara

The colonial background

Independence versus incorporation

Searching for solutions

Colonialism, Moroccan style

Issues of state viability

Alternative political formulas



Chapter 10: Taiwan

From Sun to Mao

Three major setbacks

Democracy at home, flexibility abroad

Legal wrangles

Bilateral and multilateral ties

The diplomacy of democracy

Relations with China

Harsh veto state versus hesitant patron state

What future for Taiwan?






As before, I have been fortunate enough to receive generous support from two German institutions in preparing this book. Stipends from the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation in Bonn allowed me to pay several visits to the Arnold Bergstraesser Institute at Freiburg University. There, in a peaceful but stimulating environment, I was able to write the bulk of the manuscript.

On the home front there are major debts I gladly acknowledge. My wife Zelda, a university information librarian, went far beyond the call of professional (and marital) duty in guiding me through the arcane world of electronic data bases. She also had to carry extra domestic burdens during my annual absences abroad. Auriel Niemack, my live-wire research assistant, was an extraordinary information sleuth on whose skills and dedication I could always count. Her appointment was funded by the Faculty of Humanities at the University of Johannesburg.

Deon Geldenhuys


Alluding to his involvement in the developing world, former President Bill Clinton quipped: ‘I like working on it because it’s not a particularly sexy topic’.[1] Among scholars in international relations, the phenomenon of what can loosely be called non-recognized states would no doubt qualify as an unsexy subject. Of the various types of wayward actors in world politics – including pariah or rogue countries – that of purported states lacking conventional international recognition is probably the least appealing to researchers. Sceptics in the fraternity would even question whether the topic merits academic inquiry. Yet because they are square pegs in a world of round holes, these presumptive states hold an attraction for a small band of students in international relations.

My own academic engagement with the misfits in the world of states began in the 1980s with a study of South African foreign policy making, published under the title The Diplomacy of Isolation.[2] This inquiry prompted me to compare the outcast status of South Africa with that of other countries, leading to the publication of Isolated States: A Comparative Analysis.[3] The collective efforts of the world community to rehabilitate states that failed to meet Western standards of governance after the Cold War were investigated in Foreign Political Engagement: Remaking States in the Post-Cold War World.[4] The prevailing international norms violated by rogue states and other non-conformist countries (and also non-state actors) featured in Deviant Conduct in World Politics.[5] The present volume is a logical continuation of a long-standing academic interest in the fate of states that do not fit the prevailing mold. For some charitable colleagues it might seem like a curious solidarity with the underdogs in world politics; others might simply dismiss my preoccupation as a perverse fascination with the world’s lowlifes. Either way, I like working in this area because it is way off the beaten academic track.

Besides being an unorthodox topic, are there more substantive reasons for studying non-recognized states? Do these entities really matter in the larger scheme of global politics? One must concede that their number pales into insignificance when compared with the total of 192 internationally recognized states seated in the United Nations General Assembly and representing 6.7 billion people. There are presently only ten self-declared independent entities, comprising about 33 million people, which have been functioning like states for several years. Yet we should note that only one of these non-recognized states – South Ossetia with roughly 65,000 inhabitants – has less than 100,000 people. Among UN member countries 13 have populations smaller than 100,000; eight of them have fewer people than South Ossetia. Apart from South Ossetia, the wannabe states serving as our case studies are Abkhazia, Transdniestria, Nagorno Karabagh, Kosovo, Somaliland, Palestine, Northern Cyprus, Western Sahara and Taiwan.

The mere number of non-recognized states today does not tell the full story of failed quests for internationally recognized statehood. Unilateral attempts at state formation – a sure recipe for non-recognition – typically cause armed conflict between the central authorities and the break-away region. The climate of hostility between the two sides persists long after a secessionist entity has declared independent statehood, and may culminate in recurring wars. The five-day war that Georgia and Russia fought over South Ossetia in August 2008 highlights the destabilizing effects that self-proclaimed states can have on their surrounding areas. Today’s affected neighborhoods are spread across the world: our case studies are drawn from Europe, Eurasia, the Middle East and Africa. It is instructive that most if not all of the ten entities have featured in reports of the International Crisis Group.

We should also be reminded that non-recognized states are not merely a contemporary aberration. The 20th century witnessed several earlier abortive efforts at establishing internationally recognized states: Manchukuo (proclaimed in 1932), Croatia (in the early 1940s), Katanga (1960–3), Rhodesia (1965–80), Biafra (1967–70) and South Africa’s four homeland states or Bantustans (Transkei, Bophuthatswana, Ciskei and Venda, which existed from the 1970s until 1994). East Timor experienced a brief period of self-declared independence in 1975 (and was recognized by some 15 states) before being forcibly incorporated into Indonesia. It was only 27 years later that East Timor eventually became independent with full international recognition. Bangladesh also began life as a state with a unilateral declaration of independence from (West) Pakistan in March 1971. This move triggered a civil war in which India came to rescue of the break-away state, thus helping to secure Bangladesh’s survival and ensure its international recognition.

Turning to the future, further drives for statehood cannot be ruled out when one observes what the UN’s Human Development Report 2004 called ‘the rise of identity politics’. Confrontations over culture and identity are set to increase in a world witnessing the spread of democracy, human rights and new global networks. With about 5,000 ethnic groups inhabiting the nearly 200 states – two-thirds of them having at least one ‘substantial minority’, defined as an ethnic or religious group constituting at least 10 per cent of the total population – identity causes are rife in today’s world.[6] This prognosis is supported by the authoritative Center for International Development and Conflict Management at the University of Maryland. In Peace and Conflict 2008 the Center reported an encouraging downward trend in the number of new and ongoing self-determination conflicts since the end of the Cold War, but added the sobering warning that ‘relatively few post-World War II self-determination conflicts can be confidently considered ended’. Towards the end of 2006, the report recorded, 26 armed self-determination conflicts were still raging in countries ranging from India to Ethiopia and Myanmar to Russia.[7] Several of the disaffected groups campaigning for greater self-determination may yet secede from their existing states – but find their claims to sovereign statehood rejected by both their original states and the world community at large.

Despite the past, current and possibly future presence of non-recognized states, there is a scarcity of scholarly studies of the phenomenon. The major exceptions are three books: Pegg’s International Society and the De Facto State (1998);[8] an edited volume entitled De Facto States (2004),[9] and Engaging Eurasia’s Separatist States authored by Lynch (2004).[10] Pegg’s work has much greater theoretical depth than the other two, but there is still scope for conceptual development. At the empirical level there is room for a wider range of case studies than offered in any the three existing inquiries. While fully acknowledging these worthy contributions, the present endeavor tries to cast a wider theoretical and empirical net.

The term ‘contested states’ is introduced to highlight a key feature of the existence of these peripheral entities: the internationally contested nature of their purported statehood. It is for this reason that they suffer a serious deficit in international recognition. Most contested states find their very right of statehood being challenged by their original (or central) states and the broader international community. Even if a prospective state’s right of statehood is widely or universally recognized by established states, the translation of this conceded right into political reality can still be vigorously contested by a sizeable number of countries. For all contested states their interaction with the outside world is highly contentious, with attempts to keep them outside the international mainstream. Great controversy also surrounds contested states’ ultimate political destination, given that their current unusual situation is only temporary. That transitory status amounts to life in international limbo. The aspirants lack the baptism of conventional recognition, by which is meant collective recognition of both their right to exist as separate sovereign states and of their actual existence as such, a process in which the UN plays a key role. The pretender states are consequently barred from normal international interaction and forced to languish at the fringes of the community of the duly initiated, which we will call ‘confirmed states’.

To qualify for the designation ‘contested state’ – and hence inclusion in this study – the entity concerned must have been existing as a purportedly independent state for at least three years, desiring to be treated as a peer by confirmed states. This excludes from our inquiry such restive regions or communities as the Kurds in Iraq and Turkey, Islamic militants in the Philippines, the Aceh region in Indonesia, turbulent tribal territories in Pakistan, the Ogoni area in Nigeria, the Ogaden in Ethiopia, Republika Srpska in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Anjouan in the Comoros. Chechnya (the self-styled independent Republic of Ichkeria) is also omitted because its contested statehood ended in 2000 when the break-away region was forcibly reincorporated into the Russian Federation.

The book is divided into two sections. Part I, ‘Theoretical perspectives’, sets out the broad analytical framework in three chapters. The first defines contested statehood and contrasts it with confirmed statehood as enshrined in international law and embodied in the practices of states. The next two chapters explore the origins of contested states and alternatives to contested statehood, respectively. Part II consists of ten case studies presented in more or less chronological order, from the youngest to the oldest contested states. Guided by the theoretical insights recorded in Part I, the case studies will explore the life cycles of these entities. Three broad phases of life in international limbo will be considered: getting in, getting on, and getting out. More concretely, we need to establish how entities become contested states, how they conduct themselves in a hostile external environment and undertake the domestic tasks of state- and nation-building, and finally how they could conceivably exit their unnatural and undesired international status.

Although the mode of inquiry falls broadly within mainline international relations, the topic compels us to draw also on studies in international law, political science, political philosophy, ethno-politics and conflict resolution. Elements of the comparative method will also be evident in the case studies. What ultimately matters, though, is whether the means of analysis serve the end of explanation.


[1] Time, 24 April 2006.

[2] Macmillan, Johannesburg/St. Martin’s, New York, 1984.

[3] Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1990.

[4] Macmillan, Houndmills, 1998.

[5] Palgrave Macmillan, Houndmills, 2004.

[6] Human Development Report 2004: Cultural Liberty in Today’s Diverse World, UN Development Programme, New York, 2004, pp.1–2.

[7] J Joseph Hewitt et al, Peace and Conflict 2008, Center for International Development and Conflict Management, University of Maryland, 2007, p.14.

[8] Scott Pegg, International Society and the De Facto State, Ashgate, Aldershot, 1998.

[9] Tozun Bahcheli et al (eds), De Facto States: The Quest for Sovereignty, Routledge, London, 2004.

[10] Dov Lynch, Engaging Eurasia’s Separatist States: Unresolved Conflicts and De Facto States, United States Institute of Peace Press, Washington DC, 2004.

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