Contested States In World PoliticsThe life and times of ‘states’ lacking in conventional international recognition do not arouse much interest among scholars and other observers of world politics. There are far more pressing international issues capturing academic and media attention. Yet the pretender states consigned to the borderland of the world community have an external influence disproportionate to their limited numbers and the smallness of their populations, territories and economies. Much of their influence is negative, the result of the conflict surrounding the origins, ongoing existence and ultimate political destination of today’s wannabe states. These unsettled situations are not confined to regional backwaters; one of today’s problem areas, Cyprus, is located within the EU’s borders. Nor is this a current problem only. Presumptive states denied formal international recognition had existed through much of the 20th century – typically in conditions of grave conflict – and more may emerge in future. These are reasons enough for students of international relations and policy-makers to take contested states seriously.

Our inquiry focused on ten such entities: Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Transdniestria, Nagorno Karabagh, Kosovo, Somaliland, Palestine, Northern Cyprus, Western Sahara and Taiwan. We made passing reference to several earlier cases, namely Manchukuo, Croatia, Katanga, Rhodesia, Biafra, South Africa’s four homeland states (Transkei, Bophuthatswana, Venda and Ciskei), Bangladesh, Eritrea, East Timor and Chechnya. Altogether 23 contested states encountered over a period of 80 years thus featured in the present study.

Even if they acknowledged that contested states could undermine peace, security and stability in various regions, some scholars would still ask whether it really mattered – in a globalized world – if a dozen or so entities failed to achieve international recognition of their purported statehood and were compelled to exist as something less than full-fledged states? Are these putative states actually disadvantaged by their indeterminate status? After all, states are losing much of their traditional central authority through the processes of fusion from above and fission from below. Upwards states are pooling sovereignty through multilateral institutions and surrendering some of their autonomy to inter-state bodies with supranational features. Downwards they are devolving authority to sub-national regions and groupings in their midst, which demand the right to take care of their particular interests and to gain independent access to the international arena.


However, the mere existence of contested states speaks to the ongoing allure of separate statehood for communities across the world. While some state founders may have exaggerated expectations of the modern state’s ability to provide public goods, collectively recognized statehood still has both symbolic and substantive benefits for the rulers, if not the inhabitants generally. For one thing, global and regional forums where matters of high politics are decided are the preserve of full-blown states. Another consideration is that the development assistance offered by international financial institutions is mostly reserved for standing members of the community of states. Confirmed states jealously protect their community against gatecrashers and imposters, thus barring contested states from this sanctum and the benefits it affords its members.

Our analytical framework was designed to investigate three phases in the life cycle of contested states: why they emerge, how they behave and others deal with them, and where they may be heading to.

Contested states are, then, entities whose claims to statehood are challenged by the world community. The dispute usually concerns the presumptive state’s very right of separate statehood or, where that is conceded, the translation of the right into empirical statehood. Either way, contested states lack the birth certificate of ‘real’ statehood: admission to UN membership. This does not mean that the recognition deficit is identical for all contested states. We identified six different levels of recognition in Chapter 1, from what was called titular recognition – the wide recognition of an entity’s title to statehood – to zero recognition.

Contested states are the logical opposites of confirmed states, which enjoy conventional international recognition and hence full membership of the UN. It is to confirmed statehood, the normal international status, that contested states aspire. But because their statehood is internationally contested, the pretenders have been condemned to life in limbo. Again, allowance must be made for variation in the degree of isolation experienced by the unwanted entities. No contested state is entirely isolated from the outside world; they all engage in exchanges with existing states in such fields as trade, transport and communication. Diplomatic contact for the sake of resolving conflicts between original and contested states are common. These interactions constitute a measure of de facto recognition of the entities’ self-proclaimed statehood.

In Chapter 2 we established that secession is the single most common origin of today’s contested states. It applied to Nagorno Karabagh, South Ossetia, Transdniestria, Abkhazia and Kosovo. Somaliland owed its existence to a combination of secession and reversion (to its former status of sovereign statehood). Secessionist drives are typically motivated by an ethnic minority’s desire to free themselves of previous, present or potential political repression, socio-economic deprivation, cultural discrimination, or even extermination at the hands of the majority group(s) in control of the central state. In both international law and the practices of states there is however a strong presumption against secession because of its unilateral, state-shattering nature. Secession flies in the face of the principle of territorial integrity enshrined in international law and sanctified in the practices of states. Since secession by definition occurs against the wishes of the central state, it is usually accompanied by violence between the two sides. Even if the break-away attempt cannot be stopped, the original state will as a rule try to prevent its illegitimate offspring gaining international recognition and joining the community of confirmed states. In this capacity the original state can exercise veto power over the aspirant’s status ambitions. Where the original-cum-veto state relies heavily on a single foreign country in its campaign to cabin and confine the wannabe state, that backer can be designated as an external veto state; the original state is then the internal veto state. Contested states may in turn also have foreign backers or patron states providing vital economic, military and diplomatic support.

Secession is not the only origin of contested statehood. Foreign aggression and occupation, racial discrimination and a denial of self-determination – all transgressions under international law – have also played a role in creating contemporary contested states. In these instances the international community collectively refused to recognize the products of illegal acts, hence condemning the putative states to the periphery of international existence. This left the contested states dependent on their creator or patron states for economic survival and security. The Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus is a case in point, but there is also an element of secession in its origins. (Manchukuo, Croatia and South Africa’s four so-called Bantustans are earlier examples.) Western Sahara and Palestine do not fit into any of the categories mentioned. Their respective rights of statehood have been widely recognized and both declared themselves unilaterally independent, but they have been unable to translate this right into political reality. Taiwan’s contested statehood reveals unique origins: it is the last remnant of a Chinese regime that had been overthrown in a communist revolution 60 years ago.

In practice the secessionist route to statehood has seldom led to generally recognized sovereign independence, however strong the political and moral justifications for a unilateral break-away may be. The same goes for pretender states conceived and born in the other sins mentioned. Once consigned to contested statehood, entities rarely graduate to confirmed statehood. Contested statehood is therefore not an antechamber to confirmed statehood or a finishing school for states-in-waiting.

In the second phase in the life cycle of contested states, our analytical framework highlighted international responses to these entities, and the latter’s ways of dealing with external adversity. One end on a spectrum of possible external reactions features military intervention on the side of the original state to nip secession in the bud. At the other end we find collective de jure recognition of an aspirant state. Between the two extremes, foreign actors can choose among isolation, indifference and engagement. Isolation is widely practised, considering that collective non-recognition – the ultimate form of diplomatic ostracism – is a feature of contested states. Diplomatic isolation can be supplemented by economic, socio-cultural and military isolation, all in a bid to keep the putative state out of the community of confirmed states. Isolation can, paradoxically, be combined with engagement. An example is diplomatic initiatives undertaken by the UN and EU to resolve conflicts between contested states and their original countries, even though these organizations refuse to recognize the statehood of the claimants. Foreign indifference is probably the most common external response, adopted by the majority of states that have little if any direct interest in the fate of contested states. This is not be mistaken for neutrality, though; the world community at large rejects most contested states’ very right of statehood.

Condemned to a netherworld, contested states are typically excluded from conventional bilateral diplomatic relations and from multilateral diplomacy. To overcome such handicaps, virtually all of them have developed alternative, semi-official links with confirmed states. These take the form of representative or liaison or trade offices abroad and reciprocal representation from foreign countries. We should add that government representatives from contested states manage to travel abroad on official business, even on the passports of their non-recognized countries. But while no contested state is totally isolated, either diplomatically or economically, none experiences a satisfactory level of involvement in inter-state exchanges; their lack of collective recognition severely circumscribes their international space. As a consequence their economies suffer from external political restrictions on the free flow of trade, technology and capital, and they are usually also denied free access to major national and international aid donors. These deprivations in turn compromise the ability of the mostly small and poorly developed contested states to undertake the dual tasks of state- and nation-building, that is, creating and maintaining the institutions and processes of modern governance on the one hand and on the other fostering a sense of national identity and loyalty among a population that may still contain diverse and antagonistic groups.

The final phase in the life cycle of contested states deals with exit possibilities, which takes us into the risky realm of policy proposals. Our point of departure is that contested statehood is an unnatural status that cannot indefinitely satisfy any of the main parties involved. Contested states are frustrated at having their claims to statehood denied and being relegated to a twilight zone. For the original states the mere existence of contested states tore out of their bodies politic is an affront. The broader world community has no real sympathy for the small group of pretenders trying to squeeze into the community of confirmed states. True, elites in contested states and their associated patron and even veto states may reap material benefits from the status quo, especially through the black market with its opportunities for smuggling anything from consumer goods to drugs, weapons and people. Such narrowly based opportunistic advantages cannot offset the diplomatic, economic and security costs borne by the various parties.

A few of today’s contested states have a chance of advancing to higher honours. Of our ten case studies, Palestine and Western Sahara have long enjoyed titular recognition, meaning their right of statehood has been recognized internationally (Palestine’s by the UN and Western Sahara’s by the OAU/AU). Although both face formidable practical obstacles in realizing this right, not least of which is foreign occupation by Israel and Morocco respectively, Palestine and Western Sahara already have international endorsement of their claims to statehood. To overcome the resistance of their respective veto states, both may have to settle for an internationally supervised transition to conditional independence. The first element involves an externally managed process of preparation for independence (through the UN, perhaps with the support of regional organizations) culminating in internationally recognized statehood with strings attached. Those conditions, which could be enshrined in the entities’ constitutions and in international agreements, would typically relate to matters such as the maintenance of a democratic order based on respect for individual human rights and minority rights; acknowledgment of existing borders; renunciation of merging with any other state; peaceful resolution of international disputes; opposition to international terrorism, and a commitment to the eradication of weapons of mass destruction. External parties could underwrite and even guarantee the observance of these conditions. Namibia, East Timor and Kosovo are recent cases of internationally supervised transitions to independence, while Austria, Cyprus and several former Yugoslav republics are examples of conditional independence. Kosovo, despite having ‘seized’ independence while still under international trusteeship, is well on its way to generally recognized conditional independence.

Turning to secessionist entities among contemporary contested states, they deserve a more nuanced international response than the reflexive denunciation of secession as an illegal and illegitimate act. The world community should first establish the reasons why a group or region is driven to the drastic step of breaking away from an existing state. Intolerable conditions created by the rulers of a central state may well force a disaffected community to hive off. These could range from political persecution and socio-economic discrimination to acts of ethnic cleansing and genocide. Before a secessionist group can be expected to return to the fold, the UN or regional organizations may need to help reform the political system of the original state to make it safe and attractive for the prodigal group. In other words, the ‘push’ factors that prompted a secessionist bid should to be addressed before reunification can take place.

This brings us to the wide range of intra-state alternatives to contested statehood recorded in Chapter 3. While they fall short of separatists’ cherished ideal of full-fledged statehood, these options allow for the accommodation of ethnic or group diversity and indeed ethnic nationalism, and could – if freely chosen by the people involved – constitute legitimate, internationally recognized expressions of self-determination. Our inventory included federalism, other forms of territorial and communal autonomy, consociational democracy and multiculturalism. All these are compromise options: the separatists do not get their coveted sovereign state, but the original state cannot merely revert to the old order either.

Although the list of intra-state alternatives is varied enough to prevent a one-size-fits-all approach, the most viable compromise formula for resolving conflicts over contested statehood may be dual-level autonomy. By this is meant self-government, probably territorially based, for the former contested state within its original state, coupled with considerable international freedom of action. The internal element of autonomy is designed to safeguard the group interests of the erstwhile secessionist community and can best be ensured in a democratic political order. Democracies seem less likely to spawn secession than authoritarian systems violating human rights. Regional or group autonomy should be a price that an original state would be willing to pay to restore its territorial integrity. The external component of autonomy would allow the former contested state to maintain a circumscribed but state-like international presence in deference to its earlier ‘statehood’. The latter role conforms to a global trend that sees an increasing number of nationalities, religious communities, diasporas and other groups joining states as legitimate actors on the world stage. To reassure apprehensive groups reintegrating with their original countries, autonomy deals may need to be guaranteed by foreign powers or multilateral bodies (as had been done with Cyprus in 1959). Although its democratic qualities are questionable, the so-called Hong Kong option embodies internal and external dimensions of autonomy. Taiwan, although not a secessionist entity, is an obvious candidate for a dual-autonomy arrangement as final status. This formula could also be appropriate for the four Eurasian contested states, Northern Cyprus and perhaps Somaliland. In the latter case Somalia would of course first have to undergo thorough state-rebuilding.

Where exhaustive efforts at state-remaking have manifestly failed to create the conditions necessary for the safe return of a break-away entity, a more radical alternative presents itself. Outside actors could then assist the presumptive state in acquiring confirmed statehood on the grounds that reunification would expose the alienated community to existential danger. Here too an internationally supervised transition to qualified independence may be advisable. Conditional statehood could resemble some of the inter-state options outlined in Chapter 3, such as a confederation and free association. Conditional statehood is another conceivable alternative for Somaliland. An altogether different and extreme remedy for secessionist statehood would be territorial right-sizing, in which a contested entity could for instance be incorporated into its patron or kin state by redrawing international boundaries. This would have happened if Kosovo were absorbed into Albania or Northern Cyprus into Turkey; neither outcome is likely, however.

When dealing with existing contested states, the alternative formulas mentioned would serve remedial purposes. We should also regard the list of options as possible preventive measures that could be explored by states confronted with secessionist revolts. Again the alternatives could be either inter- or intra-state in nature, ranging from territorial right-sizing through transnational economic zones and cultural domains to multiculturalism and minority rights. Although few states may favour it, the constitutional provision of exit mechanisms offers a way of dealing with secessionist pressures and avoiding the emergence of a contested state. These, as we saw in Chapter 2, would make state fragmentation difficult but not impossible. It would happen by consent and hence in a reasonably amicable and orderly fashion – a mutually agreed partition (as in Czechoslovakia) as opposed to heavily contested unilateral secession. Such a parting of the ways could also be effected under international supervision.

There is clearly an array of compromise options offering practical alternatives to the status quo of contested statehood, a return to the status quo ante (anathema to the contested entity) and conventional international recognition of the contested state (unacceptable to the original state). Identifying the alternatives is not merely an academic exercise. The conflicts surrounding all of today’s contested states, even if temporarily ‘frozen’, compel us to explore alternatives to the status quo. This has also been the rationale behind the settlement initiatives that have been undertaken in all the cases considered in our study. Many of the proposals we have just outlined closely resemble the options put forward by intermediaries and other parties involved in these settlement endeavors.

Implementing alternative arrangements is admittedly a tall order. The relative durability of contested states indicates how difficult it is to resolve the underlying conflicts. Apart from a seemingly appropriate political formula, a successful settlement could depend on a host of other variables too. One is an acknowledgment by all parties involved that the costs of the status quo outweigh the risks of a settlement. Another variable, difficult to foresee, is changes of government and policy in the states most closely involved, specifically the contested and original states. It is precisely such changes that have given new momentum to the search for solutions in Cyprus and Taiwan.

Changes in the power relationship between a contested and original state constitute a further variable also hard to predict. Take the case of Somaliland and Somalia: as long as the latter remains in a state of collapse, Somaliland faces only mild external pressure for reunification. Should Somalia put its house in order, however, it could drastically change the distribution of power between the two. Not only will Somalia become far more assertive in demanding the return of Somaliland, but it may also appear administratively capable of reabsorbing Somaliland and militarily able to force the issue. Conversely, a marked weakening in the power of an original state, be it Somalia or any other, may improve a contested offspring’s chances of survival over the short term at least – but without necessarily offering it a way out of contested statehood.

We conclude with a table highlighting a set of features of the ten contested states examined in Part II. We begin with the birth dates of the entities, followed by their origins or routes to contested statehood. Patron states are recorded next, but it will be noted that not all contested states have such foreign backers. Nor do they all have an original state from which they had broken away. In most instances, as the following column indicates, there is an original state that also acts as veto state obstructing its contested offspring’s claims to statehood. In the absence of an original state, the role of veto state is assumed by an adjacent state with which the entity has historical ties. The recognition level, next, underlines the fact that the recognition deficit is not the same for all contested states. Following their de jure recognition by Russia, South Ossetia and Abkhazia fall into more than one category. The final column suggests conceivable compromise options for the ten contested states. We thus omit the ‘extreme’ alternatives of unconditional international recognition on the one hand and a restoration of the old (pre-contested state) order on the other. The status quo is likewise disregarded. In the very nature of a compromise, neither the contested state nor its original state achieves its first prize. As a result of such settlements the current clutch of contested states will of course disappear. That, however, may not spell the end of contested statehood as a problem in world politics.

Contested state Birth Origin Patron Original Recognition Conceivable compromise
date state (veto) state level formula
Abkhazia 1999 Secession Russia Georgia Peer & patron Dual autonomy
South Ossetia 1992 Secession Russia Georgia Peer & patron Dual autonomy
Nagorno Karabagh 1992 Secession Armenia Azerbaijan Peer Dual autonomy
Transdniestria 1991 Secession Russia Moldova Peer Dual autonomy
Kosovo 1991 Secession Serbia Partial Conditional independence
Somaliland 1991 Reversion & secession Somalia Zero Conditional independence
Palestine 1988 Self-proclaimed independence Israel (veto) Titular Conditional independence
Northern Cyprus 1983 Aggression, Turkey Republic of Patron Dual autonomy
occupation & secession Cyprus
Western Sahara 1976 Self-decolonization Algeria Morocco (veto) Titular Conditional independence
Taiwan 1949 Revolution China (veto) Partial Dual autonomy