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The foreign policy option of Western countries regarding para states in post-Soviet space

Because para states are unlikely to disappear any time soon, we have to see if they are able to sustain themselves and how to include them without any recognition. Non-recognition is a major geopolitical issue. Respect of human rights is another one, and this too directly concerns states without international recognition and outside the jurisdiction of international law.

October 30, 2018 - Michael Eric Lambert - Articles and Commentary

Embassies of Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Tiraspol, Transnistria Photo: John Pavelka (cc) flickr.com

The study of international relations has traditionally focused on the activities of large and powerful states. In consequence, the so-called para states in the contemporary post-Soviet space come to be classed as geopolitical anomalies, resulting from a fight between Russia and the US/Europe (EU). De facto or partially recognised states (e.g. Abkhazia and South Ossetia) are not regarded as full members of the international system, nor sustainable enough to gain recognition under the Montevideo Convention to which the EU subscribes. Significantly, five states out of the six members of the Eastern Partnership have to deal with separatist entities. Since the Donbas conflict in 2015, the proliferation of such territories has provided a significant challenge to international organisations such as the European Union, NATO, and the OSCE, to name just a few.

Is Russia using separatism to slow down EU enlargement, or trying to protect minorities under threat in the chaotic post-Soviet space? Moreover, are EU member states realistic when it comes to the lack of legitimacy of para states, or how they could possibly be integrated into the European order without recognition?

The proliferation of unrecognised/partially recognised states is a significant challenge to the international system and its institutions. They present myriad issues when it comes to applying international law, human rights, animal rights, environmental standards –  practically any kind of law. Moreover, it is impossible for the inhabitants to enjoy basic freedoms or to receive help from the outside world. Most of them have to hold another passport (‘passportisation’ from a parent state), and often have problems getting recognition of education, jobs, travel visas, and many other basic things. Yet security issues take precedence, and experts have a tendency to forget that para states have inhabitants, whether citizens or not, trying like all of us to live fulfilling and secure lives. Another problem is the way the Kremlin exploits these areas of uncertain status to its own ends, usually military. Organisations such as the OSCE, NATO, and European institutions are continuously asking Russian troops to withdraw. Yet they have no backup plan if they decide to do so. What would happen to the Abkhaz people or the Transnistrians if Moscow decided to leave them alone? Neither the OSCE, nor the West in general is able to protect inhabitants without any citizenship against a sudden attack from abroad. In that context, Russian “peacekeepers” are ensuring the safety of Soviet warehouses and inhabitants at least as long as nobody will offer a better and more effective solution..

Are para states sustainable?

The Montevideo Convention on the Rights and Duties of States, signed in 1933, states that “the state as a person of international law should possess the following qualifications: (a) a permanent population; (b) a defined territory; (c) government; and (d) capacity to enter into relations with the other states.” According to this definition, most, if not all, para states can claim a recognition. The main issue is the “capacity to enter into relations with the other parties,” as it depends on the willingness of other states in the mainstream international system. All para states are trying to develop diplomatic ties with other countries – at least with the most significant ones – and have been recognised by other non-recognised countries. We should underline that when a territory fails to gain widespread recognition, as a rule is it because of geopolitical factors. The Peoples Republic of China was rejected by the international community for several years, with the exception of the Soviet Union. France was one of the first countries in the West to recognise communist China, mostly to show diplomatic autonomy from the US after the Second World War. The viability of China was obvious at the time: it was the most populous country in the world, with a strong government and state apparatus.

The non-recognition of smaller territories like Abkhazia and Transnistria, or even Kosovo, is mostly due to strategic reasons. Spain still does not recognise Kosovo because it would exacerbate its problems with the potential breakaway region of Catalonia.

In the context of the Montevideo Convention, the only reason for objecting to recognition would be that a state is unsustainable and unable to ensure the safety of its citizens. But some states recognised by the international community are not able to fulfil those standards (such as Somalia), or even are autocratic regimes (such as Belarus).

Non-recognition of de facto governments related to their unsustainability should be considered carefully. For example, Abkhazia encompasses a land area of 8,660 square kilometres (Encyclopaedia Britannica 2017) and has a population of just over 235,000. A small territory, but of approximately the same size and population figure as Luxembourg after the Second World War. Estimations of Abkhazia’s GDP and per capita income vary, but they are higher than estimates for most African states. We should also keep in mind that around 60% of the income is not official, making Abkhazia a quite expensive state for tourists and inhabitants. Moreover, business opportunities are impressive, encompassing the Soviet Riviera, oranges, wine, tea, tobacco, tomatoes, the largest wine caves in the world, and the only access point to connect Turkey and Russia. Abkhazia is able to welcome space shuttles at the Sukhumi airport. Its climate could also be utilised for renewable energies. Abkhazia could become one of the main providers of solar energy during winters in Russia and the rest of the Caucasus.

Abkhazia is by far the most sustainable de facto state in post-Soviet space, but others, such as Transnistria, could also survive without help from the Kremlin. Transnistria is one of the main stopping points for gas and goods going from Ukraine to Moldova and the EU, and could apply taxes on gas transit. The production of wine and cognac is another oppurtunity and already a success on the Chinese market. In the context of the New Silk Road (OBOR), para states have become of a major interest for exporting goods to China and settle companies at an affordable price.

Para states less attractive to investors like Karabakh and South Ossetia do have other assets, such as preserved mineral resources and good locations for winter tourism. Karabakh is also well located for religious tourism with the oldest Christian churches in the world. Overall, the whole Black Sea region is of strategic relevance for China and investments have increased in the last decade, with or without recognition.

One last aspect to take into consideration is the military aspect. With a large part of the GDP dedicated to defence, regions like Abkhazia, Transnistria, or even more Karabakh could instead invest into other infrastructures were they to finally receive recognition and a modicum of existential security.

The main argument in this part on para states is not to underline the potential prosperity of such regions, but that they could be an asset to the international system. Before the breakup of the Soviet Union, Abkhazia was one of the most prosperous parts of the USSR. Today, it can connect Turkey and Russia via railroad, and could absolutely carve out a niche for itself in the international order if it can win over sympathetic allies.

Engagement with NGOs and Governmental organisations, the USSR and Russia

During Soviet times, Abkhazia was considered a highly developed part of the country, with effective infrastructure and an airport for space shuttles. Indeed, it was seen as a model of socialist economic development within the union. Yet the breakup of the Soviet Union and the proliferation of post-Soviet independent states brought the issue of international recognition to the fore. For various reasons, in particular the war in Abkhazia following the breakup of the USSR and its small size, lead to a widespread perception that it was not a viable state and could not provide good living conditions for its inhabitants.

Similar issues led to the same conundrum of recognition for Transnistria, one of the most highly industrialised areas of Moldova, for Karabakh, with its successful mining sector, and even South Ossetia, which was mostly a vacation destination.

After 1991, the relationship between Russia and all the para states changed, and Moscow was not officially in charge anymore. Yet Russia has been, or is, present in almost all territories (except for Karabakh) as a self-proclaimed peacekeeper and has dominated foreign interactions of para states since the termination of hostilities. Russian interaction has always been heavily influenced by structural factors, with the Russian position varying in according to international developments that are far beyond the power of para states to influence. Russian support has been the main reason for the autonomy of para states, including partial recognition, but also the main reason for their rejection by the international community.

The US and EU member states mostly oppose the idea of any more new states arising in the region, partly because they are afraid of separatism on their own territories (like Scotland, Brittany, Basque Country, Catalonia, Bavaria, Silesia, Aaland Island, Flanders, Sud Tyrol, Eastern Estonia, to name only a few in Europe). They are also seen as vehicles of Russian influence: para states are usually pro-Russian or Russian speaking territories and not especially interested into EU/NATO membership in the short term.

Russian support was an asset after the breakup of the USSR, but today is an issue for para states. This idea is demonstrated by their attempts to be recognised by other countries or to develop economic ties with those countries, as between Turkey and Abkhazia, or China and Transnistria (in developing the cognac export market).

International community

Since the dissolution of the USSR, para states’ official contacts with the international community have primarily taken place in connection with conflict resolution efforts vis-à-vis Moldova, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Ukraine. The changing nature of these conflicts has seen a corresponding evolution in international involvement. The recent tensions between the West and Russia after the recognition of Kosovo and the annexation of Crimea in 2014 makes it almost impossible for any de facto state to seek further recognition by the International community. Recognition is connected to geopolitical or economic interests and para states cannot offer much compared to bigger countries.

The case of the United Nations reveals problems for para states that must be taken seriously. The UN is, by its charter, committed to the territorial integrity of its members (United Nations Charter), immediately creating a bias in favour of already recognised territories in any negotiations initiated regarding the status of, or policy towards, para states. This unavoidable position compromises the UN’s role as a potential mediator in discussions on the status of all para states, not only in post-Soviet space, and strengthens the perceived dichotomy between the UN and the Russian Federation (Stewart 2003, 14). This restriction is apparent in the constant failure of para states officials to gain a platform at the UN. They are even unable to obtain a US visa to express themselves there (Gvinjia, 2013 Interview). The only country able to represent their interests is Russia, which is perceived in quasi-imperial terms in these instances as the occupant of the territory or as directly in charge of para states. The impossibility for them to express themselves is one of their main problems and a pomme de discorde between the West and Russia, especially when some para states are not in favour of Russia speaking for them (the case is different in Karabakh, which is willing to be represented by Armenia).

The situation with the EU is quite similar. As long as the European institutions are involved in the Eastern Partnership, separatism will be perceived as an issue. Moreover, the intra-European “separatisms” or “regionalisms” are a major concern to the EU and the crisis in Catalonia in 2016 has made it impossible to support any regional autonomy, whether inside or outside of its borders. The point here is not to support or oppose regionalism, but just to be aware that it plays as important a role in political life today as it always has done, since the birth of nationalism in the nineteenth century.


Given these issues, the authorities in para states are getting in touch with other countries not so much in expectation of full recognition but smaller advantages. Abkhazia is trying to make it possible for its brightest students to study in Italy, and Transnistria want to get some products labelled ‘made in Moldova’ so that they can be exported abroad.

The ultimate hope remains full recognition from a country like China or Brazil, powerful outsiders not directly involved in local geopolitical manoeuvrings. But the chances for that are low and para states are more focused on NGOs than countries.

Why NGOs? It is easier to implement a Red Cross (ICRC) office than an Embassy. And NGOs do important work outside the political arena. Almost all para states have a Médecin Sans Frontières or ICRC office on their territory. Such offices are a way to communicate with the outside world, to bring people with a high salary on the ground – consuming goods and renting homes – and organising events for inhabitants. The ICRC in Abkhazia has been a force for good. Reports underline the fact that Abkhazia is an open society with free internet, committed to respecting Human Rights. The ICRC’s office participates in major events in the state and brings policymakers to the area. The outcome is that Abkhazia can feel that it is not being ignored and is a member of the international system. It is also psychologically important for residents to know that they can look to the rest of the world and not only Russia when it comes to issues such as Human Rights. The presence of people coming from foreign places like North America or the EU is also important, as many of them will share a different vision of life there when they return home, sometimes in complete opposition to the (generally critical) reports of the OSCE and even more of the EU Commission and NATO. 

Informal vectors

The relationship between para states and other unofficial partners such as Turkey in Abkhazia is important for understanding the dynamics of unrecognised states. Turkey is inhibited from formally recognising Abkhazia by its NATO membership and relationships with the USA and the EU. Turkey has, however, maintained informal yet consistent and increasingly strong economic ties with Abkhazia. The Abkhaz issue has remained a political concern due to the activities of the Circassian/Abkhaz diaspora in Turkey. This informal but functional relationship stands in contrast to those formal but impractical treaties with Abkhazia’s partners in the Pacific and Latin America.

States doing business in para states sometimes use conflict to their advantage. China is investing in some strategic business sectors in Abkhazia and Transnistria as the price of gas is lower and the labour market more affordable. The same applies to the US mining companies in Karabakh.

We should keep in mind that para states are not no man’s land without any interest and can export some valuable goods (even more in the context of the OBOR) and inhabitants can enjoy quite a good life. The situation varies, for example between rural life in South Ossetia to a more industrial state of mind in Transnistria. And contacts with the outside world continue. “Soviet Tours”, a new company, even offers a whole trip to all para states for curious adventurers. Other people are crossing the de facto borders to enjoy a vacation on the the Black Sea or just some rest in an unusual place. Russian tourists are common in Abkhazia and Transnistria, but the Chinese are getting more interested into the area too. As tourism and “hipster” culture develops, more people are going to Moldova and feel like they must go to Transnistria to enjoy a few days in the “land of the last Soviets.” Its still a long way from mass tourism (which is part of the charm for travellers), but statistics are showing an increasing interest which is linked to the increasing numbers of tourists travelling to Georgia and Ukraine.

Business always finds its way, and even though McDonald’s cannot settle in Transnistria, other companies like Andy’s Pizza are not afraid to do so. The same applies to Australian burgers in Abkhazia. States, companies and entrepreneurs are keeping a discreet eye on the para states and are ready to take advantage of business opportunities as soon as the situation changes. Investing in housing in Abkhazia might be valuable if the country is recognised one day, and certain Chinese companies (like the one in charge of the Tbilisi Sea Plaza) are aware of that.

Informal vectors refers to the ways in which foreign countries and private sectors are involved without granting recognition. With the arrival of tourists and businesses, the  inherent contradictions become glaring. Take the question of security. What will happen if a tourist runs into trouble? Will the non-recognised police of Karabakh oversee the investigation? Or will it be the Azeri police force, which has no access to the territory and yet is officially in charge? So far, para states and the international community do not have any security issues, but it might be valuable to adapt the approach to avoid another Malaysia Airlines Flight 17. Informal vectors might be the first cracks in these frozen political situations. The question of who is legally responsible remains: Ukraine, Russia, or the separatists?

Recognising the unrecognised as a part of the European order?

Para states may still be considered a geopolitical anomaly in post-Soviet space, but are the main issue when it comes to integration of parent countries into the EU/NATO, and a major concern for environmental issues, small arms trafficking and respect for human rights, amongst other issues. Out of the six states of the Eastern Partnership, five have had to deal with this problem, and some for more than 25 years.

Far from being a “black hole”, such territories have developed an intense relationship with the rest of the world via informal businesses (e.g. Ferrero buying nuts for Nutella in Abkhazia) and are visited by an increasing number of tourists each year. The situation is not about to change as para states are of strategic relevance for the New Silk Road and able to provide China with resources such as alcohol and food.

It therefore seems relevant to include para states into the European order or at least start discussing the issue seriously at the OSCE and debates on the international stage. Such strategy is the only way to move forward (if EU institutions and international organisations actually want to do so) and provide a relevant discussion on the future of the Eastern Partnership and the Eurasian Economic Union itself.

Even if they fulfil the Montevideo Convention, politics makes it unlikely the EU or US will recognise them any time soon. But there are other mechanisms that could also provide a short-term solution. First, structures like the Alliance française, the Chambre de commerce, and some universities could implement themselves in para states. Such an approach will have no consequences on recognition but will connect inhabitants to the West by providing them with the possibility to learn a foreign language other than Russian, and will increase US/EU’s soft power consequently. It would also create jobs and produce deeper academic knowledge about what is happening in those territories, knowledge that can be used later by the states themselves to form better institutions and policies.

Companies should also be allowed to settle in “grey areas” as it could lead to business opportunities and challenge Russian/Chinese economic influence. Resources in para states preserved since the break-up of the Soviet Union could be a major asset.

The question of military involvement is, nonetheless, the main concern. Peacekeepers from a country other than Russia would be a positive step, possibly from a non-NATO member state or the UN. This might at least help renew dialogue about safety in the territories. It would be a strong signal of pragmatism from the West.

A research centre dedicated exclusively to the study of para states in the US or Europe would make sense but does not exist at the moment. It would allow the west to gather experts from around the world to research the issues and provide high quality analysis, ideally detached from national influence. This institution would be a fantastic step forwards, not expensive to implement, and should have its headquarters located close to the Black Sea. It must include people from para states themselves.

Finally, institutions including the UN, NATO and OSCE should allow people from unrecognised countries to obtain a visa at least as far as the United Nations or international events to show the world their opinion. In each conflict you have to listen to both sides and it seems impossible to do that if you cannot event book a flight ticket. Moreover, we should think about the human aspect of such conflicts and not only geopolitical interests. Para states have inhabitants and we should allow them to get student visas for the EUs universities (far more affordable compared to the US/Canada), where they can develop their skills and a western state of mind before they come home and get political positions (Italy currently provides this role for Abkhazian people). Education is one of the main components of western soft power and should not be neglected.

Should we recognise the unrecognised as a part of the European order? We may neglect their legal right to exist, but diseases, hunger, misery, and other human issues have no citizenship. States and non-states alike rely on people living on the ground.

Silent observer

It would be possible to continue the wait-and-see policy of the last 25 years as para states are not a priority. However, the rise of Chinese investment in the Black Sea region, the new Russian strategy relying on para states to slow down the integration process of EaP countries into the EU and NATO, and the increasing number of businesses and tourists in unrecognised territories must be taken into consideration.

This is not about recognition, at least not only, but about avoiding the next crisis like the Malaysian Airline Flight 17 in the Donbas. We should also think about the people living in the areas, and most of all about the consequences on US/EU’s soft power if we are not trying to innovate when it comes to diplomacy. We can leave countries like Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia on the waiting list for EU integration, but, like Turkey, they may get disappointed and look for another great power to support them. All elements included in this article can be used by experts working on such issues, but the idea of a centre dedicated to para states, located in the Black Sea region and including people from para states, and the suggestion regarding visas, are the two most important factors.

Michael Eric Lambert is a (Geo)political scientist specialised in cyber security, Eastern neighbourhood & Sino-European/Russian relations (Ph.D. at Sorbonne University in partnership with the INSEAD, 2016). His articles on Europe and the Soviet Union, which combine an atypical mind with a whimsical approach, allow him to tackle issues from a provocative and original angle.

Read more about Para-states in our 3-4 issue from 2018

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