Department of Political Science


Perceptions of Security & Governance in De-Facto and Partially-recognised states

8 September 2014

On September 11 and 12, scholars, policy-makers, and practitioners working on and in so-called de facto states came together at UCL to discuss questions related to security and governance. The project grew out of Dr. Kristin M. Bakke’s ESRC-funded project on “After the War Ends,” which investigates state-building in de facto states born out of violent struggles.

Kristin conference 1

De facto states are discrete territorial regions that aspire to separate from the internationally recognized states that they are officially part of. As such, de facto states are sometimes referred to as “breakaway regions” by their “parent” states. De facto states possess domestic sovereignty in the sense that they control and administer most or all of the territory they claim (this is what makes them stand apart from other separatist regions), but de facto states do not have international legal recognition as states. Rather, they become unrecognized states or partially recognized states, entities denied international legal sovereignty by all or many members of the existing community of states.

Despite the lack of international legal recognition, many de facto states have proven to be remarkably enduring (think of Northern Cyprus and Taiwan). In the post-Soviet region, Abkhazia, Nagorno Karabakh, South Ossetia, and Transdniestria have survived as unrecognized or partially recognized states since the early 1990s, as has Somaliland in Africa. In Asia, Tamil Eelam functioned like a de facto state from 1986 to 2009, when Sri Lankan forces regained control of the territory, and in the Middle East, Iraqi Kurdistan has, more or less, functioned like a de facto state since 1991. Per one count (by Nina Caspersen and Gareth Stansfield), we have seen the emergence of 21 de facto states since World War II, and recent events in eastern Ukraine, as well as IS(IS)’s emerging control in Iraq and Syria, have brought fore the question of whether we are witnessing new de facto states in the making.

Kristin Conference 2

De facto states are not, by definition, born out of violent struggles, but most are, as existing states are generally reluctant to let part of their territory go without putting up a fight. As a result, both scholarly and policy interest in de facto states is often tied up with questions related to security, conflict resolution, and post-war governance. The conference at UCL situated de facto states within these wider questions.

For a long time, neither scholars nor policy-makers outside de facto states knew much about their inner workings. The assumption was often that that these were unstable and crime-ridden entities. However, many de facto states have developed institutions of governance and provide public goods to the population within their boundaries. Like recognized states, they do so to varying degrees, and an emerging body of work has begun to analyze these dynamics. From a policy perspective, regardless of whether one wants de facto states to be integrated into their parent states or gain full international recognition, an informed debate about how these political entities function and how they are (or are not) prepared for either integration or independent statehood is important. The fate of de facto states matter not only for the population within these entities and their parent states, but for regional and international stability.

The UCL conference was organized around six panels, which addressed questions related to governance, security, the role of third parties, de facto states’ relationships to their neighbors and wider international community, displacement and human rights, as well as reconciliation. Each panel featured a mix of researchers, practitioners, and policy-makers, to facilitate discussion among people who are interested in—and knowledgeable about—de facto states from different perspectives. The conference featured speakers working on and in several different de facto states and (post-)conflict situations—Abkhazia, Iraqi Kurdistan, Kosovo, Nagorno Karabakh, Transdniestria, and Somaliland—and with expertise and experience related to governance, peace-building, mediation and conflict management, border changes, demographic changes, human rights, and reconciliation.

The conference began with a discussion about governance, featuring a presentation based on comparative survey evidence from Abkhazia, Nagorno Karabakh, South Ossetia, and Transdniestria, by John O’Loughlin from the University of Colorado and Gerard Toal from Virginia Tech. Liana Kvarcheliya from the Center for Humanitarian Programs, an NGO based in Abkhazia, followed up with an insider perspective on governance in Abkhazia. Donnacha Ó Beacháin from Dublin City University provided an overview of election dynamics in the post-Soviet de facto states, and Mira Sovakar from Conciliation Resources discussed the nexus between governance and peacebuilding.

The following panel addressed questions related to security. Kristin M. Bakke from UCL made an argument linking governance and security to internal legitimacy in the post-Soviet de facto states. Natella Akaba, Chair of the Public Chamber in Abkhazia, gave a presentation about the war in Abkhazia and its lingering effects, and Tabib Huseynov from Saferworld discussed the tensions between security concerns and legitimacy in Abkhazia and Nagorno Karabakh. Professor Gareth Stansfield from the University of Exeter talked about the Kurdistan Region in Iraq and the ways in which the recent threat of ISIS has shaped the Kurdistan de facto state.

The first day of the conference ended with a panel on the role of third parties. Stefan Wolff from the University of Birmingham drew on both his research and practical experience in discussing challenges of mediation, concluding that mediation only works if the parties want it to work. Keith Shannon, Deputy Director of the Easter Europe and Central Asia Directorate at the UK FCO, talked about his experience with mediation and contact programs in Transdniestria, based on his previous work as the UK Ambassador to Moldova. Roy Reeves, CMG, drew on his experience working for the OSCE and the EU, talking about the role of international governmental organizations in conflict management. Craig Oliphant from Saferworld concluded with a discussion about the role of confidence building from an NGO perspective.

The second day of the conference kicked off with a panel on de facto states’ relationships in the neighbourhood. Lee Seymour from the University of Amsterdam gave a presentation on the consequences of border changes, arguing that adherence to existing borders might be destabilizing. Arda Inal-Ipa, from the Center for Humanitarian Programs in Abkhazia, gave an in-depth account of Abkhazia’s relationships to Russia, Turkey, and Georgia, arguing for de-isolation. Arzu Abdullayeva, Co-chair of the Helsinki Citizens’ Assembly in Baku, discussed the independent Civil Minsk Process and its role in conflict settlement in Nagorno Karabakh. Gentian Zyberi from the University of Oslo concluded the panel by talking about some of the challenges facing Kosovo, which is now recognized by nearly 110 states in the international system. 

The second panel of the day addressed questions related to demography, displacement, and human rights. Monica Duffy Toft from the University of Oxford gave a presentation on the relationship between demographic transitions and political conflict. Karen Ohanjanyan, Coordinator of the Nagorno-Karabakh Committee “Helsinki Initiative-92,” drew on his experience in discussing displacement, human rights, and dialogue on the Nagorno Karabakh conflict. And Juliet Schofield from International Alert gave the audience an in-depth account of developments related to demography, dependency, and (de-)isolation in South Ossetia.

The conference concluded with a panel on dialogue and reconciliation. Melanie Garson from UCL discussed the relationship between reconciliation and the durability of peace agreements. Margarita Akhvlediani, Director of Go-Group Media in Tbilisi, drew on her experience in discussing practical observations with respect to reconciliation in the Georgian-Abkhaz context, and Dmitri Gavrilov from the Information Resource Center “Common Home” in Tiraspol talked about his work on reconciliation in the Moldova-Transdniestria context. Michael Walls from UCL gave a presentation about Somaliland, highlighting the role of clan relationships and dialogue. The panel concluded with a discussion of the role of civil society in moving forward the reconciliation process, by Rachel Clogg from Conciliation Resources.