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Defining Unrecognized Countries: Part 2

By: Šárka Humlová



Characteristics of Unrecognized Countries


Although unrecognized countries could be broadly defined as “entities that fulfil the Montevideo criteria for statehood but lack international recognition” (Toomla 2016: 331); the academic debate on this topic has provided a number of nuanced definitions of these entities.

This is in part due to the fact that Pegg’s original conceptualisation of unrecognized countries allowed for some “‘fuzziness’ in the proposed concept,” (Yemelianova 2015: 221) therefore leading subsequent academics to modify the definition by establishing clearer limits.



This variety among the definitions; however, leads to considerable differences in the number of entities that are considered to be ‘unrecognized countries.’


While some scholars’ definitions limit the number of cases to less than 10 (Caspersen 2012; Kolstø and Paukovic 2014), others have identified over 20 cases (Florea 2014: 792) .


This disparity among the number of cases not only poses a fundamental problem for the study of these entities (Pegg 2017: 22), but it also shows why an exact definition of unrecognized countries has to be provided.


The large disparity in the identified number of unrecognized countries by academics, is nonetheless (to a large extent) caused by a variation in the restrictiveness of some of the components of the definitions, since in general the definitions contain many similarities.


Toomla (2014) has identified some of these similarities as well as differences through the analysis of nine different conceptualisations of unrecognized countries.

For instance, the criteria outlined in the Montevideo Convention on the Rights and Duties of States, Article 1 (permanent population, defined territory, government, and the capacity to enter into relations with other states) together with the absence of international recognition are the two key components (albeit with minor differences) in all of the analysed definitions (idem: 48).


Conversely, criteria regarding legitimacy (or popular support), period of existence, and declaration of independence (or a similar statement of intent) is only included in some of the analysed definitions.


The working definition of this thesis will be established based on some of the previously proposed definitions, mainly drawing on the work by Pegg (1998), Geldenhuys (2009), Caspersen (2012), and Relitz (2019).



These numbers represent the number of existing unrecognized countries identified by the various authors for the year 2011, so as to make it comparable.


The nine analysed conceptualisations were drawn from: Pegg (1998), Kolossov & O’Loughlin (1998), King (2001), Lynch (2004), Spears (2004), Bartmann (2004), Kolstø (2006), Geldenhuys (2009), and Caspersen (2012).


The main characteristics of unrecognized countries can be summarised as follows:


1) De facto independence and control of a majority of the (populated) territory to which it lays claims.


In some cases there is a disagreement among the scholars as to when exactly a state has achieved ‘de facto independence’ since according to Caspersen (2012: 11) in some cases it could coincide with the signing of a ceasefire agreement while in other instances the achievement of de facto independence is more gradual.



In such cases it necessitates an approximation of the exact date, this is however problematic, which is clearly demonstrated in the case of Eritrea, where Florea (2014) dates the beginning of Eritrea’s de facto independence to 1964, while Pegg (1998) suggests that the inception of its contested statehood was in 1977 and Caspersen (2012) dates it from 1991 (Pegg 2017: 22).


Even though similar discrepancies can be found in other cases, the achievement of de facto independence is an important element of these entities and should not be excluded based solely on the difficulties with pinpointing the exact time period of its attainment.


In order to function as states, these entities need a population to rule over. Moreover, this population has to be connected to the territory to which the contested state lays claim.


Considering that many of the unrecognized countries claim more territory than they actually control, Caspersen (2012: 9) has included a threshold according to which the entities have to control at least two thirds (including key regions and main cities) of the territory.


This threshold enables for the inclusion of unrecognized countries, such as Somaliland (disputed control of its eastern regions), while at the same time excluding entities like Western Sahara (Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic) that controls less than 20% of the territory it claims (idem: 8).


2) The entity has declared independence or demonstrated clear aspirations for it


This criterion mainly serves to differentiate contested states from those entities that want to overthrow an existing government, or units that do not want sovereignty (Pegg 1998).


Still most of the academics do not require for the entity to have formally declared independence, since that would exclude some entities that otherwise strongly resemble other contested states (Toomla 2014: 55).



This is why Caspersen (2012: 11) advocates for widening the definition to also include ‘clear aspirations’ among which she includes a referendum on independence, separate currency and a “similar act that clearly signals separate statehood”.


This is however far from a detailed elaboration, so the definition still remains fairly ambiguous.


The opposing view is represented by scholars like Voller (2013: 624) that believe that the formal declaration of independence is superfluous when the entities satisfy the other criteria of contested statehood.


He contends that despite the fact that Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq has not officially declared independence, it shares many commonalities with other unrecognized countries and should therefore be studied alongside them.


Although I agree that such entities do resemble other unrecognized countries in many aspects and studying them can provide interesting insights for the field in general, for this particular thesis a declaration of independence (or at least a clear aspirations for independence) is crucial, since the focus is on the entities’ attempts to gain international recognition.


3) Existence of substantial internal sovereignty and legitimacy, trying to build further state institutions.


Even among recognized states there is a large disparity with regard to the existence of a functioning government; it is therefore not surprising to see a similar range among contested states.



It would be impossible to set a precise judgment as to what suffices as a ‘functional’ government; hence in this working definition it is sufficient for the entity to be able to “[provide] vital governmental services for its population and [enjoy] substantial internal sovereignty and legitimacy” (Relitz 2019:



For it to be deemed an unrecognized country. This component of the definition attempts to distinguish unrecognized countries from ‘puppet states’, which tend to be completely dependent on another state (Pegg 1998).


Finally, in terms of the quality of the government, the literature seems to suggest that what is needed are strong and effective institutions rather than democratic ones (Bouris and Kyris 2017: 758-759).


Although in some cases, unrecognized countries have attempted to adopt international values (such as democracy) to increase their external sovereignty (Caspersen 2012); this thesis considers effective rather than democratic governments to be the one of the defining characteristics of unrecognized countries.


4) The entity has not achieved full international recognition (as expressed in the form of membership in the UN) but actively strives to achieve it.


The lack of or limited international recognition is the key element that distinguishes unrecognized countries from recognized ones, and therefore there is a lot of debate among the academics as to how much international recognition, if any, a unrecognized country can achieve and still be labelled a contested state.



The spectrum of international recognition ranges from full recognition by all existing states to no recognition at all. In practice majority of contested states enjoy some level of formal recognitions, but there are a couple of contested states that have not received any formal recognition - the Republic of Artsakh, Transnistria, Donetsk People's Republic, Luhansk People's Republic, and Somaliland.


Some scholars such as Caspersen (2012: 11) tend to employ a rather restrictive definition, in which the contested states can only be recognized by a patron state and a “few other states of no importance”.


Although this enables her to classify some cases as ‘borderline’ (e.g. Kosovo), the use of ‘important states’ as indicators is problematic since there is no consensus within the field of IR as to what exactly is considered to be an ‘important state’ (Toomla 2014: 52).


There are many different ways in which the ‘importance’ of a state can be assessed (e.g. economic power, military power); however Caspersen does not clarify by what indicators she determines states’ importance, or where exactly she draws a line, which exposes her definition to possible inconsistencies (ibid).


Other scholars such as Bouris and Kyris (2017: 758) use a wider range of possible recognitions to distinguish between contested states with high external sovereignty (recognised by more than two-thirds of UN member states) and low external sovereignty (recognised by less than one-third of UN member states) with all the other unrecognized countries having medium external sovereignty.


Geldenhuys (2009) on the other hand, does not, per se, set out a limit for the level of recognition that contested states can achieve for them to be no longer considered unrecognized countries. Instead he identifies “full UN membership as the ultimate form of recognition” (Toomla 2014: 51).


Other scholars (Kolossov and O'Loughlin 1998; Kolstø 2006) have also adopted membership of the UN as a threshold for unrecognized countries, since in order for the entity to be admitted to the UN not only do at least two thirds of the UN General Assembly must support the admission but there can also be no objections from the UN Security Council members (Toomla2014:51- 52).


In theory it could be assumed that this will only happen if those who vote in favour of membership have recognised the entity in the first place.


Still, Toomla (2014) outlines three major problems with the use of UN membership as an indicator.


First, membership in the UN is voluntary, which means that it is possible for a fully recognised state not to be a member of the UN (as was until recently the case with Switzerland).


Second, a non-sovereign entity can become a member of the UN (as was the case with India [gained independence 2 years after admission], or Ukraine and Belarus [republics of the Soviet Union at the time of admission]).


Finally, the UN itself cannot recognize an entity as that competency remains the prerogative of states (Pegg 1998).


In spite of this critique, the threshold of UN membership is still more appropriate, since its critique is mostly contained to a very small number of cases and it is a much clearer delineation than the one provided by Caspersen (2012), therefore it is more likely to be applied consistently.


5) In existence for more than two years.


Finally, this working definition includes a temporal limitation for the minimum period of two years of existence for the unrecognized countries, as it was also included in the definitions of Pegg (1998), Kolstø (2006), and Caspersen (2012).



Pegg (1998) admits that there is no theoretical justification for the criteria to be set at two years as opposed to one or three years; yet the justification of the scholars that do make use of this criteria is that not only does it “eliminate a whole spate of ephemeral political contraptions” (Kolstø 2006: 726) but it also provides the political entities with the opportunity to build up the credentials of a state through the consolidation of internal sovereignty and legitimacy, without which it could not be considered an ‘unrecognized country’ anyway (Pegg 1998: 32).






At the same time, it allows for the analysis of unrecognized countries that have only existed for three of four years, yet the impact of their existence has been significant enough to make them a valuable subject of academic studies (ibid).



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