State-Building in Unrecognized Countries

Updated: Dec 18, 2019

By: Šárka Humlová

Building sovereignty in unrecognized countries: from diplomacy to state-building, from the preceding analysis it should be clear that sovereignty in general and international recognition in particular, are crucial elements in the study of unrecognized countries.

Systemic and External Factors

In the academic literature, the preferences (i.e. interests) of global powers are generally seen as one of the most influential factors in the process of state recognition (Visoka 2018: 13).

Among the most prominent supporters of this argument is Coggins (2014: 206), who concludes based on her quantitative research that it is “state interests, rather than facts on the ground that determine recognition”.

In a similar yet separate analysis of factors and dynamics that the academic literature makes use of ‘great powers’ without usually providing an exact definition of who exactly is included in this definition.

Nonetheless, it could be assumed (based on the examples the literature uses) that it is states that are seen as powerful in the traditional sense (military and economic power) as well as those states that possess significant ‘soft’ powers through which they can influence others.

Great powers are identified as the main international determinant of this process. Fabry (2010) is another scholar that implicitly recognizes the influence of great powers, when he suggests that following Russia’s recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia (citing the Kosovo precedent), ‘Western’ states will be more cautious in recognizing any future ‘Kosovos’ without the consent of the relevant base states.

Even Visoka (2018), who argues that the extent of international recognition granted to Kosovo was mainly based on Kosovo’s own efforts (especially its diplomatic services), acknowledges that support from powerful states such as the USA and UK did have an impact particularly in the initial stages of the recognition process.

Moreover, Ker-Lindsay (2012: 22) claims that great powers are “the most important target group of states in any counter-recognition campaign”.

This is because they are believed to shape wider opinions and so their position with regards to the territories’ recognition status is seen as a crucial factor in influencing other states’ decisions regarding the recognition. Conversely, he mentions that the extent of the great power’s influence is often overestimated (ibid).

Apart from the role of ‘great powers’, academics have also identified international norms as an important factor in state recognition. This is because international norms such as democracy and respect for human rights; have become very important in the post-Cold War era (Caspersen 2012; Pegg 2017).

Numerous policies such as the EU accession criteria, Badinter criteria for recognition of the former Yugoslavian republics or the UN ‘standards before status’ policy towards Kosovo; could serve as some of the examples of the international pressure to uphold these norms.

Based on this, unrecognized countries often attempt to use the concept of “earned sovereignty” (Caspersen 2012; Broers 2013; Voller 2013), proclaiming their support for democratic values as a new legitimisation strategy.

This is because the unrecognized countries believe that if they are seen as viable democracies, this will increase their chances of achieving international recognition.

Although the traditional view of sovereignty has often been seen as a prerequisite for democracy, Tansey (2011: 1535) argues that lack of external sovereignty (i.e. international recognition) “does not necessarily breach the core channels of accountability and representativeness that are central to democratic rule”, which has been demonstrated by several unrecognized countries that did manage to make real progress.

For instance, Ó Beacháin, Comai, and Ysurtsumia-Zurbashvili (2016) find that the two unrecognized countries they analysed (Transnistria and Abkhazia) have peacefully managed to transfer power from governments to opposition, which is “a feat seldom achieved in many recognized post-Soviet states” (Pegg 2017: 10).

In addition, numerous unrecognized countries have deliberately elected politicians and followed policies that went against the wishes of their patron states, which demonstrates their ability to withstand outside pressure and uphold democratic values (Caspersen 2012).

Still, the specificities of unrecognized countries produce many obstacles for democratisation, which is why Caspersen (2012: 98) concludes that they often get stuck “in a seemingly perpetual transition” as they “reach a plateau fairly early on and may even experience democratic setbacks.”

Moreover, the international norms may influence some of the internal policies of unrecognized countries but their effects on the process of state recognition itself are much more ambiguous.

For instance, Somaliland is often seen as an “oasis of political calm and stability” in comparison to its base state – Somalia that is in “a state of anarchy” (Ker-Lindsay 2012: 59); and Nagorno-Karabakh (the Republic of Artsakh) has regularly achieved better Freedom House rankings than its base state of Azerbaijan (Kolstø and Blakkisrud 2012); yet both of these unrecognized countries remain completely unrecognized by the international community.

Although, such research shows that the system-level factors do in fact influence (at least partially) the state recognition process, both Caspersen (2015) and Visoka (2018) mention that the top-down approach which is adopted in these analyses, neglects the agency of the unrecognized countries themselves.

The approach of most academics in this field has therefore not only limited the amount of available information on how these entities pursue international recognition but it has also underestimated their role and agency (Visoka 2018).

Diplomacy of Unrecognized Countries

In recent years, some of the academics have started to examine the internal dynamics that the unrecognized countries themselves use to gain international recognition, thus revealing their agency in this process (Visoka 2018).

It is difficult to analyse the impact of the contested states’ diplomatic practices independently from the influence of ‘great powers’ or with regard to the impact of non-state actors and international organisations (as will be analysed later on).

Caspersen (2012: 68) mostly analyses the internal policies of unrecognized countries in general; however, she does mention that their recognition strategies have undergone a gradual shift from “claims based on national identity and past grievances” to claims grounded on the concept of earned sovereignty.

Visoka (2018) has studied extensively Kosovo’s strategy for gaining international recognition through the analysis of its diplomatic practices, use of specific language, as well as the impacts of seemingly unrelated events on the recognition of Kosovo.

Similarly, Bouris and Fernández- Molina (2018) have examined what kind of diplomatic practices are utilised by unrecognized countries (Western Sahara) in their attempts to gain social forms of international recognition.

Since unrecognized countries find themselves in an ambiguous, in-between position within the binary of state and non-state diplomacy, their diplomatic practices are considered to be a part of ‘hybrid diplomacy’ (Constantinou et al. 2016: 52).

This essentially means, that sometimes they adopt strategies that are traditionally associated with state diplomats, while at other times they use strategies traditionally associated with NGOs based on the particular needs of the situation.

This, if used appropriately, could provide unrecognized countries with diplomatic opportunities that are not even accessible to fully recognized states (McConnell 2017: 147).

It is suggested by the literature on hybrid diplomacy that such practices engender unconventional/unstructured social forms of international recognition, which may ultimate increase the chances of a formal recognition or partially substitute the need for a formal recognition in the first place (Bouris and Fernández-Molina 2018: 321).

One of the specific tools that unrecognized countries use is the appointment of ‘honorary consuls,’ the recipients of this title are often not ethnically connected to the unrecognized countries, yet they are sympathetic to their cause and willing to help the unrecognized countries with establishing further local connections (Berg and Vits 2018: 394).

In addition, unrecognized countries often attempt to establish diplomatic relations with the outside world by opening various types of representative centres abroad.

The centres predominantly “attempt to increase the visibility of the unrecognized countries, while gaining access to local decision-makers, making the politicians and the local population more aware of their cause and also countering the positions of their parent states” (ibid).

The establishment and functioning of these representations is; however, regulated by the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations (1961) and Consular Relations (1963). Both of which, inter alia, require states to approve the opening of any mission within the confines of their territories (Berg and Vits 2018: 394).

Logically, this requirement prevents unrecognized countries from opening embassies and having diplomatic representatives in countries that oppose it.

Accordingly, they tend to open representative offices in states with large diasporas (from the relevant unrecognized country), since they can help with the establishment.

Role of Non-State Actors

As was previously mentioned, state recognition can only be granted by states; however, it is widely recognized among academics that international organisations and other non-state actors have also become important factors by influencing the process of state recognition (Ker- Lindsay 2012; Visoka 2018).

This has especially been emphasised with regards to the UN, since an “admission to full UN membership is tantamount to collective de jure recognition” (Geldenhuys 2009: 22) and it can also “facilitate the entry of the new state into other multilateral organisations” (ibid).

Due to the UN’s ability to confer legitimacy on states, the UN also serves as an important forum for anti-recognition efforts (Ker-Lindsay 2012: 22).

Yet, for many unrecognized countries full membership of the UN itself is an unattainable goal (at least in the near future) and therefore they have focused on trying to attain membership in other international organisations.

Usually these non-state actors are careful in their interactions with unrecognized countries, as they want to prevent recognition from being inferred based on the engagement.

In response, unrecognized countries attempt to achieve recognition from increasing the quality as well as quantity of their interactions (Bouris and Fernández-Molina 2018: 312).

One of the international organisations that unrecognized countries tend to target is the EU since it has the potential not only to influence the opinions of its member states but also “the positions of countries further afield” (Ker-Lindsay 2012: 22).

Based on what Adler-Nissen’s (2014) labels ‘symbolic power’, the EU is able to exert influence, even if it is not able to directly challenge its member states’ foreign policies.

Moreover, Bouris and Fernández-Molina (2018: 313) show that contested states invest a lot of effort in targeting EU institutions, because they believe there is “political capital” to be derived from interacting with officials from the EU institutions.

Finally, in the examination of EU’s practice of state recognition, Newman and Visoka (2018) find that the EU has adopted numerous strategies including collective non-recognition, collective recognition, and bilateral recognition.

The collective recognition of South Sudan by the EU has for example made it unnecessary for the “individual members to issue formal statements of recognition, or send representatives to the independence ceremony” (Ker- Lindsay 2012: 10).

Apart from being able to grant collective recognition to numerous states, it has also managed nine times to enforce collective non-recognition (Newman and Visoka 2018: 781).

However, in other cases (Kosovo) the normative divergences among its member states made it impossible for the EU to reach a common position, hence leaving the decision to the individual member states.

Newman and Visoka (2018: 780) see this as an example of the limited ability of the EU “to shape the foreign policies of its members [...] in the face of acute, conflicting interests”.

Overall, it could be said that non-state actors and especially international organisations possess (a limited) ability to affect the process of state recognition, therefore the interactions that unrecognized countries forge with such actors are likely to be relevant for their ability to attain state recognition.

State-Building in Unrecognized Countries

The concept of state-building has first emerged within the conflict resolution literature, since it is a component as well as an approach of the wider concept of peace-building (Sisk and Paris 2009: 2-3).

Nonetheless, state-building has also become an important part of the academic literature on unrecognized countries, although some scholars (e.g. Visoka (2018)) prefer to use other terms such as state formation.

In the context of unrecognized countries, state-building means "the establishment of administrative, economic and military groundwork of functional states.

It includes the establishment of frontier control, securing a monopoly of coercive powers on the state territory, and putting into place a system for the collection of taxes and tolls” (Kolstø and Blakkisrud 2008: 484).

In many ways, state-building in unrecognized countries resembles the state-building in other, recognized states since in both instances it aims to construct and strengthen legitimate governmental institutions; however, empirical research shows that in some respects the state- building within unrecognized countries is rather unique.

The relative isolation and insecurity of unrecognized countries often leads to the development of authoritarian, highly militarised entities (Caspersen 2012). At the same time, their desire for international recognition has led some of these entities to pursue a path towards liberalisation and democratisation (Caspersen 2009: 58).

Caspersen (2012) argues that democratisation is pursued by the unrecognized countries not only to achieve international recognition, but that democratisation is also necessary for the state- building to be successful, since it relies on society’s support.

Overall, the empirical research seems to suggest that there “are more differences than similarities” among the unrecognized countries when it comes to their political developments.

Yet all of the post-Soviet unrecognized countries have managed to establish a legal basis for political decision making as well as crucial constitutional institutions (von Steinsdorff 2012: 202).

This development of internal sovereignty makes it improbable they will disappear in the foreseeable future, which is at odds with the argument made by Lynch (2004: 141), who claimed that these entities “appear destined to collapse” due to factors that include, among others, the high levels of criminality, collapse of state infrastructures and poverty.

Considering that the entities have survived for over a decade since Lynch’s research, it does not seem like the most convincing conclusion.

Unrecognized countries are faced with a constant security problem, which is caused by the omnipresent risk of violent conflict caused by the lack of protection in the form of the international norm of non-intervention.

This threat creates the need for national unity, which in turn limits the extent of political pluralism (Caspersen 2012: 93-94).

For example, the parliamentary elections in the Republic of Artsakh (Nagorno-Karabakh) have seen some degree of pluralism, yet the presidential elections are judged to be “too important to be publicly contested” and therefore there is a unanimous support from the major political actors for the regime’s candidates (Kolstø and Blakkisrud 2012: 286).

This is similar to the other post-Soviet unrecognized countries, which are often defined by strong presidencies and underdeveloped party systems (idem: 284).

Finally, the importance of establishing various state bodies and institutions is clearly implied by the definition of state-building itself. The importance arises from their role in the provision of basic needs to the citizens as well as the running of the country.

In addition, by creating these institutions, unrecognized countries can demonstrate to the international community that they resemble recognised states and possess some degree of internal sovereignty.

Lastly, some institutions, such as the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFAs) are themselves central to the unrecognized country’s pursuit of international recognition.

As Ker-Lindsay (2015: 278) shows, recognized states are often reluctant to engage with anyone that is associated with the unrecognized country’s MFA, since it is responsible for representing its government on intergovernmental meetings and on interstate negotiations as well as establishing representative offices abroad, which are vital to the unrecognized country’s quest for international recognition.


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