The Role of Unrecognized Countries in International Relations

By: Camillah Agak

Unrecognized Countries

There are several unrecognized countries in the world in the world today. These are de facto independent territories whose sovereignty is not formally recognized by other States or the international community for legal or political reasons.

The 1931 Montevideo Convention on the Rights and Duties of States codified the criteria and declarative theory of statehood in international law. There are four key elements in identification criteria what characterizes a State.

These are:

  1. a defined territory

  2. a permanent population

  3. a functioning government

  4. the capacity to enter into relations with other states

However, the existence of all or absence of either of the above does not necessarily confer recognition of statehood.

Besides the expressed declaration of recognition, tacit State recognition has been indicated through establishment of diplomatic missions.

This article tackles the general international relations of different unrecognized countries and dynamics that shape the same in the international community.

While some unrecognized countries enjoy partial recognition (partially-recognized states), most do not have any recognition whatsoever and remain completely unrecognized.

For both alike, non-recognition causes isolation within the international community that makes it difficult to foster sustainable international relations.

As a result, independence has been short-lived and the states have been forced to rejoin the parent state in some cases.

Some sovereign states have through informal or diplomatic actions, worked together with unrecognized countries, but this friendly relation does not confer outright recognition.

Use as Leverage

Unrecognized countries, especially those in the post-Soviet sphere have often been used as a form of leverage against the USA and other American-lead initiatives. This is witnessed in Russian support for Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and Donetsk and Luhansk.

The issue of these unrecognized countries has essentially blocked both Ukraine and Georgia from joining NATO because any ascesstion to NATO by either of these states would immediately trigger a Russian-NATO conflict.

As such, recent pushes for NATO assetion has been on the condition that NATO does not provide military protection regarding the areas mentioned above - and therefore will not trigger a military confrontation with Russia.

However, Russia has essentially managed to change NATO and Western policies, whether they like it or no.


Somaliland for example, remains largely unrecognized despite having has its own government, population and territory. Notwithstanding, a number of countries have a diplomatic presence within Somaliland.

Ethiopia, Eritrea and Turkey established consulates whereas Kenya and Denmark have representative liaison offices.

In a further effort to participate in the international community, Somaliland and United Arab Emirates signed a concession agreement to manage the Port of Berbera that would essentially grant additional sea access to the land locked Ethiopia.

In addition to the diplomatic presence of foreign states in Somaliland, Somaliland also has a diplomatic presence in countries around the world such as; Canada, the USA, the UK, Sweden, Norway, Belgium, China, Kenya, Ethiopia, Turkey and other countries.


Other than having a diplomatic presence within other unrecognized countries, some such as Abkhazia have managed to strengthen foreign policy and established fully fledged embassies within partners states including: Russia and Venezuela.

Abkhazia has also been recognized by a number of UN member states such as Russia, Nicaragua, Nauru, Vanuatu and Tuvalu.

These relationships add a vital dynamic to countries’ foreign relations. In order to enhance Abkhazia’s digital visibility and raise international awareness, its government targeted social media platforms such Twitter, Facebook and YouTube to combat disinformation.

Furthermore, Abkhazia has endeavoured to create multiple foreign language versions of the government ministry websites, with particular focus on the Arabic language.

International Organizations

International relations also extend to signing strategic and infrastructure agreements, treaties on friendship and cooperation, and use of relevant structures to encourage international aid, foreign direct investment as well as strengthening of foreign policy.

The limitation on foreign investment opportunities presents itself in that private foreign investors cannot access commercial insurance or seek redress through international commercial law.

As such, international recognition as a sovereign state remains at the forefront of the self- declared independent governments’ priority.

The lack of diplomatic recognition undermines unrecognized country’s status in both foreign States and international settings.

Facing international isolation, they cannot be members of international community or agencies such as the IMF, or participate in international sports. They cannot display their national flags or sing their national anthem in international settings.

Unrecognized Currencies

Many unrecognized countries also have their own unrecognized currency, in which they attempt to use for international and domestic trade.

These are generally not considered valid tender for purposes of foreign exchange beyond the defined borders of the issuing unrecognized state.

Unrecognized countries are essentially the illegitimate children of the international community, with their role in international relations being more critical to the appurtenant neighbouring states or territories and those that recognize their statehood.

'Frozen Conflicts'

Because of their placement both within and outside the confines of a recognized state, many of these entities exist within the condition of unresolved or 'frozen conflict.'

Furthermore, even if peaceful, not being ‘a state’ means being excluded from international legal frameworks; limits to travel, business opportunities and security considerations for the government and the people; and less tangible factors such as identity and cohesion that can suffer if long awaited and often long promised recognition does not come.

Most de facto states achieved their de facto statehood through secessionist movements and through external backing by global or regional powers.

This situation makes an impression in the international arena that de facto states are not able to manage statehood process on their own. So that international isolation is implemented by the international community in order to respond to third party involvement in regional conflicts.

Tourism in Unrecognized Countries

Citizens from recognized countries can indeed visit their unrecognized counterparts, although certain travel restrictions may apply invariably.

It is therefore imperative that tourists conduct due diligence on the prerequisites of visiting an unrecognized country. However, the vice versa may be impeded by challenges where the passport of an unrecognized country is not recognized by the receiving country.

The Somaliland passport, for one, can only get a Somalilander into Ethiopia and Malaysia -hence most Somalilanders wishing to travel abroad opt for the recognized Somali passport.

With impediments in movement/international travel the future of unrecognized countries remains uncertain.

Most of the economies in unrecognized countries are dependent on tourism, agriculture, national resources and financial support from external sources.

It is therefore key that they maintain sustainable relations with the international community and neighbouring countries.

The secessionist territories themselves continue to find ways to encourage recognition, or at least to participate more widely in the international system, despite the parent state's attempts to prevent de facto states from being recognized or otherwise legitimized by the international community.


So, if a state is recognized, is the recognition of statehood permanent and what implications does subsequent non-recognition have on international relations? Recognition is a purely political act with legal implications.

As seen in the case of Taiwan – that unilaterally considers itself as the Republic of China (ROC), independent from the modern-day China or the People’s Republic of China (PRC) - the UN General Assembly in 1971 passed Resolution 2758, expelling the ROC and giving China's seat to the PRC.

In less than one year, Taiwan was ousted from most UN-affiliated organizations. A further impediment is that, the PRC which claims Taiwan, refuses diplomatic relations with countries that recognize the later.

This meant that Taiwan had to take necessary measures to maintain key ties with members of the international community.

Besides expulsion from the United Nations, individual sovereign states are also at liberty to revoke recognition. This has been the case with Kosovo, a partially recognized country whose recognition was withdrawn by 15 states, including; Madagascar, Suriname, Burundi and Papua New Guinea.

The paradox remains whether financial or diplomatic action towards unrecognized countries demystifies the theoretical vis a vis practical approach to international recognition. As it stands, even membership of the United Nations does not automatically mean that all UN member States will recognize statehood.

The key component of the equation is not recognition: recognition does not make a state ‘acceptable’ in terms of normative demands or expectations of statehood, just as non-recognition does not make a state deviant or dangerous.

What recognition is, is acceptance: it is acceptance into the club of statehood and all that goes with it, and this includes sustainable international relations.

The value of international relations in a globalized society is the interconnection of the world. It promotes friendly relations; fosters state cooperation, sharing of information and solving global issues; it advances human culture through cultural exchange, diplomacy and policy development and encourages participation in global decision making.

By virtue of countries being unrecognized, the accompanying isolation from the larger international community greatly stifles the possibility of mutually beneficial contribution to prospective global development.

Though limited, the role of unrecognized states in international relations is not cast in stone!

With effective government & strategic foreign policy, and enhanced international visibility, the scales that measure the impeding political dynamics of longstanding non-recognition against unrecognized countries’ efficacy can possibly tip. As seen in history, with states granting and withdrawing recognition - recognition is fluid.


Richards R., Smith R. (2015) Statebuilding and the Politics of Non-Recognition. In: Daase C., Fehl C., Geis A., Kolliarakis G. (eds) Recognition in International Relations. Palgrave Studies in International Relations Series. Palgrave Macmillan, London.

Vildan Meydan, A Paradox of International (Non)Recognition: The Relationship between De Facto States and Patron States, International Journal of Economics Politics Humanities and Social Sciences. Vol: 1 Issue: 1 (2018)

#UnrecognizedCountries #Abkhazia #Somaliland #FrozenConflicts

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