What Are Unrecognized Countries?

Updated: Aug 28, 2019

By: Tània Ferré Garcia

Unrecognized Countries

Declared as anomalies in the Westphalian system, being denied access to funds from international financial institutions and unable to attract foreign direct investment, unrecognized countries - also known as de facto states - are, officially invisible to the international community and its markets (Hoch, 2018).

Their status of international isolation has been described by many scholars as “inhabiting in the limbo” or “living in the shadows of international relations”.

Conditions for Recognition

According to Capersen (2013), there are five key characteristics present in each unrecognized country or de-facto state. Firstly, it has to have achieved de-facto independence covering up at least two-thirds of the territory to which it lays claim, including its main city and key regions.

Secondly, its leadership must be seeking to build further state institutions and demonstrate its own legitimacy.

Thirdly, the entity has to have declared formal independence or demonstrated clear aspirations for independence, either through an independence referendum or the adoption of a separate currency that signals separate statehood.

Fourthly, the entity has not gained international recognition or has, at the most, been recognised by its patron state and a few other states of no great importance. And, finally, it has to have existed for at least two years.

Ashot Ghulyan, chairman of the Parliament of the The Republic of Artsakh (formerly, the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic), expressed the frustration that many of the unrecognised countries experiment by declaring:

Nagorno-Karabakh has control over its entire claimed territory, has independent institutions with separated legislative, executive and judicial powers.

Free elections have been held in Nagorno-Karabakh since the 1990s, governments alternate here and there is a functional civil society. Therefore, I believe we have really solid foundations for international recognition of our country” (Hoch, 2018).

The complexity of their status lies on the conflict intractability between the central government and the de-facto state, between the unrecognised country and the international community.

While the latter claims their right for self-determination, the former denies it on grounds of territorial integrity and, in this context, the international community as a group, does not get involved in order not to intervene in internal affairs of the designed mother country (Capersen, 2013; Zartman, 2005; Morgenthau, 1967).

Therefore, even though unrecognized countries fulfill the population, territory, and effective government criteria for acquiring statehood and, thus have internal sovereignty, they lack external sovereignty due to their incapacity to enter into diplomatic relations with other states (Convention on the Rights and Duties of States, 1934).

Issues with Non-Recognition

By internationalizing the domestic conflict, unrecognized countries become dependent on countries which support them either politically or financially and, thus, it becomes a two-level negotiation in which both domestic and international politics become relevant when considering its resolution (Putnam, 1988).

Even though unrecognized countries have always existed, the reasons for which they lacked recognition and its designated nature have evolved throughout history.

While in the beginning, sovereignty depended on the ruler’s ability to exercise authority and was an internal affair in which external actors were not involved, it then, particularly from the nineteenth century on, evolved and depended on the state’s ability to live up to the criteria for external sovereignty (Capersen, 2013).

There is no doubt of the influence which the decolonization process played in shaping the dynamics of the international system and seccetionist movements.

The involvement of third party actors in secession movements can be traced back to South American Spanish colonies and their call for independence from their metropole, when the United States recognized the Columbian state in spite of the metropole opposition (Capersen, 2011; 2013)

The Charter of the United Nations (1945) recognises the right to self-determination as one of its core values by declaring: “All peoples have the right to self-determination.

By virtue of that right they freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development.

However, as Capersen (2013) points out, it is a highly restrictive interpretation for states who don’t have a colonial past. To be a sovereign state today one needs only to have been a formal colony yesterday (Jackson, 1993, pg. 17).

Right to Self Determination

According to her, there are four excluded scenarios which give the aspiring state grounds to claim their right: (1) in which fore has been used, (2) which violated a colonial entity’s right to self determination, (3) which did not have the consent of the existing sovereign state or (4) where an apartheid regime had been established (Capersen 2013, pg. 18).

Therefore, it is no longer about its ability to exercise internal authority and control, but rather as well the origins and the reasoning behind its independence claim. In this context, were ethno-nationalist movements do not fit in either of the mentioned scenarios, there is very little chance that international legitimacy will be acquired.

Following Kolsto and Peggs’s criteria, there are currently six unrecognized countries; Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Artsakh (Nagorno-Karabakh), Transnistria, Northern Cyprus and Somaliland - in addition to the 21 formed since the end of World War II.

Unrecognized or Partially Recognized?

Kosovo as well as Taiwan are recognised as special cases due to their recognition coming from members of the UN Security Council and, thus, do not fit into Kolsto’s and Pegg’s criteria.

The current unrecognized countries are characterised and differentiated from others since they were formed as a consequence of armed conflicts in the second half of the 20th century and still have not successfully found a solution with their 'parent country' (Hoch, 2018, pg. 87).

Furthermore, Caspersen (2013) differentiates three more factors. Firstly, de facto independence has been achieved on local capacities.

Secondly, their lack of recognition is not due to their political ideology nor empirical capabilities, but rather due to their restrictive right to self-determination.

Thirdly, their emergence and development has been highly affected by the post-Cold era.

By holding a weaker position and, thus, an asymmetrical relationship with their mother countries, unrecognized countries rely on external actors’ support, named patrons, so as to gain financial and military independence from their mother countries, e.g. Russia for Abkhazia, Transnistria and South Ossetia or Turkey for Northern Cyprus (Hoch, 2018; De Waal, 2018).

In fact, only those who are able to have a patron are able to resist the reintegration will of the mother state since without them their not their economic nor their political interests are fulfilled (Hoch, 2018). Cases such as Tamil Eaam, Chechnya and Republika Srpska Krajina are examples of such.

Parent States

Nearly all unrecognised countries are dependent on some form of external support, not only for their initial creation but also for their survival as de facto independent entities (Caspersen, 2013, pg. 39).

However, patrons can turn out to be a two-edged sword since even though they enable the state to survive, they perpetuate their dependence on countries such as Russia which hardly support democratization process and, thus, support weak state institutions which do not allow the ruling parties to fully suppress the opposition (Hoch, 2018, p. 99).

By taking into account the historical perspective, there is no doubt of the complexity of their situation. The lack of willingness from both parties to negotiate is translated into what Kriesberg (2005) and Zartman (2005) define as intractable and frozen conflicts.

There is no progress in mediation since both parties are in a mutually-hurtful stalemate, meaning that neither of the parties can win without the other giving up their claims. Only when momentum is created from a change of context, can the nature of the conflict be transformed.

Following Kriesberg’s (2005) conflict phases, unrecognized countries can be argued to be in between the fourth and the fifth once being: institutionalization of destructive conflict and de-escalation leading to transformation.

Both Kriesberg (2005) and Zartman (2005) emphasize the protraction of the conflict since the more rooted the conflict, the more it is institutionalised by the parties’ and the subjects’ routines and the polarization of identities originating from an Othering process and backed either by grudge culture or conspiracy thinking.

Frozen Conflict

Conflict profitability also becomes relevant since parties lack the urgency to change due to the perception that the conflict status is more beneficial. Another factor is the absence of ripeness based on the 4-S stalemate (stable, soft, self-serving, stalemate) since the different territorial control exerted by both parties lowers the pressure for conflict resolution.

Following the donkey’s dilemma, solutions are polarised since both parties prefer the non-cooperation rather than the solution proposed by the conflicting party. By not compromising, both parties achieve a mutually-hurtful stalemate, thus perpetuating the conflict.

In the context of a high period of globalization and a rising field of international law calling on the implementation of global human rights and security, there is no doubt of the complexity of where to draw the line between internal and external affairs and between state sovereignty and the international community.

The Future for Unrecognized Countries

Unrecognized countries have been long regarded to be in an international “black hole” due to their invisibility in the international arena.

On the grounds of territorial integrity and internal sovereignty, in majority of these cases, their internationalization is based on the involvement of parent states.

They evolve from being subjected to their mother countries to depending on their parent states.

Thus, the following question is presented: what price will they pay for their freedom and what should the role of the international community be?


Caspersen, N. (2013). Unrecognized states: the struggle for sovereignty in the modern international system. Polity Press.

De Waal, T. (2018). Uncertain ground: Engaging with Europe's De Facto States and Breakaway Territories.

Ghazarians, A. (2007). From Frozen Conflicts to Unrecognized Republics: The de facto States in the Emergent Region of the Post-Soviet States of the South Caucasus.

Hoch, T. (2018). Legitimization of Statehood and its Impact on Foreign Policy in De Facto States: A Case Study of Abkhazia. Iran And The Caucasus, 22(4), 382-407. doi: 10.1163/1573384x-20180406

Jackson, R. (1995). Quasi-States: Sovereignty, International Relations and the Third World. Verfassung In Recht Und Übersee, 28(2), 256-258. doi: 10.5771/0506-7286-1995-2-256

Kriesberg, L. (2005). Nature, Dynamics and Phases of Intractability. In C. Crocker, F. Hampson & P. Aall, Grasping the Nettle, Analyzing Cases of Intractable Conflict.

Putnam, R. (1988). Diplomacy and domestic politics: the logic of two-level games. International Organization, 42(3), 427-460. doi: 10.1017/s0020818300027697

Zartman, W. (2005). Analysing Intractability. In C. Crocker, F. Hampson & P. Aall, Grasping the Nettle, Analyzing Cases of Intractable Conflict.

#UnrecognizedCountries #Abkhazia #Artsakh #NagornoKarabakh #SouthOssetia #Transnistria #Somaliland #Russia #Turkey #DeFactoStates

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