Why you should care
Some countries strive for independence and international recognition for years, but never receive it.
If a tree falls in the forest and nobody hears it, does it make a sound? Similarly, if a country declares its independence but nobody acknowledges it, is it independent?
This is not a theoretical question but a dilemma affecting a handful of wannabe nations that, despite having their own governments, flags and anthems, are not recognized as sovereign states by the international community. Sometimes, these independence hopefuls comprise an ethnic minority at odds with the majority population.
Don’t go feeling sorry for all of them. The latest to join their ranks is the Islamic State, which is wreaking havoc and destruction in Iraq and Syria. Only global jihadists have so far recognized it. Everyone else just wishes it would go away.
No region knows more about phantom states than the Caucasus, where the Soviet Union’s fall left frozen conflicts and orphan nations.
The definition of state seems straightforward. According to the 1933 Montevideo Convention: “The state as a person of international law should possess the following qualifications: (a) a permanent population; (b) a defined territory; (c) government; and (d) capacity to enter into relations with the other states.” That last one is the trickiest.
Take the case of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus on the northern side of the Mediterranean island. It declared its independence in 1983 after the Turkish invasion. Although it is de facto separated from the Greek side of the island, all countries except Turkey consider it part of the Republic of Cyprus.
Having only one country acknowledge you might not make you independent. But how about 84? That’s the number of countries that accepted the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic, which was proclaimed in 1976, during the war with Morocco. Two years later, the U.N. recognized the right of the Western Sahara people to self-determination, but that’s where progress stalled. The Saharawi republic’s government controls only a fourth of the Western Sahara territory and operates in exile from refugee camps in Algeria.
While Western Sahara is much poorer than Morocco, Somaliland, on the contrary, is richer than the country it “belongs to” — Somalia. Occupying the eastern flank of the turbulent nation, Somaliland proclaimed its independence in 1991 and has its own administration and police force. While it has informal contacts with neighbors like Djibouti and Western nations like the U.S., it continues to be seen internationally as the autonomous region of the world’s archetypal failed state.
But no region knows more about phantom states than the Caucasus, where the fall of the Soviet Union left a bunch of frozen conflicts and orphan nations.
The small nation on the eastern coast of the Black Sea went to war with Georgia in 1992 — and it actually won.
Remember South Ossetia? That’s what Russia temporarily invaded in 2008 when it went into a five-day war with Georgia. South Ossetians declared their independence from Georgia in 1990, which led to a yearlong war in 1991. After the ceasefire, South Ossetia went unrecognized until, in the wake of the 2008 conflict, its sovereignty was acknowledged by a rogues’ gallery composed of Russia, Nicaragua, Venezuela and Nauru.
These countries are also the only ones to consider Abkhazia an independent state. This small nation on the eastern coast of the Black Sea also went to war with Georgia in 1992. It actually won and chased Georgians away, but that didn’t make a difference in terms of international support.
Still, it could be worse. Two other phantom countries in the region are unrecognized by anyone.
The Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic, also called Transnistria, is a strip of land on the eastern Moldovan border with Ukraine. After its declaration of independence it too went into a brief military conflict in 1992. Today Moldovans consider it their “autonomous territorial unit,” despite having its own government and even currency — the Transnistrian ruble.
Likewise, the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic claims to have been sovereign since 1992, but Azerbaijan considers it part of its territory. This unpronounceable nation is accepted only by its buddies Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Transnistria. These four have actually established an umbrella organization, the Community for Democracy and Rights of Nations, something of a mutual comfort society.
Understandable. Not easy to be snubbed by everyone else.
This OZY encore was originally published Aug. 8, 2014.