The Strange Endurance of De Facto States

December 2018

From Palestine to Somaliland to Taiwan, there are a number of disputed lands that formed as a result of conflict and do not fit neatly into the established global order. Millions of people live in places not generally recognized as states within the international system.


We live in a world of states, but some territories and the people who live in them fall between the cracks. From Palestine to Somaliland to Taiwan, there are a number of disputed lands that formed as a result of conflict and do not fit neatly into the established global order. Millions of people live in places not generally recognized as states within the international system.

The former Soviet space has an especially high number of these statelets, which were born during and after the messy breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991. Turkish-run northern Cyprus, where the conflict dates back half a century, is an even older example. The challenge of meaningful international engagement with three such de facto states that have little or no recognition—Abkhazia, Transdniestria, and northern Cyprus—and of how this engagement can assist the resolution of conflicts, is the subject of this report. Lessons learned from years of different types of international interaction with these three entities can help mediators tackle the consequences of the still-developing conflict in eastern Ukraine, which will also be considered here. The research here draws on fieldwork and interviews carried out in all four conflict regions from 2016 to 2018. Unless otherwise noted, quotations are sourced from these trips.1

“Meaningful engagement” here means interaction with those who inhabit and run an unrecognized territory. With regard to Abkhazia, Transdniestria, and northern Cyprus, this requires parting company with an outdated paradigm: the expectation that they are about to collapse. Despite many differences in history and geography, these statelets have all survived as self-governing entities for more than a quarter of a century and look set to endure for the foreseeable future. They show few signs that they are about to be folded back into the “parent states” of which the world regards them as being a de jure part, respectively Georgia, Moldova, and the Republic of Cyprus. (The Russian-backed breakaway territories of eastern Ukraine, by contrast, have not shown the same capacity for endurance and may yet fall back under Ukrainian government control.)

These statelets and their associated conflicts have slipped down the international agenda. If they still attract international interest it is often only as bizarre curiosities, as “places that don’t exist.”2 All have invested heavily in the symbolic paraphernalia of statehood in an apparent effort to over-compensate for their lack of recognition. They proudly exhibit their flags, crests, stamps, and national anthems. For example, Transdniestria has the Transdniestrian rouble and produces plastic coins of different shapes, making them easy for blind people to identify. Tourists in the capital, Tiraspol, marvel at its statues of Vladimir Lenin and other Soviet symbols.

These statelets were born out of conflict and sustain themselves with a narrative of injustice and the belief that they have won statehood amid adversity.

Yet a more banal process may be at work. These places now strike visitors with their normality, a fairly successful impersonation of being a regular state. Although less sophisticated than the neighboring recognized states, each statelet delivers public services and has won a certain domestic legitimacy. Each has a government, a police force, and education and healthcare systems. In Sukhumi, Tiraspol, and northern Nicosia, children go to school and businessmen pay taxes. Motorists stop at red traffic lights or traffic police fine them for failing to do so. In terms of internal governance, these places closely resemble recognized states, albeit states with many flaws in their behavior toward their citizens.

The de facto states fall short in their foreign relations and international status. Crucially, a patron provides all of them with vital financial and military support: Russia for Abkhazia and Transdniestria and Turkey for northern Cyprus. Their development has come with a price tag—the patron state’s close involvement in domestic affairs.3

For most Georgians, Moldovans, and Greek Cypriots, the key factor is the patron state and its military presence on their territory. Undoubtedly, these conflicts will never be resolved without settling this central geopolitical and security issue. That is necessary but not sufficient. If Russia or Turkey suddenly reduced its support, it is highly unlikely that these territories would merely capitulate to the demands of Georgia, Moldova, and the Republic of Cyprus, respectively. The local causes and powerful ideas that helped ignite the conflict have not gone away. These statelets were born out of conflict and sustain themselves with a narrative of injustice and the belief that they have won statehood amid adversity. To a large degree, they still see the parent state as an aggressor and the patron state as a protector.

A national idea on the other side of the conflict divide also sustains the existence of these territories. The three recognized states considered here have developed as nation-states over the years, and much of the public is lukewarm to reintegrating a breakaway territory inhabited by a large minority community. Opinion polls in Cyprus and Moldova routinely show that the public does not consider the unresolved conflicts to be worthy of daily attention, as opposed to unemployment or low incomes.4 In Georgia, the number of people surveyed who say that territorial integrity is an important issue for them has halved over the last decade, to 30 percent.5 This does not mean the public wants the breakaway territory to secede altogether. That view is still highly unpopular. It does indicate, however, that both sides are perpetuating the deadlock.

Inside the de facto states, there is understandable frustration that hundreds of thousands of people in Europe have effectively become second-class world citizens in many regards. They struggle to do things that citizens of recognized states take for granted: making bank transfers, traveling abroad with a recognized international passport, studying in a foreign university. In many ways, including citizens of unrecognized states into these activities gets harder as the world adopts new standards and regulations—trade rules, banking regulations, biometric passports, the Erasmus scheme for higher education—that do not cover these territories. The challenge of living in a de facto state is summed up by the drop-down box on an internet form that asks which country a person lives in. If Abkhazia or Transdniestria is not listed, the person faces an immediate problem. As the world becomes more interconnected and Europe’s borders open up, this situation seems even more anomalous.

Abkhaz borderInguri River, between Abkhazia and Samegrelo region of Georgia. Border post on the bridge, manned by Abkhaz and Russian border-guards, now the only crossing point into the Georgian controlled territory.

(Photo courtesy of the author.)

This is not necessarily an issue of “human rights” as many in the unrecognized territories assert. Nor is the problem always the fault of the outside world. The de facto states must also play a role in finding status-neutral measures to overcome these problems. Abkhazia has recently attached strings to some offers of cooperation, leading it to what some have called “self-isolation” as international engagement is withheld.6 Yet there can be no argument that poor healthcare, substandard education, and limited chances to travel abroad do not make for a healthy society. These deficiencies both hurt the societies of the unrecognized states and hamper their capacity to engage properly with their neighbors.

Intractability and stasis should not be an excuse for inaction. While the fundamental status issues caused by the conflicts remain unresolved, both the parent state and other countries can deploy bolder and more intelligent engagement as an interim policy. This enhanced engagement should be clear-eyed and should meet three criteria: it should improve the lives of ordinary people in the de facto states; it should not privilege them over residents of their parent states on the other side of the conflict divide; and it should not pre-judge final status decisions.


A study of this uncertain territory calls for clear ground rules and terminology. To write about the issue is to enter a linguistic and conceptual minefield. Otherwise straightforward words such as “border” and “government” can become controversial. The leaders of the breakaway territories and their allies always use vocabulary that seeks to normalize their status by referring to their territories as countries with presidents, ministries, and embassies. The states that contest their status, generally backed by international organizations, tend to attach qualifiers to these words like “so-called” or “quasi” or simply add quotation marks. To live in an unrecognized state, observe Rebecca Bryant and Mete Hatay, scholars of Cyprus, is to have a “life in quotation marks.” In this report, the term “de facto” will generally be used to square this circle.7

There is now a rich academic literature on de facto states. Eiki Berg, Laurence Broers, Rebecca Bryant, Nina Caspersen, Giorgio Comai, Bruno Coppieters, James Ker-Lindsay, and Donnacha Ó Beacháin have all contributed important work. Much less has been written for policy practitioners, a gap this report aims to fill. Perhaps the last significant large-scale study with policy recommendations was Dov Lynch’s Engaging Eurasia’s Separatist States, published in 2004.8 For international practitioners in 2018, this is a difficult and inhospitable field. The sheer inaccessibility of the places concerned is a deterrent. Most European and U.S. officials face difficulties in even physically setting foot in Abkhazia, for example, because of restrictions on both sides of the conflict line.

This report uses three terms borrowed from the academic literature: de facto state, parent state, and patron state. Abkhazia, Transdniestria, and northern Cyprus will be called de facto states. The term refers to a place that exercises internal sovereignty over its citizens but is not recognized by most of the world as the de jure legal authority in that territory. In each case, the de facto state broke away from a parent state that is internationally recognized and still claims sovereignty over it: Abkhazia has broken away from Georgia, Transdniestria from Moldova, and northern Cyprus from the Republic of Cyprus.9 A patron state is the powerful military protector that supports and finances the de facto state. Russia protects Abkhazia and Transdniestria, while Turkey safeguards northern Cyprus.

The characteristics of endurance and capacity for self-government qualify Abkhazia, Transdniestria, and northern Cyprus as de facto states.

The characteristics of endurance and capacity for self-government qualify Abkhazia, Transdniestria, and northern Cyprus as de facto states for the purpose of this report. This distinguishes them from other territorial entities, which are also unrecognized and outside the international system and which come in many forms. There are two other categories, broadly understood, that will go unaddressed. One group comprises what could be called “ephemeral states,” the barely functional entities controlled by armed groups currently found in Libya and Syria, for example. These are more comparable to the quasi-states, such as the Kuban People’s Republic or the Gilan Soviet Republic, that briefly flickered into existence during previous global crises and then disappeared into history.

This category is also a better fit for the Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) and Lugansk People’s Republic (LNR), the entities that have since 2014 administered territory in eastern Ukraine. Those two territories may coalesce into something akin to de facto states under certain circumstances, but currently their divergences from Abkhazia, Transdniestria, and northern Cyprus are more striking.

A second pair of post-Soviet unrecognized entities, Nagorny Karabakh and South Ossetia, also fall outside this report’s consideration. They have elements of being de facto states, however, in terms of their economy, security, and civil documentation, both are much more internationally isolated and more closely integrated into their patron states, Armenia and Russia, respectively. The Nagorny Karabakh Armenians declared unilateral independence in 1991, but three years before, in 1988, they had begun their political movement by demanding unification with Armenia—which is still a popular option there. The South Ossetian leadership also aspires to join their bigger neighbor, North Ossetia, and, by extension, Russia. In both cases, isolation and de facto integration with the patron state go hand in hand—for Nagorny Karabakh, a hardline policy in Azerbaijan to internationally isolate the territory also drives the process. Thus, international engagement with these entities is so minimal that—for better or worse—there is currently little to say on the subject.


In the years after the guns stopped firing, the conflicts around these territories have become contests for international legitimacy. Resolutions put by the parent states to international organizations, such as the United Nations (UN) or Council of Europe, ask that these breakaway entities be condemned as illegal. Pamphlets and blogs published in the de facto states assert the territories’ right to independence and separation.

The international consensus around this almost universally supports the claims of the parent state over the breakaway territory. There are plenty of common sense reasons for this—but it needs to be stressed this is more of a normative political judgment than one definitively decreed by international courts. According to many criteria, the unrecognized entities can call themselves “states” in that they exercise real control over their own territories. “There has long been no generally accepted and satisfactory legal definition of statehood,” candidly asserts James Crawford, the author of the definitive work.10 The legal literature on what constitutes statehood grapples with the issue that states existed long before there was a concept of international law or diplomatic recognition. This ambiguity gives little solace to most de facto states, however. Diplomatic recognition is absolutely key, providing the entry ticket to the international club of states. Lack of recognition leaves the de facto states outside the door.

The legal literature affirms that international recognition is a conscious political act. This should allay the constant concerns in the capitals of the parent states that lay de jure claim to these territories—in Tbilisi, Chișinău, and Nicosia—that greater engagement with a de facto state confers legitimacy on an illegitimate regime or amounts to a policy of “creeping recognition” that will set back the cause of reunification. These fears lead parent states to restrict certain kinds of international engagement with the breakaway territories. For example, in 2010, Thorbjørn Jagland, secretary general of the Council of Europe, said that Georgian officials had told his officials not to visit Abkhazia or South Ossetia: “The Georgian authorities are afraid that if we begin to travel directly to South Ossetia and Abkhazia, that will be creeping recognition.”11 In Moldova, some have objected to measures giving Transdniestrians access to international education or travel abroad with official Moldovan documents different from those used by citizens in the recognized state, on the right bank of the Dniester River. In 2016, a group of Moldovan nongovernmental activists and experts published a letter objecting to the granting of “statehood elements of secessionist Transnistrian region.”12 These assertions speak to a fear that even halfway measures are legitimizing de facto authorities.

Yet international legal experts are clear that this is not how state recognition works. Political scientist James Ker-Lindsay writes that “various acts could well be misinterpreted as recognition. In such instances, intent is crucial. To put it crudely, there cannot be accidental recognition. As long as a state insists that it does not recognize a territory as independent, and does not take steps that obviously amount to recognition—such as the establishment of formal diplomatic relations through the appointment of an ambassador or the establishment of an embassy—then it does not do so.”13


The three territories considered here are Janus-like in their approach to the international legal order, looking both ways. On the one hand, existing outside international legal space offers some benefits. In the past, all were havens for criminal activity and smuggling—even if the more lurid allegations about them (for example, that Abkhazia was a conduit for smuggling nuclear materials) are overblown. Criminality still finds more fertile ground to flourish in an unrecognized territory. For example, northern Cyprus is a location for human trafficking and an abusive sex industry. Transdniestria had a fearsome reputation for criminality in the 1990s and is still a source of counterfeit goods and a center for smuggling—although this illegal trade continues with the active collusion of powerful figures in right-bank Moldova and Ukraine.

Impunity from justice is a big concern. If a citizen of a de facto state commits a crime and has his government’s protection, he has a good chance of getting away with it. An unrecognized territory is a good place to take refuge from justice. Arguments over alleged criminal suspects are still a major headache between Tiraspol and Chișinău. The suspicious deaths of two Georgians, Giga Otkhozoria in Abkhazia in 2017 and Archil Tatunashvili in South Ossetia in 2018, and the failure to punish anyone has understandably enraged the Georgian public.

Yet these territories also aspire to respectability. In recent years, all three de facto states have signaled that they want to legitimize themselves in the eyes of the wider world. All are subject to the normative processes in Europe—none of them employ the death penalty, for example.14 They want business, tourism, and—in the case of northern Cyprus—international students. To improve their lot, the de facto states strive to shed their outlaw reputation, and in some—but not all—areas they have incentives to help fight illegal practices in their territory. This craving for respectability is leverage that the international community has so far failed to use effectively.

International courts often struggle to give clear-cut judgments when asked to adjudicate on cases in de facto states. A key issue is whether the actions of a de facto state affect one of its own citizens—its internal sovereignty—or of an outsider living beyond its borders—its disputed external sovereignty.

When outsiders living beyond the territory assert their claims, international courts have pinned responsibility on the patron state in order to win them effective redress. In a series of judgments on northern Cyprus and Transdniestria, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) placed the legal responsibility for human rights abuses on Turkey and Russia, respectively. Notably, in the landmark 1996 case of Loizidou v. Turkey, the ECHR ruled that the Greek Cypriot Titina Loizidou had been unjustly deprived of her home in northern Cyprus and that because the state of Turkey has exercised “effective control” over northern Cyprus since 1974, it was required to pay her compensation. This set a precedent for tens of thousands of other displaced Greek Cypriots who had also lost their property in the north because of the conflict.15 In Transdniestria, the ECHR’s 2004 case Ilaşcu and Others v. Moldova and Russia reached an analogous judgment for a group of men detained in the de facto state, although the court apportioned some responsibility to Moldova as well as to Russia.16

International courts often struggle to give clear-cut judgments when asked to adjudicate on cases in de facto states.

However, residents of these territories also have rights. Several international court judgments have reflected this by ruling that de facto states exercise legal and political authority over their own citizens in everyday matters. British case law, for example, has established a precedent of recognizing the law of an unrecognized state when it comes to “private rights, or acts of everyday occurrence, or perfunctory acts of administration.” In a case concerning northern Cyprus in 1977, known as Hesperides Hotels v. Aegean Turkish Holidays Ltd., Lord Denning asserted, “I would unhesitatingly hold that the courts of this country can recognise the laws or acts of a body which is in effective control of a territory even though it has not been recognized by Her Majesty’s Government…: at any rate, in regard to the laws which regulate the day to day affairs of the people, such as their marriages, their divorces, their leases, their occupations, and so forth.”17

This judgment is in line with the Namibia opinion issued by the International Court of Justice in 1971, the most comprehensive international ruling on this topic to date. The opinion recommended a posture of collective nonrecognition of South Africa’s illegal seizure of Namibia, saying that countries should suspend international treaties with Namibia and have no diplomatic relations with the territory. However, the court also ruled that the policy should not disadvantage individuals living in Namibia: “In particular, while official acts performed by the Government of South Africa on behalf of or concerning Namibia after the termination of the Mandate are illegal and invalid, this invalidity cannot be extended to those acts, such as, for instance, the registration of births, deaths and marriages, the effects of which can be ignored only to the detriment of the inhabitants of the Territory.” On the basis of this judgment, the UN encourages parent states such as Georgia and Ukraine to accept certificates issued in Sukhumi or Donetsk as grounds to give civil documents to the Abkhaz or Ukrainians from non-government-controlled regions.18

The Namibia opinion still leaves gray areas as to where responsibility lies for the actions of a de facto state. One such ambiguity covers economic relations with an unrecognized entity and the use of sanctions. The opinion declared there is an “obligation to abstain from entering into economic and other forms of relationship or dealings with South Africa on behalf of or concerning Namibia which may entrench its authority over the territory.” The recommendation was for economic punishment not of the de facto state but of the patron state; in the cases considered here, the de facto states have tended to be economically targeted, rather than their patrons.


The discussion above shows that the lawyers have left space for the politicians when it comes to dealing with de facto states. There is no legal bar to clear-eyed and constructive engagement with these territories.

But what does engagement mean? It is a capacious term. All international actors engage, to some degree, with territories they do not recognize. The spectrum is very wide: from full-scale business dealings with Taiwan, a member of the World Trade Organization, to very limited negotiations over hostages with extremist groups holding territory in the Middle East.

The phrase “nonrecognition and engagement” describes the European Union’s (EU) position on the post-Soviet breakaway territories. The two concepts are explicitly coupled and reinforce each other. Peter Semneby, who devised the European Union’s Non-Recognition and Engagement Policy for Abkhazia and South Ossetia, explained in 2011: “Non-recognition without engagement is sterile and counterproductive; engagement without a firm line on non-recognition is a potential slippery slope.”19

Abkhaz borderTiraspol, Transdniestria. The de facto foreign ministry building, displaying the flags of other unrecognized territories, including Abkhazia.

(Photo courtesy of the author.)

This framework leaves open many policy options. “Nonrecognition takes many forms,” notes Robert Cooper, a former EU diplomat who negotiated intensively with Kosovo and Serbia. He points to a wide difference in approach among the five EU countries who have not recognized Kosovo’s independence. On one side is Greece. It maintains a “liaison office” in Pristina through which it conducts bilateral diplomatic relations with Kosovo in all but name. On the other side is Spain, whose uncompromising line led it in 2018 to decline to invite weightlifters from Kosovo to its territory. As a result, Spain forfeited its right to host a contest for the European Weightlifting Federation.20

When international engagement is pursued with an unrecognized entity, there are three recurring challenges, all of which demand great diplomatic skill and nuance. One is the degree to which an international actor coordinates policies with the government of the parent state. Naturally, there is a bias toward a recognized nation-state, which is a partner in many other policy areas. But coordination does not entail a full overlap of policies. This distinction is important because the international actors are also conflict mediators. They need to be able to maintain a critical distance and have the trust of both parties in a dispute.

All international actors engage with territories they do not recognize: from full-scale business dealings with Taiwan to limited negotiations over hostages with extremist groups holding territory in the Middle East.

These actors also have their own intrinsic interests in reaching across disputed borders to tackle transnational threats. As Semneby said in 2011, “The EU cannot afford white spots to develop on the map of its immediate neighborhood.” The territories are potential sources of security threats, and environmental threats also do not stop at recognized borders. Poor environmental regulation is acute in these regions and often affects their neighbors as well. In Abkhazia, limited international access to the territory compounds contamination of the Black Sea due to poor environmental controls. Transdniestria’s large and aging industrial plants cause air and water pollution. In northern Cyprus, unauthorized building work has wrecked many beautiful spots, as tourist infrastructure has been built without checks or consideration for the environment.

A second challenge for international actors is the issue of not just what to engage with but who—in other words, how to interact with de facto authorities. The recognized states generally urge against formal cooperation on the grounds that this legitimizes authorities they regard as illegitimate. Many projects focus only on civil society partners. However, some kind of contact and coordination is inevitable with the de facto masters of these territories.

There is an international consensus that the de facto authorities are to be treated as partners in negotiations on conflict resolution. The main negotiations in Cyprus take place between the Greek and Turkish Cypriot leaders and their representatives. In the Transdniestria conflict, Tiraspol is accepted as one of the two sides with Chișinău. The Abkhaz authorities are signatories to ceasefire agreements, thus endowing them with certain responsibilities. After the 2008 war with Russia, the Georgian authorities sought to reframe the conflicts over Abkhazia and South Ossetia as being Georgian-Russian conflicts. Yet they continue to talk to the Abkhaz and South Ossetians at the last remaining international forum on the conflict, the Geneva International Discussions.

There are big differences in approach, however, on the issues of elections and legitimacy. The leader of northern Cyprus is accepted as the “head of the Turkish community” and therefore treated as an elected official. So on April 28, 2015, Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European Commission, publicly congratulated Mustafa Akıncı on his victory in the Turkish Cypriot presidential election, albeit in language that avoided the words “election” or “president.” Juncker wrote, “I would like to congratulate you for your success in becoming the new leader of the Turkish Cypriot community.”21

This is done with the consent of the Greek Cypriots. In 2015, Greek Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades also congratulated his Turkish Cypriot counterpart (Anastasiades used the word “selection” rather than “election” in his congratulatory tweet). Support for the legitimacy of Akıncı and his predecessors was also framed as contributing to the negotiations.

In Abkhazia and Transdniestria, as well as South Ossetia, a precedent has been set and is unlikely to change the fact that most of the world does not regard their elections as legitimate. As Donnacha Ó Beacháin and others have recorded, these elections are often well-organized and competitive, but that is not a mitigating factor for the international community, which routinely denounces them as invalid.22 Following the parliamentary elections in Abkhazia in 2017, for example, the European External Action Service commented, “In view of the reports about the so-called ‘elections’ that took place on 12 March in the Georgian breakaway region of Abkhazia, we recall that the European Union does not recognize the constitutional and legal framework within which these elections have taken place.”

International officials acknowledge in private that the issue of who is in power in a de facto state is an important consideration for them. One such official expressed frustration that, following the 2004 elections in Abkhazia, there was no latitude to reward the victor, Sergei Bagapsh, for his conduct—“He has behaved impeccably but I have no way of thanking him!”23 When internationals are seen to have stepped over a line, they suffer a backlash. In 2017, reporters heard then European Union special representative for the South Caucasus and the crisis in Georgia Herbert Salber congratulating South Ossetian leader Anatoly Bibilov on being elected to his post. The brief comment was seized on.24 South Ossetians welcomed Salber’s words while some Georgian officials called for Salber’s resignation, and he did indeed step down earlier than anticipated.

The EU could frame its response to elections in Abkhazia or South Ossetia as it does those in Cyprus, by welcoming the choosing of a “leader of the Abkhaz (or South Ossetian) community”—without implying that the person was elected to a state structure. This would incentivize those leaders to work more constructively with the international community. However, a precedent has been set and is unlikely to change.

A third challenge is how and where international assistance should be provided in unrecognized states. Parent states frequently raise the objection that international aid must not contribute to capacity building as this amounts to de facto state building. (In a more polemical tone, some warn internationals against funding criminal activity or funding separatism.) As a result, the consensus is that international aid to de facto states should be solely directed only to civil society and business as well as to humanitarian purposes. This issue is especially vexing in Cyprus, where the EU has a mandate to prepare the northern part of the island for the acquis communautaire.

In practice, it is hard to draw the line between what is governmental and what is nongovernmental, especially in a small society where individuals move between the two sectors. Foreigners cannot avoid doing business with de facto officials on matters of substance as they require permission to enter and work in a territory and nongovernmental projects require official authorization on the ground.

Transdniestria provides the most positive model. Many issues are resolved behind the scenes, and status disputes are avoided.

Transdniestria provides the most positive model. Many issues are resolved behind the scenes, and status disputes are avoided. Yet even here progress is very slow. Seemingly small problems are politicized, become currency in negotiations, and take years to overcome. Efforts have failed to secure a single mobile phone roaming network in Cyprus, to combat the stink bug in Abkhazia and western Georgia, or to protect a water filtration plant in eastern Ukraine. With goodwill and creativity, most conflicts can begin to be resolved—but unfortunately these are usually lacking. Outsiders must keep trying.


1 The author visited Abkhazia, Transdniestria, and northern Cyprus, as well as Tbilisi, Chișinău, and both sides of Nicosia. In Ukraine, he traveled only to Kyiv and to government-controlled areas in eastern Ukraine, not to non-government-controlled territories. Many thanks are due to Rustam Anchba, Eva Bounegru, Yeshim Harris, and Natalia Shapovalova for their assistance with these trips.

2 “Places That Don’t Exist,” BBC News, May 4, 2005,

3 Giorgio Comai calls the de facto states “small dependent jurisdictions,” noting commonalities with small recognized Pacific Island states that depend heavily on the United States to sustain themselves. See Giorgio Comai, “What Is the Effect of Non-recognition? The External Relations of De Facto States in the Post-Soviet Space,” (dissertation, Dublin City University, Ireland, January 2018)

4 “Eurobarometer: Life in the European Union,” European Commission, May 2015,; and “Public Opinion Survey: Residents of Moldova,” Centers for Insights in Survey Research, July 2018,

5 “NATTERR: Most Important National Issues – Territorial Integrity (%),” Caucasus Research Resource Center, June 2017,

6 See “The De-Isolation of Abkhazia,” International Alert, April 2011,

7 Rebecca Bryant and Mete Hatay, De Facto Dreams: Building the So-Called State (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, forthcoming 2019).

8 Published by the U.S. Institute of Peace.

9 The terms “metropolitan state” or “base state” are also used to describe this category of state. Some in de facto states object to the word “parent” as implying a privileged relationship. But it is an objective fact that the parent states are the larger and recognized part of what was previously a shared state. Besides parents are not always nurturing and can sometimes be abusive.

10 James Crawford, The Creation of States in International Law, 2nd ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), 37. The most commonly accepted definitions of statehood are in the 1933 Montevideo Convention on the Rights and Duties of States. The de facto states usually meet three of the four criteria in the convention, “a permanent population, “a defined territory,” and “government” but not the fourth, “a capacity to enter into relations with other States.”

11 Interview with Thorbjørn Jagland, Ekho Moskvy radio, July 9, 2010. Russian transcript available at

12 “Declaration of the Civil Society Regarding the Red Lines of the Transnistrian Settlement,” Promo-LEX, August 21, 2016,

13 James Ker-Lindsay, “Engagement Without Recognition: The Limits of Diplomatic Interaction With Contested States,” International Affairs 91, no. 2 (2015): 284.

14 This is not the case in eastern Ukraine, where the rebel authorities have executed many people for alleged drug dealing and other crimes. The de facto authorities in both Abkhazia and Transdniestria have cooperated on human rights reports, both of which have been authored by former Council of Europe human rights commissioner Thomas Hammarberg.

15 “Case of Loizidou v. Turkey,” European Court of Human Rights, December 18, 1996,{%22dmdocnumber%22:[%22695884%22],%22itemid%22:[%22001-58007%22]}.

16 “Case of Ilascu and Others v. Moldova and Russia,” European Court of Human Rights, July 8, 2004,{%22docname%22:[%22Ilascu%22],%22itemid%22:[%22001-61886%22]}.

17 “Recognition of States: The Consequences of Recognition or Non-recognition in UK and International Law,” Chatham House, summary of the International Law Discussion Group meeting held on February 4, 2010, 13–14,

18 “Legal Consequences for States of the Continued Presence of South Africa in Namibia (South West Africa) Notwithstanding Security Council Resolution 276 (1970),” International Court of Justice, June 21, 1971,

19 Peter Semneby, “Statement by the EUSR for the South Caucasus,” European Parliament, February 10, 2011, See also Bruno Coppieters, “Engagement Without Recognition,” in The Routledge Handbook of State Recognition, eds. Gëzim Visoka, John Doyle, and Edward Newman (London: Routledge, forthcoming 2019).

20 Interview with author, July 2018; “Political Relations,” Hellenic Republic Liaison Office in Pristina, April 11, 2014,; and Brian Oliver, “Exclusive: Spain Loses Weightlifting Championships Because of Political Stance Over Kosovo,” Inside the Games, April 23, 2018,

21 Jean-Claude Juncker (@junckereu), “Congratulations to Mustafa #Akinci for his success in becoming the new leader of the Turkish Cypriot community,” Twitter, May 1, 2015,

22 Donnacha Ó Beacháin, Giorgio Comai, and Ann Tsurtsumia-Zurabashvili, “The Secret Lives of Unrecognised States: Internal Dynamics, External Relations, and Counter-Recognition Strategies,” Small Wars & Insurgencies 27, no. 3 (2016): 440–66.

23 Interview with the author, London, July 2018.

24 “Georgia Irked by EU Envoy’s Alleged Remarks in South Ossetia,” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, May 18, 2017,

  1. Introduction: The Strange Endurance of De Facto States
  2. Abkhazia: Stable Isolation
  3. Transdniestria: “My Head Is in Russia, My Legs Walk to Europe”
  4. Cyprus: In Europe, In Limbo
  5. Eastern Ukraine: Different Dynamics
  6. Uncertain Ground: Conclusion


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