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Clarity and consistency versus fudge and constructive ambiguity in the European strategy of engagement with de facto states

Article by Dr Dennis Sammut

September 26, 2019

Clarity and consistency versus fudge and constructive ambiguity in the European strategy of engagement with de facto states

A number of territories on Europe’s eastern fringe have existed as de facto political entities outside the jurisdiction of the metropoles from which they separated in a time of internal conflict. They remain largely unrecognised, their sovereignty still claimed by the country from which they have separated, but continue to exist thanks to a larger patron state that offers protection. That patron state being, in all cases except one, Russia. The term de facto often in itself causes controversy, embroiling, as Laurence Broers argues, “any writer in a dangerous game of linguistic choices that tend to be profoundly ‘win-lose’”, but one which is “the least inaccurate and the least offensive”.[1]

The break-up of the Soviet Union in December 1991 was unexpected and for some international actors, as well as many Union subjects such as the Abkhaz and the Central Asian Republics, even undesirable. It raised the spectre of chaos, nuclear proliferation, large scale ethnic conflicts and instability in the international system. The response of the international community was to move swiftly in recognising the USSR’s fifteen Union Republics as independent states with their borders as defined by Soviet law. During this period of political uncertainty and confusion there were various attempts by entities and groups within the Union Republics to secede, using sometimes political and sometimes violent means. Their claims were based on long simmering ethnic tensions and elite rivalries.[2] Most attempts were contained or fizzled out once the political situation stabilised, and claims for independence or boundary changes that were not mutually agreed were rebuffed by the international community. Four entities that emerged from the chaos of the time have however survived, and maintain a de facto existence: Abkhazia and South Ossetia that seceded from Georgia, Nagorno-Karabakh which seceded from Azerbaijan and Transnistria that seceded from Moldova. Increasingly, they clamour for international recognition, with their longevity often cited as one of the reasons why it now needs to be considered. After the 2013-4 Maidan crisis in Ukraine, two other entities joined the list of Europe’s unrecognised states: the Donetsk People’s Republic and the Lugansk People’s Republic, both located in the mainly Russian-speaking Donbas region of Eastern Ukraine, and both midwifed and protected by Russia.[3]

Equally vocal, and ostensibly with international law behind them, the four metropoles from which these territories forcefully seceded continue to claim sovereignty over them and to reject, with some different nuances, external engagement with what they consider as their internal subjects existing in a state of illegality. 

Recently, the debate as to if and how to engage with these entities has intensified. Many arguments are put forward to make the case. One that is increasingly heard is that the supposedly pan-continental values that underpin European political culture, as embedded in the documents and agreements of the Council of Europe and the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), are not being applied in these politically grey areas on the map, and that engagement to uphold these values is necessary. In some ways one can see this as the start of building a case for a European solution to this European problem, an argument that has much merit, yet is not as simple as is sometimes assumed.

The position of the Russian Federation

Central to the discussion about the future of these territories is the position of the Russian Federation. Initially its position was more closely aligned to that of the international community, formally accepting the boundaries of the Union Republics within the USSR as final;[4] this not least because Russia itself had its own secessionist problems in Chechnya. By 2008 however, that problem had been contained through a war of re-conquest in 1999-2000 and the subsequent rule of Ramzan Kadyrov, the Head of the Chechen Republic, as well as the short Georgia – Russia war in August 2008, which offered an opportunity for the policy to be reviewed. To the surprise of many, including those within the Russian political elite, Russia formally recognised the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia in autumn 2008, and exchanged ambassadors with the two entities. A handful of other countries followed suit. The other post-Soviet states looked at this development with considerable trepidation, and none followed the Russian example.

In 2014 following political turmoil in Ukraine, Russia occupied and annexed Crimea. It also instigated and supported the violent secession of two entities in the Donbas region of Eastern Ukraine. Russia’s end game in the Donbas is yet unclear, probably because the Kremlin itself has not yet decided how far to take this, and in which direction. Russia’s policy has come at considerable costs, not only due to the western sanctions that it triggered. It has stimulated nationalist, and specifically anti-Russian feeling in the former Soviet republics affected. It has made countries like Georgia and Ukraine committed to join North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), and it has made the prospect of a ‘USSR 2.0’ in either a military, economic or political sense, let alone all three, all but impossible.

Whilst Russia goes a long way in trying to project itself as the peacemaker in the conflicts on its European border, most of the international community increasingly see Russia as the trouble-maker, and an obstacle to progress in the resolution of the conflicts. Russia’s recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states, its annexation of Crimea, and its overt and covert military involvement in the trouble in the Donbas have robbed Russia of any legitimacy. In all contexts it remains however a key player with considerable influence throughout the region. In the separatist entities (except Nagorno-Karabakh where the role is played by Armenia), on most issues, it still holds a veto on key internal matters, and not least on any external engagement with the territories that are under its protection. Russia plays a multifaceted role, as both peacemaker and trouble-maker. Under president Yeltsin this was often attributed to the weakness of the state, and the confusion within the state-structures. Under president Putin however this confusion has been turned into an art, not least when it comes to peace processes. Russia is involved in all peace processes related to the unrecognised states. Indeed, the conventional wisdom is that no peace process can succeed without the involvement of Russia. Very often however Russia pursues both a multilateral, as well as a bilateral track. For example, on Nagorno-Karabakh Russia is a co-chair of the OSCE Minsk Process, but has, since 2008, pursued a bilateral parallel negotiation track which it switches on and off according to convenience. This apart from lavishly supplying Armenia and Azerbaijan with billions of dollars of modern weaponry. The Russian strategy is only coherent and understandable from the Russian prism of wanting to maintain a privileged position in the former Soviet space – a constant and strongly held aspiration of all post-Communist Russian leaders.

The road to membership of the exclusive club of states

The international system remains state-based, despite many arguments about why the state is an inadequate form of authority in the face of contemporary global challenges such as climate change. The club of states has grown since WWII, but remains exclusive. Membership of the United Nations (UN) is the ultimate measure of statehood. At present there are 193 full members.[5] However, ever since the UN was established there have always been states that, for one reason or other have not quite made it to UN membership, or at least not immediately; either because their legitimacy was contested, or because they were considered not being in control of their foreign policy, or because the UN seat was claimed by rival governments. There are two sets of de facto states that initially were refused, or did not even seek UN membership, but that eventually made it to the exclusive club of nations, from which some comparisons can be made to the current de facto post-Soviet states, and from which equally some lessons can be drawn.

The first set is that of the micro states of Europe: Andorra, Monaco, Liechtenstein and San Marino. They existed de facto but they had by and large delegated their foreign policy to their larger neighbours. There was therefore no consensus on their UN membership.[6] Surprisingly however they were invited to join the Conference for Security and Co-operation in Europe in 1973. Monaco, Liechtenstein and San Marino signed the Helsinki Final Act in 1975, Andorra doing so belatedly in 1996. Soon after they joined the UN.

Beyond Europe is the case of Oman and the Persian Gulf Sheikhdoms, sometimes referred to as the ‘Trucial States’. The United Kingdom (UK) maintained that these were sovereign entities that had delegated their foreign policy to the UK by treaty in return for protection. It managed its relations with them through the Foreign Office not the Colonial Office. These states did not seek UN membership, but one or two of them sought relations with the Arab League, a prospect looked at with much disdain by the protecting power, even bringing about the forced deposition of one of them, the Ruler of Sharjah, in 1965.[7] Eventually, in 1971, as a result of Britain’s East of Suez policy, and after patching up relations with the larger neighbours, Saudi Arabia and Iran, four states emerged – Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Oman – all of which soon became UN members. In both these sets of examples resolving issues with the larger neighbours and assuming control of foreign policy – de facto and de jure – was considered an important prerequisite before full membership of the club of nations was possible. In the case of the post-Soviet de facto states the first premise is absent, and the second is in question.

The case for non-recognition

Georgia, Azerbaijan, Moldova and Ukraine have forcefully and energetically, and by and large successfully, argued against international recognition of the territories that have seceded from them. No European state – European Union (EU) members and others alike – have joined Russia in recognising any of the entities. On a global level only a handful of small states have broken the international consensus. So in many respects the case for non-recognition has been successful, even when one compares it to Kosovo, whose sovereignty remains disputed by some, but whose independence has been recognised by more than one hundred and fourteen UN member states.[8]

The case for non-engagement is however less clear, and this is where most discussion is currently ongoing. The metropoles have adopted different approaches to the issue of engagement – Moldova and Georgia being more receptive to engagement, as long as it is with their acquiescence and without anything that could be seen as recognition. Azerbaijan has taken a more hard-line position, seeking largely unsuccessfully not only to prevent diplomatic recognition, but also to impose complete isolation. Ukraine’s position is somewhere in between. The key argument of the metropolitan states is territorial integrity – one of the key principles of international law and enshrined in the Helsinki Final Act. Added to this is the moral argument, since as they point out, several of the current de facto authorities in the separatist entities rule in a context where they have ethnically cleansed their territories of those who share the ethnicity of the majority in the metropole state. The four metropolitan countries insist that the situation in the separatist entities is one of illegality and criminality, abetted by other states – Armenia in the case of Nagorno-Karabakh, and Russia in the case of the others. For example, for many years after the 9/11 al Qaeda attacks in the United States (US) visiting delegations in Baku were told by Azerbaijani officials that Osama bin Laden was taking refuge in Nagorno-Karabakh, citing this as an example of the state of illegality in the territory. Georgian officials furthermore say that Abkhazia and South Ossetia are in fact territories under Russian occupation, and any recognition and engagement that does not have Georgian endorsement is paramount to legitimising this occupation.

The four metropolitan countries dedicate a lot of their foreign policy energy and resources to upholding their claims. Azerbaijan has taken the matter a step further, putting together a public black list of persons who visit Nagorno-Karabakh without Baku’s permission, and even on one occasion issuing an international arrest warrant against someone who did.

The case for engagement

The case for engagement with the de facto states has been made forcefully, and in many ways convincingly, both by their own leaderships, by lobbying groups who support their cause, by the governments of their patron states, and more recently by an increasing number of western academics and experts, who have criticised the inertia of the international community, particularly European institutions such as the EU and the Council of Europe.

The demands of these groups however are not the same. The first cluster: the leadership of the de facto states, their very vocal lobbying groups in Europe and the US, and their patron states – push for political engagement and diplomatic recognition. They base their arguments on the principle of self-determination, a principle that is also recognised in the Helsinki Final Act.

However, even within this cluster, there are important differences. The Russian government wants as many countries as possible to follow its lead and give full diplomatic recognition to Abkhazia and South Ossetia. On the self-styled Nagorno-Karabakh Republic (NKR), Armenia, the Armenian diaspora communities and the NKR leadership itself, have a more modest immediate objective, namely that of securing political recognition, short of full diplomatic relations, which they say can come later. This is partly due to the fact that there are different opinions within the Armenian world as to whether the end game for Nagorno-Karabakh should be independence or unification with Armenia. Armenia itself has stopped short of recognising NKR. The republics of the Donbas are not currently actively seeking diplomatic recognition.[9] The de facto authorities in Transnistria, whilst well entrenched for nearly three decades, are much more open to contacts with and through Chisinau.

Within the school of thought in the West that is increasingly clamouring for more engagement, there are also important nuances.

Some argue for full engagement, and say that it is in the interest of the West to be in with the population of the de facto states and not to leave the field exclusively to the Russians. They say that through a strategy of constructive ambiguity the issue of diplomatic recognition can be bypassed. They often support their argument with the claim that what the de facto states are seeking is something less than full independence with a seat in the UN. For example, Thomas de Waal argues that ‘In some of these cases at least, there is an ambition not so much for statehood as for state-like agency’.[10] He argues that the aspiration of statehood can usefully be seen as seeking to minimise uncertainty ‘by providing citizens the certainty that comes with rules based government’.[11] In South Ossetia, Nagorno-Karabakh and Donbas the political elites pushing for secession were mainly irredentist, and independence was seen as a step towards unification with a third country. As Giorgio Comai argues, ‘independence may actually be perceived as a second-best option’, and that in fact what they are seeking is further integration with their patron state. In this he argues they are behaving similarly to small-sized dependent jurisdictions in other parts of the world.[12] From the perspective of the metropolitan states this argument is however disingenuous since unification/annexation by another state is considered even worse than secession towards independence. Equally, in the case of Abkhazia it is difficult to accept that the ultimate objective of the Abkhaz political elite is not full independence. Whilst at first sight this strategy of full engagement may appear to be clear and attractive, what ensued has been a series of half-measures and political fudge, leaving everyone concerned subsequently dissatisfied.

An alternative perspective warns against recognition, or steps that may be interpreted as such, especially as it may send the wrong signals for future aggressive separatism. Those holding this view criticise the ‘constructive ambiguity’ approach since they say this creates a lot of mistrust and makes the metropolitan states more resolute to reject engagement. They warn against the danger of legitimising cases of ethnic cleansing. They however equally reject some of the positions of the metropole states as counter-productive – creating in the de facto states a siege mentality and allowing grey areas to develop where human rights violations go unnoticed, as well as subjecting the local populations to unacceptable suffering and isolation. They argue for engagement on clearly defined and transparent rules in areas such as humanitarian assistance, human rights and conflict resolution. 

Countries and institutions have largely adopted a case by case approach, creating some confusion. Already having challenges explaining why the case of Kosovo is different from that of Abkhazia, they find themselves also having to explain why South Ossetia is different from Nagorno-Karabakh. Many feel that a measure of consistency is necessary if policies are to be credible. Whilst everybody now seems to agree that humanitarian engagement with de facto states is necessary, no such consensus existed in the 1990s when the humanitarian situation in Chechnya was desperate. Accusations of double standards are not only often heard, they are also often justified.

The next steps

The discussion on engagement with the de facto states in Europe needs to move forward. It needs to be about how to engage, not if to engage, since a measure of engagement is both necessary and inevitable. However, the argument for constructive ambiguity is flawed, as it will only lead to increased suspicion on the part of the metropolitan countries of these actions being a first step towards full recognition. Engagement must also be articulated in a wider context which will require the disputed subjects to engage in bona fide ways with the efforts to resolve the conflicts from which they have emerged, and to address the key humanitarian problems arising from their current status, namely the displacement of large numbers of persons due to their ethnicity.

Discussions on engagement need also to take into account the stark reality that Russia, as the protecting power in all but one of the territories, is unlikely to allow any engagement that it sees as in any way threatening to its monopoly of power – and not least in the present reality, the security of its military installations – in the de facto entities.

All of this requires a framework, which for the moment is lacking. Institutions like the EU and the Council of Europe can provide such a framework as long as they have a consistent policy on the issues, and the political will to see it through.

A European solution for these European problems can work if the centre of attention is people rather than territory or ethno-political state structures. In this the European institutions need to draw a clear line in terms of how far they are ready to go to protect the rights of individual Europeans who happen to be living in de facto but unrecognised states, and force the issue regardless of the protests of those involved, which are likely to be both the metropolitan states and the de facto states. Initially it is likely that any European action will be largely symbolic – the capacity of the European institutions to impose their will, even if they wanted to or if it was desirable to do so, is limited. But there are actions that can be taken unilaterally by institutions such as the EU and the Council of Europe, including on the movement of people, access to education, etc. Because of its decision-making process, which gives the right of veto to all 57 member states, the OSCE is in a much more difficult position to override the opinion of Russia on the one hand, and the metropolitan states on the other. It should however be the forum where the debate and engagement on the issues should be taking place in a structured manner and with all interested parties somehow engaged.

The grey areas on Europe’s political map are not likely to disappear soon. It will take a major development – such as the Helsinki process of the 1970s – for the existing ambiguities to be ironed out. The case for a European solution to what is after all a very European problem is strong. The reality however is that to a large extent this can only happen with Russia permitting. In the meantime, clarity and consistency should guide the process of engagement.

Author’s bio: Dr Dennis Sammut is a foreign policy analyst and consultant, with two decades of experience of work in the Caucasus Region and other parts of the Former Soviet Union and the wider Middle East. He is the Director of LINKS (Dialogue-Analysis-Research), and a Member of the Advisory Council of the European Policy Centre in Brussels. He has previously served with the United Nations in Afghanistan, and as a member of the European Union’s Tagliavini Commission on the war in Georgia and as a Trustee of the John Smith Memorial Trust. From 2012-14 he was co-ordinator of OxGAPS, the Oxford Gulf and Arabian Peninsula Studies Forum at Oxford University. He was awarded the OBE in the 2007 New Year’s Honours List for his contribution to the prevention and resolution of conflicts in the South Caucasus.

[1] Broers, Laurence. 2013. Recognising politics in unrecognised states: 20 years of enquiry into the de facto states of the South Caucasus.  London: Caucasus Survey Vol 1 No 1: footnote 1 page 71.

[2] For a discussion on how some of the secessionist states articulated their case at the time see Broers, Laurence. 2014. Mirrors to the World: The claims to legitimacy and International recognition of de facto States in the South Caucasus. Brown Journal of World Affairs Vol XX, Issue II: pp. 145-159.

[3] In Crimea a somewhat different situation played out, as Russian backed local political forces immediately asked not for independence but for unification with Russia, a demand that was accepted with speed by the Kremlin.

[4] The role of the Russian establishment in supporting the process of secession in some of the former Union republics in the early days following the dissolution of the USSR has been discussed and speculated on extensively. It is often attributed to the Russian deep state. In Moscow in the mid-1990s the author had long conversations with Russian officials who openly acknowledged the role of the Russian Military intelligence organisation, the GRU, in events in Abkhazia. Russian military bases and facilities were often the main source of supply for secessionist military forces, but support was often more complex. Turpal-ali Atgiriev, former Minister of Security under President Maskhadov’s leadership in secessionist Chechnya in the 1990s told the author that he and other Chechen fighters joined the fighting on the Abkhaz side in the period 1992-4, and that their participation was facilitated by the GRU which caused them considerable concern and soul-searching. Under President Yeltsin the Kremlin either closed its eyes, or felt it did not have the means to stop these process.

[5] List of UN Member States

[6] In the inter-war years Liechtenstein application to join the League of Nations was rebuffed by the Soviet Union on the basis that it was too small.

[7] For a full discussion see Sammut, Dennis, End of empire policies, and the politics of local elites : the British exit from South Arabia and the Gulf, 1951-1972, University of Oxford DPhil Thesis 2014 pp. 118-123

[8] Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Kosovo, Niue and Cook islands are also listed but they are not UN members.

[9] With regards to Crimea, Russia presents its annexation as a fait accompli. It does not overtly seek endorsements from third parties, but tries to portray the situation as normal by inviting western personalities to Crimea.

[10] Thomas De Waal, Uncertain grounds: Engaging with Europe’s de facto states and breakaway territories, Brussels: Carnegie Europe, December 2018,

[11] Ibid.

[12] Comai, Giorgio. 2017. Conceptualising post-Soviet de facto states as dependent jurisdictions. Ethnopolitics  Volume 17 Issue 2 (March 2018): pp 181-200

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