Unrecognized States in
Post-Soviet Space
There's been a major rise of separatist and secessionist movements over the past few decades. Mikhail Minakov wants us to know they're very much connected.
Frozen Conflict
Separatism, in Europe, is often connected to what's termed the 'frozen conflicts', the six (recently only four) disputed zones in the former Soviet Union that have remained unresolved, sometimes for decades. Think Transnistria (considered by many to be part of Moldova), Abkhazia (Georgia), South Ossetia (Georgia), Nagorno-Karabakh/Artsakh (Azerbaijan) and, most recently, the Ukrainian breakaway territories in Donetsk and Luhansk (often combined under the term 'Donbas').
Separatism is often connected to the post-Soviet space, but our speaker says they're quite connected to separatist movements in Spain, Italy and other parts of the western half of the continent. They have permanent meetings, conferences, cooperation projects, horizontal linkages, trade unions, NGOs, political communities, you name it.

And this all goes unseen – public life and academia, or at least official public life and academia, doesn't take these links into account and so misses the point entirely when it comes to these places. It so happens that the price of missing the point, these days, is getting steeper and steeper.

Realism was a school of thought I encountered while doing a program at PRIO (the Peace Research Institute Oslo) this summer – it's a way of looking at things through the lens of nation states. Think traditional borders, the context of a country as a whole. And the reality of unrecognized territories slips right through all that.

The speaker refers to a theory (new to me, so maybe I'll repeat it wrong) called world system analysis, and it contrasts realism in the sense that it defines nations in terms of their relationships to each other. It goes into the reality of inequality in the post-colonial world, and some states come off somewhat more on top than other ones. These are the 'core' states (think the USA, Germany, the UK, and they are surrounded by unstable, periphery states that depend on the core in political, economic and often cultural terms (Tajikistan, Laos, Sudan). There are in-between spaces called 'semi-core' (Iran, Turkey, Brazil – Russia and China until recently) that try to get closer to the core while fending off their periphery tendencies.

Then there are states that don't buy into the world order generally, like North Korea, or Cuba/Eritrea until recently. Then there are the counter-systemic movements that try to break down the system or don't play by the rules. Think ISIS.

Then there's something our speaker calls the radical periphery and its here where we find our six unrecognized territories. They're even more vulnerable to instability and oversight, depending on their individual contexts. And the commitment that 'core' countries have to maintaining that each is still part of their parent country often makes them quite ignored in practice.

And why does it matter?

Because, for Minakov, it gives the impression that the core is this strong monolith (the West, mostly) but it also has its fractures. That, and in these six territories there are four million Europeans living. Ten years ago there was just one million. In ten years it could be more. They matter because people matter. Which is why people study them.

But how do people study them?

Radical Periphery
The relationships between these non-recognized states (NRSs) and the rest of the world can be seen on spectrums of economic, political and cultural control. Folks on the periphery get the short end of the stick economically, and they make few political decisions that matter and are generally expected to play by the rules set by larger nations. They're often importers of other cultures and are impacted quite a bit by languages, media, philosophies and religions of core states.

There are also different types of NRSs. There's the 'as-if' state, which are internationally recognized countries that actually can't fulfill the responsibilities of the state. Like the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Then there's the 'almost' state, which does provide a wide range of state-like services and have de facto independence but no recognition from the wider community. You also have 'black spots', which are technically parts of other countries, don't seek independence, but because of whatever reason (often because of being really, really remote) there isn't really much presence of the state. Think parts of Tajikistan's Pamir or certain communities in the Amazon.

When we talk about the 'state-like services' that almost-states can provide, there are usually five: a) defence of the territory from outside threats, b) full control over the inside population, c) provision of state services (education, health care), d) collection of resources necessary for the state's functionality (tax), and e) recognition of other countries. As-if states only have the last one, and almost-states can have everything except the last.

Now for a bit of history.

The Soviet Union fell apart in the early 90's and when it did there were 15 new states that were recognized globally. Before '94 there were also struggles in and around Transnistria, South Ossetia, Abkhazia and Nagorno-Karabakh, but they didn't gain independence. in 1994 there was a Budapest Memorandum thing that made everyone recognize those borders and try not to advocate for any new countries. Crimea was itching for independence but was was pacified by Russia & friends and left as part of Ukraine. This was also in exchange for the nuclear weapons that Ukraine had on its territory after the passing of the USSR.

From there to 2008 there was a general pacification strategy – Russia didn't openly support separatism in former Soviet states because they were too busy making sure they didn't fall apart. We know about the Chechen wars of attempted independence, but there were cases of tension also in Tatarstan, Bashkiria and other non-Russian ethnic republics in the country.

But then in 2008, especially after the end of the second Chechen conflict, the conflict between Georgia and South Ossetia became a Russian-Georgian conflict, leading Russian troops to enter both South Ossetia and Abkhazia to 'protect' them against Georgian aggression and recognize them as de facto independent. Borders between the countries were settled (or shifted), and Georgia declared the territories occupied by Russia. Russia said they were independent not and Georgia needed to stay the hell out. In the meantime, Transnistria and Abkhazia had been de facto independent for some time from Moldova and Azerbaijan (respectively), supported/sponsored by Russia and Armenia (respectively). Things were not getting better.

Then came 2014 – Crimea declared independence and was hastily shuffled back to Mother Russia's control. Separatists in Donbas (Donetsk and Luhansk) wanted in as well, but Russia couldn't afford to take everyone and played a double game. Yes, Russia supported them against the Ukrainian gov't in Kyiv. But no, they didn't want them to become part of the country. Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, had to do the rounds in 2014-15 just to calm everyone down.
Where From Here
So now there are six republics that are outside of national control (+1 inside another country), and they're trying to survive and/or taking advantage of their shady status. The survival aspect includes having conferences between themselves – there are yearly ones now in Moscow and Crimea. The older NRSs are sharing their information with the newer ones.

But then there's the shady part. Massive human rights violations occur in Transnistria that are completely outside of Moldovan control. The LDR, the official name of the Luhansk People's Republic, is said by our speaker to be the black zone in Europe where the majority of the continent's drug and human trafficking goes to be sorted, repacked and shipped off to everyone else.

There are typically three types of power: judicial, legislative and executive. Then local power. When all three are in total command of one person or group, you get authoritarian regimes like in Russia, Belarus or Kazakhstan. If there are different groups competing for this control, you get clan-like activity in countries like Ukraine, Moldova or Georgia. In an NRS, this can devolve into nearly warlordy tendencies. Think of the monopoly of power by Zakharchenko in Donetsk – he raised the prices on gas, making it harder for people to farm, which then made a smaller harvest, which then raised food prices, and the people suffered. But since the existential threat is made out to be the West, people don't turn on him. Their attentions are led elsewhere.

[ note: near the end of the summer school, we heard the news that Zakharchenko was killed by a bomb ]

And that's not entirely unfounded, because the EU has had a policy of not recognizing these states at all. But between 2003-09 there was more recognition that something still had to be done, and that these NRSs shouldn't exist in complete isolation. There were attempts to think of what lessons had been learned so far. And then in 2009 more political and economic space was opened to engage with NRSs without actually legitimizing them. There hasn't been a whole lot of impact, but things are starting to move.

There's been the thought recently that, even if political engagement isn't possible (or desirable in some cases), economic engagement very much can be. We'll see if it works out.

All in all, it's a bit of a blow to European ideology and the liberal experiment in total: it was thought that democratizing processes would bring prosperity to all. But, out of the six countries in the European Neighbourhood Policy (Belarus, Ukraine, Moldova, Armenia, Georgia, Azerbaijan), it's Belarus (the closest Europe has to a dictatorship) that's the most successful. And Ukraine, after a 'democratic' revolution, is the worst. Some blame leaders, some blame irresponsible capitalism, some blame Moscow. But there are a lot of answers that still need sorting through.