Development / Politics

International Recognition, Democratisation and Unrecognised States

Urban Jaksa analyses the use of democratisation as quest for recognition within unrecognised states of the Caucasus region: Nagorno-Karabakh, Abkhazia, and South Ossetia.

Democratisation in unrecognised states is a phenomenon that roughly aims to attain three goals: insurance of social stability and welfare, provision of internal legitimacy for the political elites and the creation of a foreign policy instrument with the aim of increasing external legitimacy and encouraging international recognition of the given territorial entity. It is vital to examine the means through which democratisation in unrecognised states can stretch far beyond a domestic political process and hence becomes a quest for recognition, development and foreign investment. This article will discuss the phenomenon with reference to the unrecognised states of the Caucus region: Nagorno-Karabakh, Abkhazia, and South Ossetia.

Although no link between democracy and state recognition exists under international law, unrecognised states assume that living up to the expectations of the international community in terms of democratic development and protection of human rights automatically grants them a greater chance of attaining recognition. Through the mechanism of state-building and democratisation, unrecognised states attempt to demonstrate political viability and upholding of human rights. In this sense, unrecognised states are seen to emulate the behaviour of already recognised states, through the adoption of similar constitutions, the passing of legislation and the organisation of elections.

The precedent of Kosovo is a telling example. Many unrecognised states insist that the same principle should be applied to them and hence behave in a a hyper-legalistic way. In other words, the emulation of recognised democracies is a means for unrecognised states to deceive themselves which consequently expose a lack of democratic values. Sartre illustrates this concept as bad faith, by giving an example of a waiter who tries his best to emulate the behaviour of other waiters. His behaviour, rather than appearing natural, seems exaggerated, which forms sufficient evidence that he is acting. Another example closer to the topic may be found in a dictator who appears a legitimate leader by rigging elections to win with a majority of over 90%.

Similarly, unrecognised states employ various means to persuade the international community. While the more democratically developed amongst them merely have to publicly communicate their success in democratisation, others have to implement more complex schemes and resort to mimicry. The latter involves copying patterns in the political, economic and cultural spheres.  Let us take cultural diplomacy as an example. For unrecognised states in the Caucasus, this involves various techniques such as touring dance troupes and participating in the World Cup Tournament for Unrecognised Nations, which took place in June 2014 in Sweden under the framework of Confederation of Independent Football Associations (CONIFA), an alternative to FIFA. Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Nagorno-Karabakh participated, amongst others.

The three Caucasian states mentioned above formally seceded through the organisation of referenda on independence, which still feature as symbolic events in governmental discourse. Every election conducted in a de-facto state is a reprise of the referendum for independence – once the election has been successfully carried out, unrecognised states aim to use the mechanism to legitimise their people’s choice of secession. Elections hence form a political ritual and an opportunity for unrecognised states to showcase the differences in democratic standards (as for instance measured by Freedom House) between the parent state and themselves, especially if these are in their favour, like in Nagorno-Karabakh.

There is a tendency amongst unrecognised states to support each other through mutual recognition, through issuing public statements of support and sending observers to monitor each other’s elections as is the case in Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Transnistria. It is worth highlighting that Nagorno-Karabakh has not engaged in such activities, hence distancing itself  from other unrecognised entities within the post-Soviet sphere. This finds explanation in the patron state; while the other three entities are supported by the Kremlin, Nagorno-Karabakh benefits from Armenian assistance and does not want to appear a Russian satellite.

The performative element of democratisation is additionally complemented by the discursive element, given that unrecognised states are extremely careful when employing the language which demonstrates their de facto independence and strengthens their case for de jure recognition. While representatives of Georgia speak of Georgian internally displaced persons, representatives of South Ossetia and Abkhazia consistently refer to them as to refugees. The term implies that that have crossed an international border and consequently refers to the independence of these states. This ‘discourse of independence’ is also reproduced through place names and historical accounts in school textbooks and it even extends beyond spoken and written language into cartographical representations showing support of independence and international recognition.

Though unrecognised states are eager to highlight the performative aspects of a democratic society such as democratic institutions, elections and party pluralism, they don’t seem equally motivated to develop less visible, yet essential democratic elements such as civil society, decentralisation, participatory decision-making processes. Citizens hence appear tokenized in gaining external legitimacy rather than forming the source of internal legitimacy. Security concerns consequently feature as an excuse for stalled democratic reforms.

Non-recognition should not be comprehended solely as an obstacle to development; it also forms opportunity for reform. The three Caucasian unrecognised states have not managed to gain international recognition for more than twenty years since they declared independence and their  future prospects remain unclear. However they have succeeded in maintaining their status quo by holding on to their de facto independent status, while pursuing the strategy of international engagement in the short-run. The process of democratisation has in part accelerated their aims and conferred certain advantages to their citizens. Even when democratisation in unrecognised states is tailored towards external audiences rather than towards their citizens and even when they try to ‘fake it to make it’, the positive externalities of the phenomenon seem to outweigh the negative ones.

Urban Jaksa, PhD Student, University of York

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