Post-Soviet de facto states have presented over time a shifting and often elusive target for enquiry, for several reasons. First, at different points in the 20 years of their existence, different questions have seemed primary; longevity, internal processes and the variable survival of de facto states have made new questions possible and relevant.
Second, the politicization of inquiry regarding de facto states as inferring some kind of acceptance or legitimacy for these entities, has also imposed restrictions. A key tension, therefore, is the extent to which scholarly enquiry is able to navigate this commonality of interest and secure space for free discussion from the imperatives emanating from key policy communities. Inevitably, there is much politicized academic work both for and against particular de facto states. Third, because of this deep politicization, de facto states have traditionally been approached in terms of their relationships with a significant external other. Only with time and survival have they become the subject of enquiry in their own right.
De facto states across the world cope with a wide range of vulnerabilities associated with existence in the shadows of the international state system, many of which have negative impacts for their governance and governability. Eurasia’s de facto states, in particular, have been characterized by five key vulnerabilities relevant for discussions about governance. These are:
- Their enduring association, whether willed or unwilled, with Russia;
- The fact that external support (patron-states, diaspora) for de facto states rarely supports democratic de facto states;
- The fact that de facto states born in war are left with multiple legacies inhospitable to the development of effective governance, not least cults of the military, of unity and security – none of which are necessarily welcoming of free and open political process;
- Perceptions that de facto states were born in sin because of the mass displacement from their territories of communities from the majority nation;
- The strong association of de facto states with an ethnic, as opposed to civic, discourse of national identity.
To varying extents all of these statements can be contested; what is less arguable, however, is that these perceptions have powerfully influenced international thinking and policy on de facto states, and continue to do so.
Three phases of enquiry
It is possible to identify three broad phases of enquiry into de facto states.
Eurasia’s de facto states entered social scientific enquiry in the early 1990s primarily as scenarios of ethnic conflict, and the primary question was, why these scenarios in particular ended in violence. This phase lasted through the end of the 1990s perhaps. In terms of variables and theoretical frameworks, a number of studies looked at identity and cultural difference, institutions, relative deprivation theory, kin-states (or their functional equivalent) and nationalist mobilization theories. Governance issues were generally sublimated into a wider analysis of dysfunctional Soviet governance. A dominant thread in this analysis was the role of Soviet ethno-federal institutions in territorializing identity, establishing politically salient parameters for intergroup comparison and choking possibilities for institutionalizing conflict at the local level. Essentially, however, this was a retrospective approach focused on the late 1980s-early 1990s.
The second phase of enquiry loosely began perhaps at the end of the 1990s, when it had become clear that de facto states were not just ephemeral phenomena. The demise of the de facto state in Chechnya also highlighted the possibility that internal governance outcomes could be significant in mediating a de facto state’s survival or demise. This second phase therefore began to engage with de facto states and identify variables critical to their survival, such as the prominence of warlord armies and militarized political cultures, the extent of multi-ethnicity, the extent and type of external support, and the political trajectory in the metropolitan state. This was also the era of color revolutions, a watershed moment in expectations of transition and the apotheosis of Western receptivity to discourse and outward signs of democratization.
De facto states also deployed the language of governance to further their claims. They went to considerable lengths to demonstrate compliance with formal ‘markers’ of democracy (regular elections, procedural correctness) to project a democratic image to the outside world. Beyond rhetoric, however, this phase was also linked to surprising political outcomes in de facto states, such as the 2004 presidential election in Abkhazia and the 2004 mayoral election in Stepanakert. These testified to some inner dynamics that casual stereotyping about “anarchical badlands” was clearly missing.
The third phase followed on in the later 2000s to develop a fuller engagement with de facto state as political environments in their own right. Although keeping an eye constantly on the external dimensions of de facto state building, third phase scholarly enquiry acknowledges the importance of internal dimensions, or internal sovereignty. In this phase, de facto states have become the focus of enquiry, rather than being treated as an epiphenomenon of something else.
Third phase enquiry has been made more complicated, however, by at least three factors. The first was the recognition of Kosovo, which weakened the link between governance standards and recognition. This outcome changed the calculus in de facto states’ thinking on whether efforts to earn sovereignty through good governance will be “rewarded”. The second was the recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which further decoupled any notional connection between recognition and standards to posit instead the recognition of de facto states as an act of aggressive geopolitics. The third was Sri Lanka’s military defeat of the Tamil Tigers in May 2009 after 26 years of conflict. While this was not the first time of course that a de facto state had been crushed militarily, the apparent totality of the victory and its packaging as a “Sri Lankan model” of conflict resolution has compounded the challenges to an open discussion about governance.
Collectively, these developments have offered both those in de facto states and those in metropolitan states seeking to reintegrate them alternatives to difficult discussions about governance. This context has deepened the challenges facing both reformers in de facto states and advocates of governance-as-peacebuilding in metropolitan states.
What now for shadow governance?
In this context, what new directions can the study of shadow governance take and why should we care? In the academic sphere, there are intriguing questions made possible by Russia’s recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Will this form of unilateral independence will sustain, increase or decrease local governance capacities in Abkhazia and South Ossetia? Will these entities become differentiated from NK or Transnistria because of this outcome, and what forms will they take? What does a 21st century protectorate look like and how might it differ from historical paradigms for this relationship? How do Russian- and Western-supported protectorates differ in the post-Cold War world, and what are the implications for long-term governance outcomes?
We do not of course have the luxury of purely academic enquiry into de facto states. The most pressing reason to remain engaged and open to discussion of shadow governance is that outcomes of recognition/non-recognition, and even military “reintegration”, do not make key problems and issues in the broader governance thematic disappear. Exploration of shadow governance is a necessary pre-requisite for defining roles for local governance capacities in long-term strategies for conflict resolution. For if there is one thing we have learnt from the last two decades, it is that isolation does not work. In this context, to what extent should models for conflict resolution take as givens the institutions existing today in de facto states? How can interim mechanisms be crafted in ways that accentuate cross-conflict governance dividends and de-emphasize zero sum status outcomes? And can the return of displaced people be realistically discussed without serious engagement with local governance and institutions in the territories to which some of them would return?
Although arguments about puppet states suggest otherwise it seems fairly clear that the Eurasian secessions could not have happened without local capacities. These local capacities, however we want to call them, therefore matter. It seems counter-intuitive that resolution will be possible when there are vast deficits in governance capacities between sides in a conflict, and therefore capacities to generate legitimate outcomes and wider political cultures. We need therefore to remain attuned to shadow governance. New and innovative forms of engagement with governance and institutions in de facto states are needed, balancing toleration with critical exposure, and working to bring de facto states into a common governance paradigm structured by rights and responsibilities – without prejudice for their eventual status.