We all have a postal address, where a letter or a postcard can be sent. A house number, a street, a town and a country give each of us a personal geography that allows anyone in the world to communicate with us. Except some of us do not. A small category of people in the world do not have an international postal address because their countries do not belong to the world’s postal system – and by extension the common international space. They are global anomalies and their residents are in many ways second-class world citizens. How do we define the status of these de facto states and, more importantly, the people that live there?

Life in a de facto state (or an unrecognised, quasi- or para-state or a number of other definitions discussed below) entails invention and subterfuge. To get back to the first example, of sending and receiving a letter, considerable invention is needed to work with the global postal service. For years, Turkish Cypriots had a mysterious postal address, Mersin 10, referring to a town in Turkey through which mail could be routed to the non-recognised Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. In analogous fashion, a letter to Abkhazia passes through the friendly Russian city of Sochi.

Life in limbo

Some people in separatist parts of Ukraine are now cut off almost completely. International postal deliveries are currently suspended to Crimea and Donetsk and Luhansk. In Transdniestria, which is also often called Transnistria, the two sides in the dispute have found a working interim solution, proving that collaboration can deliver results – and letters. In March I sent my daughter a postcard from the post office in the Transnistrian capital of Tiraspol. The card depicted a view of the Dniester River with a church and a war memorial commemorating the Transnistrians’ sacrifices in the Great Patriotic War. I paid 9.80 Transnistrian roubles for a stamp, but as my card was going to England, the lady behind the counter affixed a Moldovan stamp worth 9.50 lei to it. The card arrived in London five days later, post-marked “Tiraspol, Moldova.”

Postal communication is not such a big issue in the era of email. Other obstacles blocking the interaction of citizens of de facto states with the outside world are more serious. Many find it hard to travel abroad, pursue post-graduate studies or even make simple financial transactions. One Transnistrian businessman described to me how his payments to clients have to be routed via three banks.

These problems are primarily political in nature. Most territories of this kind exist as a result of conflict. When the political conflict that created them is resolved, their status is regularised – sometimes fortunately through negotiations (as in Colombia, the Philippines, Indonesia), in other cases by violence (as in Chechnya and Sri Lanka) that may presage more conflict in the future. Things become more interesting however, when the violence is over but the conflict is unresolved, such that the irregular status is long-lasting, the temporary has become permanent. Turkish Cypriots have been living in this irregular condition for almost half a century, Abkhaz and Transnistrians for 25 years.

This prolonged condition of limbo, in which one or two generations have now grown up, raises questions that are almost metaphysical. The issue of how to send and receive letters to and from Abkhazia was the starting point for Letters to Max, the documentary by the French film-maker Eric Baudelaire. We see how Baudelaire posts letters from Paris to the de facto foreign minister of Abkhazia, Maxim Gvindjia and how he takes an interest first in whether the letters arrive at all (they mostly do) and how postal officials have marked them (mostly, writing “Via Georgia” on the envelope).

Baudelaire’s first letter to Gvindjia reads, “Dear Max, Are you there?” Gvindjia laughingly replies, “Yes, I’m here.” The meaning of “here” and “there” is both banal and profound. It takes us beyond the political controversy to a deeper philosophical issue of how certain people insist that they live in a certain kind of “here” and how their claims fit with the rest of the world’s insistence about what deserves to be “there”.

What terms should we use to describe this reality? Or to put it another way, in what jurisdiction does Max Gvindjia live? To call modern-day Abkhazia a “state” is already controversial, but political scientists insist that statehood is a political definition and can exist without recognition. The term “quasi-state” is derogatory and not satisfactory to describe somewhere that has functioned on its own for a quarter of a century. “Self-proclaimed” does not mean much, as most states proclaim themselves as such before others accepted them –think of the United States on July 4th 1776.

Contested sovereignty

Then we come to the thorny issue of recognition. “Unrecognised” is a useful term, but not accurate to describe Abkhazia (recognised by Russia and three other states), northern Cyprus (recognised by Turkey), let alone the special case of Kosovo (not a member of the United Nations but recognised in early 2018 by 116 countries, listed in a special website called “Kosovo Thanks You”). Besides, as James Ker-Lindsay has emphasised in an article published in 2015, recognition is primarily an act of political intention which tells us more about international consensus than international law. Membership of the UN is a commonly accepted definition of statehood, but not an all-encompassing one (ask the people of Kosovo and Taiwan what they think of it).

In the end, the status of a contested territory is mostly defined by negatives. It is a place which is in the awkward category of not belonging to most agreed international structures or organisations. You do not find it in the drop-down box when you fill out an international online form. (In most of the world, that alphabetical list of countries begins with Afghanistan, except in Russia where it begins with Abkhazia).

That is why “de facto state” is probably the best and most neutral term. “De facto” describes a condition in which there is internal self-government and elements of domestic statehood but international rejection of its claims to de jure legitimacy.

The international order has never been tidy or complete, always having lands with contested sovereignty. The breakdown of empires is the most common catalyst for producing new aspirant states, springing up like flowers in the cracks of paving stones after rain. The post-Soviet space is especially rich in these territories. As well as the four enduring de facto states of Abkhazia, Nagorno-Karabakh, South Ossetia and Transnistria, there are now two more recently established shadowy entities in eastern Ukraine. Only one would-be separatist state, Chechnya of the 1990s, failed.

Compare this to the situation a century ago. A recent map depicts no fewer than 27 “ephemeral states” that proliferated in the ruins of the Russian empire during the Russian Civil War from 1917 to 1921. Today only souvenir hunters or a tiny group of nationalist nostalgists remember these statelets, whose names sound as unlikely as the Marx Brothers’ fictional Freedonia. They included the Republic of Uhtua (run by Karelian Finns), the Free Territory (an anarchist state in eastern Ukraine), the Cossack-run Kuban People’s Republic and the Gilan Soviet Republic on the Iranian shore of the Caspian Sea. Each was the project of an ethnic group or political faction in the borderlands between states in crisis. All these “ephemeral states” took on the symbolic trappings of nationhood. They all had flags of course, but also postage stampscoats of arms and banknotes. All of them crashed and burned relatively quickly, when Bolshevik military might swept them away.

The four post-Soviet breakaway territories share some of the same exotic features as their predecessors from a century ago. They all exhibit the most reliably familiar aspect of small and unrecognised states, over-compensating for lack of real state power with an abundance of state symbolism. All of them have devised elaborate national symbolisms in the form of flags, crests and anthems. Abkhazia has exotic stamps. Transnistria has its own currency, the Transnistrian rouble, giving it control of its own monetary policy. It has even invented plastic coins in different shapes specifically with blind people in mind, which sell for high prices on Ebay. This is the softer side of a harder ideology—all of these territories are in the grip of a big national idea, founded on struggle, military victory and sacrifice in the conflicts of the 1990s and memorialised in sculptures, parades and heroic celebrations.   

Patron states

It is important to understand that these places are not scary mafia lands (as Chechnya in the 1990s or current-day Donbas in many ways are). The main impression a visitor to Abkhazia, Nagorno-Karabakh or Transnistria is of normality. Stepanakert, Sukhum(i) and Tiraspol are well-functioning cities with all the trappings of normal life in modern Europe: uniformed traffic police, schools and hospitals, shops and cafés and television stations. Indeed, petty crime rates are generally lower here than in many de jure states.

You have to focus quite hard on your surroundings to work out that things are different here. For me the main clue is that it is so non-commercialised, that the advertising hoardings are always selling local products. You can buy global brands here individually, but there are no international chains, no McDonalds or Starbucks. Sometimes there is an approximation that almost takes you in – for example, Turkish Cyprus has a chain called Burger City which is a sort of imitation of Burger King.

How have these de facto states endured? The post-1945 European consensus that violence and territorial re-conquest in Europe is unacceptable provides one part of the answer. The support of a “patron state” – Russia, Armenia (in the case of Karabakh) or Turkey (Turkish Cyprus) – is a more crucial factor. All of these entities are heavily reliant on their patrons for both economic assistance and security. They range in their levels of dependence. Laurence Broers has compared in impressive detail the three very different types of political economy which enable Abkhazia, Nagorno-Karabakh and South Ossetia to benefit from a client-patron relationship.

Yet there are nuances here. The relationship with the patron state is more complex than most outsiders think and the disparaging description of these territories as “puppet states” is wide of the mark. Abkhazia and South Ossetia both survived the 1990s, despite minimal support from Moscow and, in the case of Abkhazia, punitive economic sanctions from Russia. From Sukhumi to Tiraspol, the patron state is accepted as the provider of both security and financing. But within that context the de facto state routinely chooses as its leader the politician who defies Moscow on certain issues. Voters in Abkhazia in 2004 and in Transnistria in 2011 chose Sergei Bagapsh and Yevgeny Shevchuk respectively as their presidents in defiance of Moscow’s favoured candidates, Raul Khajimba and Anatoly Kaminsky. In 2011 even tiny South Ossetia gave Moscow an unpleasant shock by attempting to elect an opposition candidate, Alla Dzhiyoeva, as its leader. In parallel, Turkish Cypriots routinely choose as their leaders politicians who stand up to the government in Ankara.

The interesting story here is how these post-Soviet de facto states have not become rogue states, even though the option was fully available to them. Instead, in cases which deserve more study from political scientists, they appear to have decided to build de facto institutions of statehood and make contracts with their citizens. They do this not with any realistic hope of international legitimacy but as the best method of survival.

It is a partial success story. Although poverty and emigration remain huge problems, all four de facto states have progressed far from being the shadowy territories they were in the 1990s. Yes, there is criminality and contraband here. Transnistria, in particular, is a haven for smugglers. But it keeps that status in large part due to the collusion of its recognised-state neighbours, Moldova and Ukraine. Within certain limits, there is also a kind of democracy here. As Donnacha Ó Beacháin, an associate professor at the School of Law and Government at Dublin City University, has described, elections in the unrecognised states are circumscribed by certain conditions (certain groups are not allowed to engage in high politics, there is a consensus on issues concerning the conflict) but are also highly competitive. Abkhazia, in particular, has an independent media and strong civil society.

Overall, it is hard to make a strong causal connection between all these attributes of de facto states and their condition of non-recognition. In a challenging PhD thesis, Giorgio Comai makes the case that the four post-Soviet de facto states, economically weak and dependent on a patron state, can be compared to small recognised states, such as Palau and the Marshall Islands in the Pacific Ocean. “Non-recognition is the symptom, not the cause,” of their problems, Comai argues. Other small states in Africa and Asia, or even the European “micro-states” of Andorra and Liechtenstein, arguably exhibit many of the same features as do Abkhazia or Transnistria.

Waiting for an idea

I recently asked a Transnistrian native what was the biggest problem for him about living in an unrecognised, de facto state. His answer was “instability” and “uncertainty”. “What will happen tomorrow?” he asked rhetorically. “What will Moldova and Ukraine do? Will my kids’ school close, will the border close? It is too unpredictable. I can’t predict three or five years ahead.”

This uncertainty looks set to endure. Transnistria and the other de facto states are weak states reliant on strong patrons but not unique in the world in that condition. In my view, the chief reason for persistent limbo lies in the peculiar dysfunctional relationship between the de facto state and the third corner of the triangle in each case, the “metropolitan “parent” or “base” state, the de jure claimant on each territory in Baku, Chișinău, Nicosia or Tbilisi. Although they hate to admit it, the profile and policies of Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Nagorno-Karabakh, Transnistria and Northern Cyprus, are all largely defined by Georgia, Azerbaijan, Moldova and the Republic of Cyprus. They exist in relation to their missing partner, their shadow, their doppelganger. Separate but connected, each side exerts a – mostly negative – veto on the development of the other.

International engagement with these de facto states is very inconsistent. At one extreme is Turkish Cyprus, where there is international tourism, students from around the world study at its universities and there is trade and traffic across the Green Line into southern Cyprus. At the other extreme is Nagorno-Karabakh, which is deeply isolated from the world, getting very few international visitors and where virtually the only international organisation working there is the International Committee of the Red Cross. Transnistria tends more towards the Cyprus case, having an even more sophisticated trade regime with the European Union than Turkish Cypriots do. South Ossetia is nearer to Nagorno-Karabakh and Abkhazia is somewhere in the middle.

These contrasts have almost nothing to do with an international strategy (something which would be a welcome innovation) and everything to do with the policies set by the governments of metropolitan states (with Tbilisi being a partial exception), which the rest of the world sets as its main criterion for interaction. Karabakh is isolated because Baku wants it so and is prepared to punish internationals who dare to visit and work there. Turkish Cyprus is more open because the government in Nicosia is more relaxed about what happens there.

It is a case of double uncertainty. A Transnistrian, Abkhaz or Turkish Cypriot feels vulnerable in a world where his or her state is unrecognised and at the mercy of much bigger global forces. A Moldovan, Georgian or Greek Cypriot feels the insecurity of seeing a territory under the control of hostile forces. In government-controlled Azerbaijan, Cyprus and Georgia, a displaced person or refugee born in the de facto state and unable to return home there watches as his or her homeland is defined as the national state of others.

As in all conflicts, the dysfunction, mutual punishment and uncertainty are likely to endure as long as the two sides fail to identify a common strategic interest in working together to resolve it. When there is progress, the de facto states will reveal more of their hidden agendas and buried identities, shed some of their more radical posturing, and begin to diverge more strongly from one another. Some of them will surely disappear altogether. That idea could be an integration project – the most likely eventual outcome for Cyprus and Moldova. It could be a civilised divorce, which ends up in a confederation or even managed secession, as in Kosovo, so long as it honours the rights of displaced persons who lost their homes.

Currently, the reality of these places is sustained by an idea that was born in conflict. They continue to produce postage stamps and sculpt war memorials in a protracted response to that violent rupture in the past. Another stronger new idea is needed for that reality to change.

This opinion piece was first published on New Eastern Europe.