Table of Contents

Three territories in Europe, forged in war, have endured as de facto states for decades. Abkhazia, Transdniestria, and northern Cyprus have established themselves as facts on the ground and partial subjects of international law. Their disputed status is an unsatisfactory situation for everybody. It deprives their citizens currently of many opportunities afforded to citizens of recognized states. It continues to hurt many on the other side of the conflict divide, notably tens of thousands of displaced people in Cyprus and Georgia. The status disputes perpetuate conflict and hold back the development of a wider region.

As set out here, the disputes have persisted for so long for several reasons. In each, there is a geopolitical standoff and a military occupation of some kind by Russia or Turkey—which is the chief concern of the parent state. This is the main driver of the continuing tragic conflict in eastern Ukraine, although there are also crucial local factors. The de facto states themselves have built self-governing entities with varying degrees of success. In Abkhazia, that reality is still sustained by a strong national idea.

The passing of time is a factor. A realistic prospect of reunification becomes harder the further a shared history of cohabitation recedes into the past. Abkhazia and Transdniestria were last part of Georgia and Moldova twenty-five years ago, when they were all part of the Soviet Union. Turkish and Greek Cypriots only shared the experience of a properly functioning bi-communal, independent state for three years, and both sides have demonstrated resistance to settlement plans. In each case, the parent state has rejected a reunification plan because it devolved too much power from the center and the price of union was too high. This is what happened in Georgia in 1997–1998, in Moldova in 2003, and in Cyprus in 2004. These histories underline a major reason for nonresolution of the disputes: the three parent states do not know what kind of country they want to be.

The most hopeful of these cases is Moldova, where there has been some positive incremental change driven by benign geographic factors, economic pressures and incentives, and a pragmatic approach in the negotiations. Even here, however, a final resolution looks far off. The other cases reveal a more unhealthy dynamic that needs to be addressed. None of them has achieved international recognition as they formally aspire to, nor have they been reunified with their parent states as many have hoped. Instead a third process is under way in Abkhazia and, to a lesser extent, in northern Cyprus and eastern Ukraine: de facto integration with the patron state, Russia or Turkey. If that process—hardly welcome to many people in these territories—continues, conflict resolution will become much harder.

This signals the need for a fresh look at how international actors can engage inside these territories and with the de facto authorities to reverse some of these negative trends and keep open options for the future.

Dealing With Uncertainty

One apparent mystery of these breakaway territories is why they have persisted in proclaiming independence, despite minimal chances of recognition. A detailed look at life in these places suggests that, behind the headlines, the tough stance they have taken on status conceals as much as it reveals. In some of these cases at least, there is an ambition not so much for statehood as for state-like agency.

In all these territories, the provisional and temporary has become permanent—in Cyprus, for almost half a century. Like a boat that has slipped its moorings but not arrived at a new destination, a citizen of an unrecognized territory lives in permanent uncertainty. Turkish Cypriots even have their own word for this: belirsizlik. One Transdniestrian interlocutor summed up his situation with the question, “What will happen tomorrow?” He went on, “What will Moldova and Ukraine do? Will my kids’ school close, will the border close? It’s too unpredictable. I can’t predict three or five years ahead.” Talking about the current geopolitical situation where Transdniestria finds itself stuck between Russia and Europe yet connected to both, he said, “We are in the middle of Cold War 2.0 without an umbrella.”

In all these territories, the provisional and temporary has become permanent.

The aspiration to statehood can usefully be seen in this context—as seeking to minimize this uncertainty by providing citizens the certainty that comes with rules-based government. Ordinary life must continue, and some kind of statehood, recognized or not, is needed for services such as education, healthcare, a police force, traffic rules, and trash collection. In each case, a declaration of independence was not the first choice of the rebel territory.

The cases vary, of course. In Abkhazia, the rhetoric on independence and recognition is most serious. In Cyprus and Transdniestria, it is no longer a strong talking point and the current stance of declared statehood is better seen as an interim measure, a bargaining position for future negotiations. One interlocutor described her attachment to the TRNC in terms of “we were thrown off a ship, so we cling to a dinghy.” In eastern Ukraine, the debate centers on what kind of status the breakaway territories will get when they return to rule by Kyiv.

This suggests that many actors in these three de facto states aspire to rid themselves of the tag of “rogue states.” This report has shown how legitimate trade provides one route toward greater respectability and certainty. Geography is important. For ordinary Turkish Cypriots and Transdniestrians, their patron state is far removed, and an open border with European markets is a nearby blessing. Yet political will is also important, and this geographical advantage was not always available when previous leaders were in power. Moldova most benefits from the power of trade, as the Transdniestrian business community has led the drive to sidestep status issues and pursue trade with right-bank Moldova and the EU. Both Turkish Cypriots and Transdniestrians have also decided to accept the passports offered to them by the other side.

Conversely, Abkhazia’s economic isolation in the 1990s by Tbilisi (supported partially at the time by Moscow) has made it much harder for Georgians and the Abkhaz to follow the same route. Kyiv is in danger of making the same mistakes with its punitive economic measures against Crimea and non-government-controlled eastern Ukraine. The logic of the Abkhazia case suggests that these regions will seek to revive their economies by doing more business with Russia. Kyiv can also learn a great deal from the ease with which Chișinău, Nicosia, and Tbilisi (with less uptake from Abkhaz on the other side) handed out identification and other civil documents.

A More Dynamic International Response

The protracted status conflicts and the decades-long existence of de facto states put international actors, such as the EU, in a dilemma. Understandably, these actors value a strong bilateral relationship with the recognized states on a range of issues. Brussels’s relationships with Georgia and Moldova have deepened in recent years thanks to Association Agreements and free trade arrangements.

International actors also work closely with the parent states on the conflicts, but they should not forget that they have their own intrinsic interests in resolving the conflicts, and that these do not fully overlap with those of the parent states. As mediators they are committed to a fair solution that honors the concerns of both sides. As regional actors, they can see the conflicts in a broader perspective. The EU said as much, albeit briefly, in its European Neighborhood Policy review, published in 2015, declaring, “Protracted conflicts continue to hamper development in the region.”1

Actors such as the EU justifiably make a policy of nonrecognition the centerpiece of their policies in these conflict disputes. However, a wide spectrum of policy options is available within the framework of nonrecognition. If political will is present, there can be quite active engagement with nonrecognized entities. The EU provides a strong assistance program to Somaliland, for example, including for its elections. Taiwan is a member of the World Trade Organization, and the EU is its fourth-biggest trading partner. Several EU states that do not recognize Kosovo, such as Greece, maintain active political dialogue with it. These cases demonstrate the need for a typology of different kinds of nonrecognized entities and policies tailored to their specific circumstances.

International actors also work closely with the parent states on the conflicts, but they should not forget that they have their own intrinsic interests in resolving the conflicts.

In all acts of engagement, two issues worry policymakers in the parent states. The first is the fear that capacity building is state building by stealth and that investment in institutions and capacity only strengthens a de facto territory. This fear can only be addressed by a detailed and pragmatic approach. International actors have no interest in building up the capacity of security structures that can resort to force and be used against the parent state. However, it is hard to argue against extending assistance to the health or business sector. A better-educated, better-regulated, and healthier society on the other side of the conflict divide should be welcome, by any measure. If those standards and regulations are aligned with the EU rather than with Russia and Turkey, that creates more options for convergence with Georgia, Moldova, or the Republic of Cyprus in the future.

One test case for this kind of capacity building can be higher education. Much more direct assistance and engagement is needed on the ground to make a difference in students’ lives. Currently, political constraints only allow the outside world to work with students in the unrecognized territories, not directly with universities. The fact that the universities in Sukhumi and Tiraspol have “state” in their titles and receive direct budgetary support from the de facto authorities complicates matters. Yet much of the day-to-day education of young people can fairly be considered as civil society work and should hardly be controversial. The 2018 agreement between Chișinău and Tiraspol on apostolization in Chișinău of Transdniestrian diplomas sets a good precedent for movement in this direction.

Engagement with the de facto authorities presents a broader challenge. Many in the parent states strongly oppose any cooperation with them on the grounds that this legitimizes illegitimate authorities. Currently, assistance programs funded by the EU or UNDP mostly target civil society or cultural organizations, businessmen, and farmers. This avoids dealing with de facto authorities. But the programs are based on the fiction that businessmen or civil activists exist in a virtual space without a state, recognized or not, or the policies set by a de facto government. That fiction is further stretched by the fact that international actors must negotiate actively with that government to be able to operate in the territory and that they meet those same government figures at conflict negotiations.

In this strange hall of mirrors, international donors often accept the logic that to get things done in a territory they must work with a de facto government but simultaneously declare that the partner is illegitimate. Thus in its 2012 assessment of the EU assistance program to northern Cyprus, the European Court of Auditors acknowledged, “More generally, the sustainability of projects is often in doubt due to limited administrative and financial capacity of the [Turkish Cypriot] authorities and their delayed adoption of relevant ‘laws’.” In other words, EU-funded projects were not working properly because of lack of support from a de facto government, which the EU was not supporting or financing.

Similarly, in its 2018 report on human trafficking in Cyprus, the U.S. Department of State detailed how serious the problem is in the north of the island:

The “TRNC” is a destination for women from Central Asia, Eastern Europe, and Africa who are subjected to forced prostitution in nightclubs licensed and regulated by the Turkish Cypriot administration. Nightclubs provide a significant source of tax revenue for the Turkish Cypriot administration; media reports estimated nightclub owners pay between 20 and 30 million Turkish lira ($5.3 million and $7.9 million) in taxes annually. This presents a conflict of interest and a deterrent to increased political will to combat trafficking. Men and women are subjected to forced labor in industrial, construction, agriculture, domestic work, restaurant, and retail sectors. Victims of labor trafficking are controlled through debt bondage, threats of deportation, restriction of movement, and inhumane living and working conditions.2

To tackle this problem, the U.S. government made recommendations to the Turkish Cypriot authorities:

Enact “legislation” prohibiting all forms of human trafficking; screen for human trafficking victims, including in nightclubs and pubs; increase transparency in the regulation of nightclubs and promote awareness among clients and the public about force, fraud, and coercion used to compel prostitution; provide funding to NGO shelters and care services for the protection of victims; investigate, prosecute, and convict “officials” complicit in trafficking; provide alternatives to deportation for victims of trafficking; and acknowledge and take steps to address conditions of forced labor, including among domestic workers.3

The upshot is that the United States makes pragmatic recommendations, such as advocating “legislation” (in quotation marks), to a government and parliament it neither recognizes nor funds and has no leverage over. It is an awkward acknowledgment that a working relationship with de facto authorities is required to deliver results.

Rules of Engagement

Given these inconsistencies, it makes sense to look anew at international policies toward these territories and draw up more practicable rules of engagement on how outside actors should act there. Each territory is very different. In an instance where the de facto authorities exercise strong internal sovereignty and are interested in international cooperation, it is logical to deal directly with them. Updated rules of engagement would make assistance programs more effective. They would also give the outside world more leverage.

Abkhaz border Sukhumi, Abkhazia. The embankment by the Black Sea, with a poster of Abkhazia’s wartime leader Vladislav Ardzinba.

(Photo courtesy of the author.)

This engagement is most effective if there is a physical presence on the ground. It is hard to influence a government and make policy recommendations from afar. Thus, the EU and other international organizations should establish some kind of liaison office in the unrecognized territories.

Ideas such as these are generally unpopular in the parent states and seen as rewarding separatism. It is important to stress that this engagement is not unconditional. It comes within a robust framework of nonrecognition and is designed to increase the leverage of international actors such as the EU. Engagement with a party who wants more respectability is also a two-way street. More international assistance can be provided on a give-and-take principle, contingent on cooperation with the de facto authorities over the shadier aspects of life in the territories. That means a representative on the ground could ask for cooperation on issues such as preventing human trafficking, handing over criminal suspects, and protecting minorities such as the Georgians in the Gali region in Abkhazia.

It is important to stress that this engagement is not unconditional. It comes within a robust framework of nonrecognition and is designed to increase the leverage of international actors such as the EU.

This combination of rewards and responsibility may lead some de facto states to reject an offer of greater international involvement. The EU, for example, and its message of nonrecognition is not always welcome in Abkhazia and Transdniestria. Such an offer is at least a pledge of seriousness. It sends a message that leaving the inhabitants of these territories in long-term limbo is neither just nor helpful, that it does not contribute to the resolution of the conflicts that still ruin thousands of lives.

International actors should consider implementing the following policy recommendations:

  1. Devise more sophisticated rules of engagement for de facto territories within a framework of nonrecognition, based on their situation and openness to international cooperation.
  2. Where appropriate, be prepared to engage more directly with de facto authorities on a give-and-take principle, offering more assistance in return for cooperation on issues of international concern, such as criminality, trafficking, and minority rights.
  3. Look to establish a presence on the ground with representatives and status-neutral liaison offices to work more efficiently with people inside the territories.
  4. Make higher education, including cooperation with higher education institutions, a priority.
  5. (For the EU) In Abkhazia, work to reinvigorate the Non-Recognition and Engagement Policy by reviving proposals on mobility, trade, and education.
  6. (For the EU) In Transdniestria, extend the economic assistance program for implementation of the Moldova DCFTA to the region.
  7. (For the EU) In northern Cyprus, work to implement the three regulations unveiled in 2004 to promote development of the north of the island.
  8. In northern Cyprus, start a much more ambitious program, in partnership with the de facto authorities and in coordination with the government of the Republic of Cyprus, to prepare the territory for the EU acquis, regardless of what happens in the negotiating process.
  9. In eastern Ukraine, seek to keep economic linkages open with the non-government-controlled territories and lift the blockade; in addition, lobby for simplified procedures for giving Ukrainians civil documents in non-government-controlled territories.


Support for the writing of this report came from Sweden’s Ministry for Foreign Affairs and the Robert Bosch Stiftung.

I am very grateful for comments from Rebecca Bryant, Bruno Coppieters, Magdalena Grono, William Hill, Balázs Jarábik, James Ker-Lindsay, Donnacha Ó Beacháin, Natalia Shapovalova, and Tomáš Valášek. Heartfelt thanks go to Carnegie colleagues in Brussels and Washington for their help with the project and publication.


1 “Joint Communication to the European Parliament, the Council, the European Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions,” European Commission, November 18, 2015,

2 “Cyprus: Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons,” accessed October 31, 2018,

3 Ibid.