Table of Contents


Abkhazia, Transdniestria, and northern Cyprus, three unrecognized statelets in Europe that arose during conflicts in the twentieth century, have endured for decades. Despite many problems, they are self-governing and stable, and they show no signs of collapsing. They exercise internal sovereignty, even as they have no prospect of getting international recognition. This qualifies them as de facto states.

While these territories still have problems of poor regulation and impunity from international justice, in many other regards, they seek respectability and try to cleave to European norms. This distinguishes them from the breakaway territories in eastern Ukraine. Concerns in the recognized states that greater engagement will lead to “creeping recognition” of the territories is not borne out by legal opinion, which concludes that recognition is a conscious act and cannot be conferred by accident.

Better engagement with breakaway territories is an overlooked resource in conflict resolution. If carried out in a clearsighted and intelligent manner, it should benefit all sides.

Better engagement with breakaway territories such as these is an overlooked resource in conflict resolution. If carried out in a clear-sighted and intelligent manner, it should benefit all sides. It should give citizens of the de facto states greater opportunities to be integrated into the world. It should benefit the recognized states who generally have a de jure claim over the territories (the “parent states”) by building bridges across the conflict divide. It should have a wider benefit by ensuring that these places are more compliant with international norms.


Abkhazia is in a peculiar international situation, being both stable and internationally isolated. Russia’s recognition of Abkhazia (and South Ossetia) in 2008 following its war with Georgia gave the territory more security and resources but has also led to its de facto integration with Russia and reduced international engagement.

Thomas de Waal
De Waal is a senior fellow with Carnegie Europe, specializing in Eastern Europe and the Caucasus region.
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In 2009, the EU adopted a Non-Recognition and Engagement Policy (NREP) for Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Its two elements were designed to be mutually reinforcing, reassuring Georgia of the EU’s support for its territorial integrity while promoting enhanced engagement with Abkhazia. Yet the policy suffers from a lack of visibility while the EU’s assistance program to Abkhazia has been dwarfed by much greater Russian support. As the EU-Georgia bilateral relationship has blossomed, Abkhazia has fallen down the agenda in Brussels.

As an international presence in Abkhazia has fallen away, some now talk of the territory’s self-isolation. But there are still some opportunities to explore engagement especially with regard to trade.


The dispute over Transdniestria is more benign than its counterparts. It lacks an ethnic dimension and constitutes more a clash of elites. There are plenty of people-to-people contacts and a high level of de facto integration between the two sides across the Dniester River. Russia also plays a different role. While supporting Transdniestria financially and militarily, it does not recognize the territory as independent.

Incremental progress has been made since 2016, with several confidence-building measures being adopted thanks to mediation by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. Transdniestria also looks to Europe for trade, having entered the EU’s Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area (DCFTA) for Moldova.

There is a limited international presence on the ground in Transdniestria, and people there are still suspicious of the EU and the West in general. However, an EU economic assistance program would be welcomed by the business community, and international actors can offer more direct support to the higher education and health sectors.

Northern Cyprus

Northern Cyprus is more open to the outside world than the other de facto states, receiving tens of thousands of foreign tourists and students each year. Turkish Cypriots participate in the global marketplace via Turkey. Yet, relations with the patron in Ankara are complicated. Turkish Cypriots are entitled to be EU citizens, and at least 100,000 of them have taken Republic of Cyprus EU passports. EU engagement with the de facto authorities is more limited. Three regulations were adopted in 2004 with the express aim to end the Turkish Cypriot community’s isolation. Yet, due to objections from the Greek Cypriot side, these have only been partially implemented, as have other confidence-building initiatives.

Better engagement in northern Cyprus requires greater cooperation with the de facto authorities. The EU can expand funding and assistance in the 2004 regulations to prepare the northern part of the island for the acquis communautaire.

Eastern Ukraine

In 2014, two breakaway territories formed in eastern Ukraine with Russian military assistance. The Donetsk People’s Republic and Lugansk People’s Republic are very different from the three other case studies, but there some important parallels.

Ukraine’s breakaway territories are much larger than the other territories in this report. They are criminalized and hostile to international engagement. The de facto leaders lack authority, and Moscow controls domestic affairs directly. However, as in the other disputes, separation is creating new realities and deepening alienation from Kyiv. A blockade imposed by the Ukrainian government in 2017 has cut economic links. Authorities on the rebel-controlled side have taken over businesses there.

There is still a good chance for the territories to be reintegrated into Ukraine, but there is also a danger in inaction. More active humanitarian links, improved trade ties, and strengthened people-to-people contacts will help facilitate this process.


The real goals of the de facto states are probably more modest than their declared ambitions. Most aspire less to formal independence and more to self-government within an international framework.

Cooperation with de facto authorities is controversial but inevitable. Its scope can be defined by developing new rules of engagement.

International actors must coordinate closely with the governments in parent states, but they also have their own intrinsic interests in resolving the conflicts. They can adopt policies from a large toolkit within a framework of nonrecognition. Engagement can be broadened in unrecognized states on a case-by-case basis to more sectors, such as education and healthcare. Cooperation with de facto authorities is controversial but inevitable. Its scope can be defined by developing new rules of engagement.

Additionally, a presence on the ground in the form of liaison offices would increase international leverage in these territories. A stronger presence could be used both to deliver more assistance and to demand commitments from the de facto authorities in the shape of cooperation on legal and criminal issues.