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What Does It Mean To Be Unrecognised And Unrepresented?8 min read

 In Analysis, Caucasus, Eastern Europe, Politics
Since the early 1990s, an interesting phenomenon has emerged in Eastern Europe and the Caucasus – some states that, despite having their own government and state apparatus, lack international recognition. Even today, the struggle of these unrecognised states remains widely unknown. While these states have been the focus of much academic study, their very existence is often neglected by both the international community and societies in the West. In parallel, there exist in Eastern Europe and the Caucasus distinct peoples who have neither acquired recognised statehood nor any significant representation within their own countries – they are the so-called unrepresented peoples.

Today, the territory of the former Soviet Union in Eastern Europe and the Caucasus is somewhat unique for its relatively high concentration of unrecognised states and unrepresented peoples. Each of them has varying degrees of independence and autonomy. Some have de facto statehood (such as the breakaway territories of Abkhazia and Nagorno-Karabakh, which have developed state apparatus and enjoy some international recognition), whereas others are distinct peoples with little to no representation or territorial autonomy (such as the Crimean Tatars and the Lezghin people of Dagestan and Azerbaijan). Although different, these peoples seem to have one common goal – self-determination.    

They [unrepresented peoples] are denied equal representation in the institutions of national or international governance. As a consequence, their opportunity to participate on the national or international stage is limited, and they struggle to fully realize their rights to civil and political participation and to control their economic, social and cultural development. In many cases, they are subject to the worst forms of violence and repression.

 Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization (UNPO)

But why is this region such a hotspot of unrecognised states and unrepresented peoples? The answer lies in the collapse of the Soviet Union. The USSR was a vast, multinational empire with 15 constituent republics and numerous other sub-national entities with varying degrees of autonomy. While this complex system remained stable throughout most of the Soviet period (1922-1991), towards the late 1980s ethnic nationalism developed, leading many peoples to seek their own independence. 

Some peoples were successful in their quest for autonomy, as they managed to establish themselves as internationally-recognised states immediately after the dissolution of the USSR (such as Ukraine, Georgia and Azerbaijan). But within these newly-established states were other peoples who were not as successful in their quest for autonomy. Following the collapse of the USSR, they violently broke away from the new country to which they belonged and declared themselves independent. Yet, the international community refused to recognise them as independent states. To this day, these peoples live in de facto states that lack international recognition. One reason behind this is that during the wave of international recognition that followed the fall of the Soviet Union, the international community used the pre-independence internal republic borders as a blueprint for the newly independent states. As a result, entities like Abkhazia and Nagorno-Karabakh were internationally recognised as belonging to Georgia and Azerbaijan respectively. 

Unrecognised states

The benefits of recognised statehood are numerous and often taken for granted – countries have access to various forms of international funding, for example from the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF); their citizens can travel, assured that their passports will be accepted in another country; and they have a voice at international forums like the United Nations (UN), which can be an opportunity to influence international outcomes in their favour. Unrecognised states, on the other hand, are isolated internationally and can be forced to rely upon a patron state which offers them (their client) all kinds of help in exchange for their allegiance. This dependency on a patron-client relationship can lead to the client state being used as a political tool by its patron.

One key issue facing most unrecognised states is the restriction on movement imposed on their people. Because their de facto nationality is not recognised internationally, their locally-issued passports or travel documents are not considered valid for travel or entry into another country. The only way for them to travel abroad is to receive a passport from a neighbouring country, or to travel to the few countries that do recognise them. It happens that some people living in de facto states are entitled to other citizenships. Abkhazians, for instance, are entitled to Georgian citizenship. However, many Abkhazians do not recognise Georgian sovereignty over Abkhazia and thus prefer to travel with a largely-unrecognised Abkhazian passport. Those who choose not to accept another citizenship are therefore severely hindered in their mobility and do not enjoy the relative freedom of movement taken for granted by citizens of recognised states. This problem leaves unrecognised states open to even greater influence from their patron state.

Russia, for example, has been quick to take advantage of the strategic benefits that having Abkhazia as its client presents. Because Abkhazian passports are not valid for travel, and because most Abkhazians do not want Georgian citizenship, many look to acquire Russian citizenship, which Russia is only too willing to grant.  This arrangement benefits Russia, as the more Abkhazians become Russian citizens, the greater justification Russia has in its patronage over Abkhazia, as it sees itself protecting Russian citizens outside its territory – the so-called ‘responsibility to protect’. This process is what can be called passportization, the justification for which, according to Emil Aslan Souleimanov and his colleagues, has been Vladimir Putin’s “idea of re-establishing Russia’s political, economic and cultural superiority” over its neighbours. This process of passportization, in the case of Abkhazia, has also allowed Russia to instrumentalise its client de facto state against Georgia, since it serves to weaken Georgian claims over the territory.

Thus, in spite of the positive impact of allowing Abkhazian residents a citizenship that gives them somewhat more freedom, the overall process has fuelled tensions with Georgia. This is advantageous to Russia in the meantime, but unsustainable in the long term. For Georgia, the issue stalls progress in its goals of Western integration, including EU and NATO membership. Sadly, while the parties involved remain locked in a struggle that frustrates progress in the region, it is the unrecognised peoples who suffer most.

Unrepresented peoples

In addition to unrecognised states, there also exists a number of unrepresented peoples – that is, distinct ethnic and linguistic groups that enjoy little or no representation both internationally and domestically. Some examples of these include the Crimean Tatars and the Lezghin people in Dagestan and Azerbaijan. These peoples struggle even more for self-determination, since they do not have their own autonomous territory. They find themselves even more vulnerable and are often at best ignored, or worse persecuted.

In Russian-occupied Crimea, the Crimean Tatar people – a Turkic Muslim people native to Crimea, where they now constitute around 11% of the population – have been struggling for autonomy. Since the Russian annexation in 2014, the Tatars have experienced ever-increasing restrictions on their freedoms. Their Muslim identity has allowed Russian authorities to justify harassment against them in the name of counterterrorism and extremism, while more and more Tatar cultural institutions are being closed. The plight of the Tatars is, unfortunately, not unique. 

Other unrepresented peoples face yet another challenge – territory. Many of them find themselves straddling international borders, which can divide their communities and lead to their absorption by the larger majority of the state they find themselves in. A good example of this can be seen in the case of the Lezghin, a people native to the western Caucasus, whose community is cut in two by the international border between Russia and Azerbaijan, on both sides of which there are sizable Lezghin populations. 

On the Russian side, the Lezghins are part of the multi-ethnic Republic of Dagestan, where they constitute one of 13 major ethnic groups, representing 13.3% of the population (according to the 2010 estimate). In recent years, however, the largest ethnic group – the Avars – has been promoting an Avar-centric interpretation of the republic’s history. As a result, discrimination against the Lezghin minority has increased, as they have been further marginalised and forced out of political space. Meanwhile, in Azerbaijan, the Lezghins have suffered from the authorities’ attempts to create a mono-ethnic state. These attempts have forced many Lezghins to abandon their identity and become Azerbaijani. As such, Lezghin culture and language are extremely vulnerable in Azerbaijan. Cut off by international borders, the case of the Lezghins, too, is not unique.

International boundaries drawn on the basis of territorial conquests, as opposed to well-thought-out lines separating distinct nations, are not rare occurrences in the international community. Unfortunately, they have resulted in many cases of peoples being divided by international borders and becoming smaller minorities in much larger states. 

Going forward

Unrecognised states and unrepresented peoples in Eastern Europe and around the world are becoming more widespread phenomena as more peoples become nationally self-aware and develop aspirations of self-determination. Yet, one key issue appears to plague the international system: there are only two statuses ascribed to nations – recognised and unrecognised. This binary, whereby all peoples strive to join the club of recognised states and claim their seat at the UN, is not reflective of the true diversity of peoples and leads to the exclusion of valuable voices from the international community. Moreover, although many peoples enjoy significant autonomy, such as those living in the Faroe Islands of Denmark or South Tyrol in Italy, many unrepresented peoples elsewhere in the world can only hope that one day they may finally have their voices heard within their own country, let alone internationally. For the time being, unrepresented peoples must rely on other actors, such as NGOs or patron states, to defend their cause and advocate on their behalf internationally. 

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