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Sep 10, 2008

War over South Ossetia and Abkhazia has brought new attention to many non-state states around the world.

By Cameron McWhirter

Russia’s invasion of Georgia—and the American and European reactions—has raised the specter of a new Cold War. The media continues to grapple with what to call the two obscure regions, South Ossetia and Abkhazia, over which Russia and Georgia are fighting their mini-war. Commentators and reporters have used awkward shorthand like “breakaway regions” and “separatist enclaves.”
Just call them phantom states.
These independent governments have been operating as de facto states for years. They have their own flags, armies and police. They have their own national anthems and license plates. Abkhazia even issues its own money. They have post offices, border checkpoints and development agencies. They collect taxes and issue visas. They have their own state television and radio stations.
From Eastern Europe to far Asia, de facto governments like these—labeled by some experts as “parastates” or “statelets”—have developed into political and militaristic problems for the international community.
After the end of World War II and especially since the break up of the Soviet Union, the number of parastates has mushroomed around the globe, particularly in regions suffering from political instability. Postcolonial Africa has been a rich source of non-state states, as ethnic groups challenge borders drawn long ago by Europeans.
How many de facto states are there? According to Professor Scott Pegg of Indiana University, over the last couple of decades there has tended to be five to 15 at any one time. Today, he says, there are seven that are widely agreed upon, including Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Transdniestra, Nagorno-Karabakh, Tamil Eelam, Northern Cyprus and Somiland. However, there may be many more.

Watch two video interviews with Professor Scott Pegg and Professor Steven Roper on why the world should pay attention to these parastates.

The Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization (UNPO) has 58 members, up from the original 15 members who joined in 1991, but most do not have the infrastructures of de facto states.
At a meeting in Brussels in May, Marino Busdachin, UNPO’s general secretary, said the world needs to set up a framework to include these governments, consolidate world stability, promote global commerce and distribute humanitarian aid to the troubled regions.

Read more about the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization in our second-floor story.

These governments also cause huge problems for their residents. They have to negotiate diplomatic, financial and practical problems not faced by those from recognized countries. Sending mail, remitting money, traveling, let alone immigration, become everyday issues.
“On the map of the world, de facto states can be seen as a sort of ‘no man’s land,’” Busdachin said in his opening remarks in Brussels, adding that “keeping the de facto state in this kind of limbo is not fair and is not reasonable.”
For diplomatic reasons, many of these governments have been given the cold shoulder on the international stage, even though they collectively govern millions of people and millions of square miles. Whether completely unrecognized or only recognized by one nation or a few, these governments are perpetual sources of international instability. Taiwan is a poster child for non-recognition. Also known as the Republic of China (not to be confused with the People’s Republic of China), this island “nation” has 22 million people and trading partners all over—but is only recognized by less than two dozen countries.
The rest of the global community has chosen close relations with China—which insists that Taiwan is no more than another one of its provinces—over granting the island legitimacy as its own state.  The lack of international recognition poses problems for governments who are trying to tighten their borders to curtail international terrorism and smuggling. Michael Beck, assistant director of the University of Georgia’s Center for International Trade and Security, has called these unrecognized states the world’s “gray zone problem.”
The real problem, of course, comes when gray zone turns to hot zone. Then, says Indiana University’s Scott Pegg, “one of these places winds up getting its 15 minutes of fame.”

Recognizing the Unrecognized: Browse through the world map of our interactive graphic to find out the details about various parastates, and learn about each of them from Barry Bartman, a professor at the University of Prince Edward Island.

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