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Diplomacy of Limbo World

Diplomacy_of_Quasi_Countries_bOne of the basic things a diplomat needs to know is the answer to this question: how many countries are in the world?

It turns out not to be straightforward. The United Nations has 192 members. Then there is Vatican City. But there are many other territories whose existence and status are contested. In these places life goes on – people live there, proud of their local roots and determined to make the best of a tricky situation. And they and their leaders may become adept at creating difficulties for the wider international community precisely because they are not recognised.

A recent powerful article by Graeme Wood in Foreign Policy looked in depth at this phenomenon and called it ‘Limbo World’. He described the situation as a ‘mess waiting to happen’ – too many quasi-countries asserting their distinctiveness, acting like real countries then hoping to become one.

What is happening here? Run a Google search for ‘end of the nation state’ and 62 million links appear, compared with a piffling 42 million links for ‘rise of the nation state’. All sorts of books and academic tracts have been written arguing that in today’s busy networked world those fuddy-duddy Westphalian ideas of both nations and states are dissolving.

Yet the odd thing is that life is moving in a different direction. Since 1990, no fewer than 33 new countries have emerged and joined the UN. Others are in the queue. Kosovo and the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) are two countries that have achieved significant but not yet decisive international recognition – more than 60 states recognise Kosovo and more than 80 the SADR, but neither is yet close to full UN membership.

Palestine in some respects is doing better, but as Wikipedia puts it cryptically: ‘The declared State of Palestine is recognised by more than 100 countries, though with varying territorial borders, or even none.’

Then there are territories claiming to be independent new countries but which have no serious prospect of achieving broad international recognition. Some are legacy problems of the former Soviet Union. Abkhazia and South Ossetia (prised away from Georgia by a Russian powerplay in 2008) both claim to be independent but are recognised only by an underwhelming group of real states (Russia, Nicaragua, Venezuela and Nauru) as well as by each other. Transdnistria and Nagorno-Karabakh have a de facto independent existence for many purposes but are recognised as independent by no-one else.

We also have polities or areas within recognised states which one day might try to break free to belong to somewhere else or become independent – Scotland, Quebec, Republika Srpska, Chechnya, Tartarstan, Northern Kosovo and numerous examples in Africa.

Not to forget identifiable ethno-national communities which straddle existing borders and hanker after coming together in one country at long last – see the hugely complex Kurdish Question. And nationalist demands from Mexican groups claiming that California belongs to Mexico, not to the USA.

In short, most of the world is organised in neat, tidy state categories. But by no means everywhere. This creates policy problems for diplomats. Does an official visit by a foreign diplomat to one of these territories to meet their leaders somehow set a small precedent for future creeping implicit recognition? The answer is yes. But only if you allow it to be presented that way.

This came up in my own career a couple of times. In South Africa at the end of the apartheid period, we in the Pretoria Embassy had to work out how best to deal with the various ‘independent homelands’, recognised by South Africa but by no-one else. We decided that since the UK did not recognise these areas as independent, we as diplomats accredited to South Africa had no reason not to go there and tell their leaders so. Which I did, on behalf of the Embassy. They were pretty relaxed about it.

Later, in post-conflict Bosnia, a different sort of recognition arose. Did HM Government ‘recognise’ Republika Srpska, one of the two Entities created at Dayton? The question was put to me in 1997 on a live TV interview in the Republika Srpska micro-bastion of Pale. What was British policy towards Republika Srpska? I wittily replied that we had no policy at all towards Republika Srpska – our policy was aimed at the state of Bosnia and Herzegovina as a whole. The interviewer scowled. Back in Sarajevo I won some loud cheers.

So some places stay mainly unrecognised by mainstream international opinion. That reduces (sometimes towards zero) their ability to deal fully and normally with global processes. States which decide not to recognise them want their point of view to prevail, and battle to keep the would-be new state out of all international fora.

Thus the populations of the territories concerned become, in effect, hostages of the rival ambitions of other bigger powers. They probably care little – if at all – about the fate of the territory concerned, but do care hugely about the wider precedent they think it sets, and about their own reputation for consistency. Having pitched their policy tent in one place (for example, against recognition), it looks weak to move it somewhere else. Hence recognition quarrels can drag on indefinitely.

Two familiar examples. Northern Cyprus is recognised only by Turkey, but the problems it has created on a fairly small island have frustrated diplomats for decades. Taiwan is recognised by some 23 states. It is a huge success by any normal global standards, but the very fact of its existence has been creating strategic tensions between China and the US since World War Two. And, unlike Cyprus, where EU processes are now helping Greece and Turkey resolve their differences, there is no end in sight for the Taiwan Question.

Kosovo, likewise, is an intriguing case, since it has achieved full recognition from many major countries, including most European Union members. But it also has even more countries (from Russia and China to India and Brazil) either firmly opposed to recognition or keeping their options open.

This makes it hard work for Kosovo to join the full range of international activities – so Kosovo is not a member of the European Broadcasting Union and, alas, cannot take part in the Eurovision Song Concert. Kosovo is unable to play even friendly football matches with other countries’ teams for it does not meet FIFA membership requirements: only ‘an independent state recognised by the international community’ may be admitted. In other areas, though, Kosovo is making strong headway – in 2009, it joined the World Bank and associated institutions.

The advantage of full membership of the international community is that it tends to increase standards of good order and transparency all round. Membership of all those organisations, official and private, brings obligations and expectations. The corollary is that failure to achieve normal membership and external contacts can open the way to abnormal, insalubrious elements moving in.

Take Transdnistria, a complex territory in Europe whose murky status today can be traced back to the machinations of the even more murky Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of 1939 – a classic example of how one cynical international move creates grim ripples for decades thereafter. A 2004 International Crisis Group report described it as a ‘one-stop shop for criminal goods and services of every possible description’, including human trafficking, money laundering and manufacture of weapons without serial numbers.

What to do about the messy problems Transdnistria exports into Europe? The politics of the situation make it hard for European countries to engage with the Transdnistria leadership other than on Transdnistrian terms, thereby appearing to give them a legitimacy they very richly do not deserve. Yet without engaging, the situation stagnates, much to the glee of those making illicit money from it.

The current way forward is to try to work out ways to inject higher European standards into Transdnistria implicitly rather than explicitly, by talking to the Transdnistrians about different practical/technical problems (such as railways and customs issues) which have the effect of wooing Transdnistria with real-life advantages but on EU terms. A prosaic, undramatic – even boring – long-term policy. But has anyone any better ideas?


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