Analysis, book reviews and photography from Abkhazia and the wider Caucasus — updates when time permits

Book review: The Caucasus by Thomas de Waal

the caucasus (de waal) - coverThe Caucasus — an introduction

Thomas de Waal

Oxford University Press, New York
August 2010
272 pages
ISBN: 978-0-1953-9976-9

It is always possible to find fault with a book if only one makes an effort. In the case of The Caucasus, Thomas de Waal’s new book, the most serious issue thus revealed is an off-hand remark about Abkhazia’s 2004 Presidential election. The author states that this “did not involve its Georgian population”, which is inaccurate, because unlike in the later elections of 2009 and 2011, the Georgian residents of the Gali District actually did participate. The reason why this is even worth bringing up here is that in the ensuing post-election crisis, the question whether their participation — without holding Abkhazian citizenship — was constitutional constituted the principal legal challenge against the narrow victory of opposition candidate Sergei Bagapsh. Moreover, it is probably not an exageration to say that he would not have won without the Georgian vote.

If pressed further, one quickly enters the realm of the trivial, which to bring up would not do The Caucasus justice. In fact, throughout the book, Thomas de Waal’s extensive knowledge of the region is apparent as he lays connections and interjects delightful bits of extra information, like the wonderful anecdote that one member of the Georgian Mkhedrioni described it as a ‘paramilitary charity organisation’.

The book can be said to consist of two parts. The first three chapters give a very good overview of the history of the South Caucasus — the first chapter is devoted to the pre-Russian period and the development of the regions’ major religions and nations, the second to the period that the South Caucasus formed part of the Russian Empire and the third to the Soviet period. The second part of the book covers political developments since the unravelling of the Soviet Union, with two chapters on Georgia and its conflicts with South Ossetia and Abkhazia, a chapter covering Armenia, Azerbaijan and the Nagorno Karabakh conflict and a chapter about Energy politics.

Specific topics as diverse as wine, Rustaveli Avenue and Baku Jazz are fleshed out in dedicated sections throughout the main text. Controversial subjects like the Armenian Genocide, Stalin and the August 2008 War are treated deftly and with a lot of nuance. Furthermore, De Waal demonstrates that after the death of Stalin, the Soviet Union was not the totalitarian, uniform dictatorship it is commonly believed to have been, as street protests were not uncommon and local governments did in fact determine local policy, with nationalism playing a significant role — historians propagated their nation’s version of history and thousands of people migrated — Armenians from Tbilisi to Armenia, Azeri from Armenia to Azerbaijan.

Overall, there are only two minor things left to remark, which Thomas de Waal may have had no control over. Firstly, the title, which is too general (and incidentally, exactly identical — subtitle included — to the October 2009 book by Frederik Coene reviewed earlier), because Thomas de Waal has limited himself to the history and the politics of the South Caucasus — a legitimate choice in itself. Even if simplicity was the primary aim behind the title, one could have simply chosen The South Caucasus — An Introduction.

Secondly, the book contains a number of small editorial mistakes. Frankly, this comes off as unprofessional for what is a major publication. Curiously, the mistakes start to appear only in the fourth chapter, as if error-checking had stopped there.

Neither of these issues should distract from the fact that The Caucasus is a wonderful book, which confirms Thomas de Waal’s stature as a leading expert on the region.

Filed under: Abkhazia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Book reviews, Georgia, Nagorno Karabakh, Russia, South Ossetia, Wider Region, , , , ,

Photography: Shushi

Despite the presence of so many ruins, Shushi is — at least to a visitor from outside — a very peaceful town. Free standing walls are covered by swathes of blackberries.

The contrast between the renovated cathedral and the ruins of the remaining mosques is striking. At least authorities are safeguarding the structures against complete collapse. Preserving and restoring mosques in Nagorno Karabakh and churches in Azerbaijan is a form of cooperation that all sides should agree on — even while political negotiations remain fruitless.

The photos are from July 2010, the situation may have changed in the meantime.

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Filed under: Nagorno Karabakh, Photography

Book review: The Post-Soviet Wars by Christoph Zürcher

The Post-Soviet Wars — Rebellion, Ethnic Conflict, and Nationhood in the Caucasus

Christoph Zürcher

New York University Press, New York
November 2007
302 pages
ISBN: 978-0-8147-9709-9

Despite its general title, The Post-Soviet Wars covers only the major wars that took place in the Caucasus: the Karabakh war, the two Russo-Chechen wars, the 1991–1992 Georgian-South Ossetian war, the Georgian civil war and the 1992–1993 Georgian-Abkhazian war.

In the Preface, Zürcher thanks Graham Stack and Erica Richardson respectively for translating a previous version of the book into English and for editing the style and language. The result could easily have been messy, but is actually eminently readable. There remain only a number of typos (especially with dates) and some inconsistencies (the table on pages 28–31, the repeated introduction of a cease-fire in three consecutive sentences on page 126, and the claim that Shamil Basayev received his first combat experience in Abkhazia, whereas he participated in the Karabakh war before that). These are regrettable, but don’t distract from the pleasant reading experience.

The book starts with an overview of the history of the Caucasus. At times, this is very good, at times, less so. Thus, it glosses over the entire North-Western theatre of the 19th Century Caucasian war, stating that “the epic struggles in the North Caucasus through the 19th century […] took place in the east” and “in 1859, the wars in the North Caucasus ended”, whereas at that point, fighting in the North-West had yet to reach its climax with the mass expulsion of Circassians, Ubykh and Abkhaz in the period 1860–1867, which is only hinted at in the text.

Perhaps of more concern for the rest of the book, the characterisation of the formation of the Soviet federal framework also leaves a lot to be desired. Most vexing is the claim that in all South Caucasian union republics, autonomous territories were instituted “as counterweights to any possible nationalist politics”. This is a claim made all to often all too easily by those who wish to somehow frame the Soviet Union for pre-engineering the conflicts of the early 1990s. As such, it needs to be backed up by actual evidence. (Moreover, it is also inaccurate because the Armenian SSR did not contain any autonomous territories.) The running text also does not mention Abkhazia’s initial, peculiar, status as a treaty-SSR, nor the Transcaucasian SFSR. Lastly, in this chapter, and in general throughout the book, Zürcher appears to exaggerate the ‘positive discrimination’ enjoyed by the titular nationalities in the autonomous territories. While a case can be made that this applied in Abkhazia (after 1953) and Adygea (not discussed in the book), it cannot for Nagorno Karabakh and South Ossetia and certainly not for Chechnya, where — as Zürcher himself points out — Chechens were systematically kept from power.

The core of the book is formed by three chapters (the wars involving Georgia are grouped together) in which Zürcher gives succinct but sharp analyses of how the conflicts unfolded and how one of the parties managed to gain the upper hand. That these overviews are not overly detailed and focus mostly on the early stages is due to the fact that Zürcher’s primary goal is not description but explanation. Taking recent insights from quantitive conflict theory as his starting point, he aims to determine whether they apply in the cases at hand and whether these conflicts can provide new insights for conflict theory. To further this end, Zürcher also looks at two territories where war was avoided, Dagestan and Adjara.

Zürcher has many sensible things to say about the causation of conflict, and he successfully demonstrates that one has to take into account exactly how a conflict unfolds to determine whether a certain factor contributed to it. For instance, Zürcher demonstrates that the presence of resources did not play a decisive role. Azerbaijan and Chechnya both possess oil reserves and various diasporas and neighboring kin people can be viewed as an economic resource, but while these did perhaps prolong war, they did not cause it.

However, other aspects of Zürcher’s analysis raise more questions. Notably, some of his claims are undercut by insights presented elsewhere in the text. Since analysis of the causes of the conflicts is Zürcher’s ultimate aim, the rest of this review will address these issues in some greater detail.

Evaluating another of the risk-factors established by quantitive research, Zürcher remarks that the Caucasus was not a particularly underdeveloped place in 1990, neither in a worldwide nor in a Soviet context. However, in each of his analyses of the individual conflicts, the dramatically reduced recruitment cost of fighters due to the economic collapse of the Soviet Union at the time of its break-up plays a crucial role to explain the proliferation of armed formations, which does seem to lend credence to the view that economic hardship makes war more likely.

Zürcher also argues that somewhat counter-intuitively, the Caucasian conflicts do not support a third risk-factor, mountainous terrain. In Chechnya, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, the principle battles were fought in the plains, and while mountainous terrain may have prolonged the war in Chechnya, it cannot be said to have caused it. But while these cases are convincing, the case of Nagorno Karabakh is less clear. Zürcher points out that Armenian ‘rebels’ there were actually at a disadvantage because Azeri forces held the high ground in the beginning of the war. But in his description of the escalation of violence in Nagorno Karabakh, an important role is reserved for the failure of Soviet troops to bring under control Armenian and Azeri armed formations. Mountainous terrain may very well have played an important role in this.

Another claim commonly made in the literature is that war is caused by ‘a history of wrongs suffered’. Here too, Zürcher’s analysis is inconsistent. In the cases of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, he states that this does not explain the conflicts, claiming that appeals to past injustices were only invoked to support a cause already awakened by other concerns — the fear of demographic domination and loss of control over economic resources. However, it remains unclear how he makes the decision that these are the primary causes. Zürcher suggests that there was no political disagreement between Abkhaz and Georgians before Glasnost, but at the same time admits that Abkhaz had never accepted their incorporation into the Georgian SSR, sending out appeals to Moscow on a semi-permanent basis. His rejection of ‘wrongs suffered’ in the case of Chechnya receives even less explanation, despite the fact that it seems obvious that this played a big role in Chechnya’s desire to become independent. Conversely, in the case of Nagorno Karabakh, Zürcher admits that it is hard to deny that past injustices were one of the causes for the conflict. Zürcher gives no reason for this difference, but it may be related to the fact that he barely mentions the conflicts between Georgia and Abkhazia and South Ossetia in the period 1917–1921, the incorporation of Abkhazia into the Georgian SSR in 1931 and the Georgification of Abkhazia under Beria and Stalin.

The one risk-factor put forward by quantitive conflict research that Zürcher does embrace is state instability, which in the cases at hand was caused by the collapse of the communist system. However, given that this applied throughout the Soviet Union, but most places were spared war, Zürcher rightly reasons that one has to investigate in detail how state instability contributed to the outbreak of war. One very useful variable in this respect is the relationship between nationalists and nomenklatura during the transition from communism. Territories where nationalists did not pose a great challenge to the nomenklatura (Central Asia, Dagestan) or where nationalists managed to co-opt the Soviet apparatus (Baltic states, Armenia) maintained far greater stability than territories where nationalists broke radically with existing institutions (Georgia, Azerbaijan and Chechnya). In particular, the failure of the Georgian government to control its armed formations directly led to the war with Abkhazia. (Although it is a shame that Zürcher does not discuss Doku Zavgayev, who in 1989 became the first Chechen First Secretary of the Communist Party of the Chechen-Ingush ASSR, had a hand in the Russian invasion of Chechnya and then became Russia’s first counter-President of Chechnya. He is now the Russian ambassador to Slovenia.)

Zürcher also blames Soviet ethnofederalism for the Georgian wars, pointing out that Armenians and Azeris, who had no autonomous territory, made no attempt to secede from Georgia despite actually being more numerous than Ossetians and Abkhaz. But correlation is not causation, and there is a plausible alternative explanation. The existence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as distinct administrative units in the Soviet Union is a direct consequence of their political ambitions in the period 1917–1921. This same ambition then may have meant Abkhazia and South Ossetia were not willing to join an independent Georgian state in 1991.

In fact, even the correlation does not hold — Zürcher’s incomplete sample of post-Soviet wars leads to oversimplification. The cases of Nistria and Gagauzia in the Moldovan SSR show that administrative status in the Soviet Union was not a necessary condition for territories to declare independence when it dissolved.

And even if one does want to make the point that their administrative status was of crucial importance to Abkhazia and South Ossetia, blaming this situation on Soviet ethnofederalism suggests that leaving Abkhaz and Ossetians without an administrative territory was a historical plausible alternative, let alone the only alternative. This is doubtful at best, especially if one considers that Abkhazia at first enjoyed union republic status.

Finally, while Armenians and Azeris may have been more happy to become part of an independent Georgian state than were Abkhaz and Ossetians, the flat claim that “Armenians and Azerbaijanis living in Georgia did not mobilize, and […] demonstrated no separatist tendencies” is not true.

While Zürcher critically evaluates the real explanatory power of the factors singled out by quantitative research as making war more likely, there are two inherent problems he fails to fully acknowledge. Firstly, if a war takes place between two territories, then where do we evaluate the presence of risk-factors? For the Nagorno Karabakh conflict, do we look at Nagorno Karabakh, Armenia, Azerbaijan or all three? And if the latter, what do we do if this gives conflicting results?

What use is it to assess the demographic situation in Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Chechnya when Zürcher finds that ethnic relations remained remarkably peaceful until war was introduced by external forces? In fact, this may resolve one minor puzzle raised by Zürcher. According to quantitive research, ethnic diversity increases conflict risk, although as Zürcher points out, only if a territory has a dominant ethnic group that makes up 45% or more of its population. The common explanation of this finding is that an ethnic group will only be more keen for conflict if it can be confident to dominate the rest of society, and that it will otherwise be opposed by a coalition of other ethnic groups. Zürcher remarks that this makes a wrong prediction for Abkhazia, where it was Georgians who formed 45.7% of the population, with Abkhaz at 17.8% only. However, there is nothing surprising here if war was started by a Georgian invasion. And as predicted by theory, the other ethnic groups then mostly rallied around Abkhaz opposition to this invasion.

Secondly, it is actual military conflict we are concerned about, not just political conflict, but of the wars studied, all but the Karabakh war had a clear starting point. These were invasions by Russian (Chechnya) and Georgian (Abkhazia, South Ossetia) forces and a coup (the Georgian civil war). According to Zürcher, these invasions and the coup against Gamsakhurdia were all essentially due to internal politics. Doesn’t that mean then that ‘a desire to strengthen one’s domestic position’ is the main cause of war in the cases at hand?

This is especially relevant for the case of Adjara, where war was avoided. One might think that conflict risk was reduced by the fact that Adjarans speak Georgian and are now generally considered part of the Georgian nation, the main difference being religion (Adjarans are muslim) — perhaps not that salient in late Soviet times. However, Zürcher argues that there was enough distinctness left in Adjara for it to want to go its own way, plus the necessary state apparatus. Moreover, for quite some time, the situation actually deteriorated in parallel to Abkhazia and South Ossetia, with rising tension, heated rhetoric and low-intensity violence. In the end, Zürcher attributes the avoidance of war to a mix of the persistence of communist elites, the succesful Georgification of Adjara in Soviet times, Aslan Abashidze’s personal character and chance. But while these are undoubtedly valid points, it seems that the overriding difference vis-à-vis Abkhazia and South Ossetia was that Georgia didn’t send its troops into Adjara. The question then becomes why Georgia didn’t do so, but Zürcher doesn’t investigate the side that could have started war.

One could argue that one should focus on the side that declares independence, because such an act automatically triggers war. But that is not true. Chechen nationalism around 1990 can be said to have been no more radical than Georgian nationalism, and yet no Russo-Georgian war broke out. The relevant difference is that Russia accepted Georgia’s independence, but not Chechnya’s. For another example, consider once more Gagauzia. Its declaration of independence did not induce Moldova to start a war. It is probably not a coincidence that in 1995, Gagauzia was peacefully incorporated into the Moldovan Republic. Most independence declarations in the disintegrating Soviet Union did not lead to war, so the thought that Chechnya, South Ossetia and Nagorno Karabakh willingly chose war by declaring independence is an oversimplification, due to the knowledge of what followed. (And Abkhazia hadn’t even declared independence, and was still actively seeking a political agreement with Georgia when the war started.)

While the study into the development of nationalism is certainly relevant, it is not clear whether in the cases where war is started by an invasion from one side, structural factors have any explanatory power. Of the wars Zürcher considers, only the Karabakh war did not have a clear start, with violence slowly spiralling out of control. Perhaps only in this case the question becomes pertinent what factors stimulated this process.

Finally, it would also have been useful to set the Georgian civil war apart from the other conflicts in The Post-Soviet Wars. Unlike the other wars, this was not an ethnic war over political status, and it also had a clear cause that calls into question the relevance of structural factors — the coup against Zviad Gamsakhurdia. In order to understand why this coup was followed by a war, it is not sufficient to look at Dagestan and Adjara — one would have to investigate similar situations that did not provoke a civil war, the most pertinent being the ousting from power of Abulfaz Elchibey in Azerbaijan.

All analyses can be argued with, so the fact that The Post-Soviet Wars invites criticism is not surprising. By going beyond mere description of the conflicts, Zürcher has taken a risk, with mixed results. But even if it is not definitive, The Post-Soviet Wars contains important insights, and Zürcher has provided a worthwhile contribution to the study of the Caucasian conflicts of the early 1990s.

Filed under: Abkhazia, Adjara, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Book reviews, Chechnya, Dagestan, Gagauzia, Georgia, Moldova, Nagorno Karabakh, Pridnestrovie, Russia, South Ossetia, ,

Book review: Nooit een thuiswedstrijd by Arthur Huizinga

Nooit een thuiswedstrijd — Een voetbaloorlog in de Kaukasus

Arthur Huizinga

Prometheus, Amsterdam
June 2012
288 pages
ISBN: 978-90-446-1665-1

When Armenian troops conquered the town of Ağdam in 1993, its entire population (some 30000 people) was forced to flee. Nooit een thuiswedstrijd is about the exiled football club FK Qarabağ Ağdam and its people, and by extension, the entire refugee community.

Arthur Huizinga has chosen to write the book in a highly personal style. As a result, the text feels at times almost like a travelogue, and in the first half of the book there are some passages where somewhat confusingly, Huizinga adopts the perspective of some of the characters during events he did not himself attend, but overall this was clearly the right approach to the subject matter — this is a book about people first and political history second.

That said, this choice carries with it the risk that the portrayal of the political context suffers, and to be sure, the book does contain some errors. Some of these are ultimately inconsequential, such as the claim that in 1995, Robert Kocharyan won a great election victory over incumbent President of Armenia Levon Ter-Petrosyan, whereas in reality, the two never competed against each other. (In fact, Ter-Petrosyan won the parliamentary election of 1995 and was re-elected President in 1996. Only in 1998 was he forced to resign under pressure from Kocharyan, by then Prime Minister, who succeeded him as President in the subsequent election.)

There is a more regrettable omission in the second chapter, where Huizinga points out that when the Autonomous Oblast of Nagorno Karabakh was formed in 1923, the town of Shushi, the only major town with an Azeri majority, was not chosen as its capital, despite being the cultural centre of Nagorno Karabakh. In itself, this is true, but the author fails to mention that Shushi only had an Azeri majority due to the pogrom in 1920 that resulted in the flight of virtually all of its Armenian inhabitants and the death of hundreds, if not thousands. If for no other reason, Shushi was not suited to be made capital in 1923 because it lay completely in ruins. This traumatic event is likewise absent from the chronology at the end of the book, as is any mention of the Armenian Genocide.

The second chapter also gives rise to an inconsistency within the text, when it introduces the football club Karabakh Stepanakert. It and Qarabağ Ağdam did not compete often in Soviet times, but could still be considered traditional rivals. Huizinga then mistakenly claims that since Karabakh Stepanakert disappeared after the war in Nagorno Karabakh, no more derbies can be played. The error is especially surprising since Huizinga later visits the team (now called Lernayin Artsakh Stepanakert) and its people, whose fortunes in some ways mirror those of Qarabağ Ağdam (first exile to Yerevan, later return to Stepanakert). Huizinga also mistakenly implies that professional football is impossible in Nagorno Karabakh because it is disallowed by FIFA, whereas of course FIFA is a private company that can only impose its will on its member associations — Nagorno Karabakh now in fact has its own competition.

Finally, one more error that is again more or less inconsequential, but too unfortunate not to mention here. When discussing the temple at Suraxanı, Huizinga caricatures members of the world religion of Zoroastrianism (which has its origins in Persia) as “adherents of the cult of Zoroaster, a sect from India that lets itself be enraptured by fire”. In fact, the current temple complex is not Zoroastrian at all, but Hindu, which may have added to Huizinga’s confusion.

Lest these observations give off to the impression that Nooit een thuiswedstrijd is poorly researched, let me quickly add that, luckily, they are the exception. More generally, it is important to note that Nooit een thuiswedstrijd is not a naive book. Despite mostly portraying Azeri perspectives, it manages to provide a fair characterisation of the Nagorno Karabakh conflict, focusing on the lot of the refugees, and certainly not glossing over the dubious commitment of the Azerbaijani government.

The book is not overly long, and it covers all the ground it needs to. The one matter that could have received more explicit attention is the relation between Ağdam and Nagorno Karabakh proper. Despite the historical links between them, and the fact that the government of Nagorno Karabakh has formally annexed Ağdam, it was not part of the Nagorno Karabakh Autonomous Oblast in Soviet Times, and it seems clear that Nagorno Karabakh will give up Ağdam in case a peace agreement is reached. This means that the refugees may rightly hope that they can one day return to their town. But also that the more years pass before a peace agreement is reached, the less of Ağdam’s pre-war society can be salvaged. And this in turn raises the question whether the former inhabitants of Ağdam would be willing to give up Nagorno Karabakh proper if it means they can return to their homes sooner rather than later. This is a sensitive question, but it would nevertheless have been interesting to hear the opinions of some of the characters in the book on this matter.

That this question arises is a tribute to the fact that Nooit een thuiswedstrijd succeeds in giving a voice to the refugees of Ağdam — the book’s greatest feat. The choice of its subject, FK Qarabağ Ağdam, provides the necessary catalyst for this, and Huizinga manages to tell a great story about both the conflict and about football. Enhanced by its narrative, its not always chronological structure, both the fortunes of FK Qarabağ Ağdam (in Azerbaijan and in Europe) and its people and Huizinga’s attempts to reach Ağdam are varyingly moving, funny and genuinely exciting, and are best left for the reader themself to explore.

Filed under: Azerbaijan, Book reviews, Nagorno Karabakh, Sport, , , , ,

Book review: Contested States in World Politics by Deon Geldenhuys

Contested States in World Politics
Deon Geldenhuys
Palgrave Macmillan, Basingstoke
April 2009
305 pages
ISBN: 978-0-230-57552-3

A commonly heard argument against recognition of Kosovo or Abkhazia is that it would create an immense precedent, given that there are hundreds of separatist movements in the world. If Kosovo or Abkhazia, then why not also Kurdistan or Euskal Herria? This reasoning is partially correct, in that the decision to recognise a state should be based upon a due evaluation of the arguments pro and contra, and that surely a similar set of arguments in a different part of the world should lead to the same outcome. But mostly, this argument is unnecessarily alarmist, since it ignores the fact that as separatist causes go, Kosovo and Abkhazia are rather special.

Kosovars and Abkhazians control a delineated chunk of land with a permanent population (a state) whose independence may be recognised or not, whereas Basques nor Kurds have a sovereign polity that could be recognised. If some states are considering recognition of Kosovo or Abkhazia partially because this presents a mere coming to terms with reality, then this in itself is simply not a precedent for the Basques or the Kurds, or for that matter for the vast majority of the world’s separatist movements.

Contested States in World Politics by Deon Geldenhuys is about those ten cases which are somewhat similar to Kosovo and Abkhazia. Geldenhuys’s choice to designate these states contested over the more common de facto and unrecognised is a nice find. Many of the states in question enjoy some recognition, and contested captures much better than de facto that it is the legality (de jure) rather than the empirical existence (de facto) of their independence that is at stake.

Geldenhuys’s book is divided into two parts. The first is conceptual, the second summarises the background of each of the ten contested states.

Geldenhuys’s set of ten states still shows a lot of pluriformity. The core set of prototypical secessions is formed by the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, Somaliland, Kosovo, Abkhazia, South Ossetia, the Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic (PMR) and Nagorno Karabakh. Of these, the last four came about between 1989 and 1993 through the dissolution of the Soviet Union. While they recognise each other’s independence, only Abkhazia and South Ossetia enjoy some recognition by uncontested states. Kosovo is a late product of the dissolution of Yugoslavia, after it declared independence in 2008 it is now recognised by more than 80 states. Northern Cyprus seceded from Cyprus in 1983 following the 1974 invasion by Turkey, which is the only state to recognise its independence. Finally, Somaliland seceded in 1991 from its union with Somalia originally established in 1960 following their decolonisation. It remains completely unrecognised despite some diplomatic contact with neighbouring countries.

The remaining three cases are less straight-forward. The State of Palestine is the oddest one out among the ten contested states, as it is the only one that does not enjoy any de facto independence — it is almost as hypothetical as Kurdistan. It does not control any land or people — all it has is a nominal government, which doubles as the government of the autonomous Palestinian National Authority in Israel. Still, it has managed to obtain recognition by more than 120 states, which justifies its inclusion as a contested state. In addition, even Israel and the United States, in some sense its most ardent opponents, grudgingly recognise that a Palestinian State should come about at some point in the future. It thus serves as a much more relevant precedent for separatist Basques or Kurds than Kosovo and Abkhazia.

Next, the Republic of China, more commonly known as Taiwan, is also very special in that it has undergone a reverse development. It has been independent since 1912, its independence was previously uncontroversial and it used to control vastly more land and people than it does now. However, after its civil war with the communist counter-government, it was driven back to the island of Taiwan, and the great majority of states chose to recognise the communist state as the state of all China. The Republic of China is in the curious position that of all contested states, it provokes the least controversy, and is commonly identified as an independent country by non-state publications, despite being formally recognised as such by a mere 23 states.

Finally, the lot of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic somewhat resembles that of the Republic of China in that its fortunes have declined over the years, and that of Palestine, in that it has much more diplomatic support than empirical presence on the ground. It declared its independence in 1976, following the departure of the Spanish colonial administration, but its control of the Western Sahara is severely limited due to the Moroccan invasion in 1975 and the ensuing civil war. It now only governs the thin sliver of desert called the Free Zone, home to few people, and its government sits in Algerian exile. Nevertheless it is still recognised by more than 50 countries and is a member of the African Union.

The summaries in the book of these 10 cases are sufficiently detailed for an introduction to the particularities of each, and they are overall quite well-informed. Being summaries, the information is also readily available on the internet and in other literature, but it’s nice to have it all in one place. All ten owe their independence to unique historical crises, like the dissolution of the Soviet Union, and this ought to put at ease fears that their recognition would cause other secessionist regions to frivolously break away as well.

In particular, the section on Somaliland manages well to convey the absurdity of the fact that the international community refuses to recognise its independence, even though it is a well-governed state even by continent-wide standards, let alone the train wreck that is Somalia, for which it should be held up as a shining example. Instead, the international position amounts to demanding that Somaliland cease its rebellion and loyally return under the fold of a government that literally didn’t exist for much of the nineties and which since then has been unable to control even the entirety of its capital (Mogadishu).

The first, conceptual part of the book comprises three chapters. Of these, the third investigates some arrangements that can constitute an alternative to secession. As such, it is not very relevant in a book devoted to states that exist by virtue of the fact that they refuse to have their secession be undone. Some, like Northern Cyprus and perhaps the PMR may eventually give in, but the particular arrangements proposed for them are much better described in the dedicated sections of the book’s second part.

The first chapter discusses the definition of an independent state and recognition in international law and what makes a contested state contested. The second traces throughout history the status of the principle of self-determination in international law and the legality of secession. These two chapters are the intellectual core of the book, but the succession of often conflicting statements from international treaties and scholars in international law leaves one with the impression that at best, international law is merely descriptive in nature, and at worst, that it doesn’t really mean very much.

For example, the book describes one common view in international law (the declaratory theory of statehood) which holds that an independent state is formed by a government which considers itself independent, governing a certain permanently inhabited territory and its population. This definition is perfectly sensible, it is an apt empirical definition of what a state is. But then we don’t really need international law to tell us this — de jure independence turns out to be the same as de facto independence. Even worse, one might naively expect states to recognise other states as legally (de jure) independent based on a straight-forward evaluation of these criteria. But then none of the states under review would be contested. The fact of the matter is that states don’t seem to care about the international legal definition of a state. And why should they? After all, by their nature states are sovereign and can (within bounds) pretty damn well do as they please. It serves states’ interests much better to base state recognition on political considerations. But that pretty much obliterates the notion that there is universally valid international law. Instead, at best there are as many international legal realities as there are sovereign states (at worst, as many as there are people).

Geldenhuys notes that there is a competing view in international law on what constitutes an independent state, the constitutive theory. This holds that a state becomes independent by virtue of being recognised. Now, this makes de jure independence usefully different from de facto independence. But it reinforces the view that international law is completely in the eye of the beholder, since recognition is something states decide individually. And secondly, if legal independence is a consequence of recognition, it becomes inherently impossible for recognition to take into account the legal definition of independence. If international law fails to be prescriptive, can we still call it law, or does it simply reduce to international politics?

Of course, the author is not responsible for the general failings of the discipline. But in the end, he insufficiently manages to make sense of the conflicting opinions and practices in regards to statehood for the reader to be left much the wiser. The second half of the book presents a nice overview of the ten contested states, but this may only justify its rather steep price for a handful of people particularly interested in the topic.

Filed under: Abkhazia, Book reviews, Kosovo, Nagorno Karabakh, Northern Cyprus, Palestine, Pridnestrovie, Sahrawi Republic, Somaliland, South Ossetia, Taiwan, The Great Recognition Game, , , , ,

Photography: TNT not impressed by Azerbaijan

The photo was taken in Yerevan last August, outside a post office.

For those unfamiliar: TNT is a global mail and express company centred in the Netherlands. They introduced their slogan sure we can at the time of the 2008 American Presidential campaign, but claim to have come up with it before Barack Obama introduced his Yes We Can.

The map beneath the slogan outlines Armenia and its provinces (in white) and, suggestively, Nagorno-Karabakh (in grey), speckled with dots indicating the main towns and cities. There is one dot which falls outside the map. This is Aşağı Ağcakəndit, known to Armenians as Shahumian, which is claimed by Nagorno-Karabakh but controlled by Azerbaijan. Interestingly, the map follows the de facto border, perhaps so as not to suggest that TNT can deliver anything to there.

Filed under: Armenia, Cartography, Nagorno Karabakh, Photography, , , , , , , ,

Not the latest peace proposal for the Nagorno Karabakh conflict

On the 15th of March, Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov gave a press conference on the ongoing peace talks with Armenia over the Nagorno Karabakh conflict. Mammadyarov claimed that the latest draft proposal discussed by the parties proposed to resolve the conflict in two phases:

– The first phase would witness the withdrawal of all Armenian forces from all Azerbaijani districts (outside of Nagorno Karabakh itself) except for Kalbajar and part of Lachin, the restoration of communications, the organisation of a donor conference and the deployment of peacekeeping troops.

– The second phase would see all Azerbaijani refugees return to Nagorno Karabakh, followed by the determination of Nagorno Karabakh’s status within Azerbaijan.

Then on the 18th, Mammadyarov said in another press conference that Nagorno Karabakh’s status would not be determined in a referendum.

These proposals do not in fact look very realistic – in every way they give Azerbaijan what it wants, and Armenia and Nagorno Karabakh nothing what they want. It is unimaginable that Armenia would agree with anything even remotely similar – we have to conclude that Mammadyarov is misrepresenting the proposal being debated at the moment between Armenia and Azerbaijan.

Filed under: Armenia, Azerbaijan, Nagorno Karabakh, Negotiations, , , , , ,

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