De-Facto States

De-facto states are quite a recent phenomenon and the history of each de-facto state is very different. The idea of a de-facto state developed after the Second World War, when the world became one of internationally recognized nation-states. The idea of international recognition is that already recognized states must confer recognition upon newcomers and thus admit them to the international community of sovereign states. This process is considered to be very important as it is a crucial element of independent statehood and plays a vital role in the further political, social and economic development of a state.

Contrastingly, de-facto states have not or only partially been recognized by the international community. The path which these de-facto states have taken on the way to recognition differs individually and yet several characteristics unite these political entities. Especially in earlier years de-facto states were considered to only be a “transient phenomena expected to disappear”.

How de-facto states are formed

Many de-facto states have now existed for several decades and continue to do so.  The formation of de-facto states is mainly triggered by a conflict. In Europe, the demise of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia has brought to light many newly independent states. There is also a more problematic side to this otherwise successful process, as different regions attempted to create their independent state in all the chaos that took place. Often these were regions with a dominant sense of ethnicity and considerable autonomy, but no status of a sovereign entity.

The problems concerning independence often have already existed beforehand. Nonetheless, they were more or less irrelevant because territorial allocation was not considered very important as long these regions could exercise a certain degree of autonomy. Only after the fall of the states and unions did the division into independent countries take place. The problems concerning allocation started to surface once again and the population suddenly found itself in states it did not feel ethnically connected to or part of. This process happened si,ilarly to a lot of todays de-facto states. In further posts I will go into further detail of the separate de-facto states.

“De facto states are separatist polities that exercise a monopoly over the use of violence in a given area but lack international legal sovereignty”

De-facto states need to be clearly distinguished from rebel organizations that hold a monopoly of power, for example warlords or militias, as de-facto states pursue other goals. Many de-facto states have already established democratic structures and this is an ongoing development. De-facto states have control over a certain area which can be legitimate but is not recognized as legal in the international community. Although holding the power over a certain region may also be the goal of a rebel organization, a de-facto state is seeking state building and the establishment of a recognized state.

Parents and Patrons

To fully understand a de-facto state, two terms are important. The ones of a parent and patron state. The parent state is the state to which the de-facto state officially belongs. The parent state does not recognize the de-facto state as independent and still considers it part of its territory but has lost the exercise of power over the secessionist entity.

It would be difficult for the de-facto states to survive on their own, without any recognition whatsoever, no trade and no financial or military support. Therefore, the de-facto states not only have a parent state, but also a patron state. The patron state oftentimes recognizes the de-facto state as independent from its parent state and plays a crucial role in securing its survival. In case of the four post-Soviet de-facto states, for three of them –Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Transnistria – Russia acts as the patron state. Only Nagorno-Karabakh is supported by a different patron, Armenia.

What happens to de-facto states?

The destiny of the de-facto states is very different. Some are long-lived and still exist in the same form since their foundation. Some are forced to reintegrate into their parent state, and some achieve their initial goal and become a fully recognized state. Of course, there is also a fourth option, which is the integration of the de-facto state into its patron state. An option, which several post-Soviet de-facto states strive to achieve.

Which path is taken depends on various factors. Important factors for the endurance of a de-facto state are strong military support from an outside patron and the process of state-building inside the de-facto state . Though many de-facto states aim for international recognition, many of them will probably not achieve this goal in the near future. De facto states have always been regarded as an unsolved problem in the international system. Yet they do not have to be a problem. As they are probably here to stay for decades to come, there should be an aspiration to integrate them into the international system. In order to involve and include de-facto states more into the international community, there is a need to understand the particular cases of de-facto states better. This is also the reason why I started this series of blog posts on de-facto states. Feel free to check out my other posts on post soviet de-facto states here:


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Blakkisrud, H. & Kolstø, P. 2012. Dynamics of de facto statehood: the
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