The Pursuit of International Recognition after Kosovo.

Author:Caspersen, Nina

The international recognition of Kosovo exacerbated existing uncertainties over state recognition. By its supporters it was billed as a "unique case," but others saw it as extending the right to self-determination. Unlike most literature on state recognition, this article adopts a bottom-up approach and analyzes how other aspiring states have reacted to the new politics of recognition. Drawing on the legitimation strategies observed in five de facto states since 2008, it argues that separatist strategies are not simply shaped by changes in the practice and norms of state recognition. They are constrained, both internally and externally. While there is greater divergence in official strategies since 2008 and a greater emphasis on international engagement, the substance of the strategies is much more homogenous and demonstrates a great deal of continuity. Keywords: international recognition, de facto states, Kosovo.


What is the easiest route to international recognition? This is a question continuously asked by secessionist movements, and various strategies have been tried from making claims to independence based on self-determination or the experience of gross human rights violations, to having powerful friends, or even resorting to various forms of bribery. (1) During the Cold War, the criteria for state recognition were reasonably clear and actual state practice was relatively consistent. (2) However, the dissolution of Yugoslavia led to greater uncertainty: the right to self-determination was extended beyond the colonial context, and additional conditions, such as democracy and human rights, were added. However, these were not consistently applied and it appeared that politics had become more important than international law. (3) For other aspiring states there was thus a vague hope that international recognition would be possible, but no clear recipe for how it could be achieved. This uncertainty was deepened by the widespread international recognition of Kosovo in 2008. (4) The uniqueness of the situation was stressed, thereby again suggesting the importance of political considerations, but references were also made to self-determination, remedial secession, and democracy and minority rights.

State recognition has not been afforded much attention in the political science or international relations literature. (5) Moreover, most analyses of state recognition have adopted a top-down approach, focusing on international responses to claims of statehood and emphasizing the importance of system level factors for state recognition such as the strategic interests of great powers or a concern with the stability of the international system. (6) What has not been analyzed is how the changing normative criteria and state practice of recognition affects the strategies adopted by those seeking recognition. (7) How have they responded to Kosovo's recognition, and what do their responses tell us about changes in the politics of state recognition and the constraints under which these territories operate? Such a bottom-up analysis is important because it questions widespread assumptions that changes in the practice of state recognition will lead directly to changes in separatist behavior; that we will, for example, see a domino effect. Moreover, separatist responses matter for the conditions facing the inhabitants of the contested territories, as well as for the prospect for a peaceful solution.

In this article, I first briefly discuss the international response to secessionist demands after the end of the Cold War. I then examine how this has affected the claims made and discuss how these legitimation strategies could be affected by Kosovo's recognition. I argue that to understand this bottom-up side of state recognition, we have to consider not only how state practice is perceived by secessionist movements but also the internal and external constraints that they are facing. I outline possible separatist strategies after Kosovo's recognition: First, continued pursuit of recognition: (1) adopting a new strategy that focuses on ensuring great-power support, or (2) using the same strategy of "earned sovereignty" that has predominated in the past decade. Second, abandoning the goal of unilateral secession and either (1) seeking independence through negotiations, or (2) prioritizing international engagement short of recognition. I then examine the strategies adopted since 2008 in five de facto states: Somaliland (Somalia), Abkhazia (Georgia), Transnistria (Moldova), Nagorno Karabakh (Azerbaijan), and Taiwan (China). In this analysis, I found greater variation in the rhetoric adopted and a greater emphasis on international engagement, which seems to reflect the increased importance of political considerations for state recognition. Yet the substance of the strategy is much more homogenous and demonstrates a great deal of continuity.

The Practice of State Recognition After the End of the Cold War

In 1972, Samuel Huntington commented that "the bias against political divorce, that is secession, is just about as strong as the nineteenth century bias against marital divorce." (8) During the Cold War, only former colonies had the right to (external) self-determination; the international system of sovereign states was otherwise closed at both ends. New states were not created and existing states did not cease to exist. (9) This was the case regardless of their effectiveness (i.e., regardless of whether empirical sovereignty had been achieved). (10)

The end of the Cold War and particularly the dissolution of Yugoslavia, however, seemed to mark a change in the practice of state recognition and in the normative criteria applied. The right to self-determination was extended beyond the colonial context, although it remained constrained: only former republics enjoyed this right. Moreover, further criteria were added: to earn the right to self-determination, these territories had to meet certain minimum standards when it came to democracy, human rights, and minority protection. These conditions were attached by the European Community's Badinter Commission to the recognition of the Yugoslav republics, they reappeared in the 2003 "standards before status" policy for Kosovo, and they were echoed in the international emphasis on democratization. (11) However, the conditions were not applied consistently. (12)

These changes resulted in a great deal of uncertainty as to which norms regulate state recognition, (13) including among scholars who were divided over the extent to which the balance between territorial integrity and self-determination had shifted in the favor of the latter. (14) Despite this uncertainty, the strategies that aspiring states adopted in their pursuit of recognition were remarkably similar.

Legitimation Strategies Before Kosovo's Recognition

All de facto states make a claim to self-determination. (15) Abkhazia's 1999 declaration of independence, for example, stated: "We appeal to the UN, OSCE [Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe], and to all States of the world to recognize the independent State created by the people of Abkhazia on the basis of the right of nations to free self-determination." (16) In some cases, these claims are predominantly based on national identity while in others the emphasis is on historic continuity. Somaliland's leaders, for example, point to its five days of internationally recognized independence in 1960. (17) In addition to this claim to self-determination, most de facto states also make a remedial secession claim. Whereas the right to self-determination has not been recognized as a universal principle, outside of the colonial context, the right to remedial secession is more contested. The argument is that that the illegitimate character of the governing regime results in a right to secession, (18) and the proclamation of Nagorno Karabakh consequently claimed that the enclave had been subjected to a "policy of apartheid and discrimination." (19)

However, by the late 1990s, a new legitimation strategy could be registered almost across the board. The leaders of these entities came to the conclusion that they could "earn" their recognition by creating effective, democratic entities. (20) The result was that from Abkhazia to Somaliland the rhetoric, and to a large extent also the practice, of state building and democratization became ubiquitous. (21) This claim cannot simply be equated with the traditional criterion of "effective government"; (22) these entities not only are arguing that they have ensured territorial control, but they claim that they have succeeded in building effective institutions that are able to provide basic public services. They are therefore presenting themselves as the antithesis to the threatening failed state that has dominated post-Cold War security strategies. Moreover, the emphasis on democratic standards is new. This view of recognition shares similarities with the liberal rights tradition, which regards secession as a free choice, (23) but it goes beyond simply declaring that there is popular support for independence; the creation of democratic institutions is part of the legitimating strategy. This revised strategy therefore directly reflect changes in state recognition after the end of the Cold War. Even though the new normative criteria for state recognition had been inconsistently applied in the case of the former Yugoslavia, and only by some of the recognizing states, (24) the de facto states concluded that they had to meet new conditions related to the internal workings of their entities. This strategy predominated for nearly a decade, but Kosovo's recognition signaled that another rethink might be in order.

International Recognition After Kosovo

Kosovo's recognition, in some ways, simply added to the confusion over state recognition that had dominated the post-Cold War era, and it further emphasized the importance of...

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