What lessons can be found in Syria and Iraq today from the post-soviet un-recognized states?

Jordan Creed traces the impediments un-recognised states may have on international development efforts. Using historical examples, it appears that similarities coexist between Syria and Iraq, and many post-Soviet Union states. This may lead to hostility in the future.

An unrecognized state is one that is generally not recognised by most of the international community but has had effective control over a territory and provides government services to its citizens. The recent conflicts in both Syria and Iraq have created a very real prospect of new un-recognized states emerging such as Kurdistan or a Sunni and Shia state that would be supported by Saudi Arabia or Iran. This article will examine the trends that have emerged out of the post-Soviet un-recognised states and the challenges that have arisen for international development efforts. It will be contended that a new approach is needed towards un-recognised states in order for international development to not be severely undermined by their existence

The first relevant challenge to international development is that the existence of an un-recognized represents ‘frozen conflict’.  This applies to conflicts where active hostilities  have ended but no post-conflict settlement has been established between the parties. This could easily become a reality in the Middle East between a de-facto independent Kurdistan and the Syrian state. Such a development creates an extremely dangerous environment for development efforts to be conducted. The dangers are evident in two ways; firstly, the immediate danger of conflict re-emerging between the two sides as is illustrated by the recent re-emerging of conflict between Nagorno-Karabakh and Azerbaijan forces. This immediate danger is further compounded by the potential for a patron state to partition an un-recognized state from its original state as Russia has done in South Ossetia.

Minamie's Photo / Creative Commons License. Photo of Tiraspol, Transnistria

Minamie’s Photo / Creative Commons License. Photo of Tiraspol, Transnistria


Secondly, the insecure conditions that un-recognized states exist in further undermine development efforts, because the insecure environment allows state leaders to justify their high levels of repression. An example of this is illustrated by how Transnistria state leaders have used the insecure environment as justification for the harassment and imprisonment of local NGOs such as Promo-Lex that promote human rights and democracy.

A further bi-product produced by the existence of a ‘frozen conflict’ is that it increases the level of militarization in a region. This impedes international development further as it increases funding towards the military at the expense of education and health. As is demonstrated by Azerbaijan’s 89 percent increase in military spending in 2011 in response to a heightening of tensions with Nagorno-Karabakh. In addition, increased militarization undermines attempts to build stability and peace in a region. This is because it undermines de-mobilization efforts as the existence of an un-recognized state makes it much more difficult to control the proliferation of small arms in a region. In Transnistria for example it has been claimed that the state is complicit in manufacturing small arms and not adequately securing its old Soviet stockpiles.

C & More / Creative Commons License. Picture of Syria, Damascus, from the Qasiune mountain

C & More / Creative Commons License. Picture of Syria, Damascus, from the Qasiune mountain


Furthermore, the existence of an un-recognized state in a region can undermine efforts to build foundations for economic growth. The reason for this is because it has been claimed un-recognized state exacerbate a culture of corruption in their region, which can undermine economic growth. It is claimed that existence of an un-recognized ‘’state’’ in a region can worsen the culture of disrespect for the rule of law and impunity. This disrespect is particularly salient in un-recognized states because the dominant ethnic group will often have had experience of how new laws can be used to marginalise them. This is something all the ethnic groups in Syria and Iraq will have experienced to varying degrees. The presence of an un-recognized state can further undermine economic growth by undercutting the official market in the region. This is demonstrated by the widespread smuggling network that originates from Transnistria which has resulted in the loss of millions of dollars of revenue in the sale of goods such as alcohol, cigarettes and food for Moldova and Ukraine.

To conclude, although it could be argued that such trends would be unlikely to develop in the Middle East because of the historical and contextual differences with the post-Soviet sphere. I would contend that there are still significant major similarities between the two, such as the presence of weak homeland states, and high levels of distrust and conflict between ethnic groups and a patron state. This leads to the position that in order to avoid similar trends emerging in the Middle East, states should develop an approach of engagement. What is meant by this is that the international community should be prepared to not unconditionally support a state’s attempt to reclaim territory by any means. This would also involve the international community taking a more active role in encouraging dialogue and economic integration between the homeland state and breakaway region. The benefits of this approach for international development are evident as this would not only more likely result in a more stable peace but would also help economic growth.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Development in Action.


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