social sciences

Surviving isolation in an isolated place

Around half of the population is retired in Transnistria. A stroll through Tiraspol during lockdown. Photo credit: private collection
Around half of the population is retired in Transnistria. A stroll through Tiraspol during lockdown. Photo credit: private collection

After decades of lockdown, why do unrecognised countries still matter and may even grow in numbers?

Most people in the world had the chance to experience isolation for the past few months. Perhaps that could help us understand isolated grey zones – or also known as de facto states – better. And understanding them is important, because, as Estonian international relations expert Eiki Berg pointed out, de facto states tell us a story of the modern world.

As a Professor at the University of Tartu, Berg spent years observing de facto states. His recently ended project, funded by the Estonian Research Council, concluded that de facto states are not disappearing, but in fact, may grow in numbers.

The struggles of dealing with isolation are not going anywhere for many people, with or without lingering viruses.

De facto states are secessionist entities that control territory, provide governance, secure popular support, and persist over extended periods of time, but whose self-proclaimed sovereignty is not recognised by the international community of sovereign states, as the American political scientist Scott Pegg defined in the first ever book about de facto states in 1998.

De facto states appear in areas where the great powers collide, Berg explained. Power, however, is increasingly dispersed among different countries. The US as a superpower, is still a significant player, but its influence has shrunk. Power diffusion is one of the reasons competition and rivalry has grown, Berg explained, and brings power-collisions, or those grey zones with it.

Major powers are colliding in the Middle East. Turkey’s role is growing. Russia is expanding its influence. More areas are being pushed and pulled towards different values and identities like boats in a restless ocean.

In addition, old pre-Second World war rules and methods are brought back to life. New patterns and “excuses” for taking over territories are reappearing. A recent example is the “historical right” argument that Russia used when annexing Crimea.

Therefore, as Berg concluded, bargaining over people and countries is coming back.

Economic crisis brought by the spread of COVID19 is certainly not helping to calm the waters either.

Eleven territories in the world (if excluding Taiwan, which fares better in terms of engagement) continue their existence in limbo. They involve over 15 million people, almost the population of Sweden and Finland together. These entities have broken apart from their so-called parent states (which is Moldova for Transnistria, and Cyprus for the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus) and – with a military and/or financial support of a patron state (like Russia or Turkey) – attempt to keep their own rules in place. Security is the main concern for de facto states, Berg said.

Being unrecognised by other governments, residents of grey zones live in a vacuum legally speaking. University degrees and other documents issued by de facto state authorities are often completely useless in most places outside the unrecognized states.

At the same time, ironically, many of the people living in those breakaway territories, prefer being separated from their parent states and thus externally enforced isolation, either for ideological or for safety reasons. The people of Nagorno-Karabakh do not dream of unification with Azerbaijan, the country that an Armenian-speaking minority seceded from after the war between 1988 and 1994.

There are only a couple of “successful” re-integration examples, both of which brought a lot of bloodshed. Russia forced Chechnya under its own rule after years of violence in 2000. The Sri Lankan government forcefully ended Tamil Eelam de facto state in 2009.

In theory, the other way to end de facto state is for the patron state to lose an interest. If the US withdraws its troops from Taiwan, this Asian democracy would be forcefully united with Mainland China. But as long as the competition between the US and China remains unaffected, Taiwan persists.

Meanwhile, the people of de facto states have to survive in their isolated existence. However difficult it has been so far, the corona crisis has aggravated their lockdown even more. Take Transnistria, a strip of land between Moldova and Ukraine. Without international recognition, around half a million of its mainly Russian-speaking people are stuck between the Western and Russian influence.

“No future for the people of de facto states.”

In Tiraspol, the capital of Transnistria, the coronavirus lockdown has been in place for three months. But unlike in most other countries, the people of Transnistria cannot complain about it.

“It feels like we are living in the 18th century,” said Anna, a local professional with higher education. She asked for her name to be changed, because there is no real protection system in place and anyone could be imprisoned as an “extremist” for criticising the local authorities. “I never imagined I would end up in a situation where I cannot pay for my basic needs – for utilities and food,” a mother of two continued.

Before the lockdown, Anna used to go to Moldova or Ukraine for better quality food and clothes, since Transnistria is monopolised by a very few players that sell worse, but overpriced goods. NGO work that provided help for locals has also been affected since the borders were shut.

The streets of Transnistria during a coronavirus lockdown. Credit: local journalist.

The people are at the mercy of Vadim Krasnoselsky’s authoritarian regime. If someone would become inconvenient for the state, they could disappear without an official investigation or persecution. It’s a state where international rules only apply partly.

Even a critical Facebook or Viber post could be deemed as “extremist” and people could be locked up for this. “I’ve only shared trivial posts on my social media for the past three months,” Anna said with a sad smile.

When the government cannot be trusted, every family is looking out for themselves. People generally comply with rules and keep distance, Anna said. With half of the people in Transnistria being pensioners, local retirement benefits of 100 dollars are the only official income for many. Russian citizens – and most pensioners are also Russian citizens – receive 160 dollars. It’s still hardly enough to survive, hence most people depend on their relatives, who are working abroad and send money back home.

Anna estimated that around half of the country’s state budget could be made of the money sent by relatives abroad.

Anna: “We don’t feel like we belong anywhere anymore. We are looking for roots outside Transnistria.”

The symbol of independence serves as a playground during lockdown in Transnistria. Photo credit: private collection
The symbol of independence serves as a playground during lockdown in Transnistria. Photo credit: private collection

Even if the grey zones are an interesting phenomenon on the modern day world map, the people themselves didn’t choose to be born in a lockdown state. As the world is moving towards more isolation and power games, de facto state residents will be the first to feel the effects.

“People in de facto states don’t have the freedom to make choices for themselves,” Anna said. “We cannot choose for a better life, medication and education. We don’t have equal rights. We are simply victims of interests of several groups.”

“That’s why,” Anna concluded: “There is no future in de facto states.”


Written by: Marian Männi

This article was funded by the European Regional Development Fund through Estonian Research Council.

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