De facto states - states that have failed to win international recognition - have long been understudied 'blank spots,' overlooked in academic literature and on maps. However, they play critical and contentious roles in international politics: Since the end of the Cold War, de facto states have been involved in a disproportionately large number of violent conflicts, resulting in their establishment, change of status, or elimination. Achieving a better understanding of the dynamics of de facto state politics is, therefore, crucial.
Almost all de facto states that survive for some time have a powerful 'patron' that provides security guarantees and economic support. Too often this has resulted in the de facto states simply being brushed off as hapless pawns in their patron's power play. In this project we challenge this assumption, examining what room de facto states have for independent agency. In the project we ask: How do popular attitudes restrain/resource de facto state leaders vis-a-vis the patron? How do these leaders navigate between domestic demands and the patron's expectations? And how do patron states exert their influence?
The project covers all eight existing de facto states that have a patron: Abkhazia, Donetsk, Luhansk, Nagorno-Karabakh, Northern Cyprus, South Ossetia, Taiwan and Transnistria. Further, we also include the only two cases of failed post-Cold War de facto states that had a patron: Srpska Krajina and Republika Srpska.
The relevance of the project became apparent immediately after we started, when war broke out in Nagorno-Karabakh. The combination of Covid-19 and conflict escalation has led to us having to postpone the implementation of surveys and fieldwork until the winter of 2021/2022. However, we have got off to a good start both with the writing process and with networking with other research groups that work on de facto states internationally.
De facto states are states that have seceded unilaterally from another state and are denied international recognition. They control substantial parts of the territory they lay claim to but lead a precarious existence since the state from which they have seceded may at any time legitimately recapture it. Therefore, they depend upon another, stronger state - a patron - not only for their economic well-being but also for their very survival.
Such patron-client relations are not uncommon in international politics, but with de facto states the power relationship in these dyads is particularly asymmetrical. For that reason, de facto states are often dismissed as mere puppets. Even so, de facto states remarkably often defy their patron: they adopt policies not to its liking and elect leaders that do not enjoy its support. Such unruly client behavior may strain relations to the patron, but rarely leads to their breakdown.
The patron-client model in international politics was developed during the Cold War to explain relations between the two superpowers and their respective clients in the Third World. The ability of small and weak states to switch sides to the other camp gave them considerable measure of maneuverability vis-à-vis their patrons. After the Cold War, however, the independent agency of a de facto state client must have other sources: defection is no longer an option, there is no competition for patronhood.
In this project we aim to revise the patron-client model to better fit contemporary realities. What room for independent agency do the de facto state leaders have? Where are the 'red lines'? What can this tell us about power relations in asymmetrical relations between aligned states in general? We propose that client state leaders are engaged in two-level nested games - with the patron, and with their own populations - and that they can exploit the constraints emplaced on them by popular domestic pressure as a resource in their dealings with their patron.