Sammelrezension: De Facto States in the Post-Soviet Space

: De Facto States in Eurasia. Milton  2019. ISBN 9780367199128

: The Dynamics of Emerging De-Facto States. Eastern Ukraine in the Post-Soviet Space. Abingdon, Oxon  2019. ISBN 978-1138328846

Reviewed for Connections. A Journal for Historians and Area Specialists by
Sabine v. Löwis, Research Area ‘Conflict Dynamics and Border Regions’, Centre for East European and International Studies (ZOiS), Berlin

Both these books are very timely analyses of the processes in (emerging) de facto states in the post-Soviet space and of possible future scenarios they may face. Even though both works investigate dynamics of the emergence, sustainability and demise of these states, they will be discussed separately here because of two reasons. Whereas Tomáš Hoch and Vincenc Kopeček’s De Facto States in Eurasia is an edited volume and collects a number of case studies, including that of eastern Ukraine, Tetyana Malyarenko and Stefan Wolff’s The Dynamics of Emerging De-Facto States: Eastern Ukraine in the Post-Soviet Space is a monograph and presents a single in-depth case study, which makes a close comparison between the two books difficult. A second reason is the character of the conflict in eastern Ukraine itself: in comparison to the other de facto states in the post-Soviet space, it is especially problematic and distinct because of the geopolitical and geo-economic rivalries playing out to the disadvantage of Ukraine. Conflicts in all other de facto states in this area first had some local or regional origin which was then exploited by external powers, thus acquiring their international dynamic only later. In Ukraine, the contrary is true: a geopolitical and geo-economic competition between the EU and Russia was transferred and imposed onto a weak, not fully decolonised region.

I
De Facto States in Eurasia assembles case studies about post-Soviet de facto states and provides comparative analyses of their emergence, sustainability and failure. Its editors and authors aim to contribute to an understanding of the life cycle of de facto states. By life cycle, they understand that de facto states emerge, exist for several years or longer, and then transform (p. 296). Their comparison is based on twelve different regions that have claimed or are still claiming independence and/or international recognition. Not every phase is compared in every region analysed. This approach is interesting in the debate about de facto states, as this comprehensive, comparative road is rarely travelled in other studies on the topic. Usually, a work focuses on one issue, e.g. external relations, internal dynamics, or international recognition, to analyse.
The book considers various time periods (the foundation of the Soviet Union and its later dissolution) and regions (Caucasus, Central Asia, eastern Ukraine) but is limited to Eurasia. The context of the Russian Empire, Soviet Union or Russia as a strong patron and/or dominant actor in the region is emphasized in all cases. In addition, it makes the argument that “the phenomenon of de facto states in Eurasia is endemic” (p. 5).

Divided into five sections, the book opens with a review of terminology and a well-developed summary of the past 20 years of research on de facto states, then defines a gap in comparative research regarding the historical perspective of unrecognised entities in Eurasia. Its authors are aware that the notion of de facto states developed at the turn of the 20th and 21st century and that the international system and laws have changed fundamentally, but they argue that the core phenomena of secessionist entities and non-recognition are similar throughout history.
The second section offers three very dense and informatively written case studies of the Russian territorial expansion and tentative development of de facto states in the first half of the 20th century – namely Bukhara, Tuva and Mongolia. This section aims to show analogies and similarities with present-day and currently emerging de facto states. As historical cases are rarely discussed in the literature about de facto states, this is interesting input which has potential to be developed further and contextualised with other moments in history that have led toward a revision of the territorial division of the international system (e.g. Europe after WWI and WWII; decolonisation of Asia, Africa and Latin America).
The focus here is on Russia and the relations and influence of Russia in its surrounding regions. Also mentioned, though a little less emphatically, are the territorial, economic and political interests of other regional and supra-regional powers (e.g. in Asia or Europe) at various times and in regional contexts.
Sections three to five continue with case studies in the post-Soviet era. Much of the book is devoted to the Caucasus (Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Nagorno-Karabakh, Javakheti, the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria), but it also includes Transnistria, Gagauzia and the current developments in eastern Ukraine and the tentative de facto states of the Donetzka and Luhanska People’s Republics. Mainly, it discusses the emergence, sustainability and instrumentalization, and failure of these de facto states. All sections are introduced with general remarks and a theoretical-conceptual framework of discussion before they then analyse macro and micro-level factors, internal and external developments and actors, and historical perspectives and internal dynamics, all while avoiding an interpretation of the de facto states as puppets of their patrons (p. 160).
Based on their analysis of the life-cycle concept and internal and external dynamics, Hoch and Kopeček close the comparative study with a discussion about future developments, offering general conclusions about the transformation of inherent conflicts. Malyarenko and Wolff’s monograph offers similar scenarios and comparisons, though it is able to go into more detail about tentative future conflict settlements for eastern Ukraine (see below).

Of particular importance is the discussion that De Facto States in Eurasia provides of historic cases which demonstrate that this is not a new phenomenon but one that has predecessors in Eurasia that are usually overlooked. A special concern of the book is to show that the occurrence of de facto states is endemic across Eurasia. I would agree that de facto states have occurred remarkably often in the post-Soviet space, but that does not necessarily mean that they are endemic or – as is implied – a typical and inherent phenomenon in this region. Here, a comparison with other regions of the world featuring de facto states or relevant and regularly returning secessionist movements, carried out in accord with the approach in this book, would be necessary and could prove to be an interesting transnational research agenda on de facto states and secessionist territories. Nevertheless, the book convincingly shows how it is indispensable to look into the historical processes of Russian and Soviet territorial expansion, state and republic building, border drawing, and the dissolution of the Soviet Union, as well as into revisions to the order of the international system, to properly understand many of the current problems in the post-Soviet space.

II
What both these books contribute to the current debate about de facto states is the linkage between internal (e.g. state-building efforts, public opinions) and external factors (e.g. relations to patron and parent states) in regard to their emergence and sustainability. The Dynamics of Emerging De-Facto States: Eastern Ukraine in the Post-Soviet Space is devoted to a very current conflict and secessionist movement in eastern Ukraine and the emerging de facto states of Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republic.
The book is divided into seven sections. In a short introduction, Malyarenko and Wolff describe the aims, methods and approach of their study on eastern Ukraine, which follows a similar analytical approach as Hoch and Kopeček use, but that also sets out to assess options for settlement of the conflict.
The book is conceptualised as an intense single case study. It starts with a discussion of the current debate on and analysis of the conflict in eastern Ukraine in order to outline dominant discursive lines and to identify the gaps within this discourse. The authors point out how the conflict has mainly been analysed through a geopolitical lens and stress that internal factors and drivers have been neglected. They argue that the conflict in Ukraine (and other conflicts in the region) “constitute blended conflicts that play out in an antagonistically penetrated region” (p. 8).
A ‘blended conflict’ is understood as a “dynamic connectedness of actors, structures and other factors at and across different levels of analysis, horizontally, vertically and ‘diagonally’” (p. 8). With the notion of ‘penetration’ the authors want to emphasise the significance of external actors taking part in the conflict and making it even more difficult to resolve. Malyarenko and Wolff aim to develop an approach to analyse a “toxic and contagious brew of challenges” (p. 8) as the source of the conflict, its permanence, and the conditions for a potential settlement.
Based on this approach, with very rich empirical material and well-thought-out methodological contextualisation considering the restrictions in a region which is difficult to approach, the authors analyse, in the three chapters that follow, the origins and early development of the conflict, identity building aspects in the Donbas region, and Russia-sponsored state-building processes.
Especially noteworthy about this conceptualisation is the combination of different approaches to look at the conflict and its development. The authors do not leave aside the general geopolitical discourse, which dominates much other discussion and analysis of the conflict; instead, they enrich and contextualise it by examining identity-building processes in post-independence Ukraine before and after the conflict emerged. Not entirely new but not sufficiently prominent in wider discussions about the conflict is the assessment, advanced by this book, that there is not an anti-Ukrainian identity in the region but co-existing and overlapping local and regional identities that do not contradict a national Ukrainian identity but are in fact embedded in it. A regional identity has also served local and regional elites in gaining political support in elections.
A specific regional identity becomes relevant for the conflict when it is exploited by being negatively and mistakenly represented as separatist and anti-Ukrainian. Such interpretation could, as the authors convincingly claim, lead to a solidification and disambiguation of eastern Ukrainian identity among the regional population and the economic elite, complicating a conflict settlement in the future.
Malyarenko and Wolff then investigate how overlapping identities are enforced and complicated by looking at state-building approaches and at the competing local and regional power elites supported by Russia that are also linked to identity projects. They reveal a very complex and complicated picture of interests, also in the light of Russian and Ukrainian policies and strategies (e.g. embargo politics by Ukraine, power struggles between different elites in the de facto republics, Russia-supported local elites).
This leads to the conclusion that the conflict and, in turn, its further development or settlement, has reached a stalemate and that the peace agreements and settlement attempts of Minsk I and II have not been proved successful.

Finally, scenarios that partially resemble the possible future developments set out in Hoch and Kopeček’s edited volume discussed above come into discussion here as well: an unlikely reintegration (Croatian scenario); an even more unlikely emerging de facto state (Transnistrian scenario) that has economic and social relations with Russia, Ukraine and the EU; and, not so unlikely, de facto states in total isolation from Ukraine as they reflect the current status quo with a future potential of reintegration (German scenario – strangely named after the post WWII German states and later unification). One final scenario outlined by Malyarenko and Wolff, described as Crimean and Georgian, involves partial recognition. Based on its detailed Ukrainian case description, future scenarios are discussed more convincingly in this monograph than in the comparative approach. Both books do, however, complement each other very well in this regard and it can generally be expected that an in-depth case study can achieve a more immersed assessment about future developments.

Framing the situation in eastern Ukraine as “a blended conflict in an antagonistically penetrated region” proved to be reasonable and effective except for the fact that this blended conflict was not so from the beginning but has been inflicted, only becoming “blended” over time.” This is very well displayed in this short and very dense and empirically rich monograph.

In sum, both books are well worth reading as they both analyse the conflict situations in Eurasia and the emerging de facto states in eastern Ukraine based on internal developments such as state-building, identity and economy, as well as on external dynamics such as relations to patron and parent states or with the international community. De Facto Sates in Eurasia, the edited volume, offers a comparative approach for a region that shares a common history. It facilitates a parallel examination of different times and regions that share commonalities but it also makes refined distinctions between individual characteristics that can only come out in a comparative approach. Alongside this, The Dynamics of Emerging De Facto States, the monograph, offers a detailed description of one case study from beginning to end, which allows conclusions to be drawn between mutualities and discrepancies with other cases. This proves to be a very effective approach to providing a better understanding of the conflicts arising in the post-Soviet space and an enrichment to debates about the dynamics of conflict.

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23.10.2020
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