De facto states research unit

De Facto States in International System: Legality vs. Legitimacy


Funded by Estonian Science Foundation Grant No. 7951, 2009-2011

We tend to argue that secessionist tensions which tear states apart while creating de facto states are illegal acts in the face of international norms. Since secessionist entities are seldom internationally recognized, no one ever argues over their legitimacy in the domestic sphere. On the one hand, it may turn out that secessionist entities are more legitimate “compounds”, having a population with a shared identity (demos) and remarkable regime support, compared to the metropolitan states from which they seceded. But this fact alone does not support their secessionist bid. On the other hand, the research may reveal that the independence of Kosovo (as an internationally sanctioned but illegal act) does not create a precedent per se because other de facto states do not follow suit.

This research studied the legality and legitimacy issues in relation to conflict management in two partitioned states and one quasi-federation (Cyprus, Moldova, and Bosnia and Herzegovina, respectively). The selection of these cases is justified for a number of reasons. Both Cyprus and Moldova face complex realities posed by de facto states and power-sharing schemes. Both conflicts evolved from the same ground: Turkish Cypriots being dissatisfied with Greek Cypriots irredenta with Greece, seceded. Similarly, the formation of Transnistria was a reaction to the Moldovan language law and to the lack of self-determination guarantees in case Chisinau decides to rejoin Romania. Second, both conflicts involve influential external players: TRNC relies on Turkey and Transnistria is supported by Russia. Third, both conflicts have been frozen for decades and various federalization plans have contributed very little to peace-making. Bosnia and Herzegovina, on the other hand, has shared power among the constituting political entities without ending partition. Although the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina and Republika Srpska do not enjoy international recognition, these peace-making products are de jure federal subjects, even though the problem with legitimacy has not been solved.

The importance of this research lies in the endeavour to comparatively examine legitimacy issues against the backdrop of the legal concepts of self-determination and secessionism. The research relies on a novel theoretical and methodological framework, which focuses on the mutual relationship between legality and legitimacy in assessing self-determination claims. The research results have the potential to contribute to more efficient conflict resolution. Against of all predictions, state sovereignty and territorial integrity principles are more and more challenged by reluctant minority groups who find themselves living in a state whose legitimacy they do not recognize.