De facto states research unit

Political Community in Flux: Identity, Sovereignty and Democracy in a Transforming World


Funded by Institutional research funding (IUT20-39) of the Estonian Ministry of Education and Research, 2014-2019

This research examined the reconfiguration of the construction of sovereignty, identity and democracy (SID), both in discourse and political practice, in the context of the transformation of political community. It deconstructed the SID nexus while revealing its embeddedness in particular forms of political community, showed how discursive constructions of SID are used to legitimize specific political realities, explored conflict between codified norms and contemporary political practice, and demonstrated how ambiguity surrounding SID gives rise to instrumental use of legal norms; and proposed solutions to dilemmas arising from regional integration. This research provided insights into a range of controversial issues including secession, humanitarian intervention, democracy promotion, clashes over history and memory, policies aiming at transitional justice, the functioning of representative institutions, and global debates about democracy.

The work is organized in three research clusters (RCs), each concentrating on different connections within the sovereignty-identity-democracy nexus. The “Contested Sovereignty” RC highlights the dilemmas that arise when sovereignty is perceived to conflict with the positive ideals of democracy or to be ‘earned’ in the course of democratization. The RC focuses on three sets of interrelated problems. First, it examines the norms and practices pertaining to the ‘earning’ and granting of sovereign status in world politics, with particular focus on the identity and democracy related criteria employed in the process of recognition. This strand of research focuses on the problematique of de facto states and other sovereignty claimants. Second, the RC examines the polemical uses of the term ‘sovereignty’ in contemporary discourses about the legitimacy and justifiability of humanitarian intervention and secession. It shows how the different prioritization of the norms of sovereignty, democracy and human rights underlies the clash between the ‘responsibility to protect’ and the ‘obligation to refrain.’ Third, the RC will include a political theory component examining the relationship of human rights as a universalistic and cosmopolitan principle to sovereignty as a political expression of the state’s moral status.

The RC posits the following working hypotheses:

  • International legal sovereignty does not constitute a precondition for democracy understood as a political rule based on accountability and representativeness;
  • Democratic credentials are increasingly gaining relevance as a criterion for acceptance and integration into the international community. The principle of ‘standards before status’ is pursued (along with other legitimation strategies) both by sovereignty claimants and the international community;
  • Protection of human rights, peace enforcement, transitional justice and democracy promotion are distinct practices rooted in different core values (those of individual rights, collective security, and democracy) and hence in tension with each other;
  • The erosion of states’ capacity to foster the closure of political community does not necessarily engender the wider emergence of an anti-statist cosmopolitan sentiment among populations.

The empirical scope of the RC includes instances of secession and humanitarian intervention from around the world (e.g. in the West Balkans and Caucasus) as well as unrecognized states such as Northern Cyprus, Transnistria, Abkhazia, Nagorno-Karabakh and Taiwan. It will also scrutinize layers of sovereignty in the EU, with particular attention to the sovereignty aspirations of various autonomous regions.