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Interview with Rossi and Castan Pinos

Paulina Smolinski / February 17, 2020

In this special issue we speak with the two editors- Michael Rossi and Jaume Castan Pinos- about their article “Introduction to Inconvenient Realities: The Emergence and Resilience of Parastates.” In it they introduce their collaborative project on the nature and the scope of the parastate. Our conversation goes into what cases inspired this research, the continual importance of UN recognition, and the limits of international law in the face of Realpolitik.

ASN: Which cases in particular highlighted the need to designate the difference between de facto states and parastates for you?

Rossi – Certainly those breakaway territories from former Soviet and Yugoslav republics served as the foundation of our study. Parastates like Nagorno-Karabakh, Transnistria, Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and Kosovo continue to function as security threats to their respective host states and facilitate patron states with a continuous foothold in the region. However, in building our research project, we noted the continued use of a number of terms to describe their territorial entities; one of which was de facto states. We felt the need to emphasize “parastate” to describe the more problematic cases from the relatively benign. While we acknowledge that parastates are part of a larger family of de facto states, there are noted differences between those claiming and seeking sovereignty at the expense of another state, like Kosovo, and those that act as independently as they can of central authorities yet remain part of another state, like Republika Srpska or Iraqi Kurdistan. An additional factor was that those classified as parastates possess a certain degree of sovereignty and formal international assistance. Because previous studies tended to vary on a number of terms and include a number of cases, we felt that clearly identifying a small and incredibly problematic set of cases as a unique group that sought sovereignty at both the expense of as well as alongside an existing state was necessary. Additionally, we felt the need to argue that these specific cases are indefinite frozen conflicts, which previous studies of de facto states seem to have neglected. 

ASN: In the article you address that “secessionist parastates are almost guaranteed to be long-term problems.” Are these frozen conflicts an emblematic characteristic of the parastate?

Rossi – Very much so. The nature of their creation and the conditions of their existence reveal a struggle between forces determined to place the parastate on the map, and those determined to either remove it, or at the very least ensure its borders are dotted instead of solid, and its color is a slightly different shade from its host country.  Particularly in regards to secessionist parastates, the inability of the host state to successfully reincorporate lost territory means that a parastate exists by default. As many of these secessionist parastates have endured in some capacity for decades, both its political leadership and larger population have managed to survive in this gray zone of legitimacy. If a parastate is guaranteed support by one powerful sponsor state that keeps it functioning, its existence is assured, even though it remains highly dependent on that external support.

Castan-Pinos – In addition to these structural elements, we should also consider that empirical evidence points in the direction of secessionist parastates becoming intractable conflicts. Perhaps this is due to the fact that parastates are trapped in a vicious circle in which no actor can back down. If parastates compromise, their survival is at stake. If host states back down and accept the legitimacy of the unilateral secession, this move may be perceived as treacherous and internal crises may arise within the host state. This lack of incentives for a negotiated solution is yet another factor explaining the perpetuation of parastates and their associated conflictive dynamics. 

ASN: Would United Nations recognition change the categorization of the parastate? Are there any conclusions that can be drawn on the impact of United Nation’s recognition on the frozen conflicts in parastates?

Castan-Pinos – The short answer is ‘yes, it certainly would’. My informants in the foreign ministries of different parastates always emphasize the importance of UN membership. This is hardly surprising as UN recognition does, in fact, mean that the parastate can overcome its limbo status and achieve its goal of ‘normalizing’ its politically precarious situation. Once this happens, it does not really matter that a few states refuse to recognize you or enter relations with you (as we see for instance with the case of Israel). What matters is that you are in. For this reason, I believe that the metaphor of UN membership being the gold standard of statehood is quite valid.

The crux, or tragedy if you wish, is that this UN membership hardly ever materializes for parastates.

Rossi – UN membership transforms declarative sovereignty into constitutive. This is the end goal for every parastate; secessionist or declarative. While it is true there are a number of UN states that are incredibly weak and barely functioning, that membership guarantees its international legitimacy and its territorial integrity. Without that sanctifying status, parastates remain contested regions susceptible to changing geostrategic conditions that, in the recent cases of Kosovo and Taiwan, can result in international recognitions being withdrawn.

ASN: The article makes a case that “parastates also show how limited international law can be when faced with the Realpolitik of powerful states.” Broadly, how could international law be strengthened to address these issues?

Castan  Pinos – I may be accused of being cynical and neorealist here but…I believe that when it comes to parastates, geopolitical considerations and national interests prevail. Given this, I do not think that it is too far-fetched to claim that international law is rather incapable and powerless to address the challenge of parastates. In other words, provided that big powers are very often those who benefit from parastates -for instance, by playing the role of patron states-, it seems unlikely that they will spend much effort to genuinely address the issue. In fact, when they try to bring the ‘international law’ card, they do it disingenuously, necessarily incurring in double standards and inherent contradictions.

Rossi – Realpolitik defines, and in many ways justifies, the existence of parastates. Patron states know they are violating international law and another country’s territorial integrity. They don’t care. They will use some subjective argument to legitimize their position, but at the end of the day, the patron state uses the parastate as a foothold in the region. Because current international law continues to operate on the basis of sovereignty, and most specifically sovereignty defined by UN membership, parastates exist as legal anomalies: de facto in function but debatable de jure. One possible way around this would be for international law to recognize the existence of non-sovereign entities; perhaps as “regions”. If a parastate’s status as a sovereign state will not be solved, membership in key international organizations like the UN, the EU, or NATO as non-sovereign regions might be a way to break the stalemate. It allows parastates to enter international organizations but as lower-tiered members. If organizational membership is what’s really important, the status of sovereignty might be irrelevant. But this is a topic that is rarely discussed.

ASN: Where do you see your research going next?

Castan Pinos – We are already working on a follow-up article, which we will be presenting at the ASN conference in May. Our new research focuses on ‘how parastates end’. More specifically, we investigate the factors which lead to the disintegration and collapse of parastates. It is tremendously exciting!

Rossi – Beyond our next joint article, we hope to expand the collaborative work in Nationalities Papers with an edited reader that develops what we currently have, and add further studies to our list; specifically Karabakh, Northern Cyprus, and Abkhazia. A longer-term project may see us jointly write a book on the theoretical composition of parastates and their challenges to both the international system and international law.

Michael Rossi and Jaume Castan Pinos, Introduction to Inconvenient Realities: The Emergence and Resilience of Parastates. Nationalities Papers vol.48 #1, pp. 12-23