In theory, contested entities like Transnistria, Nagorno-Karabakh, Abkhazia and South Ossetia live in an inhospitable political environment. The international state system does not acknowledge them as existent. Political scientists are usually content with stating that those post-Soviet de facto states wholly rely on Russia (or, in the case of Nagorno-Karabakh, on Armenia) as their patron, and that the unrecognized states would otherwise not be able to persist. Empirical data, however, demonstrate that their diplomatic activities address a wider range of partner countries than just Russia.
A new paper in the academic journal International Relations, published by a former editor of Nouvelle Europe, addresses this aspect from a theoretical perspective. It finds that almost 80% of the post-Soviet de facto states’ digital diplomacy involve partner states other than Russia. These data include diplomatic notes sent to each other among the post-Soviet de facto states (e.g. South Ossetia congratulating Nagorno-Karabakh on its Independence Day), official announcements concerning the few countries that have recognized them (e.g. Vanuatu or Tuvalu), or expressions of condolences after salient terrorist attacks or other catastrophes (e.g. after the Easter attacks in Sri Lanka in April 2019, Abkhazia's Foreign Ministry sent its condolences). Most surprisingly, despite only having gained recognition from a handful of remote countries, the paper found low-level diplomatic relationship-management with dozens of states – from Brazil to Nigeria, from Italy to South Africa, and beyond.
One could dismiss it as an irrelevant and slightly enigmatic activity. However, the stolid regularity and duration of this practice (since at least 2015) as well as its uniform ostentatiousness across all post-Soviet de facto states indicate that the practice cannot be wholly degraded as insignificant. Rather, the paper premises that it must be a vital, central part of their diplomatic strategy.
Indeed, the study in International Relations argues that the diplomatic ties that bind the post-Soviet contested regions to the wider world is not impractical, but rather essential. Its utility can best be illustrated with network theory: While entities like Abkhazia and South Ossetia are nodes outside the network of the international society, they regularly enact ties to insiders, and if these ties become strong enough, they slowly draw the outsider- and insider-nodes closer to each other. As a result, the outsiders approximate the network, and the boundary between the international society and its external environment becomes fuzzy. In the end, if at least a few recognized states such as Nauru or Venezuela regularly interact professionally with the contested entities, they draw the other insider-nodes (the other recognized states) closer to the de facto states, sparking an embarrassment across the whole international society. The international society would be compelled to justify why de facto states are to remain outsiders, but normative criteria (such as ‘territorial integrity’) are notoriously hard to delineate clearly. This may, in the end, lead to an ‘exit’ strategy: The international society may re-evaluate the outsider-status of the de facto states, and perhaps find an outcome that is favourable to the de facto states.
Thus, the low-level diplomatic relations to remote countries are not as absurd and irrelevant as they may have seemed prima facie. Rather, they manifest a political strategy to gain recognition. It rejects the stigma imposed upon the contested entities. As everything in this complex world, diplomacy may be highly indeterminate, and no linear theoretical model may predict a clear outcome (such as recognition of their sovereignty); but complexity means that minuscule actions may spark great results. The post-Soviet de facto states seem to indulge themselves into this complexity with seemingly enigmatic whims.