The view from the ground.

Limbo World

They start by acting like real countries, then hope to become them.


KURDISTAN: A shepherd tends to his flock in Iraqi Kurdistan. Few would-be countries have reached a happier state of limbo than this relatively stable Iraqi region.

KURDISTAN: A shepherd tends to his flock in Iraqi Kurdistan. Few would-be countries have reached a happier state of limbo than this relatively stable Iraqi region.


On my most recent visit to the Republic of Abkhazia, a country that does not exist, I interviewed the deputy foreign minister, Maxim Gundjia, about the foreign trade his country doesn’t have with the real countries that surround it on the Black Sea. Near the end of our chat, he paused, looked down at my leg, and asked why I was bleeding on his floor. I told him I had slipped a few hours before and ripped a hole in my shin, down to the bone, about the size of a one-ruble coin. Blood had soaked through the gauze, and I needed stitches. “You can go to our hospital, but you will be shocked by the conditions,” Gundjia said. So he pointed me to the building next door, where in about 20 minutes I had my leg propped up on a dark wooden desk and was wincing at the sting of a vigorous alcohol-swabbing by the health minister himself. I was not accustomed to such personalized government service. Fake countries have to try harder, I thought, and wondered whether it would be pressing my luck to ask for the finance minister to personally refund my vat and for the transportation minister to confirm my bus ticket back to Georgia, which is to say, back to reality.

Abkhazia, along with a dozen or so other quasi-countries teetering on the brink of statehood, is in the international community’s prenatal ward. If present and past suggest the future, most such embryonic countries will end stillborn, but not for lack of trying. The totems of statehood are everywhere in these wannabe states: offices filled with functionaries in neckties, miniature desk flags, stationery with national logos, and, of course, piles of real bureaucratic paperwork — all designed to convince foreign visitors like me that international recognition is deserved and inevitable. Nagorno-Karabakh, the Armenian separatist enclave within Azerbaijan, issues visas with fancy holograms and difficult-to-forge printing. Somaliland, the comparatively serene republic split from war-wasted Somalia, prints its own official-looking currency, the Somaliland shilling, whose smallest denomination is so worthless that to bring cash to restock their safes, money-changers need to use draft animals.

These quasi-states — which range from decades-old international flashpoints like Palestine, Northern Cyprus, and Taiwan to more obscure enclaves like Transnistria, Western Sahara, Puntland, Iraqi Kurdistan, and South Ossetia — control their own territory and operate at least semifunctional governments, yet lack meaningful recognition. Call them Limbo World. They start by acting like real countries, and then hope to become them.

In years past, such breakaway quasi-states tended to achieve independence fast or be reassimilated within a few years (usually after a gory civil war, as with Biafra in Nigeria). But today’s Limbo World countries stay in political purgatory for longer — the ones in this article have wandered in legal wilderness for an average of 15 years — representing a dangerous new international phenomenon: the permanent second-class state.

This trend is a mess waiting to happen. The first worry is that these quasi-states’ continued existence, and occasional luck, emboldens other secessionists. Imagine a world where every independence movement with a crate of Kalashnikovs thinks it can become the new Kurdistan, if only it hires the right lobbyists in Washington and opens a realistic-looking Ministry of Foreign Affairs in its makeshift capital. The second concern is that these aspirant nations have none of the rights and obligations of full countries, just ambiguous status and guns without laws. The United Nations is, in the end, binary: You are in or you are out, and if you are out, your mass-produced miniature desk flag has no place in Turtle Bay.

My tours of Limbo World over the last few years have taken me around the full spectrum of these enclaves, from the hopeless chatter of virtual Khalistan, a Sikh separatist state that talks a big game and has a president in exile, but not a postage stamp of actual land, to the earnest dysfunction of Somaliland to the slick-running, optimistically almost oil-state of Kurdistan. Each of these would-be countries is, in its own way, an object lesson in the limits of statehood.


ABKHAZIA: A popular Soviet holiday destination, Abkhazia’s coast is now littered with rusted boats and scrap metal.


They are also ghosts of war-zones future — most have enemies keen to take back the breakaway territory — and past. They represent the wars that time forgot, frozen in unresolved crisis because it is either too convenient to keep them that way or too problematic for the Real World countries on their borders to come to a more lasting solution. Limbo, it turns out, is useful because it lets actual countries punish each other by proxy and allows them to exact loyalty and tribute from the quasi-countries dependent on their patronage. If Limbo status didn’t exist, someone would invent it.

Unfortunately for these states, winning the full Rand-McNally, General Assembly treatment is more difficult than merely hiring a professional-quality printer to start cranking out the passports. Carving land from other countries is nearly always bloody and in most cases leaves borders that bleed for decades. Somaliland and Abkhazia have existed for almost 20 years, with little indication that widespread recognition is imminent. Indeed, the rare successful cases these days of countries making the leap from troubled enclave to independent nation have pretty much bypassed Limbo entirely. Think East Timor and Kosovo, which jumped from brutal occupation to U.N. administration to independence to become two of the first new countries of the 2000s. The Limbo countries tend to start with violence and then get stuck in the next stage: a path that leads on and on and on, apparently to nowhere.

The Abkhazian case is typical. Abkhazia (pop. 190,000) occupies a stretch of Georgia’s Black Sea coast, an area whose beaches, pine forests, mountains, and lakes once attracted Soviet leaders Stalin, Khrushchev, and Brezhnev for holidays. A war in the early 1990s separated Abkhazia from Georgia, killing thousands on each side in the first 13 months and sending 100,000 ethnic Georgians and Mingrelians fleeing from their homes in Abkhazia.

Midwifing Abkhazia’s rebellion was Russia, the Abkhazians’ ally and guarantor. Georgia was one of the ex-Soviet states most eager to explore alliances with the West, and Abkhazia was Russia’s way to make Georgia suffer for its infidelity. Russia sent support to Abkhazia, opened the Abkhazian border for trade, and gradually took steps just short of annexation. In 2006, it granted Russian passports to all Abkhazians, and finally — once Abkhazia had become entirely reliant on Russia — it became the first country to recognize Abkhazian independence. According to Abkhazians, Georgia planned to invade in the summer of 2008, and only an influx of Russian troops into Abkhazia at the last minute led Georgia to make a play — ultimately doomed, due to Russia’s surprisingly strong response — for South Ossetia, another Russian client state inside Georgia, instead. The uneasy standoff meant Russia never formally annexed Abkhazia from Georgia, and in return the Abkhazians made sure the Russians never needed to annex them, because they do Russia’s bidding anyway. This guarantee has emboldened the Abkhazians, who taunt the Georgian army just across the line of control. “The first Georgian soldier who crosses the Inguri River will be shot,” Gundjia vowed when I visited in the fall.

As the health minister, a lapsed dermatologist named Zurab Marshaniya, rinsed the clotted blood from my leg, he sighed in frustration at his government’s predicament. I told him how impressed I was at the pace of Abkhazia’s return to its old Soviet status as a tourist resort. When I last came to the Abkhazian capital of Sukhumi in 2006, the one-time jewel of the boardwalk, the Hotel Abkhazia, was bombed out and abandoned to weeds. Now it was half-repaired, and its rival, the Ritsa Hotel, had opened its suites to the richest of Abkhazia’s 1 million annual visitors, nearly all of them Russian. (Ritsa’s Room 208, from whose balcony a vacationing Leon Trotsky addressed a crowd on the occasion of Lenin’s death, goes for about $150 a night.) Abkhazia’s hospitals may have been “shocking,” but the city as a whole looked no worse from the outside than a down-market cottage town on Lake Superior. Marshaniya was all shrugs and said as long as Georgia still intended to march back into Sukhumi, the gains were fragile.

In the meantime, Abkhazia’s foreign policy is based on courting anyone who might recognize its sovereignty. Daniel Ortega’s government in Nicaragua obliged in 2008, likely influenced by old Soviet ties, and Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez formally acknowledged Abkhazia in 2009. Except for Russia, though, Abkhazia has no real formal relations, and its diplomats are strictly limited in where they can go. The United States, a close ally of Mikheil Saakashvili’s government in Georgia, denies visa requests from Abkhazian government officials, and other states such as India have been persuaded to do the same.


ABKHAZIA: An abandoned apartment block in the town of Dranda.


That leaves Abkhazia represented instead by quirky volunteers like George Hewitt, a professor at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies who has made a specialty of Abkhazia’s culture and its language, Abkhaz, a linguistic freak show with 67 consonants and only one vowel. Hewitt knows Abkhaz as well as any non-Abkhazian, and he writes impassioned and informed essays on the Abkhazian question. But he is very much a scholar, not a political strategist. I visited Hewitt before my first visit to Abkhazia in 2006 and asked whether he needed anything from Georgia, where he is decidedly non grata. I thought he might like a book, or a postcard. He said there had been calumnies against him in the Mingrelian-language newspapers; could I investigate? Alas, I could not.

Encouraging states like Abkhazia to flourish and proliferate has created precisely the kind of second-class statehood, with uncertain rights and responsibilities in the international system, that diplomacy was designed over the last several centuries to avoid. The Peace of Westphalia  established an international order of fixed boundaries in 1648 and made no provisions for the existence of functionally independent enclaves in Brandenburg-Prussia, say, that France could use for leverage. The whole point was to come to conclusions about what was sovereign territory and agree to knock off the warfare and ambiguity. That was in part for the welfare of those enclaves, so they were not trapped in uncertainty and used as proxies — or worse, neocolonies — by first-class states. But Limbo World suffers that exact fate today.

Ethiopia, smarting from the loss of its actual colony Eritrea two decades ago, effectively adopted an unofficial second one on the northern edge of Somalia, called Somaliland. Somaliland was among the most noisome and rebellious areas in Somalia under the dictatorship of Muhammad Siad Barre. In the late 1980s, Siad Barre killed hundreds of thousands in bombings of its main city, Hargeisa, and the countryside. When Siad Barre fell, Somaliland rapidly asserted itself as an independent state, and it is now approaching 20 years of relative peace. The coastline that Ethiopia lost in Eritrea it has effectively gained back in Somaliland, with the port of Berbera now a key trade valve into the Gulf of Aden. Ethiopia’s support for Somaliland also represents a perpetual outrage to the Somalis of Mogadishu. While continuing to fight among themselves for nearly two decades, most factions agree that Ethiopia is a mortal external threat, especially because it invaded Somalia proper in 2006.

Like the Abkhazians, the Somalilanders are as helpful as they are hapless, as I found from the moment I stepped into their small representation office in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa. At most African embassies, the diplomats regard visa applicants as captive sources of revenue. But rather than a droopy-lidded kleptocrat, the Somaliland office produced a slim, energetic young man with an endearing eagerness to show off his country. He came out to stamp my passport and sat down next to me to sketch a map of the complex land journey between Addis and Hargeisa. “They grow the best khat here,” he said, referring to the mildly narcotic chew popular in the region. His index finger traced a proud little circle on an area just on the Ethiopian side of the border. For $20, he pressed into my passport a full-page visa, as official-looking as any in Africa.

On the journey he described, there was an emphatic lack of officialdom, a studied denial by Ethiopia that any border existed at all. At Jijiga, 10 hours from Addis and the last big town before I would cross into the nonexistent country of Somaliland, I had to hunt down a police officer to get him to inscribe my passport with a note confirming I had exited Ethiopia legally. This was a border that existed only by request.

Once on the Somaliland side it took about two hours of off-road driving — through hills of desert scrub, past herders crouching in huts made of discarded U.N. and usaid flour sacks — before I met anything resembling a sign of government. At the edge of Hargeisa, a hilly town whose lights were the one glowing dot on the horizon as I drove, two men with machine guns intercepted the car to demand my papers. This, I thought, would be my cue to do what one does at so many other African borders, which is to wink and offer smokes and a small bribe in exchange for safe passage. But before I could phrase my tentative offer, they found the inky blue stamp in my passport and waved me through, asking only that I register with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs the next day.

Unlike Abkhazia, Somaliland did not exactly enchant me as a place beautiful enough to die for. Perhaps it was the heat — well over 100 degrees Fahrenheit, with nothing to drink, due to strict enforcement of the Ramadan fast — or perhaps the buggy eyes and green-flecked teeth of the khat-chewers outside my hotel room each night. The standard meal, spaghetti and ground camel meat, eaten with the hands, made clear why I had never been to a Somali restaurant outside Somalia.


SOMALILAND: The port at Berbera, used as a trading center by Ethiopia.


The Somalilanders, of course, had already done quite a bit of dying for their land and for their spaghetti, and they missed no chance to tell me how cynical and cruel the international community had been by not recognizing their state. At the foreign ministry satellite office set up to stamp in the rare tourist, two excitable Somalilanders pointed out that Somaliland had multiparty elections, a free press, and an anti-terrorism policy that the government enforced with zeal. It had done all this without recognition and without help from the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, or any other agency that requires an international rubber stamp to operate. If this was illegitimacy, other African governments should try it.

And in any case, what was the alternative? A reconstituted Somalia would require reconnecting Somaliland with what may be the world’s most spectacularly failed state. Where Somaliland has a fledgling coast guard, Somalia has flourishing pirates, and where Hargeisa has a form of democracy, Mogadishu has howling anarchy punctuated by fits of sharia law.

Yet this is the alternative urged by nearly everyone in the region. Arab states are reluctant to see Somalia, a fellow Arab League member, sliced up and leased to predominantly Christian Ethiopia. The African Union worries that the Somaliland example will persuade separatist movements that if they just fight hard enough, they’ll eventually get their own U.N. seats. Somaliland, of course, retorts by pointing out that Somalia is being used by foreign states just as surely as Ethiopia is using Somaliland. Moreover, Somaliland asks whether peaceful and responsible democracy isn’t something worth incentivizing, regardless of whether the peaceful and responsible democracy is being practiced by separatists. For now, even Ethiopia, Somaliland’s closest regional ally, hasn’t bestowed recognition, and there is no sign it intends to.

Critics charge Limbo Worlders with having things backward, even practicing a form of cargo cultism. Just as New Guinean tribes built crude airstrips to lure planes bearing valuable cargo, quasi-countries build crude foreign ministries in the vain hopes of luring ambassadors bearing credentials from London, Paris, and Washington. These critics say Limbo World countries are fatally misled about how independence is supposed to work: Recognition precedes, rather than follows, the creation of an actual state. The list of Limbo World alumni — countries that gained independence by acting like independent states first, and then getting recognition — is small, and the few examples of partial success (Kosovo is stuck on 63 recognizing countries, Taiwan on 23) suggest Limbo is a permanent condition when it is not a fatal one.

Indeed, once Limbo World countries have reached a certain level of development, many of them start considering the possibility that independence isn’t the brass ring it once appeared. Abkhazia might have entered that phase. After Georgia suffered an embarrassing defeat trying to reclaim South Ossetia (the other quasi-state within its borders) in 2008, Abkhazia became emboldened and developed its trade and infrastructure significantly with Russian backing. It expanded its sea trade, despite a blockade vigorously enforced by the Georgian navy. (Occasional Turkish merchant vessels break the blockade by sailing to the Russian port of Sochi and then skirting the coast until they reach Sukhumi.)

No quasi-state has reached a happier Limbo status than Iraqi Kurdistan. Throughout the 1990s, Iraqi Kurdistan was riven by internal divisions, and at times its senior leaders viewed each other as greater bogeymen than Saddam Hussein. In 1996, the Kurdistan Democratic Party even allied with Hussein against the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (puk) and invited his forces into Irbil to flush out the puk. The factions reached an icy truce in 2002, with the understanding that they would cooperate to dislodge Hussein and achieve eventual independence.

Nominally, independence remains the goal. Indeed, suspicions that Iraqi Kurdish politicians have discarded that goal have done much to alienate them from their people. But since my first visit there in 2003, the rationale for full independence has become less clear, just as the apparatus of the Kurdish state has become slicker and more sophisticated. On that first visit, the Kurdistan government asserted itself mostly through the indelicate searches by its peshmerga militia, which daily tore apart my luggage and rifled through it with ruthless attention.


ABKHAZIA: Doctors in Abkhazia’s Gulripsh hospital discuss a new TB case.


Within a few years the peshmerga had become smoother, and the government more comfortable with its fate. Barham Salih, the puk’s representative in Washington, led the Kurds’ successful push to get the United States to dislodge Hussein. He eventually became a deputy prime minister of post-Hussein Iraq, and puk chief Jalal Talabani, the Iraqi president. In Washington, they retained Barbour Griffith & Rogers, the Republican-affiliated lobbying firm, and their presentation to the outside world became even cannier, with less mention of phrases like “autonomy” that might spook the Turks next door.

I crossed into Kurdistan from Turkey at midnight, on foot, and got a big stamp indicating “Republic of Iraq-Kurdistan Region.” On either side of the border, trucks were lined up hundreds deep, loaded with goods and ready to pay a hefty sum in duties — money destined not for Baghdad but for the Kurdish capital of Irbil. Turkey was a happy partner in this looting of the transport paths, eager to watch Iraq’s Kurdish leadership enrich itself as long as it stopped short of asking the world to treat its borders as reality.

When I crossed the southern edge of Kurdistan, where Arab Iraq and its then-horrific carnage began, the only indication of the change in administration was the different color uniform, light blue for the Arab Iraqi police in lieu of the desert camouflage of the peshmerga. In the early days after Hussein’s toppling, the border had been a vigorously policed checkpoint that separated Kurdistan unmistakably from its neighbor. Now the Kurds were less zealous in marking the line, as if to say: Feel the fear as you leave the safety of our territory and enter the land of Arabia and of car bombs. We don’t need to mark our border on the map because the chill in your spine is marking it for us.

By 2006, the word “independence” was everywhere whispered but nowhere spoken. Instead, Kurdish officials brought me to eat at the buffet of the new hotel they called the Sheraton (not really a Sheraton, but this was not really a country either), to inhale the fresh paint fumes at the clean and orderly international airport, to ogle the tracts of luxury apartments under development by a Turkish construction firm. Pushing the independence issue would have seemed gauche, with Limbo so profitable.

Throughout my travels in Limbo World, the conversation would often swing back to Uruguay, where a 1933 agreement was sealed that is today an article of faith to Limbo Worlders. The Montevideo Convention established a theory of statehood that treated countries like starfish, capable of surviving after having their limbs hacked off and able to sprout new and independent states from those hacked-off limbs.

It has come to be known as the declarative theory of statehood: the idea that a state is any entity with a fixed territory and population, and a government that can enter into relations with other states. Needless to say, if the letter of this convention, to which the United States is a signatory, were followed, nearly every country in Limbo World would immediately convert into full nationhood and every rebel group on the planet would be scrambling to print business cards for its hastily convened diplomatic corps. Like many sweeping declarations of foreign policy, the Montevideo Convention has been the victim of wise neglect nearly ever since its signing. Still, the opposite extreme in international relations — giving existing countries a veto over every self-determination movement — hardly recommends itself, and whatever happy medium exists between the two has not yet been reached.

Some in Limbo World are at least temporarily content with this ambiguity. In his Sukhumi office, Maxim Gundjia pointed out that being Russia’s pawn is no less embarrassing than being America’s pawn, like Saakashvili. And in any case, recognition is overrated, as long as the quasi-state’s economy is poor. “What’s the use of being recognized like Afghanistan?” he asked. “They have the first flag at the U.N. square, but who wants to live there?”

That evening, as I limped along the Black Sea boardwalk (gingerly, to keep my leg from tearing back open), it was easy to see his point. Indeed, it wasn’t obvious why Abkhazia was pursuing recognition so fervently, when even if it achieved legitimacy it would probably have to rely on Russia for most everything, including security. For now, a glance at the shore showed that Abkhazia had more than most real countries: the beauty of a moonlit sea, and the beginnings of prosperity from a flow of tourists glad to disgorge their rubles to buy fancy hotel rooms, cheap wine, and rich Caucasian pastries. The Russian holiday-makers who walked past me were a constant reminder that the desire for true independence, from Georgia and from Russia, was not a realistic one, no matter how hard Abkhazians worked to achieve it. But as I looked out on the scene, the moonbeams caught a ship in the distance, and the uncertainty over whether that ship flew a Georgian flag made me understand, for a second, what keeps them trying.


Graeme Wood is a contributing editor to the Atlantic.

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