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.
PHOTO BY BENJAMIN LOWY/VII