copenhagen in winter

There are over 40 unrecognized states around the world, all in various states of progression towards self-determination. It’s not a direct path in the least and one with no obvious final destination. These 3 unrecognized states are all somewhere along this path, lost primarily due to the political and economic isolation they face jut outside of their de facto borders.

erbil iraq juice standKurdish Autonomous Region – Iraq

The nation of Iraq has essentially split into three loosely related regions, delicately coordinated by a central government in Baghdad since the 2003 Iraq War. And while the disenfranchised Sunnis and stagnant southern Shiites work reluctantly together, the stable Kurdish north has taken a drastically more positive turn. That’s one of the reasons Kurds told me enthusiastically how much they love George W. Bush; Kurdish rights were consistently suppressed and abused during Saddam Hussein’s rule, often to horrific extremes.

These days the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) flies their own flag (concurrently with the Iraqi one) all over the lands they control which sit behind a well defined and armed border. For many violent years in the rest of the country after the US invasion, both the Americans and Iraqi government were happy to turn a blind eye to the increasingly autonomous and assertive Kurdish north.

This growing autonomy and the ambiguity of the term “Kurdistan” however illustrates its complex position in the region. Kurdistan can refer to either the area of the existing borders but is also often used to describe the region where Kurds form a significant minority or majority in the Middle East. That area happens to overlap with neighboring Turkey, Iran, and Syria; giving them an uneasy feeling about a potential uprising in those countries. (One view two terrorist organizations are currently spilling blood over.)

Nerves are one thing and if you’re not confused yet about the relationship the KRG has with it’s neighbors, consider this. Turkey is northern Iraq’s biggest economic partner, exchanging over 6 billion dollars in 2010. That’s an increase of 50% from 2008. And while the fate of Kurdistan is in question the optimism of its people is not. Kurds in northern Iraq are extremely optimistic about their chances to finally be the controllers of their destiny. They’ve got a very long way to go than the next unrecognized state below but I could almost feel the hope floating on the streets of Sulaymaniyah. The Kurds have been waiting for this chance for decades since the British drew arbitrary borders around Iraq in 1920 and are nurturing the opportunity in front of them.

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Turkish Republic Of Northern Cyprus – Cyprus

When the Turkish military arrived in northern Cyprus to prevent a Greece-backed coup d’tat in 1974, Turkish Cypriots fled north and the Greeks south, as violence erupted between the two communities who had been living on the island for centuries. 9 years later, while tensions remained high, the Turkish north declared itself the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC). That state is officially not recognized by any government in the world except Turkey (although there have been rumblings from Russia and others).

girne harbor north cyprus

Jump ahead more than 25 years in the future from 1983 and you would think the TRNC would be in much better shape than the less organized and recognized KRG in northern Iraq. But it’s not. The European Union currently sees Cyprus – the entire island – controlled by the Greek south, as the legitimate country whose north is occupied by Turkey.

london train stationEconomic isolation has been detrimental to the TRNC, who can only trade with Turkey; meanwhile their southern counterparts have since joined the EU. A crucial vote to reunify Cyprus went to referendum in 2004 with the Turkish north voting yes to the deal, while the Greeks in the south voted against it. Since then, the TRNC has been stuck.

Most unrecognized states around the world want some form of normalization but the citizens of the TRNC actually rejected it only to be rejected themselves. The Turkish Cypriots fear a lose of their culture as more Turks (from Turkey) move to the island – and many Turks don’t appreciate 400 million of their annual tax dollars being spent to keep the TRNC afloat.

Although today formal recognition by anyone isn’t on the horizon, there are soft spots. You can find North Cyprus flight and vacation billboards in the London Tube, Italian cruise ships regularly dock in Girne, and until recently, ferries went back and forth once a week from Syria. The TRNC may have to embrace its independence or completely give it up in order to move in some direction other than neutral.

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Freetown Christiania – Copenhagen, Denmark

Christiania is an unusual unrecognized state in the world because of its size and the fact that it has been allowed to exist in the first place. Basically a neighborhood in east Copenhagen, Christiania was created when a group of squatters took over what was the site of a former military base in 1971. Generally, unrecognized states have enough guns behind them to deter being reabsorbed into their larger states, but Denmark has dealt with Christiania differently. Although Christiania is not completely independent, much if its control was transferred from the local government to the nearly 900 residents in 1989.

construction sign in denmark

Christiania was based on very idealistic democratic principals and while a look inside reveals it has strayed somewhat from them, decisions in the community are still made by unanimous vote. Yet, it is the freedom of Christiania that threatens its existence today. Organized crime has taken advantage of the community’s very liberal drug laws and raids by the police have the Danish government thinking twice about Freetown Christiania.

Christiania is independent to an extent, but cannot exist without the supplies, electricity, nor police protection of the big brother that surrounds it. So, while the community may be able to police itself, it hasn’t been able to control the invasive external elements that have moved in to take advantage of its semi-independence.

Recognition Isn’t Utopia

Often the struggle for independence is one that sees self-determination as the end goal. Really though, it’s only the beginning. In fact, the push toward recognition helps to unite the nation that doesn’t exist. Afterwards ambitions, hopes, and ideals take different paths – the teenage years of a country if you will. As we’ve seen in Egypt’s recent revolution, the hard part begins after birth. The KRG, TRNC, and Freetown Christiania are now going through various stages of a difficult process in which they are forced to hold one trait, patience, in common for the unforeseeable future.