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East/West: Analysis From Washington -- A Surrogate For Sovereignty

  • Paul Goble



Prague, 22 January 1999 (RFE/RL) -- By extending diplomatic recognition to some post-communist regimes which lack traditional attributes of sovereignty such as an effective political system and a monopoly on the use of force, the international community has generated some unexpected problems both for this region and for itself.

Within these countries, it has increased obsessions about the trappings of state power rather than the reality of it. And it has prompted groups on the territory of these countries to compete -- sometimes violently -- for diplomatic recognition and the financial rewards such recognition can give.

And for outside observers, by making diplomatic recognition a surrogate for sovereignty as a whole, this action has introduced serious conceptual confusion about the nature of the relationship between criminal activity and the state and thus made it more rather than less difficult for outsiders to help regimes there combat organized crime.

These are some of the remarkable conclusions contained in a new study on "Mafia Kingdoms in Post-Communist Europe" by Steven Sampson, a social anthropologist at the University of Lund in Sweden.

Having examined Western theories of the "criminalization of the state" in post-communist countries, Sampson finds that most of them were defective because they assumed that these countries had genuine governments with a real public sphere.

In fact, he concludes, many of these "recognized" regimes have few of the attributes of statehood beyond the public trappings. The nominal governments do not control "their" territories. They cannot extract resources from the population, and they cannot deploy the aid they do receive from Western donor countries.

They are, Sampson says, capable of printing and even selling beautiful stamps, but they are not able to deliver the mail.

And they often are, as in the case of Albania, one country in the daytime and another and much smaller one at night.

This weakness in what diplomats conceive of as states is obvious to many groups in the population. And ethnic minorities or even criminal groups who also see just how much they can gain from getting diplomatic recognition even if they may not ever be in a position to function as genuine states themselves.

Not surprisingly, these groups are thus more willing to use force to try to gain that recognition, a trend that has made it even more difficult for those nominally in power to create genuine sovereignty.

But the confusion of diplomatic recognition and genuine sovereignty also has three major consequences for other governments who want to understand and even help.

First, it has led many to conclude that the problems of these countries flow from the criminalization of the state rather than from the absence of a state in the normal state. And that in turn has led these "governments" to advocate policies for fighting the crime that exists in these countries.

Second, this confusion has contributed to a misunderstanding of the nature of crime in these countries. In many of these countries, Sampson suggests, organized crime is "the ultimate NGO," filling the space normally occupied by civil society and which neither the state nor the market currently dominate.

Consequently, this pattern leads less to the criminalization of the state than to the "decivilization" of the population, undermining or preventing the development of those values that are necessary to support democracy, free markets, and civil society more generally.

And third, this conflation of recognition and sovereignty has led to a confusion about the nature of the state as such to a great extent, Sampson suggests, political institutions on these territories fill the gaps where the market or the often criminal informal sector, do not operate, rather than the reverse as is the case in more typical and organized political systems.

Understanding these features of political and informal life in these countries will not by itself allow anyone either there or from the outside to overcome them. But failing to understand them, Sampson concludes, will almost certainly make progress toward genuine sovereignty and civil society far more difficult.
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