The precise definition of proto-state in political literature fluctuates depending on the context in which it is used. It has been used by some modern scholars to describe the self-governing British colonies and dependencies that exercised a form of home rule but remained crucial parts of the British Empire and subject firstly to the metropole's administration. Similarly, the Republics of the Soviet Union, which represented administrative units with their own respective national distinctions, have also been described as proto-states.
In more recent usage, the term proto-state has most often been evoked in reference to militant secessionist groups that claim, and exercise some form of territorial control over, a specific region but lack institutional cohesion. Such proto-states include the Republika Srpska and Herzeg-Bosnia during the Bosnian War and Azawad during the 2012 Tuareg rebellion. The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant is also widely held to be an example of a modern proto-state.
The term "proto-state" has been used in contexts as far back as Ancient Greece to refer to the phenomenon that the formation of a large and cohesive nation would often be preceded by very small and loose forms of statehood. For instance, historical sociologist Gary Runciman noted that Greek city-states in classical antiquity such as Athens were initially weak proto-states that later evolved into larger and more centralised political entities. Most ancient proto-states were the product of tribal societies, consisting of relatively short-lived confederations of communities that united under a single warlord or chieftain endowed with symbolic authority and military rank. These were not considered sovereign states since they rarely achieved any degree of institutional permanence and authority was often exercised over a mobile people rather than measurable territory. Loose confederacies of this nature were the primary means of embracing a common statehood by people in many regions, such as the Central Asian steppes, throughout ancient history.
Proto-states proliferated in Western Europe during the Middle Ages, likely as a result of a trend towards political decentralisation following the collapse of the Western Roman Empire and the adoption of feudalism. While theoretically owing allegiance to a single monarch under the feudal system, many lesser nobles administered their own fiefs as miniature "states within states" that were independent of each other. This practice was especially notable with regards to large, decentralised political entities such as the Holy Roman Empire, that incorporated many autonomous and semi-autonomous proto-states.
Following the Age of Discovery, the emergence of European colonialism resulted in the formation of colonial proto-states in Asia, Africa, and the Americas. A few colonies were given the unique status of protectorates, which were effectively controlled by the metropole but retained limited ability to administer themselves, self-governing colonies, dominions, and dependencies. These were distinct administrative units that each fulfilled many of the functions of a state without actually exercising full sovereignty or independence. Colonies without a sub-national home rule status, on the other hand, were considered administrative extensions of the colonising power rather than true proto-states. Colonial proto-states later served as the basis for a number of modern nation states, particularly on the Asian and African continents.
During the twentieth century, some proto-states existed as not only distinct administrative units, but their own theoretically self-governing republics joined to each other in a political union such as the socialist federal systems observed in Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, and the Soviet Union.
Another form of proto-state that has become especially common since the end of World War II is established through the unconstitutional seizure of territory by an insurgent or militant group that proceeds to assume the role of a de facto government. Although denied recognition and bereft of civil institutions, insurgent proto-states may engage in external trade, provide social services, and even undertake limited diplomatic activity. These proto-states are usually formed by movements drawn from geographically concentrated ethnic or religious minorities, and are thus a common feature of inter-ethnic civil conflicts. This is often due to the inclinations of an internal cultural identity group seeking to reject the legitimacy of a sovereign state's political order, and create its own enclave where it is free to live under its own sphere of laws, social mores, and ordering.
The accumulation of territory by an insurgent force to form a sub-national geopolitical system and eventually, a proto-state, was a calculated process in China during the Chinese Civil War that set a precedent for many similar attempts throughout the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Proto-states established as a result of civil conflict typically exist in a perpetual state of warfare and their wealth and populations may be limited accordingly. One of the most prominent examples of a wartime proto-state in the twenty-first century is the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, that maintained its own administrative bureaucracy and imposed taxes.
The definition of a proto-state is not concise, and has been confused by the interchangeable use of the terms state, country, and nation to describe a given territory. The term proto-state is preferred to "proto-nation" in an academic context, however, since some authorities also use nation to denote a social, ethnic, or cultural group capable of forming its own state.
A proto-state does not meet the four essential criteria for statehood as elaborated upon in the declarative theory of statehood of the 1933 Montevideo Convention: a permanent population, a defined territory, a government with its own institutions, and the capacity to enter into relations with other states. A proto-state is not necessarily synonymous with a state with limited recognition that otherwise has all the hallmarks of a fully functioning sovereign state, such as Rhodesia or the Republic of China, also known as Taiwan. However, proto-states frequently go unrecognised since a state actor that recognises a proto-state does so in violation of another state actor's external sovereignty. If full diplomatic recognition is extended to a proto-state and embassies exchanged, it is defined as a sovereign state in its own right and may no longer be classified as a proto-state.
Throughout modern history, partially autonomous regions of larger recognised states, especially those based on a historical precedent or ethnic and cultural distinctiveness that places them apart from those who dominate the state as a whole, have been considered proto-states. Home rule generates a sub-national institutional structure that may justifiably be defined as a proto-state. When a rebellion or insurrection seizes control and begins to establish some semblance of administration in regions within national territories under its effective rule, it has also metamorphosed into a proto-state. These wartime proto-states, sometimes known as insurgent states, may eventually transform the structure of a state altogether, or demarcate their own autonomous political spaces. While not a new phenomenon, the modern formation of a proto-states in territory held by a militant non-state entity was popularised by Mao Zedong during the Chinese Civil War, and the national liberation movements worldwide that adopted his military philosophies. The rise of an insurgent proto-state was sometimes also an indirect consequence of a movement adopting Che Guevara's foco theory of guerrilla warfare.
Secessionist proto-states are likeliest to form in preexisting states that lack secure boundaries, a concise and well-defined body of citizens, or a single sovereign power with a monopoly on the legitimate use of military force. They may be created as a result of putsches, insurrections, separatist political campaigns, foreign intervention, sectarian violence, civil war, and even the bloodless dissolution or division of the state.
Proto-states can be important regional players, as their existence impacts the options available to state actors, either as potential allies or as impediments to their political or economic policy articulations.
List of modern proto-states
Secessionist and insurgent proto-states
|Proto-state||Parent state||Achieved statehood||Since||Source|
|Allied Democratic Forces|| Democratic Republic of the Congo
|Ansar al-Sharia (Yemen)||Yemen||No||2011|||
|Dar El Kuti||Central African Republic||De facto||2015|||
|Donetsk People's Republic||Ukraine||De facto||2014|||
|Islamic State (ISIL)|| Iraq
|Luhansk People's Republic||Ukraine||De facto||2014|||
|Republic of Artsakh||Azerbaijan/ Armenia||De facto||1991|
|Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria||Syria||Partial||2013|||
|South Ossetia||Georgia||De facto||1991|
|Southern Transitional Council||Yemen||De facto||2017|
Notes and references
- Although officially controlled by the Palestinian National Authority, the Gaza Strip is administered separately and has achieved its own unique sub-national status as a Palestinian proto-state.
- Jubaland declared itself independent of Somalia in 1998. It technically rejoined Somalia in 2001 when its ruling Juba Valley Alliance became part of the country's Transitional Federal Government. However, Jubaland has continued to persist as a more or less autonomous state.
- The erosion of Portuguese military control over northern Mozambique during the Mozambican War of Independence allowed local guerrillas to establish a proto-state there, which survived until the war ended in 1974. Home to about a million people, the miniature insurgent proto-state was managed by FRELIMO's civilian wing and was able to provide administrative services, open trade relations with Tanzania, and even supervise the construction of its own schools and hospitals with foreign aid.
- In course of the First Liberian Civil War, the Liberian central government effectively collapsed, allowing warlords to establish their own fiefs. One of the most powerful rebel leaders in Liberia, Charles Taylor, set up his own domain in a way resembling an actual state: He reorganized his militia into a military-like organization (split into Army, Marines, Navy, and Executive Mansion Guard), established his de facto capital at Gbarnga, and created a civilian government and justice system under his control that were supposed to enforce law and order. The area under his control was commonly called "Taylorland" or "Greater Liberia" and even became somewhat stable and peaceful until it largely disintegrated in 1994/5 as result of attacks by rival militias. In the end, however, Taylor won the civil war and was elected President of Liberia, with his regime becoming the new central government.
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