A proto-state, also known as a quasi-state,[1] is a political entity which does not represent a fully institutionalized or autonomous sovereign state.[2]

The precise definition of "proto-state" in political literature fluctuates depending on the context in which it is used. For instance, it has been used by some modern scholars to describe the self-governing British colonies and dependencies which exercised a form of home rule but remained integral parts of the British Empire and subject firstly to the metropole's administration.[3] Likewise, the Republics of the Soviet Union, which represented individual administrative units with their own respective national distinctions, have also been described as proto-states.[2] 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.[3] Such proto-states include the Republika Srpska and Herzeg-Bosnia during the Bosnian War[3] and Azawad during the 2012 Tuareg rebellion.[4] The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant is also widely held to be an example of a modern proto-state.[5][1][6][7]


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.[8] For instance, historical sociologist Gary Runciman noted that Greek city-states in classical antiquity such as Athens were initially weak proto-states which later evolved into larger and more centralised political entities.[8] Most ancient proto-states were the product of tribal societies, consisting of relatively short-lived confederations of communities which united under a single warlord or chieftain endowed with symbolic authority and military rank.[8] 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.[8] 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.[9]

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.[10] While theoretically owing allegiance to a single monarch under the feudal system, many lesser nobles administered their own fiefs as miniature "states within states", which were independent of each other.[11] This practice was especially notable with regards to large, decentralised political entities such as the Holy Roman Empire, which incorporated many autonomous and semi-autonomous proto-states.[12]

Following the Age of Discovery, the emergence of European colonialism resulted in the formation of colonial proto-states in Asia, Africa, and the Americas.[13] 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.[3] These were distinct administrative units that each fulfilled many of the functions of a state without actually exercising full sovereignty or independence.[13] 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.[14] Colonial proto-states later served as the basis for a number of modern nation states, particularly on the Asian and African continents.[13]

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.[3][2][15]

Tuareg rebels in the short-lived proto-state of Azawad.

Yet another form of proto-state has become especially common since the end of World War II, that established through the illegal seizure of territory by an insurgency or militant group, which then proceeds to assume the role of a de facto government in said territory.[5] 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.[16] 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.[17] 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.[17] 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, which set a precedent for many similar attempts throughout the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.[18] 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.[19] 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,[20][21][22] which maintained its own administrative bureaucracy and imposed taxes.[23]

Theoretical basis

Territory controlled by the Anti-Fascist Council of Yugoslavia, which established its own proto-state in 1942

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.[24] 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.[24]

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.[24] 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.[24] However, proto-states frequently go unrecognised since a state actor which recognises a proto-state does so in violation of another state actor's external sovereignty.[25] 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.[25]

Throughout modern history, partially autonomous regions of larger recognised states, especially those based on a historical precedent or ethnic and cultural distinctiveness which places them apart from those who dominate the state as a whole, have been considered proto-states.[3] Home rule generates a sub-national institutional structure that may justifiably be defined as a proto-state.[26] 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.[27] 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.[27] 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 which adopted his military philosophies.[18] 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.[18]

Secessionist proto-states are likeliest to form in preexisting states which 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.[28] 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.[28]

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.[27]

List of modern proto-states

Constituent proto-states


Proto-state Parent state Achieved statehood Since Source
 Adjara  Georgia No 1921 [3]
 Adygea  Russia No 1922 [3]
 Åland  Finland No 1921 [3][29]
 Altai Republic  Russia No 1922 [3]
 Aosta Valley  Italy No 1948 [3]
 Aruba  Netherlands No 1986 [3]
Aranachal Pradesh  India No 1987
Ashanti  Ghana No 1957 [30]
 Azad Kashmir  Pakistan No 1949 [3]
 Azores  Portugal No 1816 [3]
 Balochistan  Pakistan No 1947 [3]
 Bashkortostan  Russia No 1919 [3]
 British Virgin Islands  United Kingdom No 1960 [3]
 Bougainville  Papua New Guinea No 2001 [3]
 Buryatia  Russia No 1923 [3]
 Canary Islands  Spain No 1816 [3]
 Catalonia  Spain No 1978 [3]
 Cayman Islands  United Kingdom No 1962 [3]
 Chechnya  Russia No 1922 [3]
 Chin State  Myanmar No 1949 [3]
 Christmas Island  Australia No 1958 [3]
 Chuvashia  Russia No 1920 [3]
 Cook Islands  New Zealand No 1888 [3]
 Corsica  France No 1978 [3]
 Curaçao  Netherlands No 1816 [3]
 Dagestan  Russia No 1921 [3]
 Easter Island  Chile No 1944 [3]
 Euskadi  Spain No 1978 [3]
 Falkland Islands  United Kingdom No 1833 [3]
 Faroe Islands  Denmark No 1816 [3]
 Flanders  Belgium No 1970 [3]
 French Polynesia  France No 1847 [3]
 Friuli-Venezia Giulia  Italy No 1963 [3]
 Gagauzia  Moldova No 1991 [3]
 Galicia  Spain No 1978 [3]
 Gaza Strip  Israel
De facto 1994 [note 1]
Jharkhand  India No 2000
 Greenland  Denmark No 1816 [3]
 Guam  United States No 1816 [3]
 Guernsey  United Kingdom No 1204 [3]
Indian reservations  United States No [3]
 Ingushetia  Russia No 1924 [3]
 Iraqi Kurdistan  Iraq De facto 1991 [32]
 Isle of Man  United Kingdom No 1828 [3]
Jharkhand  India No 2000
 Jersey  United Kingdom No 1204 [3]
 Jubaland  Somalia No 2001 [note 2]
 Kabardino-Balkaria  Russia No 1921 [3]
 Kachin State  Myanmar No 1949 [3]
 Kalmykia  Russia No 1920 [3]
 Karachay-Cherkessia  Russia No 1922 [3]
 Karelia  Russia No 1923 [3]
 Kayah State  Myanmar No 1949 [3]
 Kayin State  Myanmar No 1949 [3]
 Khakassia  Russia No 1934 [3]
 Khyber Pakhtunkhwa  Pakistan No 1947 [3]
 Komi Republic  Russia No 1922 [3]
 Kosovo  Serbia De facto 2008 [3]
 Madeira  Portugal No 1816 [3]
 Mari El  Russia No 1920 [3]
 Marquesas Islands  France No 1844 [3]
Mizoram  India No 1986
 Montserrat  United Kingdom No 1632 [3]
 Mon State  Myanmar No 1949 [3]
 Mordovia  Russia No 1934 [3]
 New Caledonia  France No 1853 [3]
 Northern Ireland  United Kingdom No 1922 [3]
 Northern Marianas  United States No 1899 [3]
 North Ossetia-Alania  Russia No 1921 [3]
 Nunavut  Canada No 1999 [3]
 Palestinian National Authority  Israel De jure 1993 [35]
 Puerto Rico  United States No 1816 [3]
 Punjab, Pakistan  Pakistan No 1947 [3]
 Puntland  Somalia No 1998 [36]
 Quebec  Canada No 1816 [3]
 Republika Srpska  Bosnia-Herzegovina No 1995 [3][37]
 Saint Helena  United Kingdom No 1834 [3]
 Sardinia  Italy No 1816 [3]
 Sakha Republic  Russia No 1922 [3]
 Scotland  United Kingdom No 1816 [3]
 Shan State  Myanmar No 1949 [3]
 Sicily  Italy No 1816 [3]
 Sindh  Pakistan No 1947 [3]
 Sint Maarten  Netherlands No 1848 [3]
 Svalbard  Norway No 1992 [3]
 Tatarstan  Russia No 1920 [3]
 Temotu  Solomon Islands No 1981 [3]
 Trentino-Alto Adige/Südtirol  Italy No 1948 [3]
 Turks and Caicos  United Kingdom No 1973 [3]
 Tuva  Russia No 1911 [3]
 Udmurtia  Russia No 1920 [3]
 United States Virgin Islands  United States No 1816 [3]
 Uttarakhand  India No 2000 [3]
 Wales  United Kingdom No 1816 [3]
 Wallonia  Belgium No 1970 [3]
 Zanzibar  Tanzania No 1891 [3]


Proto-state Parent state Achieved statehood Dates Source
 Bophuthatswana  South Africa De jure 1977–1994 [38]
Bosnia-Herzegovina  Yugoslavia Yes 1943–1992 [15]
 Ciskei  South Africa De jure 1981–1994 [38]
Croatia  Yugoslavia Yes 1943–1991 [15]
 Czech Socialist Republic  Czechoslovakia Yes 1969–1993 [28]
 East Caprivi  South Africa No 1972–1989 [38]
 Gazankulu  South Africa No 1971–1994 [38]
 Hereroland  South Africa No 1970–1989 [38]
 KaNgwane  South Africa No 1972–1994 [38]
 Kavangoland  South Africa No 1973–1989 [38]
 KwaNdebele  South Africa No 1981–1994 [38]
 KwaZulu  South Africa No 1981–1994 [38]
 Lebowa  South Africa No 1972–1994 [38]
Macedonia  Yugoslavia Yes 1944–1991 [15]
Montenegro  Yugoslavia Yes 1945–1992 [15]
 Ovamboland  South Africa No 1973–1989 [38]
 QwaQwa  South Africa No 1974–1994 [38]
 Russian SFSR  Soviet Union Yes 1917–1991 [2]
Serbia  Yugoslavia Yes 1945–1992 [15]
Singapore Singapore  Malaysia Yes 1963–1965 [3]
 Slovak Socialist Republic  Czechoslovakia Yes 1969–1993 [28]
Slovenia  Yugoslavia Yes 1945–1991 [15]
South Africa South West Africa (Namibia)  South Africa Yes 1915–1991 [39]
South Sudan Southern Sudan  Sudan Yes 2005–2011 [40]
 Transkei  South Africa De jure 1976–1994 [38]
 Trucial States  United Kingdom Yes 1820–1971 [41]
Turkestan ASSR  Russian SFSR No 1918–1924 [42]
 Venda  South Africa De jure 1979–1994 [38]

Secessionist and insurgent proto-states


Proto-state Parent state Achieved statehood Since Source
Al-Shabaab  Somalia No 2009 [5]
Allied Democratic Forces  Democratic Republic of the Congo
No 1996 [43]
Ansar al-Sharia (Yemen)  Yemen No 2011 [5]
 Donetsk People's Republic  Ukraine De facto 2014 [44]
Hezbollah  Lebanon No 1982 [45]
Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant Islamic State (ISIL)  Iraq
No 2013 [24]
 Luhansk People's Republic  Ukraine De facto 2014 [44]
Democratic Federation of Northern Syria  Syria Partial 2013 [46]
 Sahrawi Republic  Morocco Partial 1976


 Somaliland  Somalia De facto 1991 [25]
Southern Transitional Council  Yemen No 2017
Afghanistan Taliban  Afghanistan No 2002 [48]


Proto-state Parent state Achieved statehood Dates Source
Al-Nusra Front  Syria No 2012–2017 [5]
Ansar al-Islam  Iraq No 2001–2003 [5]
Angola  Portugal Yes 1961–1975
Ansar al-Sharia (Libya)  Libya No 2014–2017 [5]
Ansar Dine  Mali No 2012–2013 [5]
 Azawad  Mali No 2012–2013 [4]
Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant Boko Haram  Nigeria
No 2013–2015 [5]
Chechen Ichkeria  Russia No 1991–2000 [25]
 Chinese Soviet Republic Taiwan China No 1931–1937 [18]
Communist China Taiwan China Yes 1927–1949 [18]
FARC  Colombia No 1964–2017 [48]
Groupe islamique armé  Algeria No 1993–1995 [5]
Croatian Republic of Herzeg-Bosnia Herzeg-Bosnia  Bosnia-Herzegovina No 1991–1996 [3]
 Hyderabad State  India No 1947–1948 [3]
Idel-Ural State Russia Russia No 1917–1918 [49]
Republic of Ireland Irish Republic  United Kingdom Yes 1919–1922 [50]
Jamiat-e Islami  Afghanistan No 1982–1989 [51]
Republic of Kosova  Serbia and Montenegro No 1992–1999 [52]
 Jubaland  Somalia No 1998–2001 [33]
Junbish-e Milli  Afghanistan No 1992-1997 [53]
Liberated Yugoslavia Croatia
Occupied Serbia
Yes 1942–1945 [54]
 Mozambique  Portugal Yes 1964–1974 [note 3]
Revolutionary Vietnam  South Vietnam No 1969–1976


Republika Srpska  Bosnia-Herzegovina No 1991–1995 [3]
Red Spears' rebel area in Dengzhou China No 1929 [55]
Serbian Krajina  Croatia No 1991–1995 [56]
Liberia "Taylorland" or Greater Liberia  Liberia No 1990–1995/97 [note 4]
Tamil Tigers  Sri Lanka No 1983–2008 [48]
UNITA  Angola No 1975–2002 [59]

See also

Notes and references


  1. ^ 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.[31]
  2. ^ Jubaland declared itself independent of Somalia in 1998.[33] 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.[34]
  3. ^ 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.[16]
  4. ^ 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 which 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.[57][58]


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