A proto-state, also known as a quasi-state,[2] is a political entity that does not represent a fully institutionalized or autonomous sovereign state.[3]

A map of the Middle East showing areas controlled by ISIL as of May 2015: a number of major cities in northern Syria and Iraq, and corridors connecting them.
Maximum extent of ISIL's territorial control in Syria and Iraq, frequently described as a "proto-state", on 21 May 2015.[1]

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.[4] Similarly, the Republics of the Soviet Union, which represented administrative units with their own respective national distinctions, have also been described as proto-states.[3]

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.[4] Such proto-states include the Republika Srpska and Herzeg-Bosnia during the Bosnian War[4] and Azawad during the 2012 Tuareg rebellion.[5] The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant is also widely held to be an example of a modern proto-state.[6][2][7][8]


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

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.[9] 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.[9] 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.[9] 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.[9] 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.[10]

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.[11] 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.[12] 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.[13]

Following the Age of Discovery, the emergence of European colonialism resulted in the formation of colonial proto-states in Asia, Africa, and the Americas.[14] 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.[4] These were distinct administrative units that each fulfilled many of the functions of a state without actually exercising full sovereignty or independence.[14] 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.[15] Colonial proto-states later served as the basis for a number of modern nation states, particularly on the Asian and African continents.[14]

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.[4][3][16]

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

Another form of proto-state that has become especially common since the end of World War II[citation needed] 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.[6] 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.[17] 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.[18] 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.[18]

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.[19] 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.[20] 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,[21][22][23] that maintained its own administrative bureaucracy and imposed taxes.[24]

Theoretical basisEdit

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.[25] 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.[25]

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.[25] 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.[25] 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.[26] 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.[26]

Territory of Croatia controlled by the Republic of Serbian Krajina proto-state 1991–1995.

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.[4] Home rule generates a sub-national institutional structure that may justifiably be defined as a proto-state.[27] 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.[28] 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.[28] 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.[19] 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.[19]

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.[29] 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.[29]

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.[28]

List of modern proto-statesEdit

Constituent proto-statesEdit


Proto-state Parent state Achieved statehood Since Source
  Adjara   Georgia No 1921 [4]
  Adygea   Russia No 1922 [4]
  Åland   Finland No 1921 [4][30]
  Altai Republic   Russia No 1922 [4]
  Aosta Valley   Italy No 1948 [4]
  Aruba   Netherlands No 1986 [4]
  Ashanti   Ghana No 1957 [31]
  Azad Kashmir   Pakistan No 1949 [4]
  Azores   Portugal No 1816 [4]
  Bashkortostan   Russia No 1919 [4]
  British Virgin Islands   United Kingdom No 1960 [4]
  Bougainville   Papua New Guinea No 2001 [4]
  Buryatia   Russia No 1923 [4]
  Canary Islands   Spain No 1816 [4]
  Catalonia   Spain No 1978 [4]
  Cayman Islands   United Kingdom No 1962 [4]
  Chechnya   Russia No 1922 [4]
  Chin State   Myanmar No 1949 [4]
  Christmas Island   Australia No 1958 [4]
  Chuvashia   Russia No 1920 [4]
  Cook Islands   New Zealand No 1888 [4]
  Corsica   France No 1978 [4]
  Curaçao   Netherlands No 1816 [4]
  Dagestan   Russia No 1921 [4]
  Easter Island   Chile No 1944 [4]
  Euskadi   Spain No 1978 [4]
  Falkland Islands   United Kingdom No 1833 [4]
  Faroe Islands   Denmark No 1816 [4]
  Flanders   Belgium No 1970 [4]
  French Polynesia   France No 1847 [4]
  Friuli-Venezia Giulia   Italy No 1963 [4]
  Gagauzia   Moldova No 1991 [4]
  Galicia   Spain No 1978 [4]
  Gaza Strip   Israel
De facto 1994 [note 1]
  Greenland   Denmark No 1816 [4]
  Guam   United States No 1816 [4]
  Guernsey   United Kingdom No 1204 [4]
  Indian reservations   United States No 1658 [4]
  Ingushetia   Russia No 1924 [4]
  Iraqi Kurdistan   Iraq De facto 1991 [33]
  Isle of Man   United Kingdom No 1828 [4]
  Jammu and Kashmir   India No 1921 [4]
  Jersey   United Kingdom No 1204 [4]
  Jewish Autonomous Oblast   Russia No 1934
  Jubaland   Somalia No 2001 [note 2]
  Kabardino-Balkaria   Russia No 1921 [4]
  Kachin State   Myanmar No 1949 [4]
  Kalmykia   Russia No 1920 [4]
  Karachay-Cherkessia   Russia No 1922 [4]
  Karelia   Russia No 1923 [4]
  Kayah State   Myanmar No 1949 [4]
  Kayin State   Myanmar No 1949 [4]
  Khakassia   Russia No 1934 [4]
  Komi Republic   Russia No 1922 [4]
  Kosovo   Serbia De facto 2008 [4]
  Madeira   Portugal No 1816 [4]
  Mari El   Russia No 1920 [4]
  Marquesas Islands   France No 1844 [4]
  Montserrat   United Kingdom No 1632 [4]
  Mon State   Myanmar No 1949 [4]
  Mordovia   Russia No 1934 [4]
  New Caledonia   France No 1853 [4]
  Northern Ireland   United Kingdom No 1922 [4]
  Northern Marianas   United States No 1899 [4]
  North Ossetia-Alania   Russia No 1921 [4]
  Nunavut   Canada No 1999 [4]
  Palestinian National Authority   Israel De jure 1993 [36]
  Puerto Rico   United States No 1816 [4]
  Puntland   Somalia No 1998 [37]
  Quebec   Canada No 1816 [4]
  Saint Helena   United Kingdom No 1834 [4]
  Sardinia   Italy No 1816 [4]
  Sakha Republic   Russia No 1922 [4]
  Scotland   United Kingdom No 1816 [4]
  Shan State   Myanmar No 1949 [4]
  Sicily   Italy No 1816 [4]
  Sint Maarten   Netherlands No 1848 [4]
  Svalbard   Norway No 1992 [4]
  Tatarstan   Russia No 1920 [4]
  Temotu   Solomon Islands No 1981 [4]
  Trentino-Alto Adige/Südtirol   Italy No 1948 [4]
  Turks and Caicos   United Kingdom No 1973 [4]
  Tuva   Russia No 1911 [4]
  Udmurtia   Russia No 1920 [4]
  United States Virgin Islands   United States No 1816 [4]
  Wales   United Kingdom No 1816 [4]
  Wallonia   Belgium No 1970 [4]
  Zanzibar   Tanzania No 1964 [4]


Proto-state Parent state Achieved statehood Dates Source
  Bophuthatswana   South Africa De jure 1977–1994 [38]
  Bosnia-Herzegovina   Yugoslavia Yes 1943–1992 [16]
  Ciskei   South Africa De jure 1981–1994 [38]
  Republic of Crimea   Ukraine No March 11–18, 2014 [39][40]
  Croatia   Yugoslavia Yes 1943–1991 [16]
  Carpathian Ruthenia   Czechoslovakia De facto 1919–1939
  Czech Socialist Republic   Czechoslovakia Yes 1969–1993 [29]
  East Caprivi   South Africa No 1972–1989 [38]
  Finnish Socialist Workers' Republic   Finland No 1918
  Galician Ruthenians   Austria-Hungary De facto 1848–1918
  Gazankulu   South Africa No 1971–1994 [38]
  Hereroland   South Africa No 1970–1989 [38]
  KaNgwane   South Africa No 1972–1994 [38]
  Karelian ASSR   Russian SFSR,   Soviet Union union republic 1923–1940
  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 1945–1991 [16]
  Montenegro   Yugoslavia Yes 1945–1992 [16]
  Moldavian ASSR   Ukrainian SSR,   Soviet Union union republic 1924–1940
  Moldavian Soviet Socialist Republic   Soviet Union Yes 1940–1991
  Ovamboland   South Africa No 1973–1989 [38]
  QwaQwa   South Africa No 1974–1994 [38]
  Russian SFSR   Soviet Union Yes 1917–1991 [3]
  Serbia   Yugoslavia Yes 1945–1992 [16]
  Singapore   Malaysia Yes 1963–1965 [4]
  Slovak Socialist Republic   Czechoslovakia Yes 1969–1993 [29]
  Slovenia   Yugoslavia Yes 1945–1991 [16]
  South West Africa (Namibia)   South Africa Yes 1915–1991 [41]
  Southern Sudan   Sudan Yes 2005–2011 [42]
  Transkei   South Africa De jure 1976–1994 [38]
  Trucial States   United Kingdom Yes 1820–1971 [43]
  Turkestan ASSR   Russian SFSR No 1918–1924 [44]
  Ukrainian People's Republic of Soviets   Russian SFSR No 1917–1918
  Ukrainian Soviet Republic   Russian SFSR No 1918
  Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic   Russian SFSR,   Soviet Union Yes 1919–1991 [45]
  Venda   South Africa De jure 1979–1994 [38]

Secessionist and insurgent proto-statesEdit


Proto-state Parent state Achieved statehood Since Source
  Abkhazia   Georgia De facto 1992
  Al-Shabaab   Somalia No 2009 [6]
  Allied Democratic Forces   Democratic Republic of the Congo
No 1996 [46]
  Ambazonia   Cameroon No 2017
  Ansar al-Sharia (Yemen)   Yemen No 2011 [6]
  Dar El Kuti   Central African Republic De facto 2015 [47]
  Donetsk People's Republic   Ukraine De facto 2014 [48]
  Islamic State (ISIL)   Iraq
No 2013 [25][49][50]
  Luhansk People's Republic   Ukraine De facto 2014 [48]
  Republic of Artsakh   Azerbaijan/  Armenia De facto 1991
  Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria   Syria Partial 2013 [51]
  Sahrawi Republic   Morocco Partial 1976


  Somaliland   Somalia De facto 1991 [26]
  South Ossetia   Georgia De facto 1991
  Transnistria   Moldova De facto 1990
  Southern Transitional Council   Yemen De facto 2017
  Taliban   Afghanistan No 2002 [53]
  West Papua   Indonesia No 1971


Proto-state Parent state Achieved statehood Dates Source
  Al-Nusra Front   Syria No 2012–2017 [6]
  Ansar al-Islam   Iraq No 2001–2003 [6]
  Angola   Portugal Yes 1961–1975
  Ansar al-Sharia (Libya)   Libya No 2014–2017 [6]
  Ansar Dine   Mali No 2012–2013 [6]
  Armed Forces of South Russia   Russia No 1919–1920 [54]
  Azawad   Mali De facto 2012–2013 [5]
  Boko Haram   Nigeria
No 2013–2015 [6]
  Carpatho-Ukraine   Czechoslovakia,   Hungary De facto 1938–1939
  Chechen Ichkeria   Russia No 1991–2000 [26]
  Chinese Soviet Republic   China No 1931–1937 [19]
  Communist China   China Yes 1927–1949 [19]
  Dubrovnik Republic   Yugoslavia No 1991–1992 [4]
  Eastern Slavonia, Baranja and Western Syrmia   Yugoslavia No 1995–1998 [4]
  FARC   Colombia No 1964–2017 [53]
Groupe islamique armé   Algeria No 1993–1995 [6]
  Herzeg-Bosnia   Bosnia-Herzegovina No 1991–1996 [4]
  Hyderabad State   India De facto 1947–1948 [4]
  Idel-Ural State   Russia No 1917–1918 [55]
  Irish Republic   United Kingdom Yes 1919–1922 [56]
  Jamiat-e Islami   Afghanistan No 1982–1989 [57]
  Republic of Kosova   Serbia and Montenegro No 1992–1999 [58]
  Jubaland   Somalia No 1998–2001 [34]
  Junbish-e Milli   Afghanistan No 1992-1997 [59]
  Liberated Yugoslavia   Croatia
  Occupied Serbia
Yes 1942–1945 [60]
  Mozambique   Portugal Yes 1964–1974 [note 3]
  Revolutionary Vietnam   South Vietnam No 1969–1976


  Republika Srpska   Bosnia-Herzegovina No 1991–1995 [4]
Red Spears' rebel area in Dengzhou   China No 1929 [61]
  Serbian Krajina   Croatia No 1991–1995 [62]
  Sudetenland   Czechoslovakia No 1918–1938 [63]
  "Taylorland" or Greater Liberia   Liberia No 1990–1995/97 [note 4]
Tamil Eelam   Sri Lanka No 1983–2008 [53]
  Ukrainian National Government   Soviet Union,   Nazi Germany No 1941
  Ukrainian People's Republic   Russian Republic,   Russian SFSR Yes 1917–1921
  UNITA   Angola No 1975–2002 [66]
  United States   Great Britain Yes 1776-1783
  West Ukrainian People's Republic   Austria-Hungary,   Poland No 1918–1919
  Autonomous Province of Western Bosnia   Yugoslavia No 1993–1995 [4]
  Zaporozhian Sich   Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth Yes 16th century–1649 [67]

See alsoEdit

Notes and referencesEdit


  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.[32]
  2. ^ Jubaland declared itself independent of Somalia in 1998.[34] 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.[35]
  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.[17]
  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 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.[64][65]


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