Disintegration Of States

The lifespan of a country sometimes resembles a house of cards. It is built from diverse groups whose contributions to the whole create strength and unity. Or so it appears. But internal weaknesses or outside interference, like an ill-placed card or a swipe of the hand, can combine to send the whole edifice tumbling down. It may start with the removal of a single card, and the house disintegrates as it becomes apparent that that one card was key to the integrity of the country. In this explanation, we will look at this process and some examples. You can also go in-depth with our explanation of Devolution in Sudan.

Disintegration Of States Disintegration Of States

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Table of contents

    Disintegration of States: Definition

    Governments rarely wish to lose territories, but if these agitate enough for independence, it can be a good idea to at least grant them autonomy and set up some sort of a federal system to avoid bloodshed. Disintegration happens when such devolutionary strategies fail.

    Some states fail but the parts that break away, or attempt to do so, are not recognized by other countries, nor do they become UN members. A good example of this is Somaliland. An example of a country that disintegrated successfully, with all constituent parts becoming UN members, was the USSR. An example of a country that dissolved peacefully was Czechoslovakia.

    Disintegration of States: A condition whereby nation-states cease to exist because devolution of powers has failed to preserve unity in their constituent territories, leading to a breakup. Disintegration can be peaceful, via independence referendums, or violent, via secession and civil war. It can result in new and internationally-recognized boundaries for two or more independent states, or consist of breakaway regions not recognized as independent states by most or all of the international community.

    Disintegration of States: Examples

    Let's look at the historical progression of state disintegration to understand some examples of this process at work today.

    Disintegration of Empires

    In the 20th century, the geopolitical world map saw the disintegration of some European and Asian empires and the birth of others. The Russian Empire of the tzars collapsed, only to be replaced by the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Imperial China, which had lasted in some form or another since 221 BC, finally collapsed in 1912. The Ottoman, German, and Austro-Hungarian empires fell during World War I. Fascist Italy, which had ruled colonies in Africa, and Imperial Japan, losers in World War II, were next to go. A resurgent Germany, the Third Reich, was also crushed. Upwards of 100 million people died as a result of these upheavals, and the century wasn't even half over.

    Disintegration of states world map StudySmarterFig. 1 - The world on the eve of World War I. Color: colonial possessions; gray: independent states; present-day country boundaries (except S. Sudan) shown

    Disintegration was a sort of "feeding frenzy" for the wars' winners. Former territories of Germany, the Ottoman Empire, and so forth went to France and the UK, in particular. Millions of people moved when these empires disintegrated, whether forced to or voluntarily, and for a time it was thought a new geopolitical order would bring some territorial stability.

    The End of Colonialism

    But this was not to last. The colonial empires of France, the UK, and Portugal were the next go, collapsing in waves of independence movements across the Old World (this had already happened to most colonies in the New World between 1776 and 1826). The UK granted India, its most important colony, independence, and by the 1960s, most of the rest of its colonies were independent. Some, such as Kenya, where white settlers lived, were given up after violent struggle, while others were relinquished peacefully.

    France fought bitterly against communist forces in French Indochina, a battle inherited by the US after the French lost to the Vietnamese at Dien Bien Phu in 1954. The French hold over Africa disintegrated without as much violence, except for the Algerian War of Independence (1954-1962), in which some 1.5 million died and millions more fled.

    France was reluctant to give up Algeria, as over a million pied-noirs, Europeans born in Algeria, lived there and considered themselves Algerians. Histories of resentment and discrimination resulted in atrocities on both sides. Similar though less bloody conflicts in former or current settler colonies have occurred in South Africa, Zimbabwe, Western Sahara, Israel/Palestine, Cyprus, and many other places.

    Portugal was the last colonial empire with significant holdings to disintegrate: this happened after revolutionary wars in Angola, Mozambique, and elsewhere.

    A New Round of Disintegration, 1985 - Now

    By the time UN membership had grown from its original 51 members to 159 members in 1985, it seemed as if the era of disintegration of states had come to a close, but a new round was just beginning. In this section is a list of states that have disintegrated since 1985. Not all have become UN members, but two (Kosovo and Palestine) are recognized by over 50% of UN members. (Other post-1985 UN members, such as Switzerland and Liechtenstein, did not join for any reason related to the disintegration of states.)

    STATEYEAR DISINTEGRATEDCAUSESORIGINAL STATE (or state containing former central government) + NEW STATES ( ) = not UN members
    USSR1991Collapse of Soviet communist regime into constituent republics (former "Soviet socialist republics") comprised of non-Russian ethnic majorities, Russian minorities, and non-Russian minorities.Russia + Latvia; Lithuania; Estonia; Belarus; Ukraine; Georgia; Armenia; Azerbaijan; Kazakhstan; Kyrgyzstan; Uzbekistan; Tajikistan
    Yugoslavia1991-2006Yugoslavia: ripple effect from the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe; wars and genocides affected Croatia, Serbia, Bosnia, and KosovoSerbia + Slovenia; Croatia; North Macedonia; Bosnia and Herzegovina; Montenegro; (Kosovo - recognized by 97 UN members)
    South Africa1990War of secession since the 1970s; collapse of ApartheidSouth Africa + Namibia
    Czechoslovakia1993Collapse of communism; peaceful separationCzech Republic + Slovakia
    Sudan2011Civil wars and genocides since 1950s; independence referendumSudan + South Sudan
    Ethiopia1993War of secession since 1961; genocidesEthiopia + Eritrea
    Ukraine2014-presentIrredentism of Russians in Donbas region; secession; Russian protection of breakaway republicsUkraine; (Donetsk and Luhansk people's reps.; Crimea)
    Somalia1991Collapse of Siad Barre regime + war of secession since 1981Federal Republic of Somalia; (Somaliland, unrecognized)
    Indonesia2002East Timorian independence from Portugal; forced incorporation into Indonesia; war of secession since 1975Indonesia + Timor-Leste
    Georgia1993War of secession + Russian occupationGeorgia + (Rep. of Abkhazia; Rep. of South Ossetia)
    Israel1988West Bank and Gaza uprisingsIsrael + (Palestine - recognized by 138 UN members)

    Disintegration of States that Lose Statehood

    Invasions sometimes lead to the disintegration of states. If the invading and occupying power successfully overthrows the government in power in the state it has invaded, states can disintegrate, but not necessarily permanently.

    The current case of Russia and Ukraine comes to mind. Russia invaded Ukraine in 2022, a primary stated motive of which was support for two Russian minority-dominated breakaway republics, Donetsk and Luhansk (both located in Ukraine's Donbas region). Ukraine's de facto disintegration dates from 2014, when Crimea, Donetsk, and Lugansk broke away; Crimea was absorbed by Russia, and the two "Donbas republics" remain unrecognized by all but three UN member states (Russia, Syria, and North Korea).

    The outcome of the Russo-Ukrainian war could be one of the following:

    • preservation of Ukrainian statehood;

    • loss of Ukrainian statehood to Russian hegemony;
    • maintenance of Ukraine as a country but with a smaller land area; breakaway areas ceded to Russia or granted independence.


    In 1947, as the British Empire disintegrated, it was necessary to separate the Hindu-majority area of British India from the Muslim-dominated areas after millions died in religious warfare. The former colony was partitioned into India and Pakistan. The idea of partition as a successful strategy to pursue has been floated elsewhere.

    Disintegration of states Afghanistan StudySmarterFig. 2 - Afghanistan's ethnic diversity has been the source of extensive conflict but has not led to disintegration

    The US-led invasions of Afghanistan (2001) and Iraq (2003) involved the removal of the governments in power, who fled into hiding or exile. Effective control by the occupier did not happen in either country, though, so they became failed states that threatened to disintegrate.

    Maps appeared showing proposals partitioning Iraq into new countries for Kurds, Sunni Arabs, and Shi'ite Arabs, but in the end, the country emerged from civil war and maintained a fragile union. In Afghanistan, the US-led coalition propped up a central government that could never exert control over the entire country, but neither it nor the new, Taliban-led government that took over in 2021 ever presided over a partition of Pashtun, Hazara, Uzbek, and Tajik areas into separate states (as has been suggested), so the country remains whole.

    Dissolution: Peaceful, and not so Peaceful

    In some cases, the division of one country into two or more countries is necessary because of the impossibility of reconciling enemies, typically after long and bloody civil wars. The splits of Ethiopia and Eritrea, Sudan and South Sudan, Indonesia and Timor-Leste, and Israel and Palestine are good examples of this.

    Disintegration of states Ethiopia StudySmarterFig. 3 - Ethiopian disintegration past and present. Red symbols show ethnic separatist revolts in the 1980s; Oromo, Afar, Somali, Tigrayan, and other struggles have reignited in the 2020s

    However, sometimes the split is amicable. Czechoslovakia dissolved in 1993 after Slovakia declared its intent to go its own way the prior year. It was called the "Velvet Divorce," a reference to the also-peaceful "Velvet Revolution" of 1989 when Czechoslovakia parted ways with communism and the USSR.

    Effects of the Disintegration of States

    The disintegration of states has been a constant since the rise of the state as a political and territorial phenomenon millennia ago in the Fertile Crescent. Its effects are numerous; below are a few of the major ones.


    When a state crumbles, populations from the culture that once ruled are often left behind in newly independent states. If, as is often the case, the central government of the former state had privileged them at the expense of local people, and if these local people are of a different ethnicity, then retaliation may happen. In addition to discrimination, they may be subject to violence and even expulsion. If there are enough of them in one location, as with Russians in the Donbas, they may eventually break away and form their own ethnic states, hoping for protection from their former government. At the same time, nationalism in the "mother countries" may use these harried minorities as a motive for invasion.


    Setting the precedent of disintegration through partition, dissolution, or other means can cause a chain reaction. Again, the house of cards; once one card is gone, everything collapses. Ethnic groups with grievances against the central government see opportunities and begin waging their own struggles. The collapse of Yugoslavia is probably the best-known example of this phenomenon.

    Disintegration of States Yugoslavia StudySmarterFig. 4 - The collapse of Yugoslavia

    At present, the potential disintegration of Ethiopia looms. Eritrea set the precedent in 1993. Ethiopia's federal system is now at risk as the central government, dominated by Amhara, is at war with Tigrayans. Atrocities committed in this conflict have sparked or re-ignited ethnic-based separatism elsewhere in a country of 123 million with 80 ethnic groups.

    Weak States and Failed States Don't Necessarily Disintegrate

    Many weak and even "failed" states end up staying together. Few might have guessed that the Democratic Republic of the Congo would have survived in one piece after it dissolved into civil wars in the 1990s. Most would never have imagined that South Africa (minus Namibia) could survive Apartheid in one piece. Yet they did. Particularly in Africa, colonial boundaries have been largely preserved, despite the conflicts that have been generated by them.

    Disintegration of States - Key takeaways

    • States disintegrate when devolutionary strategies fail and territories break away to form their own, independent states.
    • States that have disintegrated in modern history include the USSR and Yugoslavia.
    • A state that threatens to disintegrate is Ethiopia.
    • Effects of the disintegration of states are irredentism, separatism, weak states, and failed states.


    1. Fig. 3 - Ethiopia (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Ethiopian_Civil_War.png) by Skilla1st (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:Skilla1st) is licensed by Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0/deed.en)
    2. Fig. 4 - Yugoslavia (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Map_of_war_in_Yugoslavia,_1992.png) by Paweł Goleniowski (swPawel) Is licensed by Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/deed.en)
    Frequently Asked Questions about Disintegration Of States

    What is state disintegration? 

    State disintegration is the collapse of a country into two or more smaller independent countries.

    How can a country lose statehood? 

    A country can lose its statehood if it is invaded by another country that absorbs it and dissolves its government.

    Is recognition an essential element of a state? 

    Most states that declare independence seek full recognition in the United Nations, but states do not have to be recognized by any or all UN members to be considered states.

    Why do some states fail? 

    States may fail because of ethnic separatism, secession, civil war, invasion, devolution, or any combination of these factors.

    Which element of the state is more important? 

    The most essential element of a state is its control over a geographic territory.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    The Abyei Area is still a condominium because of the presence of which natural resource?

    Despite ______ and ______, South Sudan still suffers from _______ and _______

    Which of the following has NOT been in conflict in South Sudan?


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