ABSTRACT. Unrecognised states are among the least likely candidates for democratisation: they tend to be driven by ethno-nationalism, many are marked by the legacy of war and most are facing international isolation. Nevertheless, the claim to democracy has become a central part of their legitimising narrative. This article examines this apparent paradox and finds that neither ethno-nationalism nor non-recognition represents insurmountable barriers to democratisation. However, what we tend to find in these entities is a form of stagnated ‘ethnic democratisation’. These findings throw new light on the relationship between democracy and nationalism; they highlight the importance of (lack of) sovereignty; and they are used to evaluate Sammy Smooha's concept of ‘ethnic democracy’.