Today in Europe there are 6.5 million people living in countries that, according to the rest of the world anyway, do not exist.
These would-be republics’ borders, born out of the chaos of the fall of the Soviet Union, are unrecognised by the international family of nations, as is their legal right to dictate the shape of their futures.
In a historical context where sovereignty and national borders are immutable and fixed, to a Western eye the unrecognised country is a surreal concept.
Following the collapse of the USSR and Yugoslavia, 21 new independent states were created. But there were more than a dozen national and ethnic groups whose claims to sovereignty went unfulfilled.
Some found ways to live in peace within Eastern Europe’s new borders. Others fought bloody ethnic wars to drive “occupying” armies out of their homeland. Some appealed to Russia directly to help carry them into the fog of a post-Soviet future.
Each of Eastern Europe’s six disputed regions has a unique story, and within each there are diverse voices, attempting to live normal lives in spite of the chaos they were born into.
Nagorno-Karabakh / Artsakh
High in the Caucasus mountain chain at Eurasia’s crossroads, Armenia and Azerbaijan have been trapped in a long war over the status of Nagorno-Karabakh for more than 30 years. Though sitting inside the borders of Turkic Azerbaijan, Karabakh is populated and controlled by Armenians, the world’s oldest Christian nation whose modern history is defined by a genocide perpetrated by the Turkish Ottoman government during the First World War.
After a long and uneasy ceasefire, hostilities over the status of Karabakh – or Artsakh as it is known locally – resumed in late 2020, as Azerbaijan’s Turkish-backed military advanced deep into the territory of the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic and retook land it lost in 1993. It took a devastating humanitarian toll.
“Psychologically, it’s like being permanently operated on by a surgeon and you become used to the pain. You are no longer afraid. It’s masochistic.”
“My family became refugees last year after we were forced to leave our house and property in Shushi. We’ve been refugees before, from Baku when there was anti-Armenian violence in 1988,” said Saro Saryan, speaking from Yerevan. Saro formerly ran a geological museum in Shushi before being forced to flee. “Psychologically, it’s like being permanently operated on by a surgeon and you become used to the pain. You are no longer afraid. It’s masochistic.
“My son lost a leg in the fighting. He’s been recovering at a clinic in Switzerland. But we’re lucky. Thousands of people will never see their families again.
“Before the war, we felt the Sword of Damocles over us. But we raised our children not in hatred of our Azerbaijani neighbour. We built cities that reflected our Armenian culture; museums, churches, the army. In our hearts, we believed in a higher power. Now it’s hard to have faith.
“International recognition would have been a stronger guarantee of our safety. Why has it not happened?”
At the southern tip of the former Yugoslavia, the Republic of Kosovo effectively separated from its northern neighbour Serbia in 1999 after a brutal ethnic war between its Albanian majority and Serb leaders. The United Nations governed the region under a specially created mandate until 2008, when the capital Pristina formerly declared Kosovo to be independent.
Since then the state has won recognition from a around half of UN member countries, including the US, the UK and Germany, but a powerful clique rejects Pristina’s claims to sovereignty, including China and Serbia’s historic ally Russia. This leaves a fragile stability in Kosovo as it continues its long physical and psychological reconstruction after its devastating war 20 years ago.
“We can never influence a country like Spain to recognise us. Maybe we should join Albania or create some hybrid federation between the two.”
“Back in 2008 when Kosovo declared independence, I was at an international boarding school, and I had to explain to my peers what it all meant. I had to explain Yugoslavia and the breakaway republics and all the different ethnic dimensions to it,” Valon Xoxa told VICE World News from Pristina.
“Nobody even knew what the Kosovo flag looked like until the day it was revealed in 2008. It’s this completely constructed thing. Back then we didn’t even have passports, we had a special UN travel document. That always caused problems at international borders.
“The Kosovo identity has largely been imposed on us as a neutral solution to the problems created by the civil war. There was a lot of money pumped into the idea of creating Kosovan nationalism back in 2008, but now you never see the flag at cultural events. The ethnic groups use their own flag. There’s no attachment to Kosovo as an identity. I myself am Albanian. I feel that because of the way Albanians were suppressed throughout the time of Yugoslavia.
“We can’t obtain a visa to go to Spain with Kosovan passports. It’s the same for Cyprus, Greece, Russia; many countries don’t recognise our documents. How you all feel during the COVID-19 pandemic, that’s how we feel all the time. We’re trapped in our own country.
“There is a faction over here that says the whole process of trying to be an internationally recognised state is too costly and time consuming. We can never influence a country like Spain to recognise us. Maybe we should join Albania or create some hybrid federation between the two. But that would be too problematic for the Balkan region. We need to find a way to make independence work, even if it is a neutral solution.”
Abkhazia / Apsny
An idyllic Black Sea paradise in balmy subtropical climes, Abkhazia’s tragic history defies its seaside tranquility. Known in the local language as Apsny (“The Land of the Soul”), it was carried out of the collapsing USSR in 1990 as a part of the newly independent Republic of Georgia, but its leaders felt threatened in the intensely nationalistic atmosphere of the new Georgian state.
The ensuing war for Abkhazia’s independence, fought over 13 months between 1992-93, was barbaric and cruel. Atrocities were rife on both the Abkhaz and the Georgian sides, and much of the capital Sukhumi was smashed to bits by the fighting, a state it largely remains in today. Russian military backing tipped the rebels’ hand and won them the war, and it’s due to Moscow’s financial support that Abkhazia has survived into the 21st century.
“If you’re a man, you’ll maybe go and have fun up at one of the hotel bars. But it’s not for women.”
“Our life here is very unpredictable and not secure. For example, when people of my age reach retirement, we’ll get only a local Abkhaz pension of about 8 euros a month. The generation who are now retired get a Russian pension of about 120 euros. That will be gone when I retire,” said Aliona Kuvichko from the capital.
“Our unrecognised status means it’s almost impossible to develop any real business here. We can’t develop our infrastructure, or our communication and transport systems. There is only one legal way in and out of Abkhazia, via the Sochi airport in Russia. The Sukhumi airport and the sea port are all closed. We’ve had 30 years of this.
“Most young people have left. I can’t leave because I have older relatives who are dependent on me. I stay, but it’s not because I find life here satisfying.
“We have only one international relationship, with Russia. They give us our protection. But Abkhazia was provoked into declaring independence by Georgian military action. It was a question of survival when their tanks came here. Before that we had hoped for more of a federal solution with Georgia, but our leaders couldn’t make it happen.
“We are a very traditional society, but it’s not strict like in the northern Caucasus region. We don’t have nightclubs, but you might get the occasional small concerts from local groups. If you’re a man, you’ll maybe go and have fun up at one of the hotel bars. But it’s not for women.”
South Ossetia / State of Alania
Like Abkhazia, the Georgian breakaway republic of South Ossetia is a “puppet”’ state of Russia, or so says the bulk of the international community. Mountainous, landlocked and lacking in natural resources, its significance lies in the stake it gives Moscow on the territory of Western-leaning Georgia.
“There are some restaurants that serve late but generally the city is asleep well before midnight.”
In 2008, as the world watched the beginning of the Beijing Olympics, the two countries fought a brief war over the historic State of Alania, leading Russia to formally recognise its independence along with that of Abkhazia. Today, South Ossetia retains a symbolic place in the proxy war between Russia and the West that defies its tiny size.
“It would be very difficult for an outsider to imagine the society I grew up in. I was born during the first conflict in the 1990s, and grew up in the ruins of war. For a decade there was very little electricity, gas or hot water. But my childhood was very happy and interesting because it was built on human relationships,” said Askhar Sanakoyev from the capital Tskhinvali.
“Customs and morals in Tskhinvali have been and I think still are, quite restrictive and conservative. But that is not necessarily a bad thing for me as a teenager because there was some kind of common sense about what is right and what is wrong.
“If you hold only South Ossetian citizenship, you’re not going to get very much from the globalised world. Probably 90% of Ossetians have dual Russian citizenship as it’s the only way we can travel.
“Still, it would be very difficult to find anyone in South Ossetia who is against separation from Georgia. Personally, I believe it’s an artificial movement, because it serves the interests of Russian policy rather than the Ossetian people.
“Tskhinvali is a very calm city. There is not much infrastructure or cultural life. There are some restaurants that serve late but generally the city is asleep well before midnight.”
Transnistria / Pridnestrovia
Dubbed the most lawless place in Europe, Transnistria is a sliver of land along Moldova’s eastern frontier where the black market is king. It came into being in 1992 after its mostly Russian population fought to avoid being sucked into Romania’s sphere of influence. Today the tricolour of Vladimir Putin’s Russia flies from every government building.
“The teenagers of the modern world get their heads stuck in the internet and Transnistria is not an exception. They sit at the table in virtual reality in their smartphones, not talking to each other.”
Since then it has become a smugglers’ paradise, as billions of dollars worth of goods – from weapons to bootlegged cigarettes and alcohol – have passed across its porous borders to and from the nearby Black Sea, enriching customs officers, government officials and local traders alike.
“Our unrecognised status acts like a teaser for experienced travellers. Yet a lot of people are afraid of coming to Transnistria, because there are no official embassies and they read warnings about travelling here on government websites and get scared,” said Andrey Smolensky from Tiraspol.
“It’s the human trait of conformity vs nonconformity. So the non-conformist rebels and adventure seekers would rather ignore all the warnings of their governments and as long as there is no war in a respective region, they’ll come.
“But life here is pretty normal. The teenagers of the modern world get their heads stuck in the internet and Transnistria is not an exception. They sit at the table in virtual reality in their smartphones, not talking to each other.
“Many young people take Russian citizenship and they speak Russian as their mother tongue, that’s why a lot of them go after finishing school to Russia.
“My parents served in the police at the moment when our republic was being created and they openly supported the idea of creating the Transnistrian republic. As a child of that environment, I support the republic as well.”
People’s Republics of Donetsk and Luhansk
The eastern-Ukrainian oblasts of Donetsk and Luhansk fell to Russian-backed separatists in 2014. There’s debate over what kind of direct control Moscow exerts, but what is not disputed is the scale of the tragedy. The downing of a Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 in 2014, killing 298 mostly Dutch civilians, was among the most shocking incidents in a war that has so far claimed over 13,000 lives on both sides, and there has been near universal condemnation around the world for the illegal seizure of power by the rebels. The Dutch government is taking Russia to the European Court of Human Rights for its “role in the downing” of MH17.
The Ukrainian administrations in both cities were overthrown by force with scarcely disguised backing from Russian-sponsored agents, but there is some grassroots support for the self-styled “People’s Republics”. The majority here are Russian speaking, and for some, particularly of an older generation, an independent Ukraine is an idea they have never bought into although polls prior to the war did show continued support for an independent Ukraine. But the freedom to forge closer ties with Russia is one some have embraced in the years since the fighting began.
“Even our cat got used to it. At first she would follow us to take shelter when the bombs started to fall. But after a few weeks, she just looked at us like she didn’t care.”
“This is all started because Ukraine’s president [Viktor Yanukovych, who was removed from office in 2014] had signed every paper that was put in front of him by France, Germany and the US. But we in Donetsk didn’t want what they wanted in Kyiv,” Oleg Antipov, a former press attache at Shakhtar Donetsk Football Club, said from Donetsk.
“There was a battle in the town of Sloviansk in April 2014, just a few rebels armed with AK47s. And Ukraine brought the full force of its army down on them. Then there were suddenly people from all over Donetsk going there voluntarily to give their support, and it created a unity and a desire for independence here for the first time.
“After that, Ukraine announced its Anti-Terrorist Operation against us, its own people, and began to shoot at civilian targets. They wanted us to feel fear so that we would lie down. That was the great turning point for the mood here.
“After the referendum on independence, the military helicopters came here to Donetsk city itself. Then us civilians really became a target. It’s when we knew we were in a civil war.
“There was always about 30 or 40 seconds between each bomb falling. The worst thing was the wait. Those seconds feel like a year of waiting. But you get used to it. Even our cat got used to it. At first she would follow us to take shelter when the bombs started to fall. But after a few weeks, she just looked at us like she didn’t care.”
CORRECTION 24/3/21: This story originally incorrectly stated the death-toll from the conflict in Donbas, eastern Ukraine as 19,000. The correct death toll is more than 13,000. We have also updated the story to clarify: the role played by Russia in the downing of Malaysian Airlines flight MH17, and how widespread support for an independent Ukraine was prior to war breaking out in 2014. We regret the errors.