Since the war in Ukraine broke out on Feb. 24, it has been awkward to write about travel, especially from the European capital. Brussels is only 2,000 kilometers from Kyiv and home to NATO headquarters. As we process with horror the daily news, a natural instinct is to become home bodies and hide from the outside world.
But perhaps we should embrace travel now that the COVID-19 pandemic is finally under control and normal life has been restored in most countries. Considering we don’t know how or when Vladimir Putin’s war will end, we may be better off chasing our wanderlust dreams while we can.
Interestingly, Russia is one of only a few former members of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) to which I have not been. As by far the largest one in land space (17.1 million square kilometers compared to Ukraine’s 603,500) and population (144.1 million versus 44.6 million in Ukraine), Russia is not easy to miss. In fact, it is by far the world’s largest country geographically, followed by Canada (10 million km2), China (9.7 million km2) and the United States (9.4 million km2). But Russia never intrigued me as much as the countries that broke away from it.
The USSR was a communist state and federal union of 15 national republics from Eastern Europe to Central Asia from 1922 to 1991. These republics included Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Estonia, Georgia, Latvia, Lithuania, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Russia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Ukraine, and Uzbekistan. All of them formed independent states by the dissolution of the USSR in 1991.
Most began transitioning from command (government-controlled) economies to market-based ones before the USSR’s collapse, which had intense growing pains. The average gross domestic of post-Soviet states plunged by more than 40 percent during 1990-95. As well, the adoption of capitalist principles in restructuring economies led to greatly reduced spending on social programs, initially increasing poverty and inequality. In 1998, the Russian financial crisis hit, forcing the Russian government and central bank to devalue the ruble and default on debt.
This crisis had a ripple effect in many neighboring countries. Aftershocks led to economic interventions by Putin’s first administration in 2000-2008 (his second administration began in 2012, which is potentially in power until 2036 due to Putin changing the constitution in 2021). However, by 2007, 10 of the 15 former USSR states had recovered and increased their GDP compared to 1991, including Russia with a slight increase. Only Moldova, Ukraine, Georgia, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan did not. Today, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania lead in this order former USSR states in Gross Domestic Product per capita.
These three Baltic republics were the first to declare their independence from the USSR in the first half of 1990 based on state continuity due to their illegal annexation by the USSR in 1940. These countries bitterly “divorced” Russia, ditching the Russian language and joining the European Union and NATO instead of post-Soviet organizations.
The other 12 former Soviet Republics had friendlier separations from Russia, initially coming together as the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), which uses Russian as its official working language. Belarus, Russia and Ukraine founded the CIS in December 1991 as a successor to the USSR. (Note Ukraine never ratified the 1993 CIS Charter so it was not officially a member.) Within two years, nine more former Soviet republics joined. In 2005, Turkmenistan distanced itself as an associate member. In 2008, Georgia pulled out and in 2018, Ukraine stopped participating. The latter two countries only promote their own languages nowadays but there are significant Russophone populations in both as well as other post-Soviet states. Belarus, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan even kept Russian as an official language.
It’s interesting to see the degrees to which Russian relations were cut in each post-Soviet state as well as divisions within regions described in divorce terms with Russia being the “husband” with 14 “wives” (countries in italics I have not visited, those hyperlinked I’ve written about separately):
- Balkans: Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania – bitter but clean divorces
- Eastern Europe: Moldova, Ukraine; Belarus – court battles; husband didn’t have to pay a penny
- Central Asia: Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan; Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan – equal split of assets; wives favored in court
- South Caucasus: Armenia; Azerbaijan, Georgia – husband favored in court; wives favored
All Central Asian “stan” states, except isolationist Turkmenistan (the most closed country to which I’ve ever been), participate in regional organizations dominated by Russia. For example, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are members of the Collective Security Treaty Organization, the regional equivalent of NATO, along with Armenia, Belarus and Russia. (Note Turkmenistan is not a member of Western or post-Soviet organizations, rather the Economic Cooperation Organization.)
Fall-out from the collapse of the USSR resulted in several disputed states within former Soviet Republics: Transnistria in eastern Moldova (probably the strangest place I’ve ever been), Abkhazia and South Ossetia in northern Georgia, Artsakh in southwestern Azerbaijan, Donetsk People’s Republic and Luhansk People’s Republic in eastern Ukraine and Crimea in southern Ukraine (Russia illegally annexed it in 2014). Except Artsakh, which is supported by Armenia, all of these internationally unrecognized states rely on Russian armed support and financial aid.
Case in point, to get into Transnistria, you have to pass a “Checkpoint Charlie” and agree not to take photos of anything other than what your authorized guide indicates. Armed Russian guards make sure you obey the rules. There is little of interest to photograph anyway, except the Russian troops and communist atmosphere! One consolation is that a good brandy is made in the capital of Tiraspol, which you can purchase with the territory’s fake Monopoly-esque currency. And you had better spend it as Transnistrian rubles are worthless once you cross the border back into Moldova.
Artsakh is the reason that you must visit Azerbaijan before Armenia on a tour as once you have an Armenian stamp in your passport, it is very difficult to get into Azerbaijan due to their geopolitical dispute. (We drove into Armenia from Georgia as a buffer.) We did not visit Artsakh due to civil unrest.
Similarly, we avoided the breakaway states in Georgia but came close to South Ossetia in Russian-influenced Gori, the birthplace of Soviet leader Joseph Stalin, where we went to his museum. Our Georgian driver had a minor accident in the museum parking lot and Russian police officers made too big a deal of it. Tensions were high in Georgia at that time (2014) following the Russo-Georgian War in August 2008, the first war on the European continent in this century.
Fortunately, this war ended within days due to France brokering a ceasefire agreement. But thousands of Georgians were permanently displaced and Russia recognized the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia from Georgia. Its presence in and near these regions has remained since that time and in 2021, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that Russia maintained “direct control” over them, committing grave human rights abuses.
Sadly, we are seeing history repeat itself in Ukraine. Hopefully, the united international community will change Putin’s collision course.