Games With Frontiers

Personally, I think that one of the weirdest historical events of the last century occurred in 1991.

When the Soviet Union voted itself out of existence on December 8, 1991, the international community decided that the Soviet Union’s internal boundaries were etched in stone. And that decision led to a hell of a lot of death, misery, and destruction.


In 1991, the Soviet Union was one country with one flag and one capital. But internally, it had 15 “union” republics, 20 autonomous republics, 8 autonomous provinces, 10 autonomous districts, 6 regions, and 114 provinces.

Several of those provinces, districts, and republics (starting with Nakhichevan) declared themselves independent of the Soviet Union, but the international community decided to only recognize the sovereignty of the 15 union republics.


Fab Fifteen

Here’s an alphabetical list of the 15 union republics that existed in 1991, all now “fully recognized” by the United Nations as sovereign countries:

  • Armenia
  • Azerbaijan
  • Belarus
  • Estonia
  • Georgia
  • Kazakhstan
  • Kyrgyzstan
  • Latvia
  • Lithuania
  • Moldova
  • Russia
  • Tajikistan
  • Turkmenistan
  • Ukraine
  • Uzbekistan


Now let’s look at all the boundary disputes that have occurred since 1991:

  • Armenia + Azerbaijan – These two have fought numerous wars that left the boundaries between them redrawn several times, including the “unrecognized” Republic of Artsakh (formerly known as Nagorno-Karabakh) and the Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic.
  • Belarus – No fighting, but parts of Belarus are claimed by Poland because the Polish-Belarussian borders were redrawn in 1921 and 1936. In 2000, Belarus and Russia became the “Union State”, a strange kind of semi-autonomous, semi-unified entity.
  • Estonia – No fighting, but anyone who can’t speak the local language is denied citizenship and associated rights (such as the right to vote), leaving a significant part of the population effectively “stateless” or a “resident alien.”
  • Georgia – Lots of fighting led to two partially unrecognized republics – Abkhazia and South Ossetia. There was also a separate internal war to bring the Republic of Adjara under central command.
  • Kazakhstan – No changes except for relocating the capital.
  • Kyrgyzstan – Widespread inter-ethnic violence in regions bordering Uzbekistan (especially in and near the city of Osh).
  • Latvia – Virtually no fighting, but anyone who can’t speak the local language is denied citizenship and much of the associated rights (such as the right to vote). leaving a significant part of the population effectively “stateless” or a “resident alien.”
  • Moldova – A brief war led to the unrecognized republic of Pridnestrovie and the autonomous republic of Gagauzia.
  • Russia – Almost too numerous to count, including a coup in 1993, two wars against Chechnya, and operations in North Ossetia, Ingushetia, and Dagestan.
  • Tajikistan – A bloody civil war between Khujand/Kulyab and Garm/Badakhstan destroyed most of the country’s infrastructure and created 1.2 million refugees.
  • Ukraine – In addition to the annexation of Crimea and the “unrecognized independence” of Donbas, some parts of its territory is historically claimed by Hungary, Moldova, and Romania.
  • Uzbekistan – Very little fighting, but the Republic of Karakalpakstan (on the Kazakhstan border) is “formally sovereign” and retains the right to secede from Uzbekistan.

10 out of 15 of the union republics suffered wars due to border disputes.

Just two of the “union” republics transitioned fairly peacefully into independence without any conflicts over borders – Lithuania and Turkmenistan.

One (Lithuania) is a democracy and member of the EU, while the other (Turkmenistan) is a totalitarian dictatorship led by a truly crazy man.

The other three countries that have experienced few boundary related problems, Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan, are likewise governed by brutally totalitarian regimes that have largely suppressed any internal dissent that might arise over boundaries.


What makes the whole thing weirder is that the Soviet Union drew and redrew its internal boundaries, including between “union republics,” several times throughout its history.

Crimea is the most famous example, of course.

Crimea had many different boundary classifications in the Soviet Union, including being part of Russia (1922-1954) and then part of Ukraine (1954-1991). Why exactly was its status in 1991 automatically considered legitimate and all the others “illegitimate”?

And why is it “wrong” for Russia to have claims to Crimea but “right” for Ukraine to hold onto the tiny sliver of territory that blocks Moldova from having access to the Black Sea?

Likewise, why is it “legitimate” for Ukraine to possess Northern Bucovina, a territory annexed from Romania by the Soviet Union in 1940?


Or take Chechnya. The Chechen Republic of Ichkeria declared independence from the Soviet Union before Russia did. Yet the United Nations only recognized Russia’s “union republic” boundaries and thus the First Chechen War became a “civil war” taking place inside of Russia.

Why was Russia’s declaration of independence from the Soviet Union in 1991 considered “legitimate” but Chechnya’s declaration of independence in 1991 “illegitimate”?

Furthermore, the Soviet Union redrew the boundaries between North Ossetia, Ingushetia, Chechnya, and Dagestan several times, so why are their 1991 boundaries (inside Russia) considered the only “legitimate” ones?

Especially considering how weird some of them are, like the district of Prigorodny in Ossetia, it really doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.

The Fab Four

And a lot of people forget this, but the original four union republics of the Soviet Union were Belarus, Ukraine, Russia, and “Transcaucasia.”

Transcaucasia was later split into Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia, the exact same region where so many border wars were fought after the Soviet Union came to an end.


Obviously, living here in Pridnestrovie (PMR) has colored my views on the matter, especially after spending countless hours reading about its history.

PMR used to be part of the “union republic” of Ukraine before it became part of the “union republic” of Moldova. So why wasn’t that taken into consideration in 1991?

You’re making Stefan cel Mare cry!

After all, it is indisputable that the “union republic” of Moldova was annexed by the Soviet Union in 1940, taking lands that formerly belonged to the Kingdom of Romania and merging them with a territory belonging to Ukraine (PMR).

Furthermore, PMR’s declaration of independence in 1990 (and repeated again in 1991) was “not” considered legitimate even though it came after a referendum in which a majority of the people voted for independence. But the government of Moldova declared independence in 1991 (without a nationwide referendum), and that was considered legitimate.

What’s even more hypocritical is that, if Moldova ever votes to be annexed by Romania (again) in the future, you know that the international community will consider that perfectly legitimate and fair.

Purity Test

Furthermore, it was Moldova’s passing of a language law in 1989 similar to Estonia and Latvia’s that led to the creation of Pridnestrovie.

Considering that, today, between 10-15% of Estonia and Latvia’s population is partially or wholly disenfranchised (can’t vote, can’t attend a school teaching their language, can’t get a passport, etc.), it’s highly likely that the same thing would’ve happened in Moldova had Gagauzia and PMR not declared their independence.

Which rather gives credence to the legitimacy of Pridnestrovie wanting to protect its own sovereignty.

Good for Me, Not for Thee

As far as I can tell, the United Nations’ insistence on adhering to the Soviet Union’s classification of its “union republic” boundaries is based on a Soviet law about secession that came into existence in 1990.

The 1990 law outlines the method by which a union republic can hold a referendum and declare independence from the Soviet Union.

Except that everyone seems to forget Article 3:

In a Union republic which includes within its structure autonomous republics, autonomous districts, or autonomous regions, the referendum is held separately for each autonomous formation. The people of autonomous republics and autonomous formations retain the right to decide independently the question of remaining within the USSR or within the seceding Union republic, and also to raise the question of their own state-legal status.

But as the lawyers would say, technically, only three republics (Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania) declared independence from the Soviet Union, and none of them had any autonomous regions or districts.

The Soviet Union voted itself out of existence in 1991, leaving the other 12 republics “homeless” and therefore instantly independent, sovereign countries.

Although they loved their own independence, none of the former Soviet “union republics” wanted their own internal, autonomous regions to be able to enjoy that same level of freedom, so any fighting that later occurred was classified as an attempt to “break away” from the “legitimate” central government.


6 thoughts on “Games With Frontiers

  1. Long time reader here. If you were wondering who was so frequently reading your blog from Bulgaria and Poland, I’m the answer. (AND NOW YOU KNOW!)

    Hardly a revelation here. The same pattern was followed to a certain extent in the breakup of Yugoslavia. Without getting too much into the topic, as the reply would be far longer than the post that it refers to, there was an issue, and there still is, with who got the legitimacy award by the international community there too. Why could Croatia and Bosnia proclaim, fight for and eventually achieve independence but the Serb-populated areas in those countries couldn’t exercise their right to self-determination?


    1. Always good to hear from a reader! :)

      And while I definitely don’t want to get sucked into a discussion about the quagmire that is post-Yugoslavia, I think we see eye-to-eye.


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