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An Introduction to Breakaway Regions of the Former Soviet Union
(Released January 2009)

 
  by Fiona Allison  

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Introduction

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When the Soviet Union began to collapse in 1989 many of its satellite countries found themselves in an unfamiliar position of independence. Most had previously been part of the Tsarist Russian Empire, and had enjoyed a brief respite from dominance during the chaos of the Bolshevik Revolution. By the early 1920s, however, most were back under Russian rule. During the Second World War as Nazi Germany advanced east, some countries came under Nazi control for a short period of time. By the war's end Stalin had gained control of a huge part of Europe, creating the vast Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. After years of domination, when the independence that these countries strived for actually came, they struggled with the transition and the rapidness of the change.

map of Russia
The separatist activity in former Soviet states can be attributed to ethnicity, cultural identity and nationalism. Rising nationalism was one of the many factors instrumental in the collapse of the Soviet Union. However, ethnic minorities - both sub-national and ethnic Russian - feared for their future status in these nationalistic fledgling states and tensions quickly rose. Under Soviet rule, local cultures had been repressed in favour of Russian cultures, while people were encouraged to speak Russian over their native tongue. This explains why the question of language became such a symbolic factor in the push for independence. An additional factor in the rise of tensions was that every Soviet state had a percentage of ethnic Russians inhabitants who suddenly found themselves in newly independent, nationalist states that were keen to dispose of most things "Soviet." For example in the 1989 census 30 percent of Estonia's, 22 percent of Ukraine's and 34 percent of Latvia's populations were ethnic Russian.1

man, cow, & tank
A man pulls a cow in front of an Abkhaz tank in the remote Kodori Gorge of Georgia's breakaway Abkhazia region outside the town of Chkhalta on August 14, 2008.
This Discovery Guide focuses on two former Soviet Socialist Republics (SSRs), Georgia and Moldova, and the problems they have had with ethnic minorities and separatist activity. This Guide does not discuss the recent conflict in Georgia, but gives the background and history of its breakaway regions to aid understanding of the conflict and the possibility of future conflicts. Although several countries in the former Soviet Union have had territorial disputes and clashes with their ethnic minorities this Guide concentrates on two case studies that illuminate the larger situation.

Go To Georgia, Abkhazia and South Ossetia

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