The Guide: States of confusion: They have armies, governments,
passports and stamps, but these breakaway nations are not recognised
as countries by the rest of the world. Simon Reeve reaches for his map

The Guardian - United Kingdom;
Apr 30, 2005


The detention cells in the KGB secret police headquarters in
Transdniestria, a country between Moldova and Ukraine, are not the
ideal place to spend a Saturday night. Perhaps I have seen too many
cold-war thrillers, but after being detained by the Transdniestrian
KGB for spying last autumn, I had visions of being held for years in a
dark cell and having to write escape plans in blood using my toenails
for nibs. Fortunately, the KGB dispelled these fears by offering me a
tasty salad, giving me a KGB cap-badge as a souvenir of my
incarceration, and eventually setting me free.

It was a strange experience. But then Transdniestria is a fairly
strange country. Stuck in a Soviet time warp, it is not actually a
"real" country at all. According to the international community and
most maps of the region, Transdniestria does not even exist. There are
almost 200 official countries in the world, but there are dozens more
independent breakaway states like Transdniestria. They have
parliaments, armies and passports, but are not recognised as countries
by the rest of the world. So, in a bid to find out more about these
obscure countries, a BBC film crew and I spent many months travelling
to a group of countries that don't officially exist.


Although rarely found on maps, Somaliland sits next to Djibouti. It
used to be "British Somaliland", but locals think Whitehall has long
since forgotten they exist. After joining Somalia in the 1960s to form
one country, Somaliland had to fight a bitter war for independence
against the Somali dictator in the 1980s, during which thousands died.

On the way there we stopped in the Somali capital Mogadishu, perhaps
the most dangerous city in the world. Twelve gunmen provided
protection and I bought a Somali diplomatic passport from a man called
Mr Big Beard. Somalia has no real government, but is recognised as a
proper country. Somaliland, by contrast, has a government, president,
lively parliament and traffic lights, but is not recognised as a
proper country by any nation in the world. Lack of recognition means
Somaliland has trouble getting foreign aid to help with a terrible
drought. Tens of thousands of people were at risk of starvation.

The Somaliland president said he runs the country on just a few
million pounds a year, or "whatever we can get". Edna Ismail, his
dynamic foreign minister, doubles as head of the maternity
hospital. Because nobody recognises their government, it cannot get
loans, which at least means Somaliland is not burdened by foreign debt


After the Soviet Union collapsed, two-thirds of Moldova wanted closer
ties with Romania and neighbours to the west. But the area of the
country to the east of the Dniestr river wanted to stay close to
Ukraine and Russia. War broke out, and the east split to form
Transdniestria, which remains unrecognised by the world.

Soviet statues still stand in Transdniestria, and a mysterious firm
called Sheriff - headed by former Red Army officers - runs much of the
economy. Independence day was being celebrated when we visited. The
Soviet-era army goose-stepped along the main road, and small children
in uniforms sang "our army is the best army" with evident pride. At
least we ate heartily on the day they celebrated. The rest of the time
Transdniestrian cafes were the slowest on earth, and I regularly
waited hours for food to be served. Sadly, that gave time for repeated
karaoke rehearsals of the uplifting Transdniestrian anthem.

As the EU expands, the country will soon be on the eastern edge of
Europe. It is a haven for smuggling and has a wild west feel. Rumours
suggest that it is a major producer of illegal arms, and guns from
Transdniestria have turned up in conflicts around the
world. International investigators claim they are unsure what is going
on in Transdniestria. Hardly surprising when there are no foreign
embassies and few foreigners visit this extraordinary little nation.


Lack of international recognition is not limited to poor
countries. Taiwan has one of the most powerful economies in the world,
but it has no seat at the UN and no major state recognises it as a
proper country. When Mao's communists defeated their nationalist
rivals, they fled to Taiwan and took over. Taiwan has since become a
stable democracy, but Beijing views it as a renegade province and
wants it back.

Taiwanese cities feel like locations in Blade Runner. Neon signs light
skyscrapers and night- markets, where stalls serve snake blood and
girls from the Chinese mainland sit outside obvious brothels. We went
to see a Taiwanese boy band, who sang of their pride at being
Taiwanese, not ethnic Chinese like their parents. The Taiwanese
president flew us to see a firework concert, but refused to speak to
us, and then dumped us in a muddy field.

Guides took us to a Taiwanese island just off the Chinese coast, from
where the Taiwanese bombarded the mainland with propaganda from the
world's loudest and largest loudspeakers. Taiwanese soldiers on the
island also fought a 20-year artillery duel with the Chinese, but
eventually both sides came to a gentleman's agreement to bombard each
other on alternate days. Times have changed and local shops now melt
old artillery shells into kitchen knives for Chinese tourists.

South Ossetia, Ajaria and Abkhazia

Three parts of Georgia all declared their own independence when the
Soviet Union collapsed. In the ensuing conflicts thousands were killed
and the whole region has suffered ever since.

In South Ossetia - which has had its own government and army for 12
years, Ossetes told me they speak a different language to
Georgians. Tensions were high and the Ossetes were suspicious of
foreigners, partly because my government guide kept telling people I
was from London, America. After explaining I had nothing to do with
George Bush locals warmed up, and young soldiers shared drunken
birthday toasts. They all vowed to fight again rather than rejoin

Ajaria and Abkhazia are on Georgia's western Black Sea coast. The
former is a Soviet-era holiday destination which has now rejoined
Georgia. The new governor kindly took us to a restaurant which was
cleared of other customers as we arrived by extras from the
Sopranos. Abkhazia may well be a lovely place to visit, but the
government kicked us out before we could explore.

Elsewhere in Georgia we found a former secret Soviet military base
containing thousands of tonnes of unguarded high explosives, and
scores of powerful missiles capable of destroying skyscrapers. A local
scientist trying to dismantle the explosives had rung the US embassy
to warn them, but nobody returned his call.


Historically this breakaway mountainous area of Azerbaijan was mainly
Armenian Christian. War erupted when it wanted independence after the
Soviet collapse, and Armenian troops helped the Karabakh army push out
the local Muslim Azeris.

Azerbaijan is still officially at war with Armenia over Karabakh, and
our journey started in Azerbaijan on the frontline. It may be 2005 in
the rest of the world, but on the border between Karabakh and
Azerbaijan young soldiers still man trenches. We had to sprint across
open ground to avoid sniper fire. Thousands of Azeri refugees live in
appalling conditions. Children and the elderly survive in rusty train
carriages. Everyone mentions the war, even the country's top pop star
- a crackshot with an AK-47.

The border between Azerbaijan and Karabakh is closed, so we took a
massive detour into Georgia, over snowy mountains into Armenia, then
over icy passes into Karabakh. We were welcomed with organic mulberry
vodka, but found bombed-out Azeri villages. Mine-clearance charity The
Halo Trust is trying to improve lives, but locals shrugged and walked
through a minefield in front of me. Despite the war, the people of
Karabakh claim they would have the world's highest rate of longevity,
if they were recognised as an independent country. *