Countries that don’t exist

Not far from our office, 13 kilometres off the Suffolk coast, lies a place that doesn’t officially exist – the ‘micro-nation’ of Sealand.

Originally a World War Two sea fort, in 1967 it was commandeered by the Bates family who promptly declared it an independent principality, taking advantage of its ambiguous status lying outside of British territorial waters. Since then they’ve defended their little slice of the North Sea fairly successfully, repelling a team of mercenaries in the 1970s, kidnapping a German lawyer (who claimed to be the rightful ruler of Sealand) and issuing their own passports, coins and postage stamps. Sealand still exists today, although the ‘royal family’ have decamped from its actual territory and now live just down the road from us in Suffolk.

Bizarre though this may be, it’s not alone. The world is full of ‘unique’ political entities from the Sovereign Military Order of Malta, which retains permanent observer status at the UN, to the Principality of Seborga which declared independence from Italy in 1995. Look up ‘unrecognised countries’ in Google and you might be surprised by some of the results, from Cyprus (unrecognised by Turkey) to China, locked in continual dispute with Taiwan, and Israel, officially unrecognised by many of its neighbours.

These are the ones that everyone’s heard of, but there are a few that you may not have……

A bit of a mouthful, Nagorno Karabakh (the name means ‘mountainous black garden', for trivia fans) lies in the Caucasus region and is one of those curious political oddities thrown up by the demise of the Soviet Union, unrecognised by most of the rest of the world but with its own government, army and currency. It has long been a source of conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan – a war fought here in the 1990s saw most of the Azeri population leaving, and now its population is predominantly Armenian. The scenery here is stunning, with striking mountains and beautiful valleys, and it is also home to some fine monasteries and religious monuments.

Transdniestr, or Transnistria, is a tiny breakaway state within Moldova between the River Dniestr and the Ukrainian border. Once part of the Soviet Union, when the Cold War ended its population decided to declare independence, sparking war with Moldova. Things are peaceful now but the two states eye each other cautiously from across the border. Ethnically it has far more ties with Russia, and you will hear Russian being spoken here – part of the basis for its claims of sovereign status is that while the rest of Moldova was ceded to Turkey following the Russo-Turkish conflicts of the 18th century, Transdniestr remained Russian, hence they cannot be considered to be the same country. The capital Tiraspol is a rather odd but intriguing place where the Soviet Union doesn’t seem to have quite died, and is fascinating to explore for an insight into what life was once like behind the Iron Curtain.

Abkhazia is a contentious subject. Formally part of Georgia, it declared independence soon after the break up of the USSR, resulting in a messy war which saw the Georgians withdraw. Today it claims to be a separate country – recognised by no-one else apart from South Ossetia, another breakaway part of Georgia, but heavily supported by Russia . The coastal areas have a subtropical climate and the region was much favoured during Soviet times as a holiday destination – old villas once used by the KGB still remain and provide a snapshot of those times. The highlands still harbour the best of traditional culture, with shepherds looking after their flocks deep within the mountains, and offer great hiking opportunities for those willing to get even further off the beaten track.

Somaliland is a different kettle of fish to its anarchic and unruly neighbour to the south, Somalia. As the rest of the country descended into a horrible civil war in the 1990s, the former British colony of Somaliland quietly snuck away and declared its independence, and has enjoyed a largely peaceful existence ever since. Despite doing all the right things – stable government, rule of law, establishing an army – no-one has yet recognised it as an independent country, which seems slightly unfair seeing as it’s doing a far better job at administering its territory than Somalia proper. Tucked away in this remote part of the Horn of Africa you can find some of the continent’s best rock art, wander through the old Ottoman quarter of Berbera and explore the lively markets of Hargeisa, meeting friendly traders glad to welcome tourists to their country.

For those that have been everywhere, chances are you’ve not yet been here…

In other news, we’ve got just one place left on our group tour to Angola in July, a fascinating introduction to the rich ethnic diversity in this hidden corner of southern Africa, and ‘Rhythms of Central Africa’ trip through Cameroon and Gabon – including the stunning Bwiti ritual and Loango National Park – has a few places up for grabs.

That’s it from us, for the moment…..

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