The former Soviet republics are one of the few places in the world containing political boundaries within boundaries. Other countries will have distinct ethnic minorities living in large regions. The groups may develop some local laws and certainly adhere to local customs (much as individual U.S. states have their own laws), but they are not separated from the rest of the country; they obey the laws of the nation first. How did this happen? In the early days of the Soviet Union, Stalin was charged with drawing the borders for the union’s republics. He, in agreement with all the Communist commisars, reasoned that the outlying republics, especially, would be easier to control by Moscow if their populations were split apart. In this way, they could not physically group together to plan subversive actions. It was, in a classic military sense, a tactic of “divide and conquer.”
After just a few years as autonomous republics, Moscow changed their titles to autonomous regions and gave them less control over their own local governance. With the fall of the Soviet Union, many of the regions have re-adopted the term “republic” as a way to show the countries in which they are imbedded that they wish to govern themselves. In Azerbaijan, for example, Nagorno-Karabakh was made an autonomous republic, even though it contained mostly ethnic Armenians. The Armenians have never liked the situation and, with the demise of the Soviet Union, have worked hard to be reunited with Armenia. Likewise, Stalin created Naxcivan, the separated region of Azerbaijan located on the western border of Armenia. While not quite as tense a situation as Nagorno-Karabakh, Azerbaijan continues to view Naxchivan culturally as part of its country. Georgia also was sliced into different pieces during the 1920s as Stalin continued to direct nationality affairs. For example, in July 1921 the Ajarian Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic was formed within Georgia. Abkhazia was initially a separate Soviet republic, but in 1921 it was merged with Georgia, and in 1930 it was downgraded to the status of an autonomous republic. In April 1922, the Soviet government created the political entity of South Ossetia and designated it an autonomous region within Georgia, while its northern counterpart on the other side of the Greater Caucasus, North Ossetia (now Alania), became part of Russia.