Four years and 44 countries later my goal of visiting every European country is complete. From Albania to the Vatican, San Marino to Lichtenstein, I've explored as much of each country as I could. Obviously, there is still much more exploring to be done but I wanted to share some thoughts on what I've seen so far and the final countries I had the opportunity to visit. The final three countries - Moldova, Ukraine and Belarus - were all pleasantly surprising. It started with business meetings I had in Moldova and then my interest in visiting Chernobyl. Moldova was far more economically advanced than I had imagined. The European Union has, it appears, invested much in the country. As a former executive of Deutsche Bank told me over a meeting in Portugal, "we invest in the poorer EU countries so they can buy our goods." As advertised, investment in these countries all return to the EU through exports and through making many of the former Soviet Republics more livable, thereby decreasing immigration. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, many fled to the West. Immigration is welcomed by many of the developed EU countries but only selective immigration. The best and the brightest are plucked away to work in white-collar jobs while the less educated do the work the citizens of the EU aren't interested in doing. In this respect, the EU is a great business model for those that participate in it. Back to Moldova. What's most interesting about Moldova is in Moldova but isn't really Moldovan. Transnistria is a self-declared breakaway republic of Moldova. It is recognized by three other break-away republics and if the Russian tanks at the "border" between Moldova proper and Transnistria are any indication, it is protected and supported by Russia. Driving through the entire country while en route to Odessa, abundant farmland gives clues into the reason why Transnistria may be so attractive to some countries. Agriculture appears to be an important part of the economy with large "farms" dotting the landscape. Advanced machinery has been imported to work these fields and where their exports go isn't clear to me, however, I'd guess they go east. While it's said that Transnistria was formed after a referendum was held in which the vast majority voted to break-away, and this may be the case, were those that voted aware of what they were voting for? Is this the future of global politics? Breakaway republics? Protection by superpowers? Has it always been this way? That's what really surprised me. There are some European countries that have wide-ranging freedoms. Freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and other rights but if you're poor you're left out on the street to fend for yourself. The city centers are capitals of conspicuous consumption and homelessness. Some countries that we view as being non-democratic, such as Belarus, are squeaky clean with no visible homelessness, while the major cities of the U.S. are both dirty and millions ignore the homelessness problem rampant on their streets. Is there a happy intersection? A country where the people don't have to worry about their ability to get medical care or a literal roof over their heads without it being a "dictatorship?" Even in many of these so-called advanced economies, minimum wages are so low that being able to afford college and healthcare for your children requires working two full-time jobs. This is the reality in many countries, including the United States. While I was away, I've been made aware of ongoing protests in Iran. The turmoil began when the government doubled gasoline prices, heavily subsidized and dirt cheap, which incited protests throughout the country. Wouldn't it be ironic if the one thing that brings down the Iranian government isn't an eight-year war in which hundreds of thousands died or 40 years of sanctions but one increase in gasoline prices? This may actually materialize. Similarly, Hong Kong and Bolivia are currently embroiled in their own civil unrest. What does this mean for the global economy and investors? I predict more Transnistria type countries emerging. I predict more annexations and more control over "weaker" countries with natural resources by "stronger" countries. This may be through hard power, invasions and assassinations, or it may be through soft power, Cambridge Analytica type interventions in democratic elections. This trend appears to have only accelerated and become more apparent in the past few years, whereas it was far more covert in previous decades. I'm worried about the rights of the working class all over the world and after seeing every country in Europe, I can only say Europe may be a leader in guaranteeing some rights but has far more to do.
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