Why you should care
Not all nations are states, but many are trying to be. You could soon have seven more countries to add to your ever-growing list of places to visit.
How many countries are there in the world? The answer is 196. Or 193, or 195 or maybe 206. It depends on whether you trust the U.N., the State Department or Wikipedia. The fact is, defining countries is not easy and, to complicate things even further, every so often, new states are born and added to the list. In 2008 it was Kosovo gaining independence from Serbia, and in 2011 South Sudan finally went solo after years of civil war. So, which countries are likely to follow?
The European integration process should have made national borders less relevant, yet the continent has more than 60 separatist movements — from the island of Corsica to the hills of Veneto — making it the most likely area to see the birth of a new state in the coming years.
On September 18, 2014, the Scottish will vote whether they want to stay in the United Kingdom or go back to being an independent sovereign state. The referendum has been a long time coming in the hearts of advocacy groups and political parties, but the initiative picked up momentum when the Scottish National Party won the overall majority in the 2011 elections. Initially the odds for the independence didn’t look so promising, but recent positive economic forecasts are likely to tilt the balance in favor of the secession.
The nationalist movement of this region of Spain dates back to the beginning of the 20th century and is based on the belief that Catalans have a different history, culture and language than Spain. Initially the separatist feeling was fueled by the arrival to the right-wing party in 2010, and, more recently, the economic crisis has been the major cause of animosity between Madrid and Barcelona (Catalonia being the richest region of Spain but also the most indebted). Last year 1.5 million Catalans took to the streets of the capital to ask for independence, and a referendum is expected to take place in 2014. Polls suggest as many as 50 percent of Catalans want their own state, and, if successful, their independence would pave the way for other regions like the Basque country and Galicia.
Belgium has had a conflicted identity for a long time. Divided along linguistic lines between the French and Flemish speakers, the state has been thinking about the possibility of a split for decades. The loveless marriage between Flanders and Walloonia is the main reason behind the serious political crisis the country experienced between 2007 and 2010. Some experts believe that if Belgium were truly going to split, it would have already done so, but the Flemish separatists have recently made significant gains at the polls.
Africa has its fair share of regions striving for independence, probably because most of the continent’s borders were drawn in Europe without any consideration of pre-existing ethnic and tribal delineations. Decades of internal conflict might lead to the disintegration of states like Congo or the independence of regions such as Casamance — part of Senegal despite being geographically inside Gambia — yet conflict might also halt these processes (as in the case of South Sudan).
Despite being declared an independent democratic state by the Tuareg rebels in April 2012, Azawad has yet to receive any type of international recognition. The region, situated in Mali’s territory of northern Sahara, is vast and inhospitable, and al-Qaeda-linked groups have pushed the nationalist rebels aside and taken control of the main cities. The political situation is made considerably more complicated by the ethnic diversity in Azawad — the inhabited southern part of the self-declared state is occupied mainly by non-Tuaregs.
Yet another “de facto” state, Somaliland occupies the eastern third of the country and seeks its self-determination to continue building its own economy and operating its own administrative system and police force. The region maintains informal ties with foreign governments, even after Somalia attempted to restore a national government following decades as the world’s archetype of a failed state.
MIDDLE EAST AND ASIA
The Middle East and Asia are also home to many wannabe states, from the emblematic examples of Palestine and Tibet to the more obscure Pashtun separatist movement of Afghanistan.
The Kurdish people — who live divided between Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey — have been dreaming of being reunited inside their own state for 3,000 years and they might never have been closer than now. In 2005, the consultative referendum gave a 98.8 percent support for independence, and, with the withdrawal of American forces from Iraq and Syria’s descent into chaos, the Kurds have a unique window of time to redraw several Middle Eastern borders. The Kurdistan Regional Government of northern Iraq is already the country’s most stable sector, flying its own flag and closing its own energy and infrastructure deals with Exxon and Turkish firms.
Could the most militarized border in the world disappear? It might seem far-fetched, but a collapse of the North Korean regime could pave the way to both countries becoming one again. There are obvious differences in values and language between the two, yet South Korean strategists are quietly building a regional coalition to manage the economic and social costs of absorbing their hermit neighbor, and Russia supports the idea to the point of suggesting economic incentives.
North and South America seem to be the only continents that are unlikely to see any of their borders redrawn. It’s been some time since Quebec’s two failed independence referendums in 1980 and 1995, the Texan secession movement continues to simmer but not boil over, and there is no indication that French Guiana will stop being French anytime soon.