With almost 200 countries in the world, you’d have to be a pretty huge geography geek to know about about each and every single one of them. But every country has a story, and some of the ones you’ve never heard of have incredibly rich histories that are full of radical leaders who tirelessly fought for independence.
Collected here you’ll find 12 countries with very little global recognition—some of them are beautiful secret paradises, some of them are troubled by shaky economies, and a few of them are in very real danger of literally sinking into the ocean and being lost forever. But they all fly their own flag and their citizens all have their own unique sets of customs and practices that have come to define who they are.
A former colony of the German Empire, Nauru is a small potato-shaped island in the South Pacific. Just over 10,000 people live on the 8.1 square mile island. By area, it’s the third smallest state in the world next to Monaco and Vatican City.
Though it was once called Pleasant Island, the country’s current state of affairs probably wouldn’t do the name justice. In the early 1970s it boasted the highest per-capita income of any sovereign state in the world, due largely to its phosphate mining industry. But once the phosphate reserves were exhausted, the money dried up and the environment was left almost completely destroyed. The country is now a shadow of its former self and has become a known center for tax evasion and illegal money laundering.
Situated at the nexus of several great civilizations, Kyrgyzstan is a country with a rich cultural history spanning over 2,000 years. One of the reasons its ancient culture has been preserved for so long is because the country is geographically isolated by highly mountainous terrain.
During the Cold War, Kyrgyzstan periodically came under Soviet control but attained sovereignty as a nation-state after the breakup of the USSR in 1991. The Kyrgyz genetic makeup is a combination of Mongol, Turkic, Chinese and Russian influence. In an effort to uphold the old values of the Mongol Empire, horses remain a huge part of Kyrgyz culture. Instead of playing soccer or baseball, communities often compete in a variety of horseback riding games such as kyz kuumai—where a man on horseback tries to steal a kiss from a woman on horseback.
10. Nagorno-Karabakh Republic
Though internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan, Nagorno-Karabakh is a de facto independent state with its own government, constitution and military. Part of the reason why the country is still not recognized by the rest of the world might have something to do with geography. It’s a small land-locked region located entirely within the borders of Azerbaijan. The only other country it comes close to sharing a border with is Armenia, which it connects to through a single corridor of occupied Azeri land. The likelihood of Armenia and Azerbaijan coming to terms over the status of Nagorno-Karabakh is unlikely. An appalling amount of violence and ethnic cleansing on both sides took place during the post-Soviet War era, and fighting still claims many lives there each year.
Between Madagascar and Mozambique lies the African island nation of the Comoros. The archipelago was formed at the crossroads of several different civilizations and is known for its diverse culture and history. The islands were previously a French colony and one of them is still an overseas territory of France called Mayotte. As a member of the Arab League, Islam is the most dominant religion in the Comoros and it is said that in pre-colonial times that the nation served as a major Arabian trading outpost. However, today the country receives very little international attention and is considered a hidden gem by the travelers who visit.
With a population just under 11,000 and a total area of 10 square miles, Tuvalu is the fourth smallest country in the world. The Polynesian nation is comprised of three reef islands and six true atolls situated midway between Australia and Hawaii. Government revenues largely stem from sales of fishing licenses, as well as the leasing of its highly profitable web domain, which happens to be .tv. By selling this domain to companies all over the world who see .tv as an opportunity to promote a television service, Tuvalu has cleverly managed to turn a profit despite a lagging economy.
Frighteningly, due to climate change, rising sea levels could end up sinking these islands in the coming years. And despite attempts by the government to draw attention to the issue, Tuvalu’s voice isn’t really being heard in the global community.
Kiribati (pronounced Kiri-bahss), is a cluster of 33 tiny islands in the central Pacific Ocean. Though, when combined, their total area is roughly the size of New York City, the islands are so spread out that it takes six hours to fly from the first island to the last. It’s the only country in the world to have land in all four hemisphere (North, South, East and West) and many of the islands lie just inches above sea level. For this reason many of the homes in Kiribati are built on stilts in the shallow reefs. However, like Tuvalu, the country’s president has asserted that some of the islands are shrinking. This has prompted some citizens to seek asylum in New Zealand.
Located in the Horn of Africa and marked by large stretches of unspoilt desert highlands, Djibouti is a southeast country that declared its independence from France in 1977. The nation is bordered on all sides by distinctly turbulent countries. With dictatorship Eritrea to the north, distressed Somalia to the south, impoverished Ethiopia to the southwest, and war torn Yemen in the northeast, it’s remarkable that the country has managed to maintain any sort of stability at all.
Djibouti also features Lake Assal—the third lowest point on Earth where the surrounding areas are so scorching and salty, and fresh water so scarce that people often accept bottled water as form of currency.
Spread across 250 islands, Palau shares maritime boundaries with Indonesia, the Philippines, and the Federated States of Micronesia. The country was originally settled roughly 3,000 years ago by migrants from the Philippines, but in the past it has suffered foreign occupation from the likes of Germany, Britain and the U.S. Although Palau did eventually gain independence, they still rely heavily on the U.S. dollar as a currency.
Compared to the other Pacific island countries, Palau is relatively large and features a beautifully diverse ecosystem. There is certainly a lot to explore throughout the small archipelago, however, since flights to the country usually only depart from a small handful of airports, many foreigners don’t see it as a worthwhile trip due to all the diversions.
Many people have never heard of Guinea-Bissau because it sits in the shadow of its larger West African neighbor, Guinea. After declaring independence in 1973, the name of its capital, Bissau, was added to the country’s name to avoid confusion with Guinea.
Ever since being recognized as its own nation, Guinea-Bissau has experienced political instability with no elected president managing to serve a full term without being booted out of office. The country’s environment is also currently suffering due to a rise in deforestation resulting from attempts by the government to make lumber a main export. Unfortunately, this has led to another one of its biggest assets, its natural environment, being destroyed.
Located directly west of Fiji, Vanuatu is an island archipelago known for its beautiful scenery, active volcanoes, and uncommon Melanesian culture. The nation is composed of 13 larger islands and 70 smaller ones. Being of volcanic origin, most of the islands are mountainous and covered in lush rain forests.
Ninety percent of Vanuatu people have household fish farms, and 80% live in rural, isolated villages where they grow the majority of their own food and supplies. Although the local economy still revolves mostly around fishing and agriculture, tourism is quickly becoming another emerging industry and liberal tax laws have made Vanuatu a popular offshore financial center. Scuba diving has grown to become the most popular tourist attraction as the warm costal waters are full of intricate tunnels and coral reefs that provide a visual feast teeming with life.
Although Tokelau is technically a non-self-governing territory of New Zealand, in 2007, a United Nations-sponsored referendum on self-determinism took place in which residents of the three islands making up the territory voted on the subject of independence. By a narrow margin of only 16 votes, it was decided that the province would remain a part of New Zealand.
The name Tokelau is a Polynesian word that means “north wind.” The island chain has the smallest economy of any country in the world, which makes them almost completely dependent on subsidies from New Zealand. However, villages are still entitled to enact their own laws regulating their daily lives and New Zealand law only applies where it has been extended by specific enactment. Fortunately, serious crimes are a rare thing in Tokelau—which is very good considering there are no prisons there. Small offenders are normally just given a fine and made to work.
In terms of the characteristics that define a country, Abkhazia has its own borders, a distinct ethnic population, a functioning government, a military, a national bank, and its own passports. Nonetheless, to over 90% of the world, it’s still looked upon as a province of Georgia—the country it fought for independence from in a bloody war during the early ’90s. Historically, Abkhazia has been more or less an independent nation for over 1,000 years. Between the ninth century and 1008 A.D., it operated as a sovereign kingdom before being incorporated as part of Georgia and then later Russia. When the USSR collapsed, the citizens of Abkhazia declared a return to their medieval borders, a movement which sparked a ferocious war with Georgia that resulted in large-scale ethnic cleansing on both sides. To avoid the fighting, most Georgians have since fled Abkhazia, while most Abkhazians have fled Georgia. Abkhazia declared itself an independent state in 1999, and they continue to uphold that claim today.