7 Countries That Don’t Actually Exist—Wait, What?
What is a country? That is the question travel writer and Oxford geography don Nick Middleton asks in his book An Atlas of Countries That Don’t Exist.
The book explores the origins and histories of 50 states that, lacking international recognition and United Nations membership, exist on the margins of legitimacy in the global order. From long-contested lands like Crimea and Tibet to lesser-known territories such as Africa’s last colony and a European republic that enjoyed independence for a single day, Middleton presents fascinating stories of shifting borders, visionary leaders, and “forgotten” peoples.
But first, before we give you a taste of the book, we must outline how Middleton decided what makes these places “non-countries.”
- All of the ‘non-countries’ included have failed to secure a seat at the United Nations General Assembly and none has widespread international recognition as a sovereign state.
- All of these ‘non-countries’ have at least the outward trappings of national consciousness, including a flag, some form of government and a claim to territory, as well as a seriousness of purpose.
- Some of the entries have in fact established their exclusive control over territory for considerable lengths of time, despite their lack of international recognition.
- Many currently exist as partially autonomous regions of larger recognized states. Their claim to greater areas and greater levels of self-determination are frequently based on historical precedent, treaty or an ethnic/cultural distinctiveness that puts them apart from those who dominate the state in which they live. Their likelihood of gaining more territory, or greater autonomy, varies right across a spectrum from very unlikely (e.g. Cabinda, Lakotah, Tibet) to quite possible (e.g. Greenland).
- Others are territories that have been declared independent by individuals or small groups and have a minimal chance of being recognized as independent by any established nation state or international body. These so-called ‘microstates’ are usually small in either land area and/or population (e.g. Pontinha).
- To balance the common theme of desire for independence, a few examples have been included of territories that chose to be subsumed by another, or regions that prefer to remain a colony rather than to go it alone as an independent entity (Mayotte).
- Many islands are represented, and this is no coincidence. Being physically separate by virtue of being an island makes life as a sovereign entity much easier. Indeed, some microstates have even set themselves up on newly created islands (e.g. Minerva, Sealand).
- All of these unrecognized countries are, to some degree, unique entities. This fact, when combined with the realization that there is no one universally acknowledged definition of a country, means that this compendium of non-states is, to some extent, inherently arbitrary. Certain countries that some readers might expect to find have been excluded for a variety of reasons. All raise the possibility that countries as we know them are not the only legitimate basis for ordering the planet.
Phew. That’s a lot to take in. Let’s take a look at some of these non-countries now, shall we?
Republic for a day in March 1939
The Battle of Krasne Pole was a short-lived encounter, a David and Goliath affair, only without the counter-intuitive ending. Ruthenian forces took up their position on a plain on the north side of the Tysa River, a tributary of the mighty Danube. They would defend their fledgling republic, against the might of the Hungarian army, at the strategic Veriatsk Bridge.
The defenders were a hotch-potch of poorly equipped patriots, joined by school students and their teacher. A few sat expectantly in the snow behind Maxim machine guns; most were armed with hunting rifles. Across the river lay a vastly superior Hungarian force, supported by tanks, armored vehicles and an air force. This was the first resistance they had met since crossing the unguarded border, under authorization from Germany, invading Ruthenia.
It was 15 March 1939. Beneath the red volcanic hills of the Carpathians, the shooting began. Some claim these as the first shots of World War II. Only that morning, a dozen kilometers upstream in the town of Khust, a new republic had been created. Its president was a Greek Catholic bishop and man of letters. Among his works, a practical grammar of the Ruthenian language. He was an apt guardian of Ruthenian culture and identity. Independence was declared. Men in dark suits and stiff white collars applauded the announcement from wooden benches. At sunrise, they had been part of Czechoslovakia. By lunchtime they had their own nation state. By evening, they had disappeared into the clutches of a budding Nazi empire.
In 1945, Ruthenia’s president for a day was arrested by the Soviet secret police, and died soon after in a Moscow jail. His short-lived republic vanished into westernmost Ukraine, but the ghost of independence lives on. More than half a century later, revivalists once more demand Ruthenian self-determination.
Former stronghold of the Knights Templar granted sovereignty in 1903
They say the steps up to the fort were hacked out of the rock in the early 1400s. Two sea captains, sent by Prince Henry the Navigator, stopped 700 kilometers off the coast of West Africa and made the small island their base for expeditions into nearby Madeira. For hundreds of years this fortress, rearing up out of the rugged basalt, remained a staging post for explorers and merchants sailing into the Atlantic and beyond. During the Napoleonic Wars, British forces used it as a military base and penal complex.
At one time, the fort became a stronghold of the Order of Knights Templar, descendants of the warriors who occupied Jerusalem during the Crusades. The connection sparked an archaeological frenzy when, in 2010, a nail from the time of Christ’s crucifixion was found in an ornate casket buried beneath the ancient battlements, alongside three skeletons and three swords. One of the swords sported the Knights Templar cross engraved upon its blade.
The fort remains, but Pontinha is a tiny island no more. Much of it was blasted away in the nineteenth century when Funchal’s harbor wall was built, but what remained was sold in 1903 under a royal charter by King Carlos of Portugal. The regal letter granted sovereignty to the owners of the ‘fort and the rock upon which it stands’.
Today, if you stroll along the concrete harbor wall you can’t miss the red carpet that covers the first few steps across the Pontinhan border. A sign declares ‘visitors welcome (at own risk)’. Renato Barros, a schoolteacher, is the proud owner of the fort and wants the rights due to all countries, including the full 200 nautical miles of territorial waters extending out into the Atlantic. Admission is free, but donations are welcome to help with restoration work.
North America: Lakotah
Indigenous American people that unilaterally withdrew from all treaties with the USA
They won’t take the money. Why should they? To them, the Black Hills are sacred and not for sale. And they were stolen anyway. Accepting the money would legitimize the crime.
In 1868 the Lakota Sioux signed a treaty with the U.S. government that promised the Black Hills would be theirs forever. But just a few years later gold was discovered and the government changed its mind. It reneged on the deal and expropriated the land. The Lakota name for the Black Hills is Wamaka Og’naka I’cante, ‘the heart of everything that is’. According to Lakota creation legend, in the beginning the universe was given a song and a piece of the song is held in each piece of the universe. Except the Black Hills, that is. They hold the entire song. It should come as no surprise to learn that the Lakota have fought for 150 years, on battlefields and in courtrooms alike, for the return of this most spiritual of places.
More than a century after it was expropriated, a U.S. judge awarded compensation for the land— at 1877 prices plus interest. The Lakota are not rich. They languish on a few reservations, ragged scraps of their territory by treaty. By all economic measures these are places of misery and deprivation; not charming, agrarian poverty, but the grimy, squalid, no-hope variety normally associated with urban ghettos. They could use the half-billion dollars of compensation money but still they won’t take it. A price tag is only one measure of value, they say.
In December 2007, the Republic of Lakotah was formed. A delegation traveled to Washington D.C. to deliver their formal withdrawal from the treaties signed with the U.S. government. Not so much a secession as a reassertion of sovereignty. The case of the Black Hills land claim continues.
South America: Rapa Nui
A special territory of Chile, annexed in 1888 under dubious circumstances
The island at the end of the world is a long way from anywhere, 3,800 kilometers from the coast of South America, and over 2,500 kilometers from Polynesia. Its first settlers arrived in wooden canoes probably some 800 years ago, navigating by the stars and the ocean swells. They did not find a new Polynesian paradise. Rapa Nui’s soil is poor and there is little fresh water.
What happened next is a matter for conjecture. What we do know is that several hundred years passed before the first European, a Dutchman, set foot on the windswept Pacific isle. It being Easter Sunday, 1722, he duly named the new Dutch territory Easter Island. The name has become synonymous with mystery and intrigue. By the time the Dutch arrived, most of the island’s giant primeval palm trees had vanished, replaced by enigmatic statues, enormous basalt monoliths embodying the spirits of powerful ancestors. But riddles remain and archaeologists disagree over exactly what went wrong on Easter Island.
The Chilean government took possession of the island in 1888. A naval officer negotiated EL ACUERDO DE VOLUNTADES (‘The Voluntary Agreement’) with the King of the Rapa Nui and his chiefs, a document in two versions: Spanish, and Rapanui mixed with Tahitian, a spoken language. These versions are not the same. In the Spanish text the chiefs cede sovereignty over the island to Chile; in the Rapanui version Chile offers to be a ‘friend of the island’.
The king and his chiefs could not write, so they signed with an X. During the treaty ceremony, King Tekena grabbed a handful of turf, passed the grass to Chile’s naval officer and held on to the soil. To him and his people, this action was worth more than the treaty itself, but to the Chilean government it was the other way around.
Independence declared a day before India
Rani Gaidinliu was no ordinary teenager. A guerrilla leader fighting British rule, she was sixteen years old and had a price on her head. Hiding out in the Naga Hills with her band of freedom fighters, she taunted the colonials from sepia villages in the clouds. Gaidinliu, it was said, was blessed with magical powers. She could turn bullets into water, come and go at will, like a ghost in the morning mist. When finally arrested by troops of the Assam Rifles, she was convicted of murder and sentenced to life imprisonment. Gaidinliu was freed only after India had become independent. She was thirty-two and had spent nearly half her life in jail.
Before the British arrived in Naga in the early nineteenth century, each hilltop settlement was an independent sovereign state. When villages clashed with their neighbors headhunting was a central feature of each conflict. But the British discouraged headhunting, introduced Christianity, and inadvertently paved the way for Naga nationalism.
The quest for self-determination, now that Naga villages were united, still drove Rani Gaidinliu on her release from prison. But the newly autonomous Indian state, which had ignored her people’s own declaration of independence, saw her potential as a beacon for Naga autonomy. Hence it was another decade before they allowed her to return home.
By then Christian Nagas had taken over the separatist struggle, now against the Indians, and the magical girl from the hills was seen as a menace. Threats were made and in 1960 Rani Gaidinliu disappeared again, taking up residence in a cave high above the precipitous green valleys. In later life, Gaidinliu chose negotiation as the means to achieve liberation for her people. With limited success, she died a neglected figure in 1993. But her people continue their struggle, for the dream of a free sovereign Naga nation.
Libertarian island republic briefly independent in 1980
Four years in Nazi concentration camps had taught Michael Oliver all he needed to know about authoritarianism and the nation state. Although by now a naturalized U.S. citizen, and a very wealthy one at that, he could still spot the signs of nascent repression. Capitalism in the USA wasn’t quite as unfettered as he preferred. So he established the Phoenix Foundation to aid his pursuit of the ultimate libertarian state.
Enter Jimmy Stevens, one-time bulldozer operator, now full-time leader of a magico-religious cult. He had political aspirations for his homeland, the South Pacific island of Espiritu Santo, and they slotted neatly into Mr. Oliver’s agenda. Mr. Stevens did a nice line in flamboyant oratory and liked to be known as Moses. In 1980, his island was part of an Anglo-French condominium heading for independence but Mr. Stevens, with a little help from the Phoenix Foundation, had his own ideas.
At the head of a force armed solely with bows and arrows, Jimmy Stevens overcame the local administrators and declared the island a sovereign state. In line with years of colonial rivalry, the French recognized Vemerana, but the British did not. They prepared to send troops instead, until France objected. Meanwhile Mr. Stevens concentrated on his libertarian principles. He had twenty-five wives.
But the rest of the Anglo-French archipelago soon became independent as the colonials had intended. Named Vanuatu, this new state was recognized by many more countries besides France. Vanuatu asked for assistance in the Mr. Stevens affair from next-door Papua New Guinea, who readily agreed. When Papuan soldiers landed they confiscated wagonloads of bows and arrows and Vemerana’s secession was soon over. Jimmy Stevens was arrested, tried and sentenced to fourteen years in prison. With his downfall came the end of Mr. Oliver’s attempts at nation-building. His dream of creating an autonomous laissez-faire utopia reverted to just that.
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You can find Nick Middleton’s An Atlas of Countries That Don’t Exist here.
Photography by Irene Kim Shepherd
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