How many countries are there in the world? It seems like a simple question, but the answer is far more complicated than you might think. The UN, for example, lists 193 member states, but this completely excludes not only Taiwan and Kosovo, but also Vatican City. Other means of measurement are just as difficult. Were you to count only places that issue their own passports, you’d have to say Scotland and Wales are not countries, but the Knights of Malta (who own literally no territory) are. Does that make sense to you?
As a result, no one can say for certainty what really defines a country. Which means there are plenty of places out there that claim to be nation states, but are completely unrecognized by the world. Some of these secret countries, like Kosovo, you might have heard of. Others are so obscure that even their immediate neighbors might not know of them. Looking for somewhere completely unique for your next vacation? Try one of these hidden nations…
In 1991, Somalia collapsed into a brutal, ongoing, civil war. As the country’s institutions crumbled and all hell broke loose, the northwestern part of the nation hastily declared independence. Somaliland set up its own army, its own flag, its own government and its own currency. 26 years later, they’re still going strong. Yet, to date, not a single state on planet Earth has recognized the wannabe nation.
This is all sorts of surprising. While Somalia is an ungovernable basket case where half a million have died over the last quarter century, Somaliland is semi-democratic, stable, and, most-impressively of all, peaceful. The war doesn’t matter here. Terrorist atrocities are rare. Visiting Westerners can walk around on their own, even at night, and expect no more hassle than they would get in most other African Horn countries. Travel guide publisher Lonely Planet even has a section advising hopeful visitors.
That’s not to say everything is cool in Somaliland. Youth unemployment is estimated at a staggering 75%, and terrorists from Somalia proper keep trying to attack the territory. Still, finding this oasis of peace in Somalia is almost as amazing as finding a safe part of Iraq. Speaking of which…
9. Iraqi Kurdistan
Iraq has been a byword for unmitigated chaos for well over a decade now, as a bloody civil war gave way to ISIS rampaging across the desert. But there’s another part of Iraq that rarely makes headlines. Iraqi Kurdistan has functioned as an autonomous state within Iraq since 1970. Following the collapse of Baghdad’s control and the rise of ISIS, it has essentially become an independent country that keeps adding to its territory all the time.
This is a huge improvement on the situation under Saddam. In the 1980s, Iraqi aircraft dropped sarin on Iraqi Kurdistan, killing up to 5,000 civilians. Things got so bad after Saddam’s fall that the Kurds nearly declared unilateral independence, possibly starting a war. Then ISIS exploded onto the scene. As the Iraqi army crumbled, the Kurds took up weapons. Today, they’re the most effective army fighting ISIS in the whole of the Middle East.
Despite this historical horror, Iraqi Kurdistan (away from the frontlines) is stable. How stable? So stable that the unrecognized state has its own tourism industry which actively welcomes Westerners. Throw in a national anthem, passports, an army, borders, and an elected government, and you start wondering why we don’t just call it a country already.
Have you ever wanted to experience life in Eastern Europe at the height of the Cold War? Book yourself a flight to Transnistria right now. A tiny sliver of land along the eastern edge of Moldova (a nation few enough people have heard of already), Transnistria declared independence from Chisinau in 1990. Since then, it has existed in a time-trapped bubble of USSR nostalgia, with its own currency, passports, democratic government and security forces, but recognized by absolutely no-one.
To most visitors, it can feel as if the ‘country’ hasn’t changed at all since the day it declared independence. Hammer and sickle flags still flutter over statues of Lenin, Soviet architecture is still the national style, and the state police are still modelled on the KGB. Perhaps not surprisingly, one of the few countries to give Transnistria even limited recognition is Russia, which stations 1,000 troops there, just in case Moldova sends in the tanks to reclaim the land.
Unlike some on our list, visiting Transnistria is a breeze. Just catch a flight to Moldova and take a bus over the border. There aren’t even immigration checkpoints, which is more than you can say for flying to Texas.
7. Western Sahara (SADR)
One of the most recognized hidden countries, the Saharan Arab Democratic Republic (SADR, AKA Western Sahara) has support most nations on this list could only dream of. It is a member of the African Union. India, Mexico, South Africa and Vietnam have all backed its claims for independence. The EU gives huge export tax breaks to Western Saharan goods. So how come we’re calling it a ‘hidden country’?
We can answer that with a single word: Morocco.
When Morocco was granted independence in 1957, it laid claim to the Western Sahara region. At the time, the area was under Spanish colonial control, but when Spain pulled out, they didn’t grant the territory to the indigenous Saharawi people. Instead, they let Morocco and Mauritania duke it out for ownership. Morocco won and has claimed Western Sahara as part of its territory ever since.
Despite this, Western Saharan independence is a movement that’s popular across the globe. Although only 500,000 people live there, their cause has more adherents than perhaps any other except Tibet.
You’re gonna be hearing a lot about war in this article. This section on Abkhazia is no exception. A medieval kingdom that was united with Georgia in 1008 AD, Abkhazia elected to return to its 11th century boundaries after the collapse of the Soviet Union. As you can imagine, this didn’t sit well with the government of Georgia, who sent tanks in to keep their new nation together. What followed was a campaign of ethnic cleansing that killed thousands and left Abkhazia beyond Tibilsi’s control.
Independence wasn’t formally declared until 1999, but Abkhazia has essentially been separate since 1993. It has its own military, government, national bank, passports, boundaries, and the recognition of four UN member states. However, that independence has come at a price: total reliance on Russia. Since ’99, Abkhazia has been pulled ever-closer into Moscow’s orbit, essentially becoming a Russian exclave. Citizens can acquire Russian passports, crossing the border is a piece of cake, and jobs are reliant on Russian industry.
Interestingly, Abkhazia isn’t the only hidden country within Georgia’s tiny 70,000 square kilometers (slightly smaller than Scotland). The Rhode Island-sized enclave of South Ossetia in the north also claims independence.
Italy is already home to two internationally-recognized micronations: the 61 square kilometer city state of San Marino, and Vatican City, a nation so small it could fit inside the Pentagon five times over. According to some legal experts, there might be another. Seborga is a tiny hilltop town that covers an area the size of Central Park in NYC. It has only 400 residents, yet maintains consuls in several nations. Oh, and it may just be one of the oldest nation states in Europe.
Seborga was founded in 954 AD as a principality in the colossal Holy Roman Empire. When the Empire collapsed in 1806, nearly all of the 300 or so states that comprised it were dismantled or absorbed into bigger neighbors. Same deal with Seborga, which became part of Sardinia, and later a unified Italy. Or did it? When the Italian Unification treaty was signed in the 19th century, Seborga’s name was accidentally left off the document. Legally, it may therefore still be an independent state (albeit accidentally).
No one has ever actually brought this claim to court, so the matter is unsettled. Nonetheless, Seborga’s residents continue to claim independence from Italy.
Remember Somaliland way, way back at #10? The unrecognized nation wasn’t the only one to break away from Somalia when everything went south. The small, ocean-facing region of Puntland declared independence, too (‘small’ here is relative. At 212,500 square kilometers, Puntland is nearly the size of the UK). Only, while Somaliland hummed towards something like stability, Puntland took a completely different direction. One involving land wars, terrorism, and an economy mostly based on piracy.
While Puntland resisted the total descent into chaos Somalia experienced, its venture into nationhood wasn’t exactly a success. A disinterested central government allowed warlords to flourish on the coast, on the basis that they were better off attacking foreign ships than Puntland officials. ISIS have since taken root in the autonomous state, meaning it’s about as safe to visit as sticking your private parts into a whirring fan.
Interestingly, Puntland has only declared independence so long as the Somali civil war continues. If peace is finally declared, the autonomous region wants to join back together with the larger Somali state.
3. Freetown Christiania
Freetown Christiania is unique on our list. Not only is it a self-proclaimed nation, it is the only one half-recognized by the state it seceded from. A sprawling anarchist commune set up in some abandoned army barracks in Copenhagen, Christiania declared independence in 1971. For a while, Denmark gamely tried to evict the squatters. Then, at some point in the late ’70s, the government essentially said ‘ah, nuts to this,’ and declared the area a ‘social experiment’ beyond government control. The rest, as they say, is dope-addled history.
Christiania today is very different from the rest of Denmark. There are no cars allowed, no guns, and no private property. Buying and selling hash is completely legal (it’s illegal in Denmark), and the main street is today home to the biggest pot market on the planet. About the only concession to normal life is a ‘no hard drugs’ rule, brought in after a heroin epidemic nearly devastated the commune.
So why does the Danish government put up with all this? Part of it may be to do with tourist dollars. Despite wanting to cut ties with Denmark, Christiania is today Copenhagen’s 2nd biggest tourist attraction, bringing the city over a million visitors annually.
2. Nagorno-Karabakh Republic
In April 2016, fighting flared up again on the edges of the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic in Azerbaijan. Artillery fire, helicopter gunships and snipers killed around 50 people in four days, as a long-dormant war threatened to reignite. Although Moscow managed to secure a ceasefire, the sudden escalation showed a gloomy truth about this unrecognized micronation. If things stay as they are, the region will never, ever be at peace.
Nagorno-Karabakh was an Armenian enclave in Azerbaijan when the Soviet Union collapsed. Nagorno-Karabakh had long ago voted to secede, so the region’s leaders took their chance. Azerbaijan disagreed and sent in the tanks. The shocking violence that followed saw 30,000 killed, a campaign of ethnic cleaning, and hundreds of thousands turned into refugees. By the time the dust settled, Baku was no longer in control of the region, and a new republic of barely over 4,000 square kilometers had been born.
Today, Nagorno-Karabakh is home to around 150,000, all crammed into a tiny area of inhospitable mountain not much bigger than Cornwall. Not a single other nation recognizes the republic, not even Armenia.
1. Sovereign Military Order of Malta
And so we come to the Knights of Malta. The Knights are unlike any other hidden nation, for a number of reasons. The first is that they’re actually not that unrecognized. About 100 countries have diplomatic relations with them, only a fraction less than recognize Kosovo (and about 80 more than currently recognize Taiwan). The second is that they don’t have any territory to call their own. After being kicked out of Malta by Napoleon in 1798, the Knights have simply rented an apartment block and a Villa in Rome.
Despite lacking a homeland, the Knights have never lost their official recognition as an independent country. They have their own passports, operate under their own laws, and claim over 13,500 citizens.
The only person they’re really answerable to is the Pope, who recently flexed his muscles for the first time in decades by demanding the resignation of the Knights’ leader over condom distribution charity work (it’s a long story). The reason for this deference is that the Knights are a Catholic order who, back when they genuinely held territory, swore eternal obedience to God’s representative on Earth. Today, the ‘country’ functions as little more than a vessel for Catholic charity work, albeit one with as much recognition as any number of genuine states.