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Background > Overview: Countries Compared

DEFINITION: A geopolitical overview of every sovereign country in the world, briefly examining their recent history and place on the global stage. The texts are taken from the BBC News website.
COUNTRY DESCRIPTION
Afghanistan

Landlocked and mountainous, Afghanistan has suffered from such chronic instability and conflict during its modern history that its economy and infrastructure are in ruins, and many of its people are refugees.

Since the fall of the Taliban administration in 2001, adherents of the hard-line Islamic movement have re-grouped.

It is now a resurgent force, particularly in the south and east, and the government has struggled to extend its authority beyond the capital and to forge national unity.


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Albania

Albania is a small, mountainous country in the Balkan peninsula, with a long Adriatic and Ionian coastline.

Along with neighbouring and mainly Albanian-inhabited Kosovo, it has a Muslim majority - a legacy of its centuries of Ottoman rule. Approaching twenty per cent of the population are Christians, divided mainly between the Orthodox and smaller Catholic denominations.

After World War II, Albania became a Stalinist state under Enver Hoxha, and remained staunchly isolationist until its transition to democracy after 1990.


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Algeria

Algeria, a gateway between Africa and Europe, has been battered by violence over the past half-century.

More than a million Algerians were killed in the fight for independence from France in 1962, and the country has recently emerged from a brutal internal conflict that followed scrapped elections in 1992.

The Sahara desert covers more than four-fifths of the land. Oil and gas reserves were discovered there in the 1950s, but most Algerians live along the northern coast. The country supplies large amounts of natural gas to Europe and energy exports are the backbone of the economy.


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Andorra

The tiny principality of Andorra is located in the high mountains of the Pyrenees between France and Spain.

The mainstay of the highly-prosperous economy is tourism, accounting for about 80% of GDP. An estimated 10 million people visit each year, drawn by winter sports, a warm summer climate and duty-free goods.

The country's banking sector enjoys partial tax-haven status.


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Angola

One of Africa's major oil producers, Angola is nonetheless one of the world's poorest countries.

It is striving to tackle the physical, social and political legacy of a 27-year civil war that ravaged the country after independence.

The governing Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) and the rebel group Unita were bitter rivals even before the country gained independence from Portugal in 1975.


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Antigua and Barbuda

Antigua and Barbuda is one of the Caribbean's most prosperous nations, thanks to its tourism industry and offshore financial services.

The country's strength lies in its tropical climate and good beaches, which have made it popular as a stop-off point for US cruise ships and have attracted large investments in infrastructure.

Antigua is the main population centre and the focus for business and tourism. Relatively-undeveloped Barbuda is home to smaller, exclusive resorts and a sanctuary for frigate birds.


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Argentina

Argentina stretches 4,000 km from its sub-tropical north to the sub-antarctic south.

Its terrain includes part of the Andes mountain range, swamps, the plains of the Pampas and a long coastline. Its people have had to struggle with military dictatorship, a lost war over the Falkland Islands, and severe economic difficulties.

Argentina is rich in resources, has a well-educated workforce and is one of South America's largest economies. But it has also fallen prey to a boom and bust cycle.


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Armenia

A landlocked country with Turkey to the west and Georgia to the north, Armenia boasts a history longer than most other European countries.

Situated along the route of the Great Silk Road, it has fallen within the orbit of a number of cultural influences and empires.

After independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, Armenia quickly became drawn into a bloody conflict with Azerbaijan over the mostly Armenian-speaking region of Nagorno-Karabakh.


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Australia

Australia ranks as one of the best places to live in the world by all indices of income, human development, healthcare and civil rights. The sixth-largest country in the world by land mass, its comparatively small population is concentrated in the highly-urbanised east of the Australian continent.

The political entity that is modern Australia began to come into being with the arrival of British settlers in 1788. Many of the first settlers were convicts, but freemen started to arrive in increasing numbers after the discovery of gold in the mid-19th century.

Aboriginal Australians, who had inhabited the continent for tens of thousands of years prior to British colonisation, numbered a few hundred thousand. Two centuries of discrimination and expropriation cut their population drastically, and now they make up less than 3% of Australia's approximately 23 million people.


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Austria

Famous for its spectacular mountain scenery, Austria is no longer the dominant political force it was in Central Europe under the Habsburg dynasty which ruled until the first world war.

However, its position at the geographical heart of Europe on the key Danube trade route enhances its strategic importance.

After being joined to Nazi Germany from 1938-1945, Austria was occupied by the Allies, who divided up the country and the capital Vienna into separate sectors.


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Azerbaijan

Oil-rich Azerbaijan gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991 amid political turmoil and against a backdrop of violence in Nagorno-Karabakh.

It has been famed for its oil springs and natural gas sources since ancient times, when Zoroastrians, for whom fire is an important symbol, erected temples around burning gas vents in the ground.

In the 19th century this part of the Russian empire experienced an unprecedented oil boom which attracted international investment. By the beginning of the 20th century Azerbaijan was supplying almost half of the world's oil.


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Bahrain

Bahrain - which name means "two seas" - was once viewed by the ancient Sumerians as an island paradise to which the wise and the brave were taken to enjoy eternal life.

It was one of the first states in the Gulf to discover oil and to build a refinery; as such, it benefited from oil wealth before most of its neighbours.

Bahrain never reached the levels of production enjoyed by Kuwait or Saudi Arabia and has been forced to diversify its economy.


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Bangladesh

Bangladesh is one of the world's most densely populated countries, with its people crammed into a delta of rivers that empties into the Bay of Bengal.

Poverty is deep and widespread; almost half of the population live on less than one dollar a day. However, Bangladesh has reduced population growth and improved health and education.

The major employer is agriculture, but it is unable to meet the demand for jobs. So, many Bangladeshis - in common with citizens from other countries in the region - seek work abroad, sometimes illegally.


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Barbados

The eastern Caribbean nation of Barbados was historically heavily dependent on the export of sugar as its main revenue earner, but in recent decades the economy has diversified into tourism and offshore finance.

Known for its beaches and cricket - its national sport - the former British colony has a dual heritage: English - evident in its stone-built Anglican churches and Saturday race meetings - and African, reflected in its music and dance.

Barbados is one of the more populous and prosperous Caribbean islands. Political, economic and social stability have given it one of the highest standards of living in the developing world. As well as being a centre for financial services, it also has offshore reserves of oil and natural gas.


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Belarus

The present borders of Belarus were established during the turmoil of World War II.

The former Soviet republic was occupied by the Nazis between 1941 and 1944, when it lost 2.2 million people, including almost all of its large Jewish population.

The largest remaining minority is a Polish population of about 400,000 in the west, which is also the stronghold of the beleagured Belarussian language.


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Belgium

For such a small country, Belgium has been a major European battleground over the centuries.

Occupied by Germany during World Wars I and II, it has experienced an economic boom in the last 50 years to become a model Western European liberal democracy.

However, there has also been a growing divide between the mainly Dutch-speaking north and the mainly French-speaking south, with some even speculating that the country could break up.


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Belize

Formerly known as British Honduras, Belize was the UK's last colony on the American mainland and still maintains strong ties with Britain.

It did not attain independence until 1981, when it became a Commonwealth realm with the British monarch as its head of state. English is still the official language, although Spanish is the most commonly spoken first language.

Although Belize is distinguished from its neighbours in being the only country in the region with a British colonial heritage, it also has strong ties to Latin America as well as to the Caribbean.


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Benin

Benin, formerly known as Dahomey, is one of Africa's most stable democracies.

It boasts a proliferation of political parties and a strong civil society.

On the economic side, however, the picture is less bright - Benin is severely underdeveloped, and corruption is rife.


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Bhutan

Bhutan is a tiny, remote and impoverished kingdom nestling in the Himalayas between its powerful neighbours, India and China.

Almost completely cut off for centuries, it has tried to let in some aspects of the outside world while fiercely guarding its ancient traditions.

The Bhutanese name for Bhutan, Druk Yul, means "Land of the Thunder Dragon" and it only began to open up to outsiders in the 1970s.


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Bolivia

A country of statistical extremes, landlocked Bolivia is the highest and most isolated country in South America.

It has the largest proportion of indigenous people, who make up around two-thirds of the population.

Though rich in mineral and energy resources, Bolivia is one of South America's poorest countries. Wealthy urban elites, who are mostly of Spanish ancestry, have traditionally dominated political and economic life, whereas most Bolivians are low-income subsistence farmers, miners, small traders or artisans.


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Botswana

Botswana, one of Africa's most stable countries, is the continent's longest continuous multi-party democracy. It is relatively free of corruption and has a good human rights record.

It is also the world's largest producer of diamonds and the trade has transformed it into a middle-income nation.

Botswana protects some of Africa's largest areas of wilderness. It is sparsely populated, because it is so dry. The Kalahari desert, home to a dwindling band of bushman hunter-gatherers, makes up much of the territory and most areas are too arid to sustain any agriculture other than cattle.


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Brazil

Brazil is South America's most influential country, an economic giant and one of the world's biggest democracies.

It is one of the rising economic powers - otherwise known as BRICS nations - together with Russia, India, China and South Africa. Over the past few years it has made major strides in its efforts to raise millions out of poverty.

The discovery of major offshore oil reserves could propel the country into the top league of oil-exporting nations.


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Brunei

A tiny country with a small population, Brunei was the only Malay state in 1963 to choose to remain a British dependency rather than join the Malaysian Federation.

It became independent in 1984 and, thanks to its large reserves of oil and gas, now has one of the highest standards of living in the world.

Its ruling royals, led by the head of state Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, possess a huge private fortune.


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Bulgaria

Bulgaria, situated in the eastern Balkans, has been undergoing a slow and painful transition to a market economy since the end of Communist rule.

A predominantly Slavic-speaking, Orthodox Christian country, Bulgaria was the birthplace of the Cyrillic alphabet, which was created there towards the end of the 9th century AD.

It was long influenced by Byzantine culture then was part of the Ottoman Empire for 500 years before gaining its independence in the 19th century.


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Burkina Faso

A poor country even by West African standards, landlocked Burkina Faso has suffered from recurring droughts and, until the 1980s, military coups.

Burkina Faso has significant reserves of gold, but cotton is the economic mainstay for many Burkinabes.

This industry is vulnerable to changes in world prices.


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Burma

Myanmar, also known as Burma, was long considered a pariah state, isolated from the rest of the world with an appalling human rights record.

From 1962 to 2011, the country was ruled by a military junta that suppressed almost all dissent and wielded absolute power in the face of international condemnation and sanctions.

The generals who ran the country stood accused of gross human rights abuses, including the forcible relocation of civilians and the widespread use of forced labour, including children.


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Burundi

Burundi, one of the world's poorest nations, is struggling to emerge from a 12-year, ethnic-based civil war.

Since independence in 1962 it has been plagued by tension between the usually-dominant Tutsi minority and the Hutu majority.

The ethnic violence sparked off in 1994 made Burundi the scene of one of Africa's most intractable conflicts.


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Cambodia

Cambodia is benefiting from two decades of relative stability, having endured civil war and the murderous rule of the Khmer Rouge.

As it attempts to end its dependence on foreign aid, the country's economic potential and natural resources are drawing foreign investment - especially from China and neighbouring Vietnam.

Garment-making is the biggest industry, employing around half a million people and accounting for 80% of exports. Tourism is expanding, and Cambodia hopes to tap into offshore oil and gas reserves.


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Cameroon

The modern state of Cameroon was created in 1961 by the unification of two former colonies, one British and one French.

Since then it has struggled from one-party rule to a multi-party system in which the freedom of expression is severely limited.

Cameroon began its independence with a bloody insurrection which was suppressed only with the help of French forces.


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Canada

Canada is the second largest country in the world after Russia. However, its population is only about one-fifth of Russia's.

Nearly 90% of Canadians live within 200km of the border with the United States, which means that Canada contains vast expanses of wilderness to the north.

The relationship to its powerful neighbour is a defining factor for Canada. The US and Canada are both each other's largest trading partner.


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Cape Verde

Poor in natural resources, prone to drought and with little arable land, the Cape Verde islands have won a reputation for achieving political and economic stability.

The former Portuguese colony comprises 10 islands and five islets, all but three of which are mountainous.

During the 20th century severe droughts caused the deaths of 200,000 people and prompted heavy emigration. Today, more people with origins in Cape Verde live outside the country than inside it. The money that they send home brings in much-needed foreign currency.


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Chad

A largely semi-desert country, Chad is rich in gold and uranium and stands to benefit from its recently-acquired status as an oil-exporting state.

However, Africa's fifth-largest nation suffers from inadequate infrastructure and internal conflict. Poverty is rife, and health and social conditions compare unfavourably with those elsewhere in the region.

Chad's post-independence history has been marked by instability and violence stemming mostly from tension between the mainly Arab-Muslim north and the predominantly Christian and animist south.


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Chile

Chile is one of South America's most stable and prosperous nations. It has been relatively free of the coups and arbitrary governments that have blighted the continent.

The exception was the 17-year rule of General Augusto Pinochet, whose 1973 coup was one of the bloodiest in 20th-century Latin America and whose dictatorship left more than 3,000 people dead and missing.

Chile has steadily come to terms with the legacy of General Pinochet's rule.


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China

China is the world's most populous country, with a continuous culture stretching back nearly 4,000 years.

Many of the elements that make up the foundation of the modern world originated in China, including paper, gunpowder, credit banking, the compass and paper money.

After stagnating for more than two decades under the rigid authoritarianism of early communist rule under its late leader, Chairman Mao, China China profilenow has the world's fastest-growing economy and is undergoing what has been described as a second industrial revolution.


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Colombia

Colombia has significant natural resources and its diverse culture reflects the indigenous Indian, Spanish and African origins of its people.

But it has also been ravaged by a decades-long violent conflict involving outlawed armed groups, drug cartels and gross violations of human rights, although since 2002, the country has made some progress towards improving security.

The fourth largest country in South America and one of the continent's most populous nations, Colombia has substantial oil reserves and is a major producer of gold, silver, emeralds, platinum and coal.


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Comoros

Potentially a holiday paradise with picture-postcard beaches, the Comoros islands are trying to consolidate political stability amid tensions between semi-autonomous islands and the central government.

A history of political violence has left the Comoros desperately poor. At times, the country has teetered on the brink of disintegration.

The three Indian Ocean islands have experienced more than 20 coups or attempted coups, beginning just weeks after independence from France in 1975 when President Ahmed Abdallah was toppled in a coup assisted by French mercenary Colonel Bob Denard. Colonel Denard featured in several power struggles over the years.


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Cook Islands

The 15 volcanic islands and coral atolls of the Cook Islands are scattered over 770,000 square miles of the South Pacific, between American Samoa to the west and French Polynesia to the east.

A former British protectorate, the territory is a self-governing state in free association with New Zealand.

Its economy centres on tourism; the territory's natural assets include fine beaches and volcanic mountains.


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Costa Rica

For decades Costa Rica has stood out for its stability and has benefited from the most developed welfare system in the region.

It has no standing army, and its citizens enjoy one of the highest life expectancy levels in the Western hemisphere and better living standards than most of Central America.

Traditionally dependent on coffee, banana and beef exports, Costa Rica has diversified its economy. The opening of a large computer chip plant in the late 1990s was a fillip to the economy, but its fortunes have been subject to the fluctuating world demand for microchips.


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Cote d'Ivoire

Once hailed as a model of stability, during the first decade of the twenty-first century Ivory Coast slipped into the kind of internal strife that has plagued so many African countries.

An armed rebellion in 2002 split the nation in two. Since then, peace deals have alternated with renewed violence as the country has slowly edged its way towards a political resolution of the conflict.

For more than three decades after independence under the leadership of its first president, Felix Houphouet-Boigny, Ivory Coast was conspicuous for its religious and ethnic harmony and its well-developed economy.


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Croatia

Croatia's declaration of independence in 1991 was followed by four years of war and the best part of a decade of authoritarian nationalism under President Franjo Tudjman.

By early 2003 it had made enough progress in shaking off the legacy of those years to apply for EU membership, becoming the second former Yugoslav republic after Slovenia to do so.

A country of striking natural beauty with a stunning Adriatic coastline, Croatia is again very popular as a tourist destination.


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Cuba

Cuba's Communist government has survived more than 40 years of US sanctions intended to topple veteran leader Fidel Castro. It also defied predictions that it would not survive the collapse of its one-time supporter, the Soviet Union.

Since the fall of the US-backed dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista in 1959, Cuba has been a one-party state led by Mr Castro and - since February 2008 - by his chosen successor and younger brother, Raul.

Fidel Castro exercised control over virtually all aspects of Cuban life through the Communist Party and its affiliated mass organisations, the government bureaucracy and the state security apparatus.


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Cyprus

By legend the birthplace of the ancient Greek goddess of love Aphrodite, Cyprus's modern history has, in contrast, been dominated by enmity between its Greek and Turkish inhabitants.

Cyprus has been divided since 1974 when Turkey invaded the north in response to a military coup on the island which was backed by the Athens government.

In 1974 the island was effectively partitioned with the northern third inhabited by Turkish Cypriots and the southern two-thirds by Greek Cypriots. The UN peacekeeping forces estimate that 165,000 Greek Cypriots fled or were expelled from the north, and 45,000 Turkish Cypriots from the south, although the parties to the conflict say the figures are higher.


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Czech Republic

Part of Czechoslovakia until the "velvet divorce" in January 1993, the Czech Republic has a robust democratic tradition, a highly-developed economy, and a rich cultural heritage.

It emerged from over 40 years of Communist rule in 1990, and was the first former Eastern Bloc state to acquire the status of a developed economy. It joined the European Union in 2004.

Communist rule had lasted since the late 1948, when the restored prewar democratic system was overthrown in a Soviet-backed coup. The "Prague Spring" of 1968, when Communist leader Alexander Dubcek tried to bring in liberal reforms, was crushed by Warsaw Pact tanks.


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Democratic Republic of the Congo

A vast country with immense economic resources, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DR Congo) has been at the centre of what could be termed Africa's world war. This has left it in the grip of a humanitarian crisis. The five-year conflict pitted government forces, supported by Angola, Namibia and Zimbabwe, against rebels backed by Uganda and Rwanda.

Despite a peace deal and the formation of a transitional government in 2003, people in the east of the country remain in terror of marauding militias and the army.

The war claimed an estimated three million lives, either as a direct result of fighting or because of disease and malnutrition. It has been called possibly the worst emergency to unfold in Africa in recent decades.


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Denmark

The kingdom of Denmark has, despite its relatively small size, often punched above its weight internationally.

Vikings raiding from Denmark and the other Nordic nations changed the course of 9th- and 10th-century European history; in the Middle Ages, the Union of Kalmar united all of Scandinavia under Danish leadership.

In recent times, Denmark has been known for its modern economy and extensive welfare system, while enjoying an often difficult relationship with the European Union.


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Djibouti

Controlling access to the Red Sea, Djibouti is of major strategic importance, a fact that has ensured a steady flow of foreign assistance.

During the Gulf War it was the base of operations for the French military, who continue to maintain a significant presence.

France has thousands of troops as well as warships, aircraft and armoured vehicles in Djibouti, contributing directly and indirectly to the country's income. The US has stationed hundreds of troops in Djibouti, its only African base, in an effort to counter terrorism in the region.


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Dominica

With few natural resources and a fledgling tourist industry, Dominica is attempting to reduce its reliance on bananas, traditionally its main export earner.

The trade has faced stiffer competition since the European Union was forced by the World Trade Organisation to phase out preferential treatment for producers from former colonies.

A mountainous, forested island with a year-round tropical climate, national parks, rare indigenous birds and the second-largest boiling lake in the world, Dominica is potentially a great tourist attraction.


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East Timor

East Timor's road to independence - achieved on 20 May 2002 - was long and traumatic.

The people of the first new nation of the century suffered some of the worst atrocities of modern times.

An independent report commissioned by the UN transitional administration in East Timor said that at least 100,000 Timorese died as a result of Indonesia's 25-year occupation, which ended in 1999.


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Ecuador

Ecuador is a patchwork of indigenous communities, including people of colonial Spanish origins and the descendants of African slaves.

Its capital, Quito, once a part of the Inca empire, has some of the best-preserved early colonial architecture on the continent.

Traditionally a farming country, Ecuador's economy was transformed after the 1960s by the growth of industry and the discovery of oil. There was rapid growth and progress in health, education and housing.


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Egypt

Long known for its pyramids and ancient civilisation, Egypt is the largest Arab country and has played a central role in Middle Eastern politics in modern times.

In the 1950s President Gamal Abdul Nasser pioneered Arab nationalism and the non-aligned movement, while his successor Anwar Sadat made peace with Israel and turned back to the West.

The protests that ousted President Hosni Mubarak in 2011 put Egypt at the crossroads once again, as they led to an Islamist Muslim Brotherhood breakthrough at subsequently annulled parliamentary polls and a narrow win for the Brotherhood candidate in the presidential election of 2012.


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El Salvador

El Salvador, which is Spanish for "the saviour" - or Jesus Christ - has been wracked by civil war and a succession of natural disasters.

The tiny country is the most densely-populated state on the mainland of the Americas and is highly industrialised. But social inequality and a susceptibility to earthquakes have shaped much of modern El Salvador.

In the 1980s El Salvador was ravaged by a bitter civil war. This was stoked by gross inequality between a small and wealthy elite, which dominated the government and the economy, and the overwhelming majority of the population, many of whom lived - and continue to live - in abject squalor.


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Equatorial Guinea

Equatorial Guinea is a small country off West Africa which has recently struck oil and which is now being cited as a textbook case of the resource curse - or the paradox of plenty.

Since the mid 1990s the former Spanish colony has become one of sub-Sahara's biggest oil producers and in 2004 was said to have the world's fastest-growing economy.

However, few people have benefited from the oil riches and the country ranks near the bottom of the UN human development index. The UN says that less than half the population has access to clean drinking water and that 20 percent of children die before reaching five.


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Eritrea

Eritrea emerged from its long war of independence in 1993 only to plunge once again into military conflict, first with Yemen and then, more devastatingly, with its old adversary, Ethiopia.

Today, a fragile peace prevails and Eritrea faces the gigantic tasks of rebuilding its infrastructure and of developing its economy after more than 30 years of fighting.

A former Italian colony, Eritrea was occupied by the British in 1941. In 1952 the United Nations resolved to establish it as an autonomous entity federated with Ethiopia as a compromise between Ethiopian claims for sovereignty and Eritrean aspirations for independence. However, 10 years later the Ethiopian emperor, Haile Selassie, decided to annex it, triggering a 32-year armed struggle.


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Estonia

A small and heavily forested country, Estonia is the most northerly of the three former Soviet Baltic republics.

Not much more than a decade after it regained its independence following the collapse of the USSR, the republic was welcomed as an EU member in May 2004. The move came just weeks after it joined Nato.

These historic developments would have been extremely hard to imagine in not-so-distant Soviet times.


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Ethiopia

Ethiopia is Africa's oldest independent country and its second largest in terms of population. Apart from a five-year occupation by Mussolini's Italy, it has never been colonised.

It has a unique cultural heritage, being the home of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church - one of the oldest Christian churches - and a monarchy that ended only in the coup of 1974.

It served as a symbol of African independence throughout the colonial period, and was a founder member of the United Nations and the African base for many international organisations.


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Federated States of Micronesia

Micronesia, in the western Pacific, consists of some 600 islands grouped into four states: Kosrae, Pohnpei, Chuuk (Truk) and Yap.

Occupying a very small total land mass, it is scattered over an ocean expanse five times the size of France.

Though formally independent, in 1986 Micronesia signed a "Compact of Free Association" with the US. Under this, Washington took on responsibility for defence and gained the right to set up military bases and deny other nations access to Micronesia. In return, Micronesia received financial assistance averaging $100m per year, and the right of Micronesians to live and work in the US. Micronesia also takes its cue from Washington on foreign policy.


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Fiji

The 800-plus volcanic and coral islands that make up the Pacific nation of Fiji enjoy a tropical climate and host a significant tourism industry.

However, since 1987 racial and political tensions have been a steady source of instability and international isolation.

In 1987 a coup by indigenous Fijians overthrew the elected, Indian-dominated coalition. This triggered a series of adverse events, including the introduction - and subsequent withdrawal - of a constitution enshrining indigenous Fijian political supremacy.


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Finland

Finland is a country in the far north of Europe, bordered by Norway, Sweden and Russia. Unlike their fellow-Scandinavian neighbours to the west, the Finns are not a Germanic people but rather speak a language related to Estonian, some languages of Siberia and, more distantly, Hungarian.

Despite its substantial size, Finland is relatively thinly-populated. Around two-thirds of its territory is covered by forest and about a tenth by lakes.

Hundreds of years of Swedish rule were followed by a further century of Russian control before independence in 1917. This failed to stem the demands of Finland's giant Soviet neighbour, and World War II saw fierce fighting along Finland's eastern border.


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France

A key player on the world stage and a country at the political heart of Europe, France paid a high price in both economic and human terms during the two world wars.

The years which followed saw protracted conflicts culminating in independence for Algeria and most other French colonies in Africa as well as decolonisation in south-east Asia.

France was one of the founding fathers of European integration as the continent sought to rebuild after the devastation of World War II.


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French Polynesia

French Polynesia is a sprawling possession of France in the Pacific Ocean, made up of 118 volcanic and coral islands and atolls, including Tahiti.

For France this huge stretch of the Pacific - as big as Western Europe - remains strategically valuable. Atomic testing on the atolls enabled France to keep the nuclear clout it needed to remain one of the world's leading powers.

The issue of independence dominates the political agenda. There are five island groups - the Society Islands, the Tuamotu archipelago, the Gambier Islands, the Marquesas Islands and the Tubuai Islands. Tahiti is the most densely-populated island.


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Gabon

Gabon is one of West Africa's more stable countries. Between independence from France in 1960 and 2009, Gabon had just two presidents. The late president Omar Bongo was in power for over four decades.

Despite being made up of more than 40 ethnic groups, Gabon has escaped the strife afflicting other West African states.

This is partly down to its relative prosperity due to oil and to the presence of French troops, which in 1964 reinstated President Leon Mba after he had been overthrown in a coup.


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Gambia

The Gambia is one of Africa's smallest countries and unlike many of its West African neighbours it has enjoyed long spells of stability since independence.

President Yahya Jammeh seized power in a bloodless coup in 1994 and has ruled with an iron fist ever since.

Stability has not translated into prosperity. Despite the presence of the Gambia river, which runs through the middle of the country, only one-sixth of the land is arable and poor soil quality has led to the predominance of one crop - peanuts.


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Georgia

Situated at the strategically important crossroads where Europe meets Asia, Georgia has a unique and ancient cultural heritage, and is famed for its traditions of hospitality and cuisine.

Over the centuries, Georgia was the object of rivalry between Persia, Turkey and Russia, before being eventually annexed by Russia in the 19th century.

Since emerging from the collapsing Soviet Union as an independent state in 1991, Georgia has again become the arena of conflicting interests, this time between the US and a reviving Russia. Tense relations with Russia have been further exacerbated by Moscow's support for the separatist regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.


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Germany

Germany is Europe's most industrialized and populous country. Famed for its technological achievements, it has also produced some of Europe's most celebrated composers, philosophers and poets.

Achieving national unity later than other European nations, Germany quickly caught up economically and militarily, before defeats in World War I and II left the country shattered, facing the difficult legacy of Nazism, and divided between Europe's Cold War blocs.

Germany rebounded to become the continent's economic giant, and a prime mover of European cooperation. With the end of the Cold War, the two parts of the country were once again united, although the economy of the former east continues to lag behind that of the former west.


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Ghana

Ghana was the first place in sub-Saharan Africa where Europeans arrived to trade - first in gold, later in slaves.

It was also the first black African nation in the region to achieve independence from a colonial power, in this instance Britain.

Despite being rich in mineral resources, and endowed with a good education system and efficient civil service, Ghana fell victim to corruption and mismanagement soon after independence in 1957.


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Greece

The historical and cultural heritage of Greece continues to resonate throughout the modern Western world - in its literature, art, philosophy and politics.

Situated in the far south of the Balkan peninsula, Greece combines the towering mountains of the mainland with over 1,400 islands, the largest of which is Crete.

Post-World War II Greece saw rapid economic and social change, with tourism and shipping becoming major contributors to the economy.


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Grenada

Grenada made world headlines in 1983 when a split in the governing left-wing party led to the overthrow and execution of the country's charismatic leader, Maurice Bishop, and provided the pretext for a US invasion of the islands.

Set against the background of Grenada's hitherto peaceful post-independence history, the event highlighted the country's contradictory character.

From one angle, Grenada has an "exotic" flavour which appeals especially to Westerners. Known as the "Spice Island", it is the world's second-largest producer of nutmeg and is a significant producer of mace, cinnamon, ginger and cloves.


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Guam

The tropical island of Guam, a US territory in the western Pacific, is a keystone of American military strategy in the region.

Tourism and the growing military presence on the island are the bedrock of its economy.

Guam is an important staging post, allowing rapid access to potential flashpoints in the Koreas and in the Taiwan Strait.


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Guatemala

A country of striking features and a strong indigenous culture, Guatemala's natural beauty and powerful identity stand in stark contrast to its bloody past and troubled present.

Mountainous, heavily forested and dotted with Mayan ruins, lakes, volcanoes, orchids and exotic birds, Guatemala is one of the most beautiful countries in Central America.

Its indigenous population, the Maya, make up about half of the population. Mayan languages are spoken alongside Spanish, the official tongue. Many Guatemalans are of mixed Amerindian-Hispanic origin.


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Guinea

Although Guinea's mineral wealth makes it potentially one of Africa's richest countries, its people are among the poorest in West Africa.

Ruled by strong-arm leaders since independence, Guinea has been seen as a bulwark against instability in neighbouring Liberia, Sierra Leone and Ivory Coast. However it has also been implicated in the conflicts that have ravaged the region.

After independence in 1958 Guinea severed ties with France and turned to the Soviet Union. The first president, Ahmed Sekou Toure, pursued a revolutionary socialist agenda and crushed political opposition. Tens of thousands of people disappeared, or were tortured and executed, during his 26-year regime.


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Guinea-Bissau

Once hailed as a potential model for African development, Guinea-Bissau is now one of the poorest countries in the world.

It has a massive foreign debt and an economy that relies heavily on foreign aid.

Compounding this, the country experienced a bitter civil war in the late 1990s in which thousands were killed, wounded or displaced.


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Guyana

Guyana boasts a remarkably rich ecology, but also has one of South America's poorest economies.

Tropical rainforests - filled with distinctive plants and trees, teeming with exotic birds, insects and mammals - are a big draw for eco-tourists.

But political troubles, ethnic tension and economic mismanagement have left the former British colony with serious economic problems.


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Haiti

Haiti became the world's first black-led republic and the first independent Caribbean state when it threw off French colonial control and slavery in the early 19th century.

But chronic instability, dictatorships and natural disasters have left it as the poorest nation in the Americas.

UN peacekeepers were deployed in 2004 to restore order after an uprising, and more than 10,000 uniformed personnel remain on the ground. The mission has drawn controversy, including allegations of excessive force.


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Honduras

Military rule, corruption, a huge wealth gap, crime and natural disasters have rendered Honduras one of the least developed and least secure countries in Central America.

Until the mid-1980s Honduras was dominated by the military, which enthusiastically supported US efforts to stem revolutionary movements in the region.

Since then, civilian leaders have sought to curb the power of the military - with varying degrees of success.


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Hong Kong

Once home to fishermen and farmers, modern Hong Kong is a teeming, commercially-vibrant metropolis where Chinese and Western influences fuse.

The former British colony became a special administrative region of China in 1997, when Britain's 99-year lease of the New Territories, north of Hong Kong island, expired.

Hong Kong is governed under the principle of "one country, two systems", under which China has agreed to give the region a high degree of autonomy and to preserve its economic and social systems for 50 years from the date of the handover.


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Hungary

Hungary traces its history back to the Magyars, an alliance of semi-nomadic tribes from southern Russia and the Black Sea coast that arrived in the region in the ninth century. After centuries as a powerful medieval kingdom, Hungary was part of the Ottoman and then Habsburg empires from the 16th century onwards, emerging as an independent country again after World War I.

The Hungarian language belongs to the Finno-Ugric family and is one of the handful of languages spoken within the European Union that are not of Indo-European origin.

A landlocked country, Hungary is home to Lake Balaton, the largest in central Europe, and to a large number of spa towns and hot springs.


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Iceland

A sparsely-populated North Atlantic island, Iceland is famous for its hot springs, geysers and active volcanoes. Lava fields cover much of the land and hot water is pumped from under the ground to supply much of the country's heating.

Iceland became an independent republic in 1944 and went on to become one of the world's most prosperous economies. However, the collapse of the banking system in 2008 exposed that prosperity as having been built on a dangerously vulnerable economic model.

The affluence enjoyed by Icelanders before 2008 initially rested on the fishing industry, but with the gradual contraction of this sector the Icelandic economy developed into new areas.


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India

The world's largest democracy and second most populous country emerged as a major power in the 1990s. It is militarily strong, has major cultural influence and a fast-growing and powerful economy.

A nuclear-armed state, it carried out tests in the 1970s and again in the 1990s in defiance of world opinion. However, India is still tackling huge social, economic and environmental problems.

The vast and diverse Indian sub-continent - from the mountainous Afghan frontier to the jungles of Burma - was under foreign rule from the early 1800s until the demise of the British Raj in 1947.


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Indonesia

Spread across a chain of thousands of islands between Asia and Australia, Indonesia has the world's largest Muslim population and Southeast Asia's biggest economy.

Ethnically it is highly diverse, with more than 300 local languages. The people range from rural hunter-gatherers to a modern urban elite.

Sophisticated kingdoms existed before the arrival of the Dutch, who consolidated their hold over two centuries, eventually uniting the archipelago in around 1900.


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Iran

Iran became an Islamic republic in 1979, when the monarchy was overthrown and clerics assumed political control under supreme leader Ayatollah Khomeini.

The Iranian revolution put an end to the rule of the Shah, who had alienated powerful religious, political and popular forces with a programme of modernization and Westernization coupled with heavy repression of dissent.

Persia, as Iran was known before 1935, was one of the greatest empires of the ancient world, and the country has long maintained a distinct cultural identity within the Islamic world by retaining its own language and adhering to the Shia interpretation of Islam.


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Iraq

Iraq, in an area once home to some of the earliest civilisations, became a battleground for competing forces after the US-led ousting of President Saddam Hussein in 2003.

The Shia-led government struggled to restore order until a "surge" of US troops in late 2007 began to push insurgents and militias out of cities and provinces they had long contested.

The country remains volatile, and disputes with the autonomous Kurdistan Region over the oil-rich city of Kirkuk have threatened to derail progress towards political stability. Sunni Muslim insurgents continue to use violence in an effort to undermine the Shia-dominated government.


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Ireland

Ireland emerged from the conflict that marked its birth as an independent state to become one of Europe's economic success stories in the final decade of the twentieth century.

Long under English or British rule, Ireland lost half its population in the decades following the Great Famine of the 1840s to death and emigration.

After World War I, independence from the United Kingdom was only achieved at the price of civil war and partition. Northern Ireland remains part of Britain.


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Israel

A densely-populated country on the eastern shore of the Mediterranean Sea, Israel is the only state in the world with a majority Jewish population.

It has been locked in conflict with the Palestinians and its Arab neighbours over ownership of land considered holy by Jews, Christians and Muslims since its creation in 1948.

The division of the former British mandate of Palestine and the creation of the state of Israel in the years after the end of World War II was the culmination of the Zionist movement, whose aim was a homeland for Jews scattered all over the world. After the Nazi Holocaust pressure grew for the international recognition of a Jewish state, and in 1948 Israel declared its independence following a UN vote to partition Palestine.


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Italy

Take the art works of Botticelli, Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Tintoretto and Caravaggio, the operas of Verdi and Puccini, the cinema of Federico Fellini, add the architecture of Venice, Florence and Rome and you have just a fraction of Italy's treasures from over the centuries.

While the country is renowned for these and other delights, it is also notorious for its precarious political life and has had several dozen governments since the end of World War II.

The Italian political landscape underwent a seismic shift in the early 1990s when the "mani pulite" ("clean hands") operation exposed corruption at the highest levels of politics and big business. Several former prime ministers were implicated and thousands of businessmen and politicians were investigated.


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Jamaica

Known for its strong sense of self identity expressed through its music, food and rich cultural mix, Jamaica's influence extends far beyond its shores.

With luminaries such as the black nationalist Marcus Garvey and musician Bob Marley, Jamaicans are proud of their cultural and religious heritage.

Jamaicans have migrated in significant numbers to the United States, Canada and Britain and their music stars are known around the globe.


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Japan

Japan has the world's third-largest economy, having achieved remarkable growth in the second half of the 20th Century after the devastation of World War II.

Its role in the international community is considerable. It is a major aid donor and a source of global capital and credit.

More than three quarters of the population live in sprawling cities on the coastal fringes of Japan's four mountainous, heavily-wooded islands.


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Jordan

The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan is a small country with few natural resources, but it has played a pivotal role in the struggle for power in the Middle East.

Jordan's significance results partly from its strategic location at the crossroads of what Christians, Jews and Muslims call the Holy Land. It is a key ally of the US and, together with Egypt, one of only two Arab nations to have made peace with Israel.

The desert kingdom emerged out of the post-World War I division of the Middle East by Britain and France.


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Kazakhstan

A huge country the size of Western Europe, Kazakhstan has vast mineral resources and enormous economic potential.

The varied landscape stretches from the mountainous, heavily populated regions of the east to the sparsely populated, energy-rich lowlands in the west, and from the industrialised north, with its Siberian climate and terrain, through the arid, empty steppes of the centre, to the fertile south.

Ethnically the country is as diverse, with the Kazakhs making up over half the population, the Russians comprising just over a quarter, and smaller minorities of Uzbeks, Koreans, Chechens and others accounting for the rest.


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Kenya

Situated on the equator on Africa's east coast, Kenya has been described as "the cradle of humanity".

In the Great Rift Valley palaeontologists have discovered some of the earliest evidence of man's ancestors.

In the present day, Kenya's ethnic diversity has produced a vibrant culture but is also a source of conflict.


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Kiribati

The 33 atolls that make up Kiribati - the former Gilbert Islands - occupy a vast area in the Pacific. They stretch nearly 4,000 km from east to west, more than 2,000 km from north to south, and straddle the Equator.

The country won independence from the United Kingdom in 1979. Many of the atolls are inhabited; most of them are very low-lying and at risk from rising sea levels.

Kiribati - pronounced Kiribas - used to lie either side of the International Date Line, but the government unilaterally moved the line eastwards in 1995 to ensure the day was the same in the whole country.


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Kuwait

Kuwait is a small, oil-rich country nestling at the top of the Gulf, flanked by large or powerful neighbours - Saudi Arabia to the south, Iraq to the north and Iran to the east.

Its oil fields were first exploited in the 1930s, and since the development of the petroleum industry after World War II and independence in 1961, oil has dominated the economy, making up around 90% of export revenues.

In 1991, the country was the scene of a massive US-led international military campaign to oust Iraqi forces, which had invaded the year before. Operation Desert Storm saw their eventual removal, but Kuwait's infrastructure was left in bad shape and had to be rebuilt. Oil exports stopped for a time.


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Kyrgyzstan

A Central Asian state bordering China, Kyrgyzstan became independent with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

It has some oil and gas and a developing gold mining sector, but relies on imports for most of its energy needs. Resentment at widespread poverty and ethnic divisions between north and south occasionally spill over into violence, and the country's first two post-Soviet presidents were swept from power by popular discontent.

In 2005, a popular revolt sparked by allegations of government interference in parliamentary elections and fuelled by poverty and corruption swept President Askar Akayev - who had led the country since independence - from power.


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Laos

Laos, one of the world's few remaining communist states, is one of east Asia's poorest countries. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 it has struggled to find its position within a changing political and economic landscape.

Communist forces overthrew the monarchy in 1975, heralding years of isolation. Laos began opening up to the world in the 1990s, but despite tentative reforms, it remains poor and dependent on international donations.

The government has implemented gradual economic and business reforms since 2005 to somewhat liberalize its domestic markets. In 2011, it opened a stock market in Vientiane as part of a tentative move towards capitalism.


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Latvia

Situated in north-eastern Europe with a coastline along the Baltic Sea, Latvia has borders with Estonia, Russia, Belarus and Lithuania. It has linguistic links with Lithuania to the south and historical and religious ties with Estonia to the north.

Not much more than a decade after it declared independence following the collapse of the USSR, Latvia was welcomed as an EU member in May 2004. The move came just weeks after it joined Nato. These developments would have been extremely hard to imagine in the 51 years when Latvia - like Estonia and Lithuania - was occupied by the Soviet Union.

For centuries Latvia was primarily an agricultural country, with seafaring, fishing and forestry as other important factors in its economy.


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Lebanon

With its high literacy rate and traditional mercantile culture, Lebanon has traditionally been an important commercial hub for the Middle East.

It has also often been at the centre of Middle Eastern conflicts, despite its small size, because of its borders with Syria and Israel and its uniquely complex communal make-up.

Shia Muslims, Sunni Muslims, Christians and Druze are the main population groups in a country that has been a refuge for the region's minorities for centuries.


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Lesotho

The Kingdom of Lesotho is made up mostly of highlands where many of the villages can be reached only on horseback, by foot or light aircraft.

During the winter shepherds wearing only boots and wrap-around blankets have to contend with snow.

While much of the tiny country, with spectacular canyons and thatched huts, remains untouched by modern machines, developers have laid down roads to reach its mineral and water resources.


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Liberia

Liberia is Africa's oldest republic, but it became better known in the 1990s for its long-running, ruinous civil war and its role in a rebellion in neighbouring Sierra Leone.

Although founded by freed American and Caribbean slaves, Liberia is mostly inhabited by indigenous Africans, with the slaves' descendants comprising 5% of the population.

The West African nation was relatively calm until 1980 when William Tolbert was overthrown by Sergeant Samuel Doe after food price riots. The coup marked the end of dominance by the minority Americo-Liberians, who had ruled since independence, but heralded a period of instability.


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Libya

Libya, a mostly desert and oil-rich country on the southern shores of the Mediterranean Sea with an ancient history, has more recently been renowned for the 42-year rule of the mercurial Col Muammar Gaddafi.

In 2011, the colonel's autocratic government was brought to an end by a six-month uprising and ensuing civil war. In October of that year, the main opposition group, the National Transitional Council (NTC), declared the country to be officially "liberated" and pledged to turn Libya into a pluralist, democratic state.

In August 2012, the NTC handed over power to Libya's newly elected parliament, the General National Congress.


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Liechtenstein

The Principality of Liechtenstein is a tiny, doubly-landlocked country tucked away between Switzerland and Austria and with mountain slopes rising above the Rhine valley.

It owes much of its wealth to its traditional status as a tax haven, though the country has in recent years taken steps to shake off its image as a tax haven and to reposition itself as a legitimate financial centre.

This status came under the spotlight in 2000 when two international reports criticised Liechtenstein for lax financial controls. The reports said that the Liechtenstein banking system enabled gangs from Russia, Italy and Colombia to launder money from their criminal activities.


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Lithuania

Lithuania is the largest and most southerly of the three Baltic republics.

Not much more than a decade after it regained its independence during the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990, Lithuania was welcomed as a Nato member in late March 2004.

The move came just weeks before a second historic shift for the country in establishing its place in the Western family of nations as it joined the EU in May 2004. These developments would have been extremely hard to imagine in not-so-distant Soviet times.


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Luxembourg

The Grand Duchy of Luxembourg - a small country landlocked by Belgium, France and Germany - is a prominent financial centre.

With roots stretching back to the 10th century, Luxembourg's history is closely intertwined with that of its more powerful neighbours, especially Germany.

Many of its inhabitants are trilingual in French, German and Luxembourgish - a dialect of German.


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Macau

Tiny Macau, a special administrative region of China, has seen its low-key colonial character give way to massive commercial and tourist development.

The former Portuguese colony, a near neighbour of Hong Kong, occupies a small peninsula and two islands off China's southern coast.

Its economy revolves around tourism. Macau has capitalised on its long history as a gambling centre, drawing many thousands of visitors from China and Hong Kong.


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Madagascar

Madagascar is the world's fourth biggest island after Greenland, New Guinea and Borneo. Because of its isolation most of its mammals, half its birds, and most of its plants exist nowhere else on earth.

The island is heavily exposed to tropical cyclones which bring torrential rains and destructive floods, such as the ones in 2000 and 2004, which left thousands homeless.

The Malagasy are thought to be descendants of Africans and Indonesians who settled on the island more than 2,000 years ago. Malagasy pay a lot of attention to their dead and spend much effort on ancestral tombs, which are opened from time to time so the remains can be carried in procession, before being rewrapped in fresh shrouds.


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Malawi

Malawi, a largely agricultural country, is making efforts to overcome decades of underdevelopment and the more recent impact of a growing HIV-Aids problem.

For the first 30 years of independence it was run by the authoritarian and quixotic President Hastings Kamuzu Banda, but democratic institutions have taken a firm hold since he relinquished power in the mid-1990s.

After President Banda lost the first democratic presidential election in 1994 his successor, Bakili Muluzi, established a far more open form of government. Corruption, poverty and the high rate of HIV-Aids continued to hamper development and fostered discontent with the new authorities.


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Malaysia

Malaysia boasts one of south-east Asia's most vibrant economies, the fruit of decades of industrial growth and political stability.

Its multi-ethnic, multi-religious society encompasses a majority Muslim population in most of its states and an economically-powerful Chinese community. Consisting of two regions separated by some 640 miles of the South China Sea, Malaysia is a federation of 13 states and three federal territories.

It is one of the region's key tourist destinations, offering excellent beaches and brilliant scenery. Dense rainforests in the eastern states of Sarawak and Sabah, on the island of Borneo, are a refuge for wildlife and tribal traditions.


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Mali

The landlocked West African country of Mali - one of the poorest in the world - experienced rapid economic growth after the 1990s, coupled with a flourishing democracy and relative social stability.

This all hung in the balance in early 2012, when the steady collapse of state control over the north of the country was followed by an inconclusive military coup and French military intervention against Islamist fighters who threatened to advance south. Although civilian rule was re-established in the summer of 2013, a truce with Tuareg separatists in the north remains fragile.

For several decades after independence from France in 1960, Mali suffered droughts, rebellions, a coup and 23 years of military dictatorship until democratic elections in 1992.


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Malta

The Maltese archipelago includes the islands of Malta, Gozo, Comino, Comminotto and Filfla.

It has a history of colonial control spanning centuries.

Located south of the Italian island of Sicily between Europe and North Africa, it has been occupied by Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Arabs and latterly France and Britain.


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Marshall Islands

The Marshall Islands consist of two chains of coral atolls, together with more than 1,000 islets, just north of the Equator.

The atolls are coral deposits on the crater rims of submerged volcanoes.

The islands were occupied by the US for several decades after World War II. They are now a sovereign nation under a Compact of Free Association with the US.


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Mauritania

One of Africa's newest oil producers, Mauritania bridges the Arab Maghreb and western sub-Saharan Africa.

The largely-desert country presents a cultural contrast, with an Arab-Berber population to the north and black Africans to the south. Many of its people are nomads.

In the Middle Ages Mauritania was the cradle of the Almoravid movement, which spread Islam throughout the region and for a while controlled the Islamic part of Spain.


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Mauritius

Mauritius, a volcanic island of lagoons and palm-fringed beaches in the Indian Ocean, has a reputation for stability and racial harmony among its mixed population of Asians, Europeans and Africans.

The island has maintained one of the developing world's most successful democracies and has enjoyed years of constitutional order.

It has preserved its image as one of Africa's few social and economic success stories.


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Mexico

Mexico is a nation where affluence, poverty, natural splendour and urban blight rub shoulders.

Its politics were dominated for 70 years by the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI. But elections in 1997 saw a resurgent opposition break what was in effect a one-party system with a democratic facade.

Elections in 2000 confirmed the trend when Vicente Fox became the first president to come from the opposition.


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Moldova

Sandwiched between Romania and Ukraine, Moldova emerged as an independent republic following the collapse of the USSR in 1991.

The bulk of it, between the rivers Dniester and Prut, is made up of an area formerly known as Bessarabia. This territory was annexed by the USSR in 1940 following the carve-up of Romania in the Ribbentrop-Molotov pact between Hitler's Germany and Stalin's USSR.

Two-thirds of Moldovans are of Romanian descent, the languages are virtually identical and the two countries share a common cultural heritage.


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Monaco

Monaco is the second-smallest independent state in the world. It is a playground for tourists and a haven for the wealthy, the former drawn by its climate and the beauty of its setting and the latter by its advantageous tax regime.

The country - a constitutional monarchy - is surrounded on three sides by France and occupies just under two square kilometres (0.75 sq mile) of the Cote d'Azur, where the Alpes Maritimes meet the Mediterranean.

Tourism drives Monaco's economy; gamblers flock to the Place du Casino in Monte-Carlo and every May the principality hosts the Monaco Grand Prix.


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Mongolia

In 1990 Mongolia abandoned its 70-year-old Soviet-style one-party state and embraced political and economic reforms.

Democracy and privatisation were enshrined in a new constitution, but the collapse of the economy after the withdrawal of Soviet support triggered widespread poverty and unemployment.

However, Mongolia sits on vast quantities of untapped mineral wealth, and foreign investment in a number of massive mining projects is expected to transform its tiny economy in coming years.


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Montenegro

Montenegro emerged as a sovereign state after just over 55% of the population opted for independence in a May 2006 referendum.

The vote heralded the end of the former Union of Serbia and Montenegro - itself created only three years earlier out of the remnant of the former Yugoslavia.

The EU-brokered deal forming it was intended to stabilise the region by settling Montenegrin demands for independence from Serbia and preventing further changes to Balkan borders.


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Morocco

The Kingdom of Morocco is the most westerly of the North African countries known as the Maghreb - the "Arab West". It has Atlantic and Mediterranean coastlines, a rugged mountain interior and a history of independence not shared by its neighbours.

Its rich culture is a blend of Arab, Berber, European and African influences.

Morocco was a French protectorate from 1912 to 1956, when Sultan Mohammed became king. He was succeeded in 1961 by his son, Hassan II, who ruled for 38 years and played a prominent role in the search for peace in the Middle East.


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Mozambique

Since independence from Portugal in 1975, Mozambique has been battered by civil war, economic mismanagement and famine.

A peace deal in 1992 ended 16 years of civil war, and the country has made much progress in economic development and political stability.

Portugal began to colonise the area that became Mozambique in the early 16th century. An anti-authoritarian coup in 1974 in Portugal ended colonial rule and its ten-year war with the Frelimo independence movement.


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Namibia

Namibia, a large and sparsely populated country on Africa's south-west coast, has enjoyed stability since gaining independence in 1990 after a long struggle against rule by South Africa.

Germany took control of the area which it called South West Africa in the late 1800s. The discovery of diamonds in 1908 prompted an influx of Europeans. South Africa seized it during World War I and administered it under a League of Nations mandate.

Germany has apologised to Namibia for the colonial-era killings of thousands of members of the Herero ethnic group; their descendants have asked Berlin for financial compensation.


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Nauru

Named Pleasant Island by its first European visitors, the former British colony of Nauru is the world's smallest republic.

The tiny Pacific island once generated a per capita income out of proportion to its size. But the source of this wealth - phosphates - is nearing exhaustion, leaving the islanders facing an uncertain future.

While the mining of 1,000 years' worth of fossilised bird droppings has been lucrative, Nauru relies on imports for almost everything - from food and water to fuel.


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Nepal

With its ancient culture and the Himalayas as a backdrop, landlocked Nepal has a romantic image.

It is nonetheless one of the world's poorest countries, and is struggling to overcome the legacy of a 10-year Maoist insurrection.

Until Nepal became a republic in May 2008, it had been ruled by monarchs or a ruling family for most of its modern history in relative isolation.


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Netherlands

The Netherlands' name reflects its low-lying topography, with more than a quarter of its total area under sea level.

Now a constitutional monarchy, the country began its independent life as a republic in the 16th century, when the foundations were laid for it to become one of the world's foremost maritime trading nations.

Although traditionally among the keener advocates of the European Union, Dutch voters echoed those in France by spurning the proposed EU constitution in a 2005 referendum.


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New Caledonia

A French overseas territory in the Pacific, New Caledonia has seen deep divisions between its indigenous and European populations, notably over the thorny question of independence.

Named by the British explorer Captain James Cook, who spotted similarities with the Scottish highlands, the territory was annexed by France in 1853 and became a destination for thousands of French convicts.

But as the European population burgeoned, tensions - often over the loss of land - rose between the incomers and the indigenous Melanesians, known as Kanaks. A Kanak revolt in 1878 claimed more than 1,000 lives and heralded further repression by the French rulers.


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New Zealand

New Zealand is a wealthy Pacific nation dominated by two cultural groups: New Zealanders of European descent; and the Maori, the descendants of Polynesian settlers.

It is made up of two main islands and numerous smaller ones: the North Island (known as Te Ika-a-Maui in Maori) is the more populous of the two, and is separated by the Cook Strait from the somewhat larger but much less populated South Island (or Te Waipounamu).

Agriculture is the economic mainstay, but manufacturing and tourism are important and there is a world-class film industry.


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Nicaragua

Nicaragua is striving to overcome the after-effects of dictatorship, civil war and natural calamities, which have left it one of the poorest countries in the Western Hemisphere.

Nicaragua has traditionally relied on agricultural exports to sustain its economy, with pushes to diversiy into manufacturing in the 1950s and 1990s. But the country's meagre national wealth benefited mainly a few elite families of Spanish descent, in particular the Somoza family in the mid-20th century. This dynasty ruled the country with US backing between 1937 and the Sandinista revolution in 1979.

The Sandinistas began redistributing property and made huge progress in the spheres of health and education, but their pro-Cuban orientation alarmed the United States, which launched a sustained campaign of embargo and armed subversion.


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Niger

A vast, arid state on the edge of the Sahara desert, Niger endured austere military rule for much of its post-independence history and is rated by the UN as one of the world's least-developed nations.

The drought-prone country sometimes struggles to feed its people. Its main export, uranium, is prone to price fluctuations and agriculture is threatened by the encroaching desert. Niger is bargaining on oil exploration and gold mining to boost its fortunes.

Historically a gateway between North and sub-Saharan Africa, Niger came under French rule in the late 1890s.


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Nigeria

After lurching from one military coup to another, Nigeria now has an elected leadership. But the government faces the growing challenge of preventing Africa's most populous country from breaking apart along ethnic and religious lines.

Political liberalisation ushered in by the return to civilian rule in 1999 has allowed militants from religious and ethnic groups to pursue their demands through violence.

Thousands of people have died over the past few years in communal attacks led by the al-Qaeda ally Boko Haram. Separatist aspirations have also been growing, prompting reminders of the bitter civil war over the breakaway Biafran republic in the late 1960s.


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Niue

The residents of the Pacific island of Niue are far outnumbered by their compatriots who have migrated to New Zealand.

Home to fewer than 2,000 islanders, the self-governing coral atoll is trying to encourage some of the 20,000 overseas Niueans - many of them New Zealand-born - to return.

Niue operates in free association with New Zealand, its main source of aid and its biggest trading partner. New Zealand is obliged under the island's constitution to provide "necessary economic and administrative assistance". All Niueans are New Zealand citizens and can take up residency there.


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North Korea

For decades North Korea has been one of the world's most secretive societies. It is one of the few countries still under nominally communist rule.

North Korea's nuclear ambitions have exacerbated its rigidly maintained isolation from the rest of the world.

The country emerged in 1948 amid the chaos following the end of World War II. Its history is dominated by its Great Leader, Kim Il-sung, who shaped political affairs for almost half a century.


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Norway

Europe's northernmost country, the Kingdom of Norway is famed for its mountains and spectacular fjord coastline, as well as its history as a seafaring power.

It also enjoys one of the highest standards of living in the world, in large part due to the discovery in the late 1960s of offshore oil and gas deposits.

Norway's annual oil revenue amounts to around $40bn (£21bn), and more than half of its exports come from this sector. To counter inflation, spending of oil revenue was restricted.


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Oman

The oldest independent state in the Arab world, Oman is one of the more traditional countries in the Gulf region and was, until the 1970s, one of the most isolated.

Occupying the south-east corner of the Arabian peninsula, it has a strategically important position at the mouth of the Gulf.

At one time Oman had its own empire, which at its peak in the 19th century stretched down the east African coast and vied with Portugal and Britain for influence in the Gulf and Indian Ocean.


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Pakistan

The Muslim-majority state of Pakistan occupies an area which was home to some of the earliest human settlements and where two of the world's major religions, Hinduism and Buddhism, were practised.

The modern state was born out of the partition of the Indian sub-continent in 1947 and has faced both domestic political upheavals and regional confrontations.

Created to meet the demands of Indian Muslims for their own homeland, Pakistan was originally made up of two parts.


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Palau

More than 200 volcanic and coral islands, many of them surrounded by a single barrier reef, make up the northern Pacific nation of Palau.

The scenery ranges from white sandy beaches with an abundance of marine life to dense jungle. Palau favours sustainable tourism, which along with foreign aid is the mainstay of its economy.

Palau became independent in 1994, after being part of a United Nations trust territory administered by the US for 47 years.


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Panama

Lying at the crossroads of the North and South American continents and the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, Panama is of immense strategic importance.

This has made Panama the frequent object of US attention. The United States supported its secession from Colombia in 1903, and secured a sovereign zone in which to build the Panama Canal - which remained under US control from 1914 until 1999.

The US invaded Panama in 1989 to depose a former ally, military ruler Manuel Noriega, over his repressive rule and use of the country as a centre for drug trafficking.


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Papua New Guinea

Papua New Guinea occupies the eastern part of the world's second largest island and is prey to volcanic activity, earthquakes and tidal waves. Linguistically, it is the world's most diverse country, with more than 700 native tongues.

Some 80% of Papua New Guinea's people live in rural areas with few or no facilities of modern life.

Many tribes in the isolated mountainous interior have little contact with one another, let alone with the outside world, and live within a non-monetarised economy dependent on subsistence agriculture.


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Paraguay

Paraguay experienced more than three decades of dictatorship under Alfredo Stroessner, who was ousted in 1989, but the end of his iron-fisted rule did not bring political stability.

Factional splits led to the assassination of a vice-president, the resignation of a president and an attempted coup.

Stroessner's party, the National Republican Association-Colorado Party, survived his departure and remained in power until 2008.


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Peru

Peru's rich and varied heritage includes the ancient Incan capital of Cuzco and the lost city of Machu Picchu. The country boasts spectacular scenery, including Lake Titicaca, the world's highest navigable lake.

A growing number of visitors are being drawn to its variety of attractions, such as its archaelogical treasures, the Andes mountain range and the Amazon rainforest, which makes up about half the country.

It is rich in copper, silver, lead, zinc, oil and gold.


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Philippines

More than 7,000 islands make up the Philippines, but the bulk of its fast-growing population lives on just 11 of them.

Although endowed with many fine beaches and a growing tourism industry, much of the country is mountainous and prone to earthquakes and eruptions from around 20 active volcanoes. It is often buffeted by typhoons and other storms.

The Philippines - a Spanish colony for more than three centuries and named after a 16th century Spanish king - was taken over by the US in the early 20th century after a protracted rebellion against rule from Madrid. Spanish and US influences remain strong, especially in terms of language, religion and government.


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Poland

A nation with a proud cultural heritage, Poland can trace its roots back over 1,000 years. Positioned at the centre of Europe, it has known turbulent and violent times.

There have been periods of independence as well as periods of domination by other countries. Several million people, half of them Jews, died in World War II.

A new era began when Poland became an EU member in May 2004, five years after joining Nato and 15 years after the end of communist rule.


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Portugal

Portugal, a country with a rich history of seafaring and discovery, looks out from the Iberian peninsula into the Atlantic Ocean.

When it handed over its last overseas territory, Macau, to Chinese administration in 1999, it brought to an end a long and sometimes turbulent era as a colonial power.

The roots of that era stretch back to the 15th century when Portuguese explorers such as Vasco da Gama put to sea in search of a passage to India. By the 16th century these sailors had helped build a huge empire embracing Brazil as well as swathes of Africa and Asia. There are still some 200 million Portuguese speakers around the world today.


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Puerto Rico

Hispanic, Afro-Caribbean and North American influences meld in Puerto Rico, a self-governing commonwealth that belongs to the United States.

The tropical Caribbean territory is urbanised, industrialised and relatively prosperous.

The US invaded and occupied Puerto Rico during the Spanish-American War of 1898, ending centuries of rule from Spain. The US saw the island as a strategic asset and ran it as a colonial protectorate.


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Qatar

Qatar, a former pearl-fishing centre and once one of the poorest Gulf states, is now one of the richest countries in the region, thanks to the exploitation of large oil and gas fields since the 1940s.

Dominated by the Thani family for almost 150 years, the mainly barren country was a British protectorate until 1971, when it declared its independence after following suit with Bahrain and refusing to join the United Arab Emirates.

In 1995 Crown Prince Hamad bin Khalifa deposed his father to become emir and since then he has introduced some liberal reforms.


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Republic of Macedonia

Macedonia was spared the inter-ethnic violence that raged elsewhere in the Balkans following the break-up of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s but it came close to civil war a decade after independence.

Rebels staged an uprising in early 2001, demanding greater rights for the ethnic Albanian minority. The conflict created a wave of refugees and the rebels made territorial gains.

After months of skirmishes, EU and Nato support enabled the president, Boris Trajkovski, to strike a peace deal. Under the Ohrid agreement, Albanian fighters laid down their arms in return for greater ethnic-Albanian recognition within a unitary state.


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Romania

The largest of the Balkan countries, Romania has dramatic mountain scenery and a coastline on the Black Sea.

It has seen numerous empires come and go from the Roman, to the Ottoman, to the Austro-Hungarian.

After World War II the country was under communist rule although the leadership pursued a foreign policy independent of that of the Soviet Union.


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Russia

Russia emerged from a decade of post-Soviet economic and political turmoil to reassert itself as a world power.

Income from vast natural resources, above all oil and gas, have helped Russia overcome the economic collapse of 1998. The state-run gas monopoly Gazprom is the world's largest producer and exporter, and supplies a growing share of Europe's needs.

Economic strength has allowed Vladimir Putin - Russia's dominant political figure since 2000 - to enhance state control over political institutions and the media, buoyed by extensive public support for his policies.


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Rwanda

Rwanda experienced Africa's worst genocide in modern times, and the country's recovery was marred by its intervention in the conflict in neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo.

The country has been beset by ethnic tension associated with the traditionally unequal relationship between the dominant Tutsi minority and the majority Hutus.

Although after 1959 the ethnic relationship was reversed, when civil war prompted around 200,000 Tutsis to flee to Burundi, lingering resentment led to periodic massacres of Tutsis.


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Saint Kitts and Nevis

The former British colony of St Kitts and Nevis is inhabited mostly by the descendants of West African slaves.

Its beaches, scenery and a warm, sunny climate give it great tourist potential. It is also vulnerable to hurricanes.

The islands of St Kitts - also known as St Christopher - and Nevis have been in an uneasy federation since independence from Britain in 1983, with some politicians in Nevis saying the federal government in St Kitts - home to a majority of the population - had ignored the needs of Nevisians.


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Saint Lucia

Tourism is the main source of income for St Lucia and the industry is its biggest employer.

The tropical eastern Caribbean island boasts beaches, mountains, exotic plants and the Qualibou volcano with its boiling sulphur springs.

Before the visitor influx, banana exports sustained St Lucia, especially after 1964 when it stopped producing sugar cane.


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Samoa

The Independent State of Samoa, known as Western Samoa until 1997, is made up of nine volcanic islands, two of which - Savai'i and Upolu - make up more than 99% of the land.

It was governed by New Zealand until its people voted for independence in 1961. It has the world's second-largest Polynesian group, after the Maori.

Samoa's deeply conservative and devoutly Christian society centres around the extended family, which is headed by an elected chief who directs the family's social, economic and political affairs, and the church, which is a focus of recreational and social life. Many Samoan villages hold up to 20 minutes of prayer curfews in the evenings.


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San Marino

Landlocked San Marino is one of the world's smallest countries. Surrounded by Italy, it is an echo from an era when city-states proliferated across Europe.

Mount Titano, part of the Appennine range, dominates San Marino's landscape. Three defensive fortresses perch on Titano's slopes, looking out to the Adriatic coast.

San Marino is said to be the world's oldest surviving republic.


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Sao Tome and Principe

Sao Tome and Principe, once a leading cocoa producer, is poised to profit from the commercial exploitation of large offshore reserves of oil.

But arguments have arisen over how to spend the expected windfall, leading to political tension.

One of Africa's smallest countries, Sao Tome and Principe consists of two islands of volcanic origin and a number of smaller islets.


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Saudi Arabia

One of the most insular countries in the Middle East, Saudi Arabia has emerged from being an underdeveloped desert kingdom to become one of the wealthiest nations in the region thanks to vast oil resources.

But its rulers face the delicate task of responding to pressure for reform while combating extremist violence.

Named after the ruling Al Saud family, which came to power in the 18th century, the country includes the Hijaz region - the birthplace of the Muslim Prophet Muhammad and the cradle of Islam. This fact, combined with the Al Sauds' espousal of a strict interpretation of Sunni Islam known as Wahhabism, has led it to develop a strongly religious self-identity.


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Senegal

Senegal has been held up as one of Africa's model democracies. It has an established multi-party system and a tradition of civilian rule.

Although poverty is widespread and unemployment is high, the country has one of the region's more stable economies.

For the Senegalese, political participation and peaceful leadership changes are not new. Even as a colony Senegal had representatives in the French parliament. And the promoter of African culture, Leopold Senghor, who became president at independence in 1960, voluntarily handed over power to Abdou Diouf in 1980.


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Serbia

Serbia became a stand-alone sovereign republic in the summer of 2006 after Montenegro voted in a referendum for independence from the Union of Serbia and Montenegro.

When the vote was followed by a formal declaration of independence by Montenegro, a special session of parliament in Belgrade declared Serbia to be the legal successor to the now defunct Union.

Serbia and Montenegro, the two republics still left in the old Yugoslav federation, had agreed in 2002 to scrap remnants of the ex-communist state and create the new, looser Union of Serbia and Montenegro.


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Seychelles

After an ominous, post-independence start which saw them lurch from a coup, through an invasion by mercenaries to an abortive army mutiny and several coup attempts, the Seychelles have attained stability and prosperity.

Citizens of the Indian Ocean archipelago enjoy a high per capita income, good health care and education.

But just a year after independence in 1976, the Seychelles appeared to be heading down the path of instability which has plagued many African states.


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Sierra Leone

Sierra Leone, in West Africa, emerged from a decade of civil war in 2002, with the help of Britain, the former colonial power, and a large United Nations peacekeeping mission.

More than 17,000 foreign troops disarmed tens of thousands of rebels and militia fighters. A decade on, the country has made progress towards reconciliation, but poverty and unemployment are still major challenges.

A lasting feature of the war, in which tens of thousands died, were the atrocities committed by the rebels, whose trademark was to hack off the hands or feet of their victims.


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Singapore

Singapore is a hi-tech, wealthy city-state in south-east Asia, also known for the conservatism of its leaders and its strict social controls.

The country comprises the main island - linked by a causeway and a bridge to the southern tip of Malaysia - and around 50 smaller islands.

Once a colonial outpost of Britain, Singapore has become one of the world's most prosperous places - with glittering skyscrapers and a thriving port.


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Slovakia

Right at the heart of Europe and with a history intertwined with that of its neighbours, Slovakia has proudly preserved its own language and distinct cultural traditions.

It was part of Czechoslovakia until the "velvet divorce" in January 1993.

Having uncoupled itself from its western neighbour, Slovakia at first struggled to prove itself as an independent democracy, but by the time of the twentieth anniversary of the "velvet divorce" in January 2013, it had come to be seen as one of Europe's biggest success stories.


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Slovenia

Slovenia is a small country in Central Europe, but contains within its borders Alpine mountains, thick forests, historic cities and a short Adriatic coastline, It initially enjoyed substantial economic and political stability after gaining independence from Yugoslavia.

Slovenia was the first former Yugoslav republic to join the European Union, in May 2004 - a few months after joining Nato.

Unlike Croatia or Bosnia-Hercegovina, Slovenia's independence from Yugoslavia was almost bloodless.


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Solomon Islands

The Solomon Islands, a former British protectorate in the Pacific, is striving to recover from a civil conflict that brought it to the brink of collapse.

More than 90% of the islanders are ethnic Melanesians, but there has been intense and bitter rivalry between the Isatabus on Guadalcanal, the largest island, and migrant Malaitans from the neighbouring island.

Fighting broke out in 1998 when the Isatabu Freedom Movement began to force Malaitans out, accusing them of taking land and jobs. Around 20,000 people abandoned their homes, with many subsequently leaving Guadalcanal.


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Somalia

Somalia was without a formal parliament for more than two decades after the overthrow of President Siad Barre in 1991.

Years of anarchy followed the downfall of President Barre, and it was not until 2012, when a new internationally-backed government was installed, that the country began to enjoy a measure of stability once more.

The decades of fighting between rival warlords meant that the country was ill-equipped to deal with natural disasters such as drought, and around half a million people died in the Somali famines of 1992 and 2010-12.


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South Africa

Diversity is a key feature of South Africa, where 11 languages are recognised as official, where community leaders include rabbis and chieftains, rugby players and returned exiles, where traditional healers ply their trade around the corner from stockbrokers and where housing ranges from mud huts to palatial homes with swimming pools.

The diverse communities, however, have not had much representation for long.

Until 1994 South Africa was ruled by a white minority government which was so determined to hang onto power that it took activists most of the last century before they succeeded in their fight to get rid of apartheid and extend democracy to the rest of the population.


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South Korea

South Korea has developed into one of Asia's most affluent countries since partition in 1948. The Communist North has slipped into totalitarianism and poverty.

The Republic of Korea was proclaimed in August 1948 and received UN-backed support from the US after it was invaded by the North two years later.

The Korean War ended in 1953 without a peace agreement, leaving South Korea technically at war for more than fifty years.


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South Sudan

South Sudan gained independence from Sudan on 9 July 2011 as the outcome of a 2005 peace deal that ended Africa's longest-running civil war.

An overwhelming majority of South Sudanese voted in a January 2011 referendum to secede and become Africa's first new country since Eritrea split from Ethiopia in 1993.

The new nation stands to benefit from inheriting the bulk of Sudan's oil wealth, but continuing disputes with Khartoum, rivalries within the governing party, and a lack of economic development cloud its immediate future.


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Spain

Located at the crossroads of the Atlantic and the Mediterranean, Europe and Africa, Spain's history and culture are made up of a rich mix of diverse elements.

Through exploration and conquest, Spain became a world power in the 16th century, and it maintained a vast overseas empire until the early 19th century.

Spain's modern history is marked by the bitterly fought Spanish Civil War of 1936-39, and the ensuing 36-year dictatorship of General Francisco Franco.


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Sri Lanka

Lying off the southern tip of India, the tropical island of Sri Lanka has attracted visitors for centuries with its natural beauty.

But it has been scarred by a long and bitter civil war arising out of ethnic tensions between the majority Sinhalese and the Tamil minority in the northeast.

After more than 25 years of violence the conflict ended in May 2009, when government forces seized the last area controlled by Tamil Tiger rebels. But recriminations over abuses by both sides continue.


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Sudan

Sudan, once the largest and one of the most geographically diverse states in Africa, split into two countries in July 2011 after the people of the south voted for independence.

The government of Sudan gave its blessing for an independent South Sudan, where the mainly Christian and Animist people had for decades been struggling against rule by the Arab Muslim north.

However, various outstanding secession issues - especially the question of shared oil revenues and the exact border demarcation - have continued to create tensions between the two successor states.


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Suriname

Suriname, once known as Dutch Guiana, is one of South America's smallest countries. It enjoys a relatively high standard of living but also faces serious political and economic challenges.

Since independence from the Netherlands in 1975 Suriname has endured coups and a civil war. Former military strongman Desi Bouterse dominated politics for much of the post-independence era.

Suriname is one of the most ethnically diverse countries in the Americas. Most of its people are descended from African slaves and Indian and Indonesian indentured servants brought over by the Dutch to work as agricultural labourers.


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Swaziland

The kingdom of Swaziland is one of the world's last remaining absolute monarchies.

The king rules by decree over his million subjects, most of whom live in the countryside and follow traditional ways of life.

The power of the throne, however, has not gone unchallenged.


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Sweden

Sweden's position as one of the world's most highly developed post-industrial societies looks fundamentally secure.

Unemployment is low and the economy strong. Public-private partnership is at the core of "the Swedish model", which was developed by the Social Democrats, who governed for most of the last 70 years until 2006.

This mixed economy traditionally featured centralised wage negotiations and a heavily tax-subsidised social security network. The Swedes still enjoy an advanced welfare system, and their standard of living and life expectancy are almost second to none.


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Switzerland

A landlocked, mountainous country, Switzerland's geographical position in central Europe and studious neutrality have given it the access and political stability to become one of the world's wealthiest countries.

Switzerland has for centuries been a neutral state, which means that it cannot take part in armed conflict unless it is attacked. Its forces can only be used for self-defence and internal security.

It joined the United Nations only in 2002. Surrounded by the European Union, it has vacillated between seeking closer engagement with its powerful neighbour and other international organisations, and preferring a more isolationist course.


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Syria

Once the centre of the Islamic Empire, Syria covers an area that has seen invasions and occupations over the ages, from Romans and Mongols to Crusaders and Turks.

A country of fertile plains, high mountains and deserts, it is home to diverse ethnic and religious groups, including Kurds, Armenians, Assyrians, Christians, Druze, Alawite Shia and Arab Sunnis, the last of who make up a majority of the Muslim population.

Modern Syria gained its independence from France in 1946, but has lived through periods of political instability driven by the conflicting interests of these various groups.


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Taiwan

Taiwan is an island which has for all practical purposes been independent since 1950, but which China regards as a rebel region that must be reunited with the mainland - by force if necessary.

China has claimed sovereignty over Taiwan since the end of the Chinese civil war in 1949, when the defeated Nationalist government fled to the island as the Communists, under Mao Zedong, swept to power.

Long-standing tension with the mainland has eased since the China-friendly President Ma Ying-jeou took office in May 2008. In July 2009 the leaders of China and Taiwan exchanged direct messages for the first time in more than 60 years, albeit in their respective party functions, and not as national leaders.


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Tajikistan

A former Soviet republic, Tajikistan plunged into civil war almost as soon as it became independent from the Soviet Union in 1991.

A rugged, mountainous country, with lush valleys to the south and north, it is Central Asia's poorest nation.

Tajiks are the country's largest ethnic group, with Uzbeks making up a quarter of the population, over half of which is employed in agriculture and just one-fifth in industry. Nearly half of Tajikistan's population is under 14 years of age.


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Tanzania

Tanzania has been spared the internal strife that has blighted many African states.

Though it remains one of the poorest countries in the world, with many of its people living below the World Bank poverty line, it has had some success in wooing donors and investors.

Tanzania assumed its present form in 1964 after a merger between the mainland Tanganyika and the island of Zanzibar, which had become independent the previous year.


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Thailand

Thailand is the only country in south-east Asia to have escaped colonial rule. Buddhist religion, the monarchy and the military have helped to shape its society and politics.

The 1980s brought a boom to its previously agricultural economy and had a significant impact on Thai society as thousands flocked to work in industry and the services sector.

Although Thailand's recent governments have been civilian and democratically-elected, the country has seen turbulent times. The military governed, on and off, between 1947 and 1992 - a period characterised by coups, coup attempts and popular protests.


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The Bahamas

An archipelago of 700 islands and islets, the Bahamas attracts millions of tourists each year.

The visitors come to enjoy its mild climate, fine beaches and beautiful forests.

A former British colony and now a Commonwealth member, the country is a major centre for offshore finance and has one of the world's largest open-registry shipping fleets.


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Togo

Togo, a narrow strip of land on Africa's west coast, has for years been the target of criticism over its human rights record and political governance.

Tensions spilled over into deadly violence when its strong-arm, veteran leader died in 2005 and a succession crisis followed. Political reconciliation remains elusive.

Togo formed part of the Slave Coast, from where captives were shipped abroad by European slavers during the 17th century. In 1884 it became the German protectorate of Togoland.


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Tokelau

Three far-flung coral atolls - Atafu, Nukunonu and Fakaofo - make up Tokelau, a Polynesian territory of New Zealand in the South Pacific.

Lying between New Zealand and Hawaii, Tokelau has few physical links with the wider world. There is no airport and it takes more than a day at sea to reach its southern neighbour, Samoa.

Most of the 1,500 islanders live by subsistence farming. Thousands have chosen to leave, usually for New Zealand or Samoa. The latter has a similar culture and language.


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Tonga

A group of more than 170 islands spread over an area of the South Pacific roughly the size of Japan, Tonga is the last Polynesian monarchy.

A deeply conservative, Christian country, Tonga voted in its first popularly elected parliament in 2010, ending 165 years of feudal rule.

A former British protectorate, Tonga became fully independent in 1970, though it was never formally colonised.


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Trinidad and Tobago

Trinidad and Tobago is one of the wealthiest countries in the Caribbean, thanks to its large reserves of oil and gas, the exploitation of which dominates its economy.

Inhabited mostly by people of African and Indian descent, the two-island state enjoys a per capita income well above the average for Latin America. Natural gas - much of it exported to the US - is expected to overtake oil as its main source of revenue.

Dependence on oil has made the republic a hostage to world crude prices, whose fall during the 1980s and early 1990s led to the build-up of a large foreign debt, widespread unemployment and labour unrest.


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Tunisia

Home of the ancient city of Carthage, Tunisia was once an important player in the Mediterranean, placed as it is in the centre of North Africa, close to vital shipping routes.

In their time, the Romans, Arabs, Ottoman Turks and French realised its strategic significance, making it a hub for control over the region.

French colonial rule ended in 1956, and Tunisia was led for three decades by Habib Bourguiba, who advanced secular ideas. These included emancipation for women - women's rights in Tunisia are among the most advanced in the Arab world - the abolition of polygamy and compulsory free education.


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Turkey

Once the centre of the Ottoman Empire, the modern secular republic was established in the 1920s by nationalist leader Kemal Ataturk.

Straddling the continents of Europe and Asia, Turkey's strategically important location has given it major influence in the region - and control over the entrance to the Black Sea.

Turkey's progress towards democracy and a market economy was halting in the decades following the death of President Ataturk in 1938. The army saw itself as the guarantor of the constitution, and ousted governments on a number of occasions when it thought they were challenging secular values.


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Turkmenistan

Turkmenistan is made up mainly of desert and has the smallest population of the five former Soviet republics in Central Asia.

The government is autocratic, but the strict isolation imposed by eccentric dictator Saparmurat Niyazov has lifted somewhat after his death.

The country says it has the world's fifth largest estimated reserves of natural gas.


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Tuvalu

Tuvalu is a group of nine tiny islands in the South Pacific which won independence from the United Kingdom in 1978. Five of the islands are coral atolls, the other four consist of land rising from the sea bed.

All are low-lying, with no point on Tuvalu being higher than 4.5 metres above sea level. Local politicians have campaigned against global warming, arguing that climate change could see the islands swamped by rising sea levels.

Life on the islands is simple and often harsh. There are no streams or rivers, so the collection of rain is essential.


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Uganda

Since the late 1980s Uganda has rebounded from the abyss of civil war and economic catastrophe to become relatively peaceful, stable and prosperous.

In the 1970s and 1980s Uganda was notorious for its human rights abuses, first during the military dictatorship of Idi Amin from 1971-79 and then after the return to power of Milton Obote, who had been ousted by Amin.

During this time up to half a million people were killed in state-sponsored violence.


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Ukraine

Ukraine gained independence after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and has since veered between seeking closer integration with Western Europe and reconciliation with Russia, which supplies most of the country's energy.

Europe's second largest country, Ukraine is a land of wide, fertile agricultural plains, with large pockets of heavy industry in the east.

While Ukraine and Russia share common historical origins, the west of the country has close ties with its European neighbours, particularly Poland, and Ukrainian nationalist sentiment is strongest there.


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United Arab Emirates

The United Arab Emirates (UAE) is a federation of seven states formed in 1971 by the then Trucial States after independence from Britain.

Since then, it has grown from a quiet backwater to one of the Middle East's most important economic centres.

Although each state - Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Ajman, Fujairah, Ras al Khaimah, Sharjah and Umm al Qaiwain - maintains a large degree of independence, the UAE is governed by a Supreme Council of Rulers made up of the seven emirs, who appoint the prime minister and the cabinet.


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United Kingdom

The United Kingdom is made up of England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. It has a long history as a major player in international affairs and fulfils an important role in the EU, UN and Nato.

The twentieth century saw Britain having to redefine its place in the world. At the beginning of the century it commanded a world-wide empire as the foremost global power.

Two world wars and the end of empire diminished its role, but the UK remains a major economic and military power, with considerable political and cultural influence around the world.


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United States

The USA is the world's foremost economic and military power, with global interests and an unmatched global reach.

America's gross domestic product accounts for close to a quarter of the world total, and its military budget is reckoned to be almost as much as the rest of the world's defence spending put together.

The country is also a major source of entertainment: American TV, Hollywood films, jazz, blues, rock and rap music are primary ingredients in global popular culture.


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Uruguay

Uruguay has traditionally been more affluent than other countries in South America, and is known for its advanced education and social security systems and liberal social laws.

It was the first nation in Latin America to establish a welfare state, maintained through relatively high taxes on industry, and developed a democratic tradition that earned it the sobriquet "the Switzerland of South America".

But economic and political turmoil, in particular left-wing urban guerrilla attacks in the early 1970s, led the government of the day to suspend the constitution and launch a period of repressive military rule that lasted until 1985. Uruguay is still struggling to come to terms with the legacy of those years.


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Uzbekistan

In 1991 Uzbekistan emerged as a sovereign country after more than a century of Russian rule - first as part of the Russian empire and then as a component of the Soviet Union.

Positioned on the ancient Great Silk Road between Europe and Asia, majestic cities such as Bukhara and Samarkand, famed for their architectural opulence, once flourished as trade and cultural centres. The country's political system is highly authoritarian, and its human rights record widely decried.

Uzbekistan is the most populous Central Asian country and has the largest armed forces. There is no legal political opposition and the media is tightly controlled by the state. A UN report has described the use of torture as "systematic".


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Vanuatu

Vanuatu - a string of more than 80 islands once known as the New Hebrides - achieved independence from France and Britain in 1980.

Most of the islands are inhabited; some have active volcanoes.

Vanuatu is mountainous and much of it is covered with tropical rainforests. Like most of the area, it is prone to earthquakes and tidal waves. Most of the people live in rural areas and practise subsistence agriculture.


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Venezuela

Venezuela has some of the world's largest proven oil deposits as well as huge quantities of coal, iron ore, bauxite and gold.

Yet most Venezuelans live in poverty, many of them in shanty towns, some of which sprawl over the hillsides around the capital, Caracas.

Venezuela's economic fortunes are tied to world oil prices. A 1970s boom largely benefited the middle classes, but a subsequent price collapse condemned many of this class to poverty while eroding the living standards of the already impoverished.


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Vietnam

Vietnam, a one-party Communist state, has one of south-east Asia's fastest-growing economies and has set its sights on becoming a developed nation by 2020.

It became a unified country once more in 1975 when the armed forces of the Communist north seized the south.

This followed three decades of bitter wars, in which the Communists fought first against the colonial power France, then against South Vietnam and its US backers. In its latter stages, the conflict held the attention of the world.


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Yemen

Yemen has been at the crossroads of Africa, the Middle East and Asia for thousands of years thanks to its position on the ancient spice routes. It is one of the possible locations for the Biblical kingdom of Sheba.

The Romans knew this fertile country as Arabia Felix, in contrast to the relatively barren Arabia Deserta to the north.

The modern Republic of Yemen was born in 1990 when traditional North Yemen and Communist South Yemen merged after years of clashes. Since unification Yemen has been slowly modernising and opening up to the world, but still retains much of its tribal character.


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Zambia

Zambia, in south-central Africa, is the continent's biggest copper producer and home to the Victoria Falls, one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World.

The Victoria Falls - also known locally as the ''Smoke that Thunders'' - are to be found along the Zambezi River and have UNESCO World Heritage status.

They are one of the country's many natural features which have been enticing a growing number of tourists, along with the wide variety of wildlife to be found in large game parks.


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Zimbabwe

The fortunes of Zimbabwe have for almost three decades been tied to President Robert Mugabe, the pro-independence campaigner who wrested control from a small white community and became the country's first black leader.

Until the 2008 parliamentary elections, Zimbabwe was effectively a one-party state, ruled over by Mr Mugabe's Zanu-PF.

A power-sharing deal agreed after the polls raised hopes that Mr Mugabe might be prepared to relinquish some of his powers.


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"Countries Compared by Background > Overview. International Statistics at NationMaster.com", British Broadcasting Corporation 2014. Aggregates compiled by NationMaster. Retrieved from http://www.nationmaster.com/country-info/stats/Background/Overview

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