The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The 9 newest countries in the world

The Scottish flag (R) and British Union Jack (L) fly outside the Scotland Office in London on Aug. 28, 2014. EPA/FACUNDO ARRIZABALAGA

This week, Scottish voters go to the polls to make a big decision: Should they stay a part of the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland, or become an independent sovereign state?

It's an enormous decision, and the debate over what exactly will happen to Scotland if it does go independent is still waging. One thing is certain, however: if the "yes" vote wins, Scotland will become the newest independent state in the world, pushing South Sudan to Number 2 and Kosovo to Number 3.

Will Scotland follow the same fate as any of the other young nations in the world? Perhaps, but probably not. A glance down the list of the nine newest sovereign states below reveals that each situation is unique: It's hard to fully equate Scotland's situation with that of Slovakia, let alone with East Timor.

Even so, a glance back at history does show that the world's borders are changing more than we might appreciate: And the changes can sometimes take some time to settle.

July 2011 – South Sudan

South Sudan declared independence from Sudan on July 9, 2011, after a bloody civil war with the ethnically Arab north that had lasted decades. Almost 99 percent of voters had voted for independence in a referendum, and the new country was swiftly recognized by the international community. The United States played a key role in the South Sudan's journey to statehood.

However, since independence the country has faced a number of problems, most of which can be traced back to two big factors: 1) South Sudan's high poverty rate, 2) the ethnically diverse political movements in the country that now lack a common enemy. Add to that large and largely untapped natural resources, and you have a young country that has been beset by political infighting in the past few years.

Right now, South Sudan is nine months into a civil war that has displaced a million of its 11 million people, and facing a famine that could see 50,000 children die before the end of the year.

February 2008 – Kosovo

Kosovo declared independence from Serbia on Feb. 17, 2008. The country had been administered by the United Nations since 1999, when NATO bombed Serbia and forced then-President Slobodan Milosevic to withdraw his troops from the ethnically divided province.

Kosovo's independence was opposed by Russia, which warned of other breakaway movements (worth remembering during the Crimea crisis) and Serbia, which had expressed fears for the ethnic Serbs who live there. While a small majority of U.N. member states recognize Kosovo, the country has not applied for U.N. membership out of concern.

Kosovo's post-independence statehood has not been free of problems: Ethnic tension and organized crime remain, and the country's economy is clearly underdeveloped (the official unemployment rate last year was 45 percent).

June 2006 – Montenegro and Serbia

The single nation of Serbia and Montenegro, formed after the collapse of Yugoslavia in 1991, changed into the State Union of Serbia and Montenegro in 2003, and finally into the two separate states of Serbia and Montenegro in 2006.

It was Montenegro that ultimately ended the relationship, with a referendum on May 21, 2006, that found just over 55 percent wanted to end its ties with Serbia. On June 3, Montenegro declared independence. A few days later, Serbia followed suit. 

Since independence, Montenegro has applied for E.U. membership, joined the World Trade Organization, and rehabilitated its long-exiled monarchy. Generally, it's economic record since independence has been viewed positively.

Of course, Montenegro's independence ultimately left Serbia effectively a "new" state too, though it was the legal successor to the union. Since 2006, the country has generally pursued pro-European policies, and it is on track to membership of the European Union (though Kosovo's independence remains an issue). Under President Tomislav Nikolic, elected two years ago, the country has tried to balance a future in Europe with a partnership with its traditional ally, Russia.

May 2002 – East Timor

East Timor, now also known as Timor-Leste, achieved independence on May 20, 2002, but the country had effectively voted for independence years before, when a referendum delivered a clear vote that clearly rejected the proposed "special autonomy" within Indonesia. After that referendum, there was brutal violence in the region with pro-Indonesian militias attacking citizens, and a special U.N. force had to be deployed to the country.

The country had already suffered. According to a U.N. report from 2006, Indonesia may have directly or indirectly killed as many as 180,000 people in East Timor after they invaded the country when its colonial ruler, Portugal, left in 1975. The situation in East Timor had made headlines around the world since 1991, when at least 250 pro-independence demonstrators were shot dead.

After independence, some troubles have remained: In 2006, the U.N. had to redeploy troops after fighting resumed. However, the country has enjoyed profits from its large oil reserves, and enjoyed some substantial growth: The World Bank says that the "social and economic development in Timor-Leste can be seen as remarkable."

October 1994 – Palau

Palau, geographically part of the larger Micronesia island group in the western Pacific Ocean, is the least populated country on this list, with a little over 21,000 people living on around 250 islands. It became independent on Oct. 1, 1994, 15 years after it had decided against becoming part of Micronesia due to cultural and linguistic differences.

The islands that make up Palau had passed through various colonial hands over the years, before coming under the United Nations Trust Territory of the Pacific, administered by the United States, after World War II. It's relationship with the United States remains a Compact of Free Association, which means the United States offers financial aid and retains military authority. In 2009, the country agreed to accept 6 Uighur detainees from Guantanamo Bay, sparking controversy. The country is one of the wealthiest Pacific Island states, and is known for its tourism industry.

April 1993 – Eritrea

The United Nations established Eritrea as an autonomous region within the Ethiopian federation in 1952. However, when Ethiopia, under emperor Haile Selassie, annexed the region in 1962, it sparked a civil war that lasted 30 years. In 1991, the Eritrean People's Liberation Front (EPLF) ousted the Ethiopian forces, and on April 27, 1993, the country declared independence after a referendum.

Since independence, there have been a number of disputes with Ethiopia, including a border war in 1998 that lasted more than two years. In that time, the country has been ruled by one president, Isaias Afwerki, who has been widely criticized for repressive government tactics, earning the country the nickname "The North Korea of Africa."

January 1993 – The Czech Republic and Slovakia

On Jan. 1, 1993, Czechoslovakia was dissolved by parliament into two countries: The Czech Republic and Slovakia. After the "Velvet Revolution" ended one-party Communist rule, it was the "Velvet Divorce."

Immediately after the split, there appeared to be some trepidation: The New York Times noted "wide regret"at the end of the nation that was formed after World War I. However, the contemporary view is that the split was a (relative) success: "The split was really smooth," Slovakian journalist Pavol Mudry told the BBC last year. Both countries have joined the European Union (with Slovakia even taking on the euro) and have had largely stable, at times burgeoning, economies since independence.

Not everyone is happy with the split, however. In the run-up to the Scottish vote, Pavel Seifter, a former Czech ambassador to Britain, argued in the Guardian that neither country really appreciated what they had lost.

Notable mentions

South Ossetia, a breakaway region of Georgia, declared independence in 1990, but it was only after war between Russia and Georgia in 2008 that Russia and a small number of other countries (most notably Nicaragua and Venezuela) recognized it. The region is not widely recognized, however, and is instead seen as one of a number "gray areas" or "frozen conflicts" in the post-Soviet space. Since 2008, South Ossetia has struggled economically, and political divisions have led to tense scenes.

Quebec held a referendum on independence from Canada in 1995, and the "No" vote won by a small margin. It was the province's second vote on independence (the first was defeated in 1980), and the separatist movement within Quebec did not disappear after the second failure. The situation had a number of similarities with the Scottish vote, and a number of Quebec sovereigntists have traveled to Scotland to observe the vote, with the hope they may pick up some ideas to perk up their cause.