Turkmenistan, a desert nation, has the second lowest population density (after Kazakhstan) in former Soviet Central Asia. Nomadic herdsmen for centuries, Turkmen were subdued by Russia during the late 19th century, gaining independence in 1991. Begun in the 1950s, the Garagum Canal, one of the world’s longest, drains water away from the Amu Darya River to provide water to southern Turkmenistan.
Turkmenistan’s hope lies in its sector of the Caspian Sea, where oil and natural gas fields are concentrated. The country’s natural gas reserves rank fifth in the world—but development of gas exports is hampered by a lack of gas-pipeline routes out of landlocked Turkmenistan. Russia controls most of the pipelines and has refused to export Turkmen natural gas to hard-currency markets. A gas pipeline through Afghanistan to Pakistan gained approval in 2002, but the security situation in Afghanistan remains an obstacle. Disputes between Azerbaijan, Iran, Kazakhstan, Russia, and Turkmenistan over Caspian Sea seabed and maritime boundaries limits international investment in new gas fields and pipelines.
Venezuela, in northern South America, was named for Italy’s Venice by 15th-century European explorers who found native houses on stilts above Lake Maracaibo.
The Lake Maracaibo basin splits the Andes into two mountain ranges. Mild temperatures exist on the mountains while the Maracaibo basin swelters in tropical heat. Most people live in cities on the range near the Caribbean coast, from Caracas to Barquisimeto. South of the mountains is the Orinoco River basin, a vast plain of savanna grasses known as the Llanos. South of the Orinoco are the Guiana Highlands—with the world’s highest waterfall, Angel Falls. Almost half of Venezuela’s land is south of the Orinoco, but this region contains only 5 percent of the population.
Venezuela is one of the oldest democracies in South America (elections since 1958). A founding member of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), the nation has the largest proven oil reserves in the Western Hemisphere—and the second largest natural gas reserves (after the U.S.). The petroleum industry accounts for more than half the government’s revenue.
Vietnam, in Southeast Asia, stretches 1,600 kilometers (1,000 miles) north to south, but is only about 40 kilometers (25 miles) wide at its narrowest point near the country’s center. The Red River delta lowlands in the north are separated from the huge Mekong Delta in the south by long, narrow coastal plains backed by the forested Annam highlands. Hanoi, the capital, is the main city on the Red River and Ho Chi Minh City, or Saigon, is the main city on the Mekong.
Independent for almost a thousand years, Vietnam fell prey to French colonialism in the mid-19th century. During Japanese occupation in World War II, communist leader Ho Chi Minh formed the Vietminh, an alliance of communist and noncommunist nationalist groups. Armed struggle won independence in 1954 and led to the partition of Vietnam.
For two decades noncommunist South Vietnam, aided by the U.S., fought North Vietnam, backed by China and the Soviet Union. American troops withdrew in 1973, and two years later South Vietnam fell. In 1976 the country was reunified under a communist regime.
To replace support lost when the U.S.S.R. dissolved, economic policy encouraged a free-market system as well as trade with the West. Vietnam saw dramatic economic progress throughout most of the 1990s. In 1995 the U.S. resumed diplomatic relations. Economic growth stalled, however, with the Asian financial crisis. A stock exchange was launched in 2000, and Vietnam has seen increasing levels of foreign investment.
Thailand, in Southeast Asia, is dominated by the Chao Phraya River basin, which contains Bangkok—the capital and largest city, with some 9.7 million people. Bangkok presents a distinctive Buddhist landscape, with gold-layered spires, graceful pagodas, and giant Buddha statues. To the east rises the Khorat Plateau, a sandstone plateau with grasses and woodlands. The long southern region, connecting with Malaysia, is hilly and forested.
The population is largely homogeneous, with most being ethnic Thai and professing Buddhism. Some three million Muslims live in the south near the border with Malaysia.
Two 19th-century kings of Siam, Mongkut and his son Chulalongkorn, introduced Western education and technology but preserved the character of a devout Buddhist society. The only nation in Southeast Asia to escape colonial rule, Siam changed its name in 1939 to Thailand, meaning “land of the free.” However, Thailand has not escaped military coups—more than a dozen since 1932, when a revolution transformed the government from an absolute to a constitutional monarchy. Resentment against leaders of the 1991 coup sparked demonstrations by a pro-democracy movement. Reforms did take place, and a new constitution went into effect in 1997. The 2001 elections confirmed Thailand’s democracy credentials as the people voted in the new Thai Rak Thai (“Thais Love Thais”) Party.
The first new nation of the 21st century is located in Southeast Asia, just north of Australia. A Portuguese colony from the 17th century until 1975, Timor-Leste (the Portuguese name for East Timor) shares the island of Timor with Indonesia. When the Portuguese left in 1975, Indonesia invaded and annexed East Timor. The United Nations condemned Indonesia’s occupation, and in 1999 a UN-organized referendum showed that most East Timorese wanted independence. Militias caused damage after the vote, but the UN guided Timor-Leste to independence on May 20, 2002.
The Caribbean islands of Trinidad and Tobago, while geographically close, are far apart in their tempo of life: Steel-band music and a multiethnic population, including many of African and East Indian descent, give flamboyant Trinidad a fast beat; small farms and quiet resorts give scenic Tobago a slower rhythm.
Suriname, officially known as the Republic of Suriname, is a sovereign state on the northeastern Atlantic coast of South America. It is bordered by the Atlantic Ocean to the north, French Guiana to the east, Guyana to the west and Brazil to the south. At just under 165,000 square kilometers (64,000 square miles), it is the smallest country in South America. Suriname has a population of approximately 558,368, most of whom live on the country’s north coast, in and around the capital and largest city, Paramaribo.
Suriname was long inhabited by various indigenous people before being explored and contested by European powers from the 16th century, eventually coming under Dutch rule in the late 17th century. During the Dutch colonial period, it was primarily a plantation economy dependent on African slaves and, following the abolition of slavery, indentured servants from Asia. In 1954, Suriname became one of the constituent countries of the Kingdom of the Netherlands. On 25 November 1975, the country of Suriname left the Kingdom of the Netherlands to become an independent state, nonetheless maintaining close economic, diplomatic, and cultural ties to its former colonizer.
Suriname is considered to be a culturally Caribbean country, and is a member of the Caribbean Community. While Dutch is the official language of government, business, media, and education, Sranan, an English-based creole language, is a widely used lingua franca. Suriname is the only sovereign nation outside Europe where Dutch is spoken by a majority of the population. As a legacy of colonization, the people of Suriname are among the most diverse in the world, spanning a multitude of ethnic, religious, and linguistic groups.
Mountains cover more than 90 percent of this Central Asian republic, whose river valleys are home to a majority of the people. About two-thirds of the people are ethnic Tajiks, but about a quarter are Uzbeks. Shortly after independence in 1991, Tajikistan endured a five-year civil war between the Moscow-backed government and the Islamist-led opposition. A peace agreement was signed in 1997. Tajikistan relies heavily on Russian assistance, and there are Russian troops guarding Tajikistan’s borders.
Moldova is like a bunch of grapes on the map of Europe. It is located between Romania and Ukraine. Moldova is densely populated, with numerous ethnic groups represented by Moldovans, Ukrainians, Bulgarians, Gagauz, and Russians, but the majority are ethnic Romanians. Chisinau, the capital of Moldova, is a moderate sized city that has preserved much of its pre-Soviet character. It also has an unofficial reputation of one of the greenest cities in Europe.
For thousands of years there were inhabitants in the area of present Moldova. The Dacian tribes were first settlers in this region. The foundation of Moldavia is attributed to the Vlach/Romanian nobleman Dragos from Maramures, who had been ordered in 1343 by the Hungarian king to establish a defense against the Tatars. The name of the principality originates from the Moldova River. Bogdan I, another Vlach/Romanian from Maramures became the first independent prince of Moldavia, when he rejected Hungarian authority in 1359. The most important prince of Moldavia was Stephen the Great, who ruled from 1457 to 1504.
It has been a long and bloody journey from the Principality of Moldavia to the Republic of Moldova. It has long been the focal point for border disputes and expansionist policies. Prior to its tenuous unification, it had been overrun, split up, reunited, conquered, annexed, renamed, and taken back again many times over. In the mid-14th century, Moldavia was subsumed under the Ottoman Empire, and it remained under Turkish suzerainty until 1711. In 1812, Turkey and Russia signed the Bucharest Treaty, which gave the eastern half of Moldavia to the Russians (renamed Bessarabia) while the rest of Moldavia and Wallachia became Romania. Bessarabia remained under Russian control until the 1918 Bolshevik Revolution, when it reunited with Romania as a protective measure. In 1939 the Molotov Ribbentrop Pact handed Bessarabia back to the U.S.S.R., and it became the Moldavian Soviet Socialist Republic (M.S.S.R.). The area was taken by Romanian forces from 1941 until 1944, when the Soviet authorities once again took control. In times of Stalin the mass deportation of locals occurred regularly, with the largest ones on 12-13 June 1941, and 5-6 July 1949 of more than 50,000 deportees from MSSR alone.
The collapse of Communism in 1989 led to Moldova’s independence on August 27, 1991. While a part of population wanted to reunite with Romania, another ethnic group from east region of Dniester River proclaimed an independent Pridnestrovian Moldavian Soviet Socialist Republic (PMR), and Tiraspol became the capital city of PMR. The motives behind that move were the fear of the rise of nationalism in Moldova and the country’s expected reunification with Romania. In winter of 1991-1992 clashes occurred between Transnistrian forces and Moldovan police, which turned into a military conflict. The war was stopped by the Moscow Agreement on the principles of peace, despite Russia having signed international agreements to withdraw, the Russian military remains on PMR territory till today. Transnistria is internationally recognized as part of Moldova, but in fact the Moldovan government does not have any control over the territory. Moldova also joined the other former republics to form the Commonwealth Independent States (CIS), and in 1992 the Republic of Moldova gained admission to the United Nations.
In February 2001 Communists made strong gains in parliamentary elections with 70% of the seats. Vladimir Voronin, a member of the Communist Party, was elected president. He stepped down after serving the maximum two terms. April 7, 2009 anti-communist protesters started a peaceful march which turned in a violent demonstration against what they said were fraudulent elections. In 2016 Moldova held presidential elections with a pro-Russian politician winner (52.2%), Igor Dodon.
Montenegro declared its independence on June 3, 2006. The country got its name (literally, “black mountain”) from the dark, mountain forests that cover the land. Some 60 percent of the country is more than 1,000 meters (3,280 feet) high, with the tallest peak reaching to 2,522 meters (8,274 feet). The mountains were a natural fortress that helped Montenegro maintain its independence until it suffered devastating losses in World War I. It became part of Serbia in 1918 and Yugoslavia in 1929.
The people of Montenegro gained greater autonomy when the name Yugoslavia was discarded in 2003 in favor of a democratic and federal country named Serbia and Montenegro. On May 21, 2006, 55.5 percent of Montenegrins voted to secede from Serbia and become independent. Despite being a small country, Montenegro shows significant economic potential, especially in tourism. It boasts 117 beaches along the Adriatic coast, mountain ski resorts, the medieval city of Kotor, and other cultural sites.