A Brief History of New Nations

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Q. Sakamaki/Redux

Days ahead of the referendum, southern Sudanese wave their new flag at an independence rally

On Jan. 9, a referendum in Sudan will likely usher in the world's newest nation--the 195th, by the U.S. State Department's count. Ahead of the vote, all signs pointed to a majority in southern Sudan opting for secession, an act that would split Africa's largest country in two along ethnic and religious lines. Sudan's north is predominantly Arab Muslim, while the south is mostly Christian and animist. That southern Sudan's road to freedom seems so smoothly paved is a minor miracle--a half-century civil war between north and south ended in 2005.

In recent years, other new nations have emerged from the ashes of brutal conflict. East Timor, for centuries a Portuguese colony, wrested itself free in 1999 from more than two decades of Indonesian occupation. It became formally independent in 2002 but still struggles to stand on its own, hobbled by dysfunctional politics that stem, in part, from the fledgling state's violent and traumatic past. Grisly ethnic strife led to the disintegration of Yugoslavia in the 1990s and the birth of a half-dozen separate states; Kosovo, which became the Balkans' newest nation in 2008, has yet to be recognized by Serbia, the country the ethnically Albanian Kosovars chose to secede from. Fearing separatist movements on their soil, nations like Russia and China have taken Serbia's side.

Nation splitting is a messy business, in many instances privileging one identity at the expense of untold years of shared history between communities. To varying degrees, the countries formed in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union continue to struggle with the realities of their independence. Others inhabit an awkward halfway house. (See right.) After years of hardship and war, southern Sudan is about to stand newly alone. Yet poor and landlocked, its future is still bound to its neighbor to the north.