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What is a country?

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A collection of stamps

A collection of stampsI  once knew an eccentric philatelist who wanted something special: a collection of all the countries of the world, past and present, with a single postage stamp for each country. If the name of the country changed then that had to be taken into account, e.g. one stamp from Ceylon and therefore one from its successor Sri Lanka. It appears that such a collection is easy to obtain, but appearances can be misleading. After all, what is a country?

Whoever fills in a visa application form on the internet for a visit to the USA will find a choice of 251 countries for the question: “Country where you live”. On the list is Bouvet Island, an uninhabited glacial rock not too far from Antarctica. Also on the list are South Yemen, which in 1990 ceased to exist, and the “Neutral Zone” between Saudi Arabia and Iraq which after the Gulf War of 1991 also ceased to exist. Not on the list are Abkhazia and South Ossetia, areas which, with Russian support of Georgia have separated. In short, the list leaves something to be desired.

The same is true for country lists which are made by businesses. Hotmail offers a choice of 242 ‘countries/territories’ from which you can register an email address. We are pleased that the penguins on Bouvet Island will be able to open a Hotmail account, but saddened that Kosovo (recognized by 65 states) and Western Sahara (recognised by 80 states) are missing.

A collection of stamps

The question ‘what is a nation’ is also difficult to answer. Diplomatic recognition doesn’t mean much. For many years, Taiwan was recognised as the true China and Communist China boycotted. Now it is the other way around. Only 23 countries – most of them impoverished and unimportant islands – now recognise Taiwan .

Rather absurd, as Taiwan is an economic powerhouse which exports more than communist China, is a member of the Asian Development Bank, the World Trade Organisation, is an OECD observer at meetings, and has more than 100 “trade offices” (read: consulates). Maybe a country is characterised by the issuance of passports.

Well, here there are also exceptions. Thus, the “Sovereign Military Order of Malta”, is not to be confused with the island of Malta or its passports and stamps, as its territory consists of two buildings in Rome. In Rome you have the 44-acre Vatican City which is considered as a sovereign state. However, its diplomats serve the Pope, not the Vatican. Similarly, the Pope, not the Vatican, is an observer at the United Nations.

Moreover, membership of the United Nations, thus recognition as a Member State, is no guarantee. Israel, a member since 1949, is not recognised by 19 of the 192 member states. One third of the UN member states recognise Kosovo, but the UN as an organisation does not. Hence, Kosovo is still waiting for its own Internet domain name, a code for the phone, and a chance to play international football!

Taiwan is recognised by fewer countries but does have its own Internet domain name, a code for the phone, and a chance to play international football. Kosovo sits in-between, and rents telephone code numbers from Monaco and Slovenia, after all, you need help from somewhere. Turkish Cyprus does provide stamps and passports, but is recognised only by Turkey.

That a country has a government is also not a guarantee of recognition. Somalia has no government but is a recognised UN member state. But long-since separated Somaliland, which has a government, a more or less stable society, its own currency, car registration, passports and stamps is not a recognised country. The reason for this is that the African Union is very reluctant to make boundary changes, so Somaliland has been partitioned.

Finally then, is membership of the international mail federation, the UPU, a criterion? Well …., not entirely. For non-members of the UN wishing to join the UPU, the requirement is that two-thirds of United Nations member states should vote in favour of acceptance. If membership is refused those “countries” then generally release non-official stamps. These are usually of little value to the collector.

How many countries the World has is still debatable.  So, the special collection of my eccentric acquaintance mentioned at the beginning of this article will probably never be complete.

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