The List

The World's Most Dangerous Borders

Thirteen places you don't want to be stuck at.

Read an account of India's new Berlin Wall with Bangladesh here.

Far removed from the pie-in-the-sky talk of a borderless planet, the real world boasts hundreds of national borders -- many of them contested and some of them deadly. While the root cause of each conflict is distinct -- and some of them may be frozen in time, waiting for a spark -- the world's most dangerous borders share one trait in common: You don't want to be stuck there.

STRDEL/AFP/Getty Images

SUDAN AND SOUTHERN SUDAN

Length: 1,350 miles

Why it's so dangerous: Dozens have been killed by bombings and more than 113,000 displaced in Sudan's border state of Southern Kordofan since the beginning of June.

Background: By the time Sudan's 22-year civil war ended in 2005, more than 1.5 million people had died, according to the BBC. The Comprehensive Peace Agreement that officially terminated hostilities granted autonomy to Sudan's restive southern region. Following an independence referendum this January, Southern Sudan is due to officially secede on July 9.

Today: This April, Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir stated that he would not recognize the independence of Southern Sudan if its government claimed the Abyei region, which is part of Southern Kordofan. On June 5, Khartoum, claiming that Southern Sudanese militias had ambushed its forces, launched a military campaign in Southern Kordofan. The United Nations estimates that more than 113,000 people have been displaced as a consequence of Khartoum's seizure and bombing of the contested Abyei region.

On June 20, the Khartoum government reached an agreement with the Sudan People's Liberation Movement -- the southern rebel movement that fought in the civil war against the north and will lead an independent Southern Sudan in July -- to permit an armored brigade of several thousand Ethiopian peacekeepers to enter Abyei. But despite the accord, struck with the help of U.N. and African Union mediation, Khartoum has continued its offensive in the Blue Nile state and Southern Kordofan. More conflict seems likely.

ASHRAF SHAZLY/AFP/Getty Images

INDIA AND PAKISTAN

Length: 1,800 miles

Why it's so dangerous: Three wars, more than 115,000 dead, ongoing nuclear weapons buildup.

Background: Ever since its bloody creation in 1947, which saw the displacement of millions and the killing of up to a million people, the border area between India and Pakistan has been marked by violence. Wars between the two states have left 15,000 dead, while as many as 100,000 have been killed in the disputed region of Kashmir alone. A cease-fire line, known as the Line of Control, remains in effect, with three areas of Kashmir under Indian administration and two under Pakistani control. Neither side formally recognizes the accession of the areas claimed by the other.

Today: Although large-scale fighting has subsided over the years in Kashmir, exchanges of fire between Indian and Pakistani soldiers are common. Secret talks between 2004 and 2007 established the framework for a settlement of the Kashmir conflict, but the discussions were scuttled by the spectacular 2008 attack on Mumbai by the Lashkar-e-Taiba terrorist group, which killed 163 people. On June 23, India and Pakistan opened their first formal talks on Kashmir in two and a half years. Although India's foreign secretary said that she came with "an open mind and constructive spirit," chances of a diplomatic breakthrough seem slim.

Meanwhile, the stakes are increasing. Pakistan expends a large percentage of its military budget to protect itself from India. Pakistan's Army is the world's seventh largest and consumes one-sixth of public funds, while being largely shielded from civilian oversight. In April, it announced that it had tested a new mobile missile with a miniaturized nuclear warhead designed to destroy tanks, thus increasing the risk that a border incursion could escalate beyond the use of conventional weapons. On May 13, the head of Pakistan's powerful Inter-Services Intelligence directorate told the country's parliament that he had already picked targets in India and rehearsed attacks -- possibly nuclear ones, though he wouldn't confirm or deny it.

SAM PANTHAKY/AFP/Getty Images

AFGHANISTAN AND PAKISTAN

Length: 1,500 miles

Why it's so dangerous: Lawlessness, al Qaeda and other militant groups, drone strikes.

Background: The border area between Afghanistan and Pakistan has long been one of the most dangerous and lawless places in the world. Kabul refuses to recognize the 1,500-mile-long Durand Line as an international border with Pakistan, instead claiming for itself the Pashtun territories in northwest Pakistan that comprise the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and parts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. According to the United Nations, more than 1.7 million registered Afghan refugees live in Pakistan, a legacy of decades of instability, occupation, and civil war. The ongoing border frictions are due in large part to tribal allegiances that span the century-old frontier. Forty percent of Afghanistan's population is made up of Pashtuns; in Pakistan, the figure is about 15 to 20 percent. Many Pashtun nationalists on both sides of the Durand Line continue to demand an independent state of Pashtunistan.

Today: Incidents of violence have increased on both sides of the Pakistan-Afghanistan border since the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan -- and the border region itself has provided a safe haven for a witches' brew of militant groups fighting against both the U.S. forces and the Pakistani state. U.S. President Barack Obama's administration has ramped up the use of drone strikes to target al Qaeda-linked groups along the border. As of June 23, there have been 253 drone strikes since 2004, with an estimated death toll between 1,557 and 2,464, according to the New America Foundation.

Violent border clashes between Pakistani and Afghan forces have also been an ongoing problem since May 2007, with numerous soldiers killed on both sides. On June 20, after an assault by Pakistani forces drove a group of militants across the border into eastern Afghanistan, the Afghan side accused Pakistan of shelling Afghan villages. Each country continues to blame the other for failing to crack down hard enough on militants along the porous borderline. The continuing violence threatens to make things more difficult for Washington as it prepares a gradual withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan.

 STR/AFP/Getty Images

UNITED STATES AND MEXICO

Length: 1,950 miles

Why it's so dangerous: Almost 40,000 people killed in Mexico since 2007, with almost half the deaths taking place in Mexican border states.

Background: Soon after taking office in December 2006, Mexican President Felipe Calderón sent tens of thousands of soldiers and federal police to take on Mexico's drug cartels. Vowing to smash the drug gangs, Calderón appointed hard-line Interior Minister Francisco Ramírez Acuña, who vowed "to take back the spaces that organized crime has seized." The violence exploded on both sides, with vicious retaliation killings becoming an almost daily affair in the dangerous border states where many of the cartels operate.

Today: As of June, about 40,000 people had died over the last four and a half years in drug-related killings across Mexico. About 45 percent of the deaths have occurred in the six Mexican states that hug the border: Baja California, Chihuahua, Coahuila, Nuevo León, Sonora, and Tamaulipas. Hundreds of thousands of Mexicans have been driven from their homes, often to stay with relatives or in the United States. Tamaulipas and Chihuahua, the states most intensely affected by violence in 2010, had the highest rates of abandoned homes, with 211,000 and 230,000, respectively.

Most of the violence remains on the Mexican side of the border, but this June, El Paso, Texas, had the dubious honor of being named the most dangerous border town in the United States. In 2010, the bloodiest year to date, at least 3,100 of the more than 15,000 organized-crime killings that year took place in Ciudad Juárez, a Mexican city located right across the border from El Paso.

John Moore/Getty Images

CAMBODIA AND THAILAND

Length: 500 miles

Why it's so dangerous: Dozens killed and tens of thousands displaced on both sides of the border over disputed territory dating back to colonial times.

Background: For years, Cambodia and Thailand have fought over the Preah Vihear temple, situated along the border. Thailand argues that the area was never fully demarcated and blames a map drawn at the beginning of the 20th century during the French occupation of Cambodia for the lack of clarity. Following a lengthy dispute, the International Court of Justice in 1962 awarded the 11th-century Hindu temple to Cambodia. But the dispute over the 1.8-square-mile area around the holy site has never been resolved. Tensions between the two Southeast Asian neighbors have escalated in recent years, fueled in part by Cambodia's successful 2008 UNESCO application to have the temple declared a World Heritage site, something the Thai government backed at the time but has since been pushed by nationalist groups to oppose.

Today: Since 2008, skirmishes along the border have become a regular occurrence, with the most recent bout of violence breaking out April 22. On May 4, the two sides agreed to a cease-fire, but neither country has shown full confidence in the agreement, and both have heavily fortified the border with hundreds of troops. Tens of thousands of refugees have fled the area.

Paula Bronstei/Getty Images

DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF THE CONGO AND ANGOLA

Length: 1,560 miles

Why it's so dangerous: Thousands of Congolese women and girls expelled from Angola are subject to rape and sexual violence by Angolan and Congolese security forces.

Background: Angola helped the Democratic Republic of the Congo's government fight off Rwandan- and Ugandan-backed rebels during the DRC's devastating 1998-2003 war. However, deteriorating relations between the two countries followed, including disputes over border demarcation, offshore oil ownership, and Congo's rapprochements with Rwanda and Uganda, its neighbors to the east. The result was a series of punitive expulsions by both countries, forcing an estimated 211,000 people to move in 2009.

Today: These vulnerable transients have become pawns of war, especially the women. According to the United Nations, Congolese women and girls traveling through the border regions from Angola have been systematically sexually attacked on both sides of the border in shocking numbers -- even for a region where sexual violence is endemic. In January, community leaders in Angola recorded 182 reported rapes in seven villages along the border, while a U.N. assessment mission confirmed 1,357 reported rape cases in one Angolan border village in a six-to-eight-month period last year.

"Women recounted that they were raped by uniformed [Angolan and Congolese] security forces during expulsion from Angola," said Margot Wallstrom, U.N. special representative on sexual violence in conflict, adding that the figures had probably been underreported.

 MARC HOFFER/AFP/Getty Images

INDIA AND BANGLADESH

Length: 2,500 miles

Why it's so dangerous: Almost 1,000 Bangladeshis killed in the last 10 years.

Background: India and Bangladesh are bound by their history and geography. Bangladesh, formerly East Pakistan, gained its independence from West Pakistan in a bloody 1971 civil war with the support of India -- a conflict that left more than a million people dead and shattered Bangladesh's economy and infrastructure. The new nation has struggled to recover ever since.

India and Bangladesh share the world's fifth-longest border, and an estimated 10 million to 20 million illegal Bangladeshi immigrants live in India. Bangladesh, as a Muslim-majority country and the poorer neighbor to a rising India, is often at the mercy of Hindu-nationalist politics in India. Claiming that it needs to protect itself from terrorism, job-stealing illegal immigrants, and a potential refugee crisis, India began erecting a border fence 25 years ago and is scheduled to complete it by 2012.

Today: Although it rarely made headlines, the India-Bangladesh border was one of the bloodiest international borders this past decade. According to Human Rights Watch, India's border security forces have fatally shot nearly 1,000 Bangladeshis trying to cross the border since 2000. In 2011, the number of Bangladeshis killed per month is down from its historical average -- India announced in March that nonlethal weapons would be issued to Indian border guards in sensitive areas on an experimental basis -- but it remains to be seen whether this, like times before, is just a temporary change in tactics.

 STRDEL/AFP/Getty Images

NORTH KOREA AND SOUTH KOREA

Length: 150 miles

Why it's so dangerous: Military border fortification gone wild with almost 2 million troops, plus North Korean nukes.

Background: Since 1948, the 38th parallel has marked the division between North Korea and South Korea. At the conclusion of the Korean War in 1953, each side agreed to move its troops back from the front line, creating a 2.5-mile-wide buffer zone known as the demilitarized zone (DMZ). Although the two Koreas agreed to a cease-fire, no peace agreement or treaty was signed, and therefore the two sides are technically still at war.

Today: While the DMZ has been largely peaceful in the almost six decades since the end of the Korean War, it remains one of the world's most heavily militarized borders, with nearly 2 million soldiers patrolling both sides of the border. The past 18 months have been marked by an escalation in violence. A North Korean submarine reportedly sunk a South Korean warship in March 2010, and both sides exchanged fire after North Korea fired artillery at the South Korean island of Yeonpyeong in November 2010. Tensions are so high that on June 17, South Korean soldiers fired rifles at a South Korean commercial aircraft flying near the border after mistaking it for a North Korean jet fighter.

The United States, which maintains 28,000 troops in South Korea, has backed its South Korean ally to the hilt. Following joint military drills in February, North Korea accused South Korea and the United States of plotting to topple the North's communist government. Pyongyang threatened to start a "full-scale" war, take "merciless counteraction," and turn Seoul into a "sea of flames" if provoked any further.

JUNG YEON-JE/AFP/Getty Images

VENEZUELA AND COLOMBIA

Length: 1,275 miles

Why it's so dangerous: Hundreds of leftist rebels leaving Venezuela and re-entering Colombia.

Background: A year ago, diplomatic relations were severed after then Colombian President Álvaro Uribe brought a complaint against Venezuela before the Organization of American States. Uribe accused Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez of supporting the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN) in their 47-year campaign to overthrow the Colombian state.

Today: Relations could not be more different from a year ago. One of the first acts of Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, who took office in August 2010, was to make up with Chávez. This improvement in ties has resulted in big changes on the ground for left-wing rebels -- long hidden on the Venezuelan side, beyond the reach of the Colombian security forces -- who are increasingly being confronted by Venezuela. As a result, approximately 200 guerrilla fighters have crossed the border back into Colombia, leading to a rise in violence along Colombia's Arauca border region. The border is now considered one of the most dangerous areas in Colombia, as the FARC have blown up oil and gas pipelines and attacked railways and Colombian security forces.

In March, the Colombian army intercepted a truck with rebel supplies from Venezuela. According to the military, the vehicle was carrying 1.5 tons of explosives, 16,000 feet of detonation cord, 17 rifles, 42,000 bullets, and almost 200 uniforms, all bound for the estimated 500 FARC rebels in Arauca. Despite the rise in violence, Colombian officials and residents along the border have welcomed the fact that Venezuela is taking action against the rebels. "There is still much to do, but our relations with the Venezuelan police are improving and there is real cooperation," Col. William Guevara, the chief of police in Arauca, said last week.

EITAN ABRAMOVICH/AFP/Getty Images

CHAD AND SUDAN

Length: 850 miles

Why it's so dangerous: Armed rebel groups preying on hundreds of thousands of refugees from Darfur.

Background: Relations between Chad and Sudan have been strained due to the conflict in Sudan's Darfur region and the civil war in Chad. After years of mutual meddling, the two countries signed an agreement in January 2010 to normalize relations and deny armed groups the use of their respective territories. The Chad-Sudan border, which had been closed since 2003, was reopened three months later. By the end of 2010, more than 262,000 Sudanese refugees from neighboring Darfur were still living in 12 refugee camps in eastern Chad, in addition to 180,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) in 38 IDP sites.

Today: Despite the normalization of relations, peace agreements with leaders of some armed groups, and a joint border-monitoring force, interethnic clashes and human rights violations continue along the Chad-Sudan border with almost total impunity. According to the United Nations, 48,000 IDPs returned in 2010 to their home villages near the border, yet most were reluctant to return because of the insecurity in their villages and the lack of basic services. In its annual 2011 country report, Amnesty International found that human rights abuses continue along the border, including rape of girls and women, recruitment of child soldiers, kidnapping of humanitarian personnel, and killings of civilians.

Analysts warn that it may only be a matter of time before the region explodes again. Renewed fighting between the Chadian National Army and the FPRN rebel group erupted in April 2010 along the Darfur border. The situation could further deteriorate with the absence of the United Nations' MINURCAT peacekeeping mission that ended on Dec. 31, 2010.

 GUILLAUME LAVALEE/AFP/Getty Images

SAUDI ARABIA AND YEMEN

Length: 900 miles

Why it's so dangerous: Houthi rebels in Yemen's north, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, and the potential for a massive influx of migrants due to nationwide unrest in Yemen.

Background: Saudi Arabia began constructing a security barrier in 2003 but stopped in 2004 after complaints by Yemen that it violated a previous border treaty. Following a brief war between the Saudi military and Yemeni rebels in 2009, Riyadh embarked on a multibillion-dollar effort to extend the network of fences it had begun building several years earlier. The intense fighting raised alarm in Riyadh about the possibility that Iran might be supporting Yemen's Houthi rebels -- who subscribe to an offshoot of Shiite Islam known as Zaydism.

Today: Saudi Arabia argues the barrier is necessary for protecting the kingdom from al Qaeda, an influx of illegal immigrants, and the smuggling of drugs and weapons -- not to mention the Houthis. Every year hundreds of thousands of illegal migrants attempt to cross the border into Saudi Arabia; many come from Africa and across Yemen's deserts, fleeing war and hunger. Most are caught and sent back to Yemen after being held in crowded border detention centers.

 AFP/Getty Images

CHINA AND NORTH KOREA

Length: 880 miles

Why it's so dangerous: Massive refugee crisis due to North Korean instability.

Background: While the two countries have long enjoyed friendly relations, the lightly guarded border has become a growing security concern for Beijing as thousands of North Korean refugees have attempted to enter China illegally. Exact refugee numbers are hard to come by, but it's estimated that 100,000 to 300,000 flooded the border during North Korea's great famine in the mid- to late-1990s. China began to build a barbed wire and concrete fence along parts of its border with North Korea in October 2006. Since November 2010, there has been a stepped-up effort to fortify the border, particularly following warnings by foreign aid agencies that some 6 million North Koreans need urgent food aid because crops of potatoes, wheat, and barley had failed.

Today: China has erected security fences along an eight-mile stretch of the Yalu River around the Chinese city of Dandong, a popular escape point for North Korean refugees. China's fear for the stability of North Korea was significantly heightened in March when reports surfaced of a growing food crisis following the severest winter in 60 years and an outbreak in North Korea of foot-and-mouth disease that hit the oxen, which are still primarily used to plough the North's fields. The border has long served as North Korea's lifeline to the outside world, both for dissidents and for the regime.

 Cancan Chu/Getty Images

ISRAEL AND SYRIA

Length: 50 miles

Why it's so dangerous: Instability in Syria, raising fears that border violence with Israel will be used to distract from the Syrian regime's internal problems.

Background: For 37 years, the de facto border between Israel and Syria, which are still technically at war, has been relatively quiet. Israeli officials accuse Syrian President Bashar al-Assad of encouraging protesters to cross the border fence in an attempt to divert attention from his deadly crackdown on protesters within Syria.

Today: In May, amid domestic unrest in Syria, hundreds of Syrians and Palestinians crossed into the annexed Golan Heights as part of Nakba Day -- the day that marks Israel's creation in 1948. In response, Israeli soldiers killed four people and wounded dozens. Renewed clashes erupted in June, on the 44-year-anniversary of the Six Day War, as protesters again attempted to enter the Golan. Syria said that at least 23 people were killed, while the Israeli army countered that 10 people died -- not as a result of Israeli gunfire but because protesters hurled firebombs that struck old Syrian land mines and caused them to explode.

For the last three decades, Israel's northern border with Lebanon has been considered far more volatile, and the Rafah crossing between Gaza and Egypt has been carefully monitored for smuggled weapons and illicit cash. But with Syria in chaos, that assessment may be changing.

 JACK GUEZ/AFP/Getty Images

The List

After the Fall

The 15 countries of the former Soviet Union have taken radically different political paths over the last two decades.

RUSSIA
Current leader: President Dmitry Medvedev

Freedom: Not free (ranked by Freedom House)

History: For the heart of the former Soviet empire, the decade following the fall of communism was the best of times and the worst of times: a period of unprecedented political liberty, economic chaos, rampant corruption, the rise of a new class of oligarchs, and a brutal war in the North Caucasus.

When President Boris Yeltsin appointed prime minister and KGB veteran Vladimir Putin as his replacement in 1999, the conventional wisdom was that he would keep the country on the roughly the same path. Instead, Putin reined in the oligarchs -- jailing oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky when he began to exhibit political ambitions -- to consolidate power during a period of explosive, oil-driven economic growth. At the same time, he dramatically rolled back freedoms for the political opposition and independent media. Putin gave way to his successor, Dmitry Medvedev, in 2008, but has continued to pull the strings from the prime minister's office.

Under the Putin-Medvedev tandem, Russia has pushed back against NATO expansion and the deployment of a U.S. missile-defense system in Eastern Europe, joined with China to form a counterweight against U.S. and European interventionism on the U.N. Security Council, fought a successful war against Georgia in 2008, and continued its brutal campaign against the Islamist insurgency in the North Caucasus.

Current state: The future of Russia's tandem remains murky. Putin would be constitutionally eligible to return to the presidency in 2012, but neither he nor Medvedev has yet made his intentions clear. The world economic crisis has taken its toll on the Russian oil boom, along with the government's popularity, but with most of the country's democratic opposition either fractured or co-opted by the ruling United Russia party, it's highly likely that Putin's star will remain ascendant, whichever office he holds.

NATALIA KOLESNIKOVA/AFP/Getty Images

UKRAINE

Current leader: President Viktor Yanukovych

Freedom: Partly free

History: The 1990s were not kind to newly independent Ukraine. The country's GDP contracted by around 60 percent between 1991 and 1998; corruption was rampant in the government of President Leonid Kuchma; and nationalist divisions between the country's Russian-speaking east and Ukrainian-speaking west continued to widen.

A new spirit of optimism appeared to arrive in late 2004 and early 2005 with the Orange Revolution, a nonviolent uprising in response to a fraudulent presidential election. The Orange Revolution succeeded in putting the pro-Western and rightfully elected Viktor Yushchenko in power over Kuchma's handpicked successor, Viktor Yanukovych. But the country's economic prospects did not brighten under Yushchenko's gridlocked government, which in 2009 had only a 4 percent approval rating. Yushchenko's promises to put the country on the path to EU and NATO membership went nowhere. Yanukovych finally made it to the presidency when voters elected him in 2010.

Current state: Yanukovych's presidency has seen improved ties with Moscow, resulting in a new basing agreement for Russia's Black Sea fleet in Crimea. There have also been disturbing reports of attacks on civil society and the press. Freedom House lowered the country's rating from "free" to "partly free" in 2011.

SERGEI SUPINSKY/AFP/Getty Images

UZBEKISTAN

Current leader: President Islam Karimov

Freedom: Not free

History: Since independence, Uzbekistan has been ruled by its former Communist leader, Islam Karimov. The regime is routinely ranked by international NGOs as one of the world's most brutal dictatorships. Under Karimov's rule, opposition parties are prosecuted, torture of political prisoners is commonplace, and the country's vast energy wealth has been appropriated to enrich the president's family.

Uzbekistan's proximity to Afghanistan has made Uzbekistan an erstwhile ally in the U.S. war on terrorism -- the Uzbek government has fought its own battles with the al Qaeda-linked Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan for decades. Following the 2005 Andijan massacre, during which hundreds of anti-government protesters were killed in the country's east by government troops, U.S. President George W. Bush's administration strongly criticized Karimov, leading to the expulsion of U.S. troops from the country. Tensions have cooled somewhat since then, and the country is again being used as a transshipment point for Afghanistan-bound troops and materiel.

Current state: With his massive energy wealth, with ties to regional powers like China and India that are less concerned about his human rights record, and with little in the way of political opposition, Karimov faces few threats to his hold on power other than age -- he'll be 75 when his current term ends in 2013.

ALEXANDER NEMENOV/AFP/Getty Images

KAZAKHSTAN
Current leader: President Nursultan Nazarbayev

Freedom: Not free

History: The world's ninth-largest country by area is also one of the world's most energy-rich, with vast deposits of oil, natural gas, and uranium. Under Nursultan Nazarbayev's 21 years of rule, it has seen rapid economic growth -- at times more than 8 percent per year -- and a higher GDP per capita than Russia. Encouragingly, Kazakhstan was one of the world's first countries to voluntarily give up its nuclear weapons and has been a strong proponent of global disarmament.

Unfortunately, however, political freedom has not kept pace with economic growth. There's little credible opposition to Nazarbayev's rule, and there are disturbing reports of crackdowns on independent media.

Kazakhstan has maintained friendly relations with Russia while also encouraging the growth of Central Asia's regional trade group, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, to take advantage of its proximity to China.

Current state: In 2011, Nazarbayev rejected a plan that would have extended his term until 2020, instead calling an early election that caught the opposition off guard and saw him reelected with 95 percent of the vote. While the president remains legitimately popular, the plan for what comes after the 70-year-old Nazarbayev leaves office remains unclear. He has not designated a successor either from within his family or among his supporters in government, and there's no obvious candidate to carry on his political legacy.

ALEXEY FILIPPOV/AFP/Getty Images

BELARUS
Current leader: President Aleksandr Lukashenko

Freedom: Not free

History: Often referred to as Europe's last dictatorship, Belarus is an outlier -- a country bordering the European Union where the state retains control over most of the economy and the KGB continues to operate in name and in practice. Aleksandr Lukashenko has ruled the country since 1994, having been reelected three times in votes that were widely deemed flawed by international organizations and were followed by the arrests of dozens of regime opponents. Belarus is under heavy economic sanctions from the United States and the European Union.

Lukashenko has maintained extremely close relations with Putin's Russia to the extent that the possibility of reunification has been seriously discussed. A serious diplomatic row erupted between the countries in 2009, prompted by a dispute over gas pricing and Belarus's refusal to recognize the breakaway Georgian republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. This led to a rare rebuke of Lukashenko by Medvedev in the run-up to the 2010 Belarusian presidential election.

Current state: Belarus-Russia relations appear to have recovered since then. But another brutal onslaught against opposition demonstrators after the 2010 vote disappointed those in Europe who hoped that Lukashenko might be coaxed into more political reform. The country was rocked this April by a bombing in the Minsk metro that killed more than 14 people. It's still unclear who planted the bomb.

ALEXANDER NATRUSKIN/AFP/Getty Images

GEORGIA
Current leader: President Mikheil Saakashvili

Freedom: Partly free

History: Georgia's history since independence has been unpredictable and bloody. Its first post-Soviet leader, Zviad Gamsakhurdia, was overthrown in a military coup in 1992. Throughout the late 1990s, President Eduard Shevardnadze fought a brutal war against separatist movements in the regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, resulting in hundreds of casualties and hundreds of thousands of refugees.

After a blatantly rigged election in late 2003, Shevardnadze's government was overthrown in a nonviolent uprising that became known as the Rose Revolution. Young Western-educated Mikheil Saakashvili became president, attracting international praise for his free market economic reforms but also concern over his rapid consolidation of power. Georgia had long received copious economic and military aid from the United States, but it all proved for naught in August 2008, when Russia launched a major military offensive in response to Georgian efforts to consolidate control over Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Current state: Georgia effectively lost control over a fifth of its territory in 2008, though only Russia and a handful of other countries recognize Abkhazia and South Ossetia as international states. Georgia continues to enjoy billions of dollars per year in U.S. economic aid, though relations have cooled somewhat as a result of the Obama administration's "reset" policy with Russia. While Saakashvili's government remains democratic by regional standards, he has faced a growing number of street protests against what the opposition sees as growing authoritarian tendencies.

ALBERTO PIZZOLI/AFP/Getty Images

KYRGYZSTAN
Current leader: President Roza Otunbayeva

Freedom: Partly free

History: Kyrgyzstan has struggled since independence with government corruption, ethnic conflict, and the fallout from great-power competition between Russia and the United States. The country's first post-communist leader, Askar Akayev, ruled the country from 1990 to 2005, a period of corruption scandals and increasingly centralized government.

When Akayev refused to step down at the end of his final term in 2005, opposition supporters stormed his palace, forcing him into exile in what came to be known as the Tulip Revolution -- the third and least peaceful of the "color revolutions." Under new President Kurmanbek Bakiyev, Kyrgyzstan engaged in a high-stakes game of brinkmanship with the United States over the U.S. air base at Manas, a major transshipment point for the war in Afghanistan. Kyrgyzstan, reportedly under Russian pressure, initially threatened to shutter the base, but then agreed to allow it for a substantially raised rent, angering the Kremlin.

Bakiyev was himself overthrown in a popular uprising in 2010, though Moscow's involvement was suspected.

Current state: A widespread campaign of ethnic violence directed at Kyrgyzstan's Uzbek and Tajik minorities followed the uprising, killing more than 2,000 and forcing hundreds of thousands to flee into exile.

Kyrgyzstan is now ruled by Roza Otunbayeva. A parliamentary election in 2010 was hailed by international observers as relatively fair and transparent.

VYACHESLAV OSELEDKO/AFP/Getty Images

TURKMENISTAN
Current leader: President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov

Freedom: Not free

History: Under Soviet-era leader turned President Saparmurat Niyazov, Turkmenistan rivaled North Korea in terms of isolation, political repression, and the personality cult surrounding its leader. Niyazov, who called himself Turkmenbashi, or leader of the Turkmen, forced citizens to study his book as a religious text, renamed the months of the year after himself and his family, and appropriated billions of dollars in energy wealth for himself and his allies.

Former dentist Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov assumed the presidency following Niyazov's death in 2006. Berdimuhamedov has taken steps to dismantle the personality cult surrounding his predecessor and has opened the country's rich natural gas sector up to foreign investment, but Turkmenistan has seen little in the way of political liberalization.

Current state: With the world's fifth-largest reserves of natural gas, Turkmenistan is perfectly situated to take advantage of the fierce international competition for Central Asia's energy resources. The government has already signed a $4 billion gas deal with China, and Turkmenistan would be a keystone of the planned Nabucco pipeline project to bring gas into Southern Europe through Turkey. How much of this wealth Turkmenistan's citizens will actually receive remains to be seen.

IGOR SASIN/AFP/Getty Images

TAJIKISTAN
Current leader: President Emomali Rahmon

Freedom: Not free

History: Almost immediately after independence, Tajikistan fell into a bloody five-year civil war, pitting the Moscow-backed government against an Islamist opposition movement. The war killed more than 50,000 and forced more than a tenth of the country to flee.

The country's economy has still not really recovered, and more than half of its GDP is supplied by migrants living abroad. Since the outbreak of the war in neighboring Afghanistan, Tajikistan has become a major shipping route for narcotics heading north through Central Asia, causing major problems with drug addiction along the way.

Emomali Rahmon has ruled the country since 1992, reelected twice in votes that were criticized as unfree by the international community. His party controls virtually all the seats in parliament.

Current state: The country's economic distress has led to a resurgence of interest in radical Islam. There have been reports of fighters from the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan moving across Afghanistan into Tajikistan. The group's fighters were implicated in a violent jailbreak that left six prison guards dead in the capital, Dushanbe, last year.

DMITRY ASTAKHOV/AFP/Getty Images

MOLDOVA
Current leader: Acting President Marian Lupu

Freedom: Partly Free

History: Moldova did not have long to enjoy its new independence before it was engaged in a military conflict with the breakaway region of Transnistria in 1992. Ethnically Ukrainian and Russian, Transnistria had declared its own independence in 1990. The military conflict ended after only a few months, but the region's status remains unresolved. Transnistria is currently governing itself as a de facto independent state with a heavy Russian military presence.

The pace of economic and political reforms in Moldova was slow throughout the 1990s, leading to the surprise election of a Communist government led by President Vladimir Voronin in 2001. When the Communists were returned to power in 2009 by elections considered fraudulent by the opposition, Internet-mobilized youth activists took to the streets in a preview of the "Twitter revolutions" that were soon to sweep the Middle East.

Current state: Moldova and Transnistria continue to debate the final status of the region in talks moderated by Russia, Ukraine, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, the European Union, and the United States. The country's government continues to push for eventual membership in the European Union, though Brussels has made clear that a wide range of political and economic reforms are still required.

Moldova has been in political deadlock since last November, when parliamentary elections failed to produce a majority. Marian Lupu, the parliamentary speaker, has been acting as president in the interim.

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ESTONIA

Current leader: President Toomas Hendrik Ilves

Freedom: Free

History: Sometimes nicknamed "E-stonia" for its thriving high-tech sector -- it's the home of pioneering telecom firm Skype -- Estonia is one of the great economic success stories of the post-communist era. It joined the European Union in 2004 after six years of negotiations.

Relations with Russia have remained fraught. In 2007, controversy erupted after the relocation of a Soviet-era World War II monument from the Estonian capital Tallinn, prompting demonstrations in Moscow as well as a massive cyberattack against the country's infrastructure. The 2008 financial crisis hit the country hard, with unemployment rising to nearly 20 percent by the beginning of 2010.

Current state: Estonia continues to be one of Europe's most staunchly pro-EU countries. At a time when the future of the eurozone is in serious question, Estonia joined the monetary union in 2011. Despite the initial shock, Estonia shows signs of recovery from the economic crisis, and growth forecasts are strong.

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LITHUANIA
Current leader:
President Dalia Grybauskaite

Freedom: Free

History: In March 1990, Lithuania became the first Soviet republic to declare its independence, and it has been one of the most politically successful in the years since. It joined NATO and the European Union in 2004.

The country has been adamant about erasing the legacy of the Soviet past. The display of communist symbols has been banned, and a national scandal erupted in 2005 when it was revealed that the foreign minister had once been an officer in the KGB. Like its neighbors, Lithuania was hit hard by the financial crisis and saw its GDP plunge 12.6 percent in the first quarter of 2009.

Current state: Despite the still lingering economic carnage, Lithuania is recovering quickly and saw the European Union's second-highest growth rate in the first quarter of this year. It plans to join the eurozone in 2014.

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LATVIA

Current leader: President-elect Andris Berzins

Freedom: Free

History: Along with its neighbors, Latvia joined the European Union and NATO in 2004. It was also the first of the three Baltic states admitted to the World Trade Organization. Latvia introduced tough laws on citizenship in 2006, denying passports to those who fail a Latvian language test.

Free market reforms led to an economic boom through the 1990s and at the beginning of this decade, but the Great Recession crippled the country, forcing the government to go to the European Union for bailout loans. Tough austerity conditions tied to these loans led to a collapse of the government in 2009.

Current state: Former businessman Andris Berzins was elected as Latvia's new president on June 2 and will take office in July. This year, the country declined to accept a fresh installment of EU-IMF aid that it had secured earlier, owing to its strong economic recovery.

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ARMENIA
Current leader: President Serzh Sargsyan

Freedom: Partly Free

History: The post-independence history of Armenia has been dominated largely by tensions with its neighbors. With Turkey, the issue is a historical dispute over the killing of thousands of ethnic Armenians during World War I; with Azerbaijan, the problem is Nagorno-Karabakh, a separatist Armenian-dominated enclave within Azerbaijan. Armenia supported Nargorno-Karabakh's 1988-1994 war for independence, and tensions between the countries remain high.

Politics have been fractious within Armenia as well, including the 1999 assassination of the country's prime minister during an attempted coup d'état. Nonetheless, current President Serzh Sargsyan's election in 2008 was widely seen as free and fair. Economic growth has been generally slow, owing largely to the country's isolation.

Current state: Tensions remain high between Armenia and Azerbaijan, with both sides building up their militaries for the possibility of a new confrontation over the frozen conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh. But there has been some progress on the Turkish front -- Armenia and Turkey normalized ties in 2009.

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AZERBAIJAN
Current leader: President Ilham Aliyev

Freedom: Not free

History: Azerbaijan's early years of independence were occupied by the Nagorno-Karabakh war, which ended with an uneasy cease-fire in 1994. That same year, Azerbaijan signed a contract with a consortium of international companies for the exploration of its offshore oil fields, which has led to a massive influx of wealth over the last decade.

Azerbaijani politics have been defined by a series of corruption scandals and two generations of the Aliyev family: Heydar, who ruled from 1993 to 2003 and presided over the privatization of the country's economy, and Ilham, who was essentially appointed to follow him. Human rights groups have criticized the younger Aliyev for his attacks on opposition activists.

Current state: Ilham Aliyev fully consolidated his control in the 2010 national elections, which produced a parliament completely loyal to the president. Inspired by events in the Arab world, the opposition launched a series of street protests this year, but they were met with a swift crackdown by pro-government forces.

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