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Regions & CountriesJanuary 23, 2020 | 19:06 GMT
Luxembourg
Luxembourg
Luxembourg is a country in Western Europe. With a population of roughly 600,000 and an area of less than 2,500 square kilometers, it is one of the smallest countries in Europe. Despite its size, Luxembourg has a strategic position due to its location between France and Germany, two of the main political, economic and military powers on the Continent. Consequently, Luxembourg displays a mix of French and German cultures, and both languages (as well as Luxembourgish, the local language) are spoken in the country. Luxembourg also maintains close ties with Belgium and the Netherlands, with whom it forms the political and economic union known as the Benelux. Geography has traditionally forced Luxembourg to find a balance between France and Germany, two nations that have often been at odds with each other. While Luxembourg has frequently chosen to remain neutral in Franco-German disputes, its powerful neighbors have not always respected the country's territorial integrity. Luxembourg’s desire for peace lies at the root of why it helped found European Economic Community, the predecessor of the European Union, in the wake of World War II. Luxembourg is also a founding member of other entities such as the OECD, NATO and the eurozone. Steel production has been a prominent activity in Luxembourg since the 1870s. In recent decades, however, the country has significantly expanded its services sector, including banking and finance. As evidence of this, Luxembourg is the second largest investment fund center in the world after the United States. The country also offers an attractive business environment for companies in the digital sector. Luxembourg is currently one of the richest countries in the world in per capita terms. Luxembourg’s main geographic challenge is to prevent any conflicts in Northern Europe that could threaten its territorial integrity or its economy. Accordingly, Luxembourg often positions itself as a mediator between its bigger neighbors while defending multilateralism and political and economic integration in Europe.
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Regions & CountriesJanuary 23, 2020 | 19:11 GMT
Kazakhstan
The ninth largest country in the world, Kazakhstan rests in the heart of Central Asia, bordering Russia to its north; China on its east; Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan along its south; and the Caspian Sea to its west. The defining feature of Kazakhstan is the Kazakh Steppe, a large dryland stretching across more than 70 percent of the country. Only 12 percent of the country's land is arable, and the majority of that is in the north connecting into Russia's agricultural belt. There is also a large pocket in the south. This expanse has largely pushed the population of nearly 18 million to the outer borderlands. The steppe is encircled by a series of sizable mountain ranges. The core of the country lies in the corridor stretching across the Shymkent (also known as Southern Kazakhstan) and the Almaty region, where the climate is warm compared with the inhospitable deserts of the steppe. This stretch of land lies in the Syr Darya river basin, creating a fertile pocket of land protected to its east, west and north by mountain ranges. Shymkent and Almaty were some of the largest stopping posts along the Silk Road, and they now have the country's densest population and swaths of the financial, industrial and agricultural sectors. To the region's south lies the Fergana Valley in Uzbekistan — a vulnerable point to its core. The Kazakh economy is dominated by its energy sector, making up nearly 20 percent of the gross domestic product. The country exports 78 percent of its oil production, regionally and along large trunk lines to China and Russia. Along with its agricultural and metals wealth, Kazakhstan's energy sector has made the country highly valuable to its neighbors. In recent decades, the country has positioned itself as the financial hub of Central Asia, tying in the banking systems of its smaller neighbors. Kazakhstan maintains strong ties with Russia, which reach back to its empire and Soviet phases. But the government in the capital, Astana, is also developing links to China and other players to balance Moscow. The country tries to maintain working relationships with its smaller neighbors, who have seen bouts of instability. Kazakhstan's challenges stem from its mostly hollow interior, from encroaching large powers and from the potential instability of smaller regions on its border.
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Regions & CountriesJanuary 23, 2020 | 19:09 GMT
Laos
Laos
Laos stands at the crossroads of Mainland Southeast Asia. Fully landlocked, the country is isolated by mountains and surrounded by powerful neighbors, including China and Myanmar to the northwest, Vietnam to the east, Cambodia to the south and Thailand to the west. This geography has made Laos closely entangled in its region's geopolitical competitions. Since it was established as an independent entity in the 14th century, Laos has oscillated between serving as a land bridge for trade and communications and acting as a buffer between its more powerful neighbors. During its history, Laos has acted as both a vassal state and an invasion frontier for its larger neighbors. The country's primary geographic challenge is to secure its borders against threats from its powerful neighbors. The western highland means Laos has shared trade, ethnicity and religion with present day Thailand and, to lesser degree, Myanmar, but it also invited repeated invasions until the Laotian border retreated to the natural geographic barrier of the Mekong River. To the east, the Annamite Mountain Range and Annam Highlands provide a strong, albeit passable, barrier to Vietnamese expansion. Despite the protection they bring, the country's rugged mountain ranges and Mekong River tributaries also make Laos difficult to govern. Because of this, Laos has been vulnerable to external exploitation throughout its history. On the other hand, the mountains provide ample water for hydropower and numerous natural mineral and coal resources, though the terrain and climate limit agricultural activity. Because of its landlocked status, resource scarcity and powerful neighbors, Laos has limited options to secure sea access, economic lifelines or a strong defense. It has typically gained these by exploiting differences among its neighbors, accommodating them politically or by gaining the backing of an external power, as it did with France in the early 20th century. Today, enhanced road, rail and power linkages with Indochina place Laos at a crossroads for trade and communication. However, this also means China's expanded influence in the region puts considerable pressure on Laos.
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Regions & CountriesJanuary 23, 2020 | 19:05 GMT
Madagascar
Madagascar
Madagascar is an island in the Indian Ocean located just off the coast of southeast Africa. Its neighbors include Mozambique to the west, the Comoros islands and France's Mayotte Department to the northwest, and Mauritius and France's Reunion Island to the east. The island is principally known for its rich biodiversity. Due to Madagascar's geographic location, its population contains a mix of cultures. Those in the largest ethnic group, known as the Merina, are actually predominantly Malayo-Indonesians who arrived in boats many centuries ago by utilizing the winds of the Indian Ocean. Following the Merina, groups from the African mainland and Arab traders eventually settled on the island. At the end of the 19th century, French colonial expansion came to the island, lasting until its independence in 1960. Since gaining independence, Madagascar has struggled to achieve political stability and economic growth. At times this struggle has taken on an ethnic dimension. The Merina control the highlands, including the capital city of Antananarivo, and have clashed with other groups on the island. There are also tensions with immigrants from the Comoros. Managing the cultural and ethnic diversity remains one of country's principal challenges. Additionally, as one of the poorest countries in the world, Madagascar suffers a dearth of infrastructure and must grapple with the devastating impact of seasonal cyclones and hurricanes. In terms of foreign relations, Madagascar has historically leaned on former colonizer, France, for support. Nevertheless, given its island status, it has also exercised an ability to balance international interest. Over the years, it has strengthened ties to North Korea, China, the United States, the Republic of South Africa and others.
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