Finland, a country of forests and lakes, is perhaps best known for its unspoilt natural beauty. In the far north, the White Nights, during which the sun does not set, last for around 10 weeks of the summer. In winter the same area goes through nearly eight weeks when the sun never rises above the horizon.
As a result of Finland being a part of Sweden for seven centuries (from the 12th century until 1809) some 6% of the population is Swedish-speaking. Finland became an independent state following the Russian revolution in 1917. Since this date Finland has been a republic. It has a one-chamber parliament whose 200 members are elected every four years.
The country has developed a modern, competitive economy, and is a world leader in telecommunications equipment. Main exports include telecoms equipment and engineering products, paper, pulp and lumber, glassware, stainless steel and ceramics.
Its remote northern beauty has inspired many artists, including the composer Jean Sibelius and the designer Alvar Aalto. Finland has also produced a number of top sports stars, including Formula One drivers Mika Häkkinen and Kimi Räikkönen.
Finnish cuisine has been influenced by continental, Russian and Swedish food. Traditional specialities include fish (especially salmon and turbot roe), as well as reindeer meat. Dishes to look out for include karjalanpiirakka (rice or potato pastry) and kalakukko (fish and pork fat baked inside a loaf).
Estonia, the most northerly of the Baltic States, regained its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. It is a mainly flat country on the eastern shores of the Baltic Sea, with many lakes and islands. Much of the land is farmed or forested.
The Estonian language is closely related to Finnish, but bears no resemblance to the languages of the other Baltic republics, Latvia and Lithuania, or to Russian. About one quarter of the population is of Russian-speaking origin.
The capital, Tallinn, is one of the best-preserved mediaeval cities in Europe, and tourism accounts for 15% of Estonian GDP. The economy is driven by engineering, food products, metals, chemicals and wood products.
Throughout history, many other nations that ruled the region Danes, Germans, Swedes, Poles and Russians have influenced Estonian cuisine. Among the traditional dishes are marinated eel, blood sausage and sauerkraut stew with pork.
Famous Estonians include the writer Jaan Kross whose work has been translated into at least 20 languages, the author of the national epic (Kalevipoeg) Friedrich Reinhold Kreutzwald, and the writer, film-maker, diplomat and politician Lennart Meri.
Sweden has the largest population of the Nordic countries. It is separated in the west from Norway by a range of mountains and shares the Gulf of Bothnia to the north of the Baltic Sea with Finland.
The southern part of the country is chiefly agricultural, with forests covering an increasing percentage of the land the further north one goes. Population density is also higher in southern Sweden, with many people living in the valley of Lake Mälaren and the Öresund region.
In 1971 the Riksdag became a single-chamber Parliament. Its 349 members are elected on the basis of proportional representation for a four-year term.
The country has at least 17 000 indigenous Samis among its population a community that derives most of its income from reindeer. Sweden is also home to a small number of ethnic Finns.
Sweden exports cars, engineering products, steel, electronic devices, communications equipment and paper products.
Swedes played a pioneering role of the early days of cinema. Leading the way were Mauritz Stiller and Victor Sjöström. Later on, directors like Ingmar Bergman and actresses such as Greta Garbo, Ingrid Bergman and Anita Ekberg made careers abroad. Swedish music is in many minds synonymous with the `70s pop group ABBA.
Swedish cuisine is known for its Smorgåsbord (a buffet of savoury delicacies), Baltic herring, pea soup and pancakes.
Denmark consists of the peninsula of Jutland (Jylland) and some 400 named islands. Of these, 82 are inhabited, the largest being Funen (Fyn) and Zealand (Sjælland).
Denmark has a large fishing industry, and possesses a merchant fleet of considerable size. The manufacturing sector`s main areas of activity include food products, chemicals, machinery, metal products, electronic and transport equipment, beer and paper and wood products. Tourism is also an important economic activity.
Between the 8th and 11th centuries, the Danes were known as the Vikings. Together with the Norwegians and Swedes, they colonized, raided and traded in all parts of Europe. Modern-day Danes pride themselves on their country`s welfare state with its widespread social protection for everyone.
Denmark is a constitutional monarchy, ruled today under the 1953 constitution. The single-chamber parliament or Folketing has 179 elected members.
Among the best-known Danes are the writer Hans Christian Andersen, famous for his fairy tales, the author Karen Blixen and the designer Arne Jacobsen. Danish cinema has gained international recognition thanks largely to the experimental film director Lars von Trier.
Specialities of Danish cooking include smørrebrød (open sandwiches), boiled or sugar browned potatoes, boiled red cabbage, roast pork and roast duck.
Two centuries of Viking raids into Europe tapered off following the adoption of Christianity by King Olav TRYGGVASON in 994. Conversion of the Norwegian kingdom occurred over the next several decades. In 1397, Norway was absorbed into a union with Denmark that lasted more than four centuries. In 1814, Norwegians resisted the cession of their country to Sweden and adopted a new constitution. Sweden then invaded Norway but agreed to let Norway keep its constitution in return for accepting the union under a Swedish king. Rising nationalism throughout the 19th century led to a 1905 referendum granting Norway independence. Although Norway remained neutral in World War I, it suffered heavy losses to its shipping. Norway proclaimed its neutrality at the outset of World War II, but was nonetheless occupied for five years by Nazi Germany (1940-45). In 1949, neutrality was abandoned and Norway became a member of NATO. Discovery of oil and gas in adjacent waters in the late 1960s boosted Norway`s economic fortunes. In referenda held in 1972 and 1994, Norway rejected joining the EU. Key domestic issues include immigration and integration of ethnic minorities, maintaining the country`s extensive social safety net with an aging population, and preserving economic competitiveness.
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