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So, there is a spectrum of political entities that make up the national stage.

There is, of course, the "nation-state" like the U.S.A, China, Russia, Germany, Lithuania, you name it - full fledged "countries" that nobody denies is a country.

There are small states - Liechtenstein, the Vatican City, Andorra, ranging from protectorates to fully sovereign states that appear on any map with sufficient scale to warrant their naming.

There are even failed states like Somalia, and one could argue Yemen, Sudan, Afghanistan have been in this category at some point.

Not on this list, however, are some de-facto functioning entities like Somaliland, South Ossetia, Trans-Dneister Moldavia, and some would even argue Palestine. At least in the United States, these do not appear as sovereign entities on the map. (Note, I am purposely not including novelties like Sealand.)

What does it take for a country to "recognize these 'places that don't exist.'?" Are there internationally set criteria that define what organizations and/or territories are "nations" for inclusion in the United Nations or for recognition by the most established players like the United States, the EU, China, and the Russian Federation?

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    The Vatican City is not a state, The Holy See is the diplomatic state entity. It is quite complex. The Holy See holds observer status at the UN. – UKB Dec 6 '12 at 19:18
  • Andorra la Vella is not a state: it's the capital city of the Principality of Andorra. – TRiG Jan 15 '13 at 14:21
  • @UKB: I thought Vatican City is the state, and the Holy See is the office of the church (that conducts diplomatic relations on behalf of Vatican City). – Mechanical snail May 30 '13 at 7:21
  • @Mechanicalsnail en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Holy_See and en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vatican_City. It is a state, but not a proper one. – UKB May 30 '13 at 12:33
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There's only one international set of criteria - the recognition by other countries. No political power is interested in creating an objective set of criteria - the power of recognition of a country is too meaningful for their national interests.

However, the theoreticals can state the criteria for the country. It is the internal and external sovereignty - the ability to decide about themselves without acceptance from other country.

Because sovereignty is a bit tricky - no country is fully sovereign in that sense, that it could do practically anything - but there's a meaningful criterion of sovereignty - a sovereign country can limit its sovereignty itself. So the sovereign country can become part of the treaty limiting its internal or/and external decisions, such as military pacts, trade treaties etc. - if any part of existing party would make such decision without the approval of the government of that country, this would cause immediate reaction (in worst case up to civil war). If the government is not able to oppose to such actions, we can speak that the province is practically sovereign.

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Each country chooses which other countries it diplomatically recognizes. However a general and well-used way to establish whether it is seen in the international community is whether or not it is recognized in the UN. Some countries such as The Holy See (Vatican) & State of Palestine hold observer status in the UN whilst are not officially recognized as full states.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_states_with_limited_recognition lists some states that have limited regognition in the international community.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Diplomatic_recognition explains this all in a lot more detail.

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Recognition of other countries is usually limited by the obligations the recognizing power has before other parties to the conflict that led to the creation of the entity. For example, if a separatist would-be state emerges by breaking away from a host country, the third power can recognize it only by violating its recognition of the sovereignty of the host state. The UN charter requires its members to respect each other's sovereignty and territorial integrity.

In case if there is no conflict the recognition usually follows without objections. In the USSR I think a special decision of the Supreme Council was needed for this, while in modern Russia the procedure appeared to be surprisingly easy: just a paper signed by president.

The recognition by the UN consists of two important stages. First a new entity is recognized by at least one of the UN agencies. This recognition happens by voting of the agency's member states (not all UN members participate in all agencies). One of such agencies for example, the World Bank. Being recognized by at least one a UN agency immediately gives the entity separate entry in the UN statistics, top level Internet domain name and some other bonuses.

The last stage is the admission of the new state in the UN (or recognition by the UN). This requires a voting in the UN general assembly.

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