Welcome to Liberland: Turns out, launching your own country is harder than it looks

Caught in the middle.
Caught in the middle.
Image: Giada Fiorindi
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When the Free Republic of Liberland first appeared, founded on a piece of disputed land at the Serbian-Croatian border on April 13, 2015, its neighbors were skeptical. Serbia’s ministry of foreign affairs called the creation of the country a “frivolous act,” while Croatia said it was a “virtual quip.” But after exactly seven months, Europe’s youngest nation—if you can call it that—survives. Liberland has a constitution, a flag, an anthem, and a motto. Like many other European countries it even has a problem with refugees.

Liberland is the brainchild of Vít Jedlička, a Czech politician who says he was inspired to undertake the quixotic project by his libertarian politics. “I always thought that governments were too intrusive into people’s prosperity, freedom, and happiness, being one of the biggest causes of trouble in the world,” Jedlička tells Quartz. A member of the right-wing Free Citizens Party (FCP), founded in 2009, Jedlička worked for years to secure his party a seat in the European Parliament. After achieving that goal in 2014, when FCP’s politician Petr Mach assumed office, Jedlička decided he wanted to spread his ideals even further. “I wanted to bring more freedom to the rest of the world.”

It’s lofty mandate. Liberland, Jedlička tells Quartz, is “an example of how an optimal state should look like: a skeletal government that would not interfere in citizens’ businesses. Liberland’s governing system would allow for an optional tax system and privatized public services, a series of constant referendums (inspired by Switzerland), and digital voting system (inspired by Estonia). The country hopes to keep a safe distance from the European Union, but would be open to groups like the European Free Trade Association and would be part of the Schengen Agreement.

All of this, of course, hinges on a few big questions—namely its sovereignty and legitimacy. If recognized internationally, Liberland would become the youngest nation in the world (followed by South Sudan, founded in 2011) and the third smallest in size (bigger than European microstates Monaco and Vatican City, but smaller than Pacific islands Nauru and Tuvalu).

But Liberland has a long way to go before it achieves even minimal international recognition. So far, it received diplomatic nods from the Principality of Sealand and the Kingdom of North Sudan—neither of which are recognized, sovereign states. Besides Jedlička’s Free Citizens’ Party, small Libertarian parties (link in Norwegian) from Norway and Spain (link in Spanish) have also voiced their support.

(Liber)land grab

Liberland’s fledgling existence can be traced back, at least partially, to a simple geographical dispute. For hundreds of years, Serbia and Croatia’s border respected the course of the Danube, Europe’s second-longest river. But in the 19th century, however, parts of the waterway were straightened to make navigation easier. While Croatia kept respecting the historical boundary, Serbia’s maps started to follow the modern course.

When these historical and the contemporary lines are superposed, pieces of land that should be Croatian end up on the Serbian side and vice-versa. This geographical headache left both countries with between 100 and 140 square kilometers (38 and 54 square miles) of disputed terrain. Jedlička investigated this conundrum and claimed the biggest of them, measuring approximately 7 square kilometers (3 square miles), calling it Liberland.

Image for article titled Welcome to Liberland: Turns out, launching your own country is harder than it looks

Land usage aside, however, Liberland has an even more pressing problem—how to handle its potential citizenry. Right now, borders are closed and Liberland’s only house, supposed to become its parliament, remains empty. “The Croatian police is blockading our frontiers and stopping Liberlandians from entering their motherland,” Jedlička claims. The president himself says he has been twice detained by Croatian officers. “They always treated me like a president and released me quickly, but they were not so nice with the other settlers,” he says.

One member of the Liberland Settlement Association (LSA) was detained for almost two months, while others were handcuffed, carried by force outside the terrain or fined, according to Jedlička. The LSA is composed of the more staunch Liberland supporters, who, for the past few months, have repeatedly attempted to occupy the land. They currently reside in three houses near Liberland, on Serbian territory.

Bring on the people

The ongoing refugee crisis has complicated matters somewhat. In September, Hungary finished constructing a 4-meter tall (13-foot tall) barrier along its border with Serbia, effectively stopping refugees from using the country as a corridor to Northern Europe. Many refugees chose Croatia as an alternative route, and the border where Liberland is located, as the new passageway. At the same time, citizenship requests from Syrians began flooding Liberland’s inboxes.

While Syrian refugees might seem like perfect candidates for the new country, the reality is more complicated. In Liberland, citizenship requests must be processed digitally, beginning with a questionnaire. The form asks for basic information, and also includes a checklist where applicants must formally agree or disagree with Liberland’s foundational ideals. According to Jedlička, many Syrians are giving the wrong answers to these questions, automatically excluding them from the process. Of the roughly 10,000 Syrians who Jedlička says have applied, only 600 passed this initial phase.

But even that doesn’t mean they can become Liberlandians. “Even if they are eligible, they might not become citizens, because they would have to offer something to Liberland,” Jedlička notes. That could come in the form of work and skills offered to the country (designing flags, helping to build houses for the settlers or writing press releases) or donations.

Although averse to taxation, the government is not against asking for money from future citizens. Liberland accepts donations made with bank transfers and credit cards, in euros, dollars and bitcoin. Supporters also have the chance to buy Liberland-themed hats, shirts, pens, badges, mugs and flags from the country’s online store (which pays voluntary taxes to Liberland). The country also demands 10,000 “merits” from applicants—each merit is worth approximately one American dollar. “This value is needed to convince Croatia, Serbia and the rest of the world that we’re serious about this project,” says Jedlička.

Ultimately, it seems like few refugees will become Liberlandians. “I think every country should democratically decide what their position about this migration crisis is and how many migrants they want to take in,” says Jedlička. “I really don’t think it’s a good idea to press on countries how many immigrants they should accept.”

It’s an interesting stance for a man who claims to want to create a haven for personal and economic freedom. But that’s the great thing about founding your own country—you get to write the rules as you go along.