How a Czech politician and colleagues sort of founded a new country: an interview with Liberland's Vít Jedlička
How a Czech politician and colleagues sort of founded a new country: an interview with Liberland's Vít Jedlička
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A year ago this week, Czech politician Vít Jedlička and several colleagues proclaimed the world’s newest micro-nation on a seven square kilometre stretch of disputed territory between Serbia and Croatia, known locally as Gornja Siga. Mr Jedlička and colleagues named it Liberland and the project went on to gain unprecedented attention, with articles by everyone from the BBC to Huffington Post to the New York Times. But is it really so easy to found your own country, not least on disputed territory? And if you succeed in building it, who will come?
“On April 13, last year, the date of Thomas Jefferson’s birthday, we celebrated his birthday by declaring a new state.”
I read that this was one of the few terra nullius remaining and also that you had had the idea for quite some time. Where did you get the idea?
“First, I wouldn’t call Liberland a micro-nation as we have now had more than 400,000 applications for citizenship, which would make us larger than Iceland if we accepted everybody. Almost every day we get an additional 3,500 people applying, so we could so have more than a million applications soon. So we don’t consider ourselves a micro-nation, in fact.”
Did you have to scour the maps and the internet to try and find a place that was basically a no man’s land?
“Yes, it took some time, it is kind of rare to find these places. We have also found a second location which is in some ways in better condition and we may consider claiming it. It is unknown to the general public and it is free to be occupied. We are considering claiming the territory as well but Liberland is our main priority.”
You aren’t going to tell me where it is…
The world has seen similar projects which we will get to in a few minutes… but, as you mentioned, the Liberland project has gotten a lot of attention worldwide; how do you respond to the charge that this is some kind of elaborate joke (many peoples’ first reaction), or a publicity stunt, or worse, fraud or some kind of a hoax?
“It took some time to find a place where Liberland could be: it is kind of rare to find these kinds of places.”
“Well, to be honest, when you look at some of the nation states, some of the systems that have been developed, North Korea, South Korea, would you consider these governments to be a hoax? If you take the societies we are living in, people are paying 40 – 50 percent of what they earn to the state. By definition, isn’t that kind of a hoax? We only take people on a voluntary basis – we are not forcing anyone into anything. We are just as serious as any other nation, and also just as virtual as any other state. This is an important aspect people need to realise: that all nations, all countries, sprang from the imagination. It is something people made up in their heads.”
Basically, Liberland was ‘founded’ on libertarian values which, if we simplify them to their core, are minimal rules, maximum freedom, no or few taxes…
“Exactly. And that there is a separation between the state and the economy, the way that the Church and state should also be separate, which isn’t really true in the Czech Republic. You have state subsidisation of the Church, you have subsidisation of private companies… and businesses are heavily regulated by the state and we need to get rid of that.”
Obviously you believe that societies can be ruled with a minimum number of rules – where do you get the confidence that can work?
But there is no private property as yet in the actual geographical place you have called Liberland…
“Not yet. But our concept is to privatise this territory as soon as possible and we are developing a model how to do that. I will release details of that at our annual conference on the 16th of April, some seven kilometres away from Liberland, in Croatia.”
One of the main problems with Liberland is that it doesn’t really fit the definition of a country: the area is being administered by Croatia and the land is disputed and part of arbitration proceedings to decide who it actually belongs to. The argument goes that no ‘third party’ should be able to claim it. What do you say to that?
“First of all, we appreciate that Croatia started to call Liberland a third party which elevates us to the level of a state or a nation, by their claim they acknowledged our claim, we appreciate that, and it is now up to us to sell to them that the best way to settle this border ‘dispute’ would be by letting Liberland live.”
We calculated that it could bring as much as one percent GDP growth to both [Serbia and Croatia annually), if we let all the capital that wants to, flow there.”
“Interest has been enormous: more than 400,000 applications for citizenship have been received.”
What would the new economy be based on?
“Freedom will determine which kinds of industries would want to move in. But I can tell you that the tech industry is very interested, also financial institutions that feel over-regulated elsewhere, and also medical companies. Everybody asks if the state will run hospitals but I know it will be a great place to get great medical treatment.”
If you are against taxes, what kind of tax system will you have?
“A voluntary system. People would basically pay how much they wanted and towards which services or projects. Currently, our Constitution allows us to fund only things like security, justice and diplomacy. Nothing beyond that. But people will be able to separately crowdfund for schools, hospitals, bridges, whatever, by their personal will, not a decision by some kind of authority.”
Long before anything like that would see the light of day, the country would have to be officially recognised at the very least, by the neighbouring states of Croatia or Serbia.
“Not really. According to the Montevideo Convention, a country’s existence is independent of recognition by other states and international law clearly defines that. Also, it is logical. If there is a country, such as Somalia, it can function and still not be recognised. But, yes, we do need some kind of an agreement with Croatia and it doesn’t have to be international recognition. We do feel support from other states around the world – I am in negotiation with 10 governments who feel friendly towards what we are doing and want to support it…”
“I cannot disclose that now but I think that things will be clearer in the coming months.”
I ask because if you say you have interested investors, tech companies and others, who would have facilities in a small area, that at the very least the borders would have to be guaranteed…
And that is exactly what Croatia is doing right now: they recognise there is a border around Liberland and they are protecting it. In fact, I think right now it is one of the best-protected borders in Europe. Migrants passing through everywhere else would have no chance there.”
But in fact it is also keeping you and your supporters out as well.
“Well we have a procedure how to get there. That said I am not interested in occupying the area just yet. But we do need to get fully organized in the coming month to try and be properly recognized. We have a government, we have representative offices around the world, in some 60 states. That makes us a diplomatic power. We have more offices even than Slovakia does. But these are all just parts of the puzzle to make a new country. In order to be a new country, you have to act like a country: you have to pass the ‘duck test’. That is what we are working on.”
Some people would argue that the extra security is not about keeping anybody else out of the area but you and your colleagues, that you are quote-unquote “creating trouble” in the area known locally as Gornja Siga.
“Around half of the applicants come from the Middle East, and the other half are from all around the world, including the United States.”
“Well the good thing is that everyone, even the locals, call it Liberland now. That too is part of the recognition process. I think that when we release the architectural concepts, and I am very happy for example that we have the director of Zaha Hadid Architects Patrik Schumacher is also coming to our annual conference to show the world the results of our architectural completion, that when we release information on how we will have relations with Serbia and Croatia, that we will have much more open space to discuss with both our future.”
I’ve read that right now the land is mostly forestland, there have been multiple articles of how it borders the Danube, and that it is home to all kinds of fauna: deer, foxes, falcons, eagles. According to reports, there is a single service road and one dilapidated building. How would you prevent it from becoming a concrete jungle, if your dream is realised?
“We are looking at 12 different concepts how the country could be developed in the future, we are now having an open discussion on facebook where it is also possible to vote with ‘likes’ in favour of preferred designs. More than half of them implement that there would be more nature after Liberland is built than before. Some of the proposals go quite far creating a sort of jungle with towers above them, which I am kind of a fan of. Why not? But in order to find investors and for it to be economically-feasible, there will have to be some kind of balance.”
To come back to the economy: would it be a tax haven? Tax havens have taken a hit as a result of the Panama Papers leak…
“Not a tax haven we would like to have a tax heaven, a slightly different concept. We would like to be very transparent about the money coming in and out, unlike Panama. We would to have not zero taxation but voluntary, as I mentioned, we want people to be socially responsible for what happens in the state too. So, there are different concepts, different approaches that you take in a tax heaven as opposed to haven.”
“To be honest, the flag was created before we found this territory. The fact that we have an element which can represent the Danube, is a coincidence. The bird could also be an eagle or swan or swallow but it doesn’t matter which: all are present there. I think our flag symbolises what we believe in: there are no weapons, no arrows, a peace-loving nation. This is why there is the sun: we are kind of shiny happy people.”
The fact that the Danube is there has an international twist, doesn’t it?
“It is very important that we have free access through the Danube that we don’t have to rely on our neighbours. We can travel all the way to Bratislava, Vienna, Budapest, Belgrade. And this is what we plan to do.”
Let’s go back to the beginning: you talked about the many applications for citizenship which you received. What is the attraction and where are the people from?
“Around half of the applicants come from the Middle East, reflecting possibly that their personal liberties are at threat, economic problems and the other half are from all around the world, especially the US. Some people there realise that we are sort of evoking the spirit of the American Revolution and that the state wasn’t meant to be as large as it is now, taking 40 percent of what they earn. We even have applications from Switzerland and Hong Kong.”
“We feel that places where there is minimal regulation are among the most prosperous, especially when private property is respected.”
As we said, no UN country has recognised Liberland and by the sounds of it, the Czech Foreign Ministry is not very happy with this project, either.
Have you sent out feelers there?
“I think they sent a published report on Liberland three times and we are very happy about that. Normally, the Foreign Ministry doesn’t take that much interest in individuals acting abroad but this time they are concerned. And we appreciate the attention. We always share all of their publications about Liberland.”
How does one become a citizen? What does one have to bring to the table?
“At this stage we are granting our ‘currency’ the Merit to anyone who contributes. Someone can donate a dollar and get one Merit, or can do something to help. It doesn’t matter how and we are trying to evaluate the economic value of their help. I think it is a very interesting idea how to create a new currency. We are only emitting new currency based on how much help is being received and I think is a new way how to try and launch a currency.”
So on the one hand, Liberland is being ‘launched’ by crowdfunding, on the other by voluntary help. I read somewhere that someone was offering help on how to lay pipes…
“Pipes? I didn’t notice that.” (laughs)
For Liberland’s new sewer system, I presumed…
Won’t that potentially make it a very exclusive club, a haven for the very rich?
“Not really, anybody can still apply. I think it will be exclusive and that is ok but it will be very easy to get e-residency. On the other hand, the citizens should be respected members in their own societies.”
This patch of land is seven kilometres squared, roughly the same size as the district of Prague 7. It’s small but not that small. What was it like to found this area a year ago? I am trying to imagine you standing in the middle of the woods…
“There were three of us and a fourth, a journalist, to observe the process. One funny thing is that everyone writes that I am a self-proclaimed president but we had a vote a few seconds after the founding. I didn’t vote, but the others. So I am not self-proclaimed.”
Speaking of which, if the country ever gets up and running, how would the president be elected and for how long?
“We actually removed the role in the Constitution for the future. I have many powers now and named our government but it is not a dictatorship and I am delegating the powers to vice presidents and then we will have the two chambers, one based on the Merits and other more democratic where all citizens will have their seat and be able to vote because of the crypto-currency system.”
“The flag represents what we believe in… No weapons, no arrows, the sun. We are kind of a shiny, happy people.”
To sum up, what is the spirit of Liberland?
“It is a beautiful piece of land, there is a 600 metre long white sandy beach which I never expected. which has a nice Carribean feel. There is nice weather in the summer, so we will be inviting people there for the summer festival. We want some 5,000 people to be there for that."