When Vit Jedlicka was growing up in Czechoslovakia in the 1980s, his father was removed from his office job at the Institute of Weights and Measures and sent to work as a mechanic, after losing favour with the authorities for resisting Communist Party membership. After the Velvet Revolution in 1989, the elder Jedlicka’s fortunes rose and fell again. He was achieving the capitalist dream with a chain of petrol stations, when the central bank raised interest rates to 25 per cent almost overnight in 1997, strangling the Czech economy and
nearly bankrupting the family business.
These experiences of being hammered by authority under communism – and hammered again after it – left a deep mark on the younger Jedlicka. He entered politics but never lost his belief that there had to be a better system. And so, in 2015, he created his own libertarian state, Liberland,
on a three-square-mile plot of no man’s land between Croatia and Serbia, where taxes are voluntary, laws are minimal and the economy runs on a virtual currency.
It is now 14 months since Jedlicka planted the flag of “The Free Republic of Liberland” on marshlands along the Danube and became its president. The state has yet to win recognition from any government and its founder has had two stints in Croatian jails. Nonetheless, Jedlicka, who is 32, has turned Liberland into a global phenomenon, with nearly half a million citizenship applications (the number grows by 500 per day) and financial supporters ranging from internet entrepreneurs to venture capital firms.
Liberland is riding an international wave of dissatisfaction with government-as-usual that has found outlets on the left and right, from Bernie Sanders, Jeremy Corbyn and Donald Trump to movements such as Anonymous, the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street. Jedlicka describes himself as an “anarcho-capitalist” but his inclusiveness, disdain for authority and eco-friendly ethos have sparked interest among progressives as well
He makes for an unlikely rebel. An affable man with a ginger goatee and a wrestler’s build, he has a disarming way of presenting himself as serious without taking himself seriously. Our first contact is through his Facebook friend invite (quickly followed by a smiley emoji on Messenger), which comes days after my more formal interview request through Liberland’s press office.
In our phone conversations, he speaks in measured tones and takes no offence when asked how he feels about Liberland being treated as an intriguing joke. The laid-back persona is summed up in Liberland’s motto: “To live and let live”.
Beneath the geniality, though, there is a vision of nation-building that Jedlicka insists is coherent – and workable. Liberland is not a symbolic movement, he tells me, but a genuine effort to create a state on land claimed neither by Croatia nor Serbia. Liberland invokes the Roman legal principle of terra nullius in asserting a right to establish sovereignty over territory where none has existed, or (in Liberland’s case, he says) it has been relinquished.
The land, known as Gornja Siga, is nestled in a bend of the Danube that forms a natural boundary between Croatia and Serbia and is unwanted by both countries. The odd situation is a result of the decision in the 19th century to straighten the Danube to ease river trade. Since the end of the 1990s Yugoslav wars, Croatia has demanded that the border reverts to the winding path it took before the river engineering works, handing Gornja Siga back to Serbia, while claiming some Serbian land for itself. Serbia is happy with the status quo. Liberlanders say that makes the land fair game for anybody.
Yet last year, when Jedlicka and dozens of supporters from around the world, including from Britain, crossed into Gornja Siga from the Serbian side, Croatian police arrested them and Jedlicka spent a night in jail. He argues that the detentions were absurd and illegal: Croatian police had arrested non-Croatians outside Croatia, entering from beyond Croatia’s borders. The law seems to be on the side of the libertarians; Croatian appeals courts this year ruled six times in favour of Liberland’s complaints against police.
Even if Liberland manages to establish a proto-state on Gornja Siga – or at least squat on the empty land – there remains the question of how such a tiny territory will host potentially millions of new citizens. The quick answer is that it won’t. Liberland would be not only be the first libertarian state but also the first virtual state. It will exist mostly online, its citizens across the globe, enjoying the benefits of membership and doing business using Liberland’s crypto-currency, called merits, modelled after bitcoin. “Everyone who wants to have e-residency,” says Jedlicka, “can enjoy legal status and pursue their business freely.”
One of Liberland’s biggest selling points is voluntary taxation, an idea that has drawn interest from IT companies, financial institutions and private equity firms, Jedlicka says. He rejects the idea that banking might turn Liberland into another Luxembourg, a place to hide money: “Tax heaven”, he says, “not tax haven”. Citizens win merits in exchange for paying taxes – the more you pay, the more you get. “This currency,” Jedlicka says, “can be exchanged for shares. And you become a shareholder of the whole community.”
Is this not a recipe for plutocracy, with the biggest spenders holding greatest sway? Jedlicka concedes a belief in a “system where people have a say according to how much they pay in taxes”. Then he hedges, saying it won’t matter much. Liberland will be a nation with minimal laws “so there should be almost zero things people vote on”. (It will also be a nation with minimal public services, with health care and other areas handled by the private sector and charities.) Jedlicka answers these last questions on Facebook, concluding with a spanner emoji: “We are still in a process of exploration.”
This article appears in the 07 Jun 2016 issue of the New Statesman, A special issue on Britain in Europe