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A Crypto Micronation’s Future Hangs on a Border Dispute

Jul 2, 2023 2:00 AM

A Crypto Micronation’s Future Hangs on a Border Dispute

An ultra-libertarian Balkan “country” called Liberland celebrated its eighth anniversary with a boat party and a barbecue, but no one lives there.

police boat

Photograph: Sanja Knezevic

Late one morning in April, a boat called Liberty sailed down the Danube on a reconnaissance mission, toward a destination found on no map or atlas. It was decorated with the yellow livery of the Free Republic of Liberland—a tiny new country in the making on the border between Serbia and Croatia. As Liberty turned onto the river, at the rear of a small convoy, a Croatian police boat pulled out from among the waterside vegetation and began to follow.

One way to think about Liberland—a portmanteau of “liberty” and “land”—is as an experiment in ultra-libertarianism. The project is the baby of Vít Jedlička, a Eurosceptic politician from the Czech Republic who believes modern democracies are burdened by overtaxation and overregulation.

In 2014, frustrated with EU bureaucracy, Jedlička decided a fresh start was called for. A simple internet search yielded a promising result: an apparent legal no-man’s-land, a 7-kilometer-squared terra nullius in the Balkans, on the west bank of the Danube River. After the dissolution of Yugoslavia in the 1990s, there was a border mismatch: The Serbian government drew theirs along the deepest part of the Danube, the thalweg; the Croatians along the river course as it was in the 19th century, before engineering works and natural processes diverted its course. This created pockets of land on the western riverbank that are, technically, unclaimed by either nation.

The largest is known as Gornja Siga, but on April 13, 2015, Jedlička planted a flag and rechristened it Liberland. There, he is attempting to build “the freest country on the planet,” he says—“the Singapore of Europe,” in which tax is optional, bureaucracy minimal, and governance laissez-faire. The national motto: “To live and let live.”

The endeavor is largely funded by donations from the crypto nouveau riche. More than 700,000 people have registered their support for Liberland, 6,000 have signed up as paying e-residents, and roughly 1,000 have paid $5,000 or made an equivalent contribution to become full citizens.

A large chunk of that money has gone toward crypto tech: budget allocation, judicial processes, and property registration will all take place on a large public database—a new national blockchain. Jedlička—elected president of Liberland by a founding committee completed by his partner and a friend from college—says the approach will maximize transparency and minimize red tape. “Blockchain is the greatest tool to run a nation-state,” he claims. “We are just five years ahead of our time.”

But eight years on from Liberland’s founding, nobody lives there and next to nothing has been built. The Croatian government considers the territory part of an ongoing border dispute, not a terra nullius, and has previously said that all who visit must “abide by Croatian laws.”

Jedlička has twice been arrested by Croatian border police for attempting to cross into the territory, but in April, he and a band of supporters attempted a pilgrimage for Liberland’s eighth anniversary. It was a symbolic journey to mark what Jedlička hoped would be the start of permanent settlement—and a pivotal moment for this proto-cryptonation.

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“Do you consider yourself a rich man?”

It was the first question Dorian Štern-Vukotić asked when we met in April at a café at Belgrade Airport. Caught off guard, I managed only a limp response, something about Western privilege. But he wasn’t looking for a philosophical answer; he wanted to stay in my hotel room for the weekend and split the cost. This was his way of asking whether I could do with the extra cash.

Štern-Vukotić, a wild-haired twentysomething, had been recruited to code up Liberland’s experimental new digital voting system, which runs on crypto tokens. He had gravitated to the Liberland vision: to build an anti-state of sorts, in which people are free to do as they please atop crypto technologies that no politician may exploit. As far as practically possible, Štern-Vukotić already lives a crypto life—he gets paid in bitcoin and uses it to buy his groceries and other goods—to show it can be done.

In Liberland, the idea is for everyone to practice the same discipline. In the airport carpark, while luggage was loaded into the minivan that would take us to the border, Štern-Vukotić pulled out a laminated note the size of a dollar bill. It contained 1/1000th of an ounce of gold. Aside from bitcoin, gold will be the primary currency used for trade in Liberland—both hard monies under no state or bank’s control.

But it’s not all about crypto for everyone. Spaniard Ignacio Rubio was once a pastor, but left the church after losing his faith, he said, and was now “looking for something else to believe in.” In Liberland, he hoped he had found it. Over the past two decades, Rubio says he has grown increasingly concerned about the control governments exerted over their citizens, especially during the pandemic. He claims the EU is devolving from a constellation of free countries into a group of “extreme social democracies,” in which people’s lives will be governed to the letter by the state. “The world has become less and less free,” he said. “It is becoming a place where freedom is not on the political agenda.” If the coast was clear, Rubio said, he would step foot on Liberland on the anniversary weekend, even take a piece of turf away with him. He had come to “breathe some freedom.”

That evening, Jedlička held a welcome dinner close to a Liberland outpost in the Serbian agricultural town of Apatin, a bumpy drive from Belgrade Airport, past crop fields and fruit stalls. Few locals know what Liberland is, and those who do care more for the spectacle than anything else. “It’s something new,” says Aleksandra Vrančić, a manager at a nearby petrol station. But animosity between Croatians and Serbs, a consequence of bitter conflict during the Croatian War of Independence, means that borders, generally, are a sensitive matter. One Apatin local, Savo Vojinovic, had recently been roughed up by a group of Croatians and, on a separate occasion, chased away from the Croatian half of the river by police. He would like to see a nation founded on freedom and open borders succeed, he said, even if the chances are small.

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The dinner crowd swung white, male, and middle-aged, but international (by Štern-Vukotić’s own admission, Liberland events are often “sausage-fests”). There was a strong Scandinavian contingent, as well as supporters from places including Italy, Spain, Germany, Libya, and Tunisia.

Jedlička worked the room, striking up conversations with Liberland delegates, his cabinet members, and others who had come to celebrate the anniversary. They swapped tales of previous efforts to gain access to Liberland, by sneaking across in small boats when the police weren’t looking. “It’s a cat and mouse game with the Croatian border force,” explained Frode Borge, Liberland delegate for Norway. “It’s the president’s favorite sport.” An Italian called Davide, whose wife and young twins had joined him for the anniversary, said he capsized a kayak in 2021 attempting to cross the river at night. “It was so dark,” he said. “There were just the stars to light the way.”

It’s a make-or-break moment for Liberland. In January, neighboring Croatia joined the Schengen Area, a zone of open borders and free travel that spans most of Europe. In the past, entering Liberland from Serbia or down the river from Hungary meant illegally crossing the Croatian border. But now, although crossing from non-Schengen Serbia remains illegal, there is no border control between Croatia and Hungary, creating shakier legal ground, says Jedlička, for the arrest of settlers that travel by this route. (The Croatian Ministry for Foreign Affairs did not respond to a request for comment.)

Since Croatia’s entrance into Schengen, settlers have managed to occupy Liberland territory for more than a month for the first time, Jedlička claims, building a small house in the process. He calls this a “great success,” after eight years of impasse. “We are using this opportunity to prepare for permanent settlement. We have finished our homework. I don’t think there is any way we could fail. The question is only how fast things will grow. I don’t even consider the other option.”

As Liberty and the convoy of Liberland boats made their way along the river, the first police boat fell away, passing the baton to the next patrol stationed up the line. Jedlička was unperturbed: “They’re our security escort,” he joked. But in reality, they are there to stop anyone from making landfall on Liberland, irrespective of the Schengen loophole.

The police relay went on until, a couple of hours later, the Liberty crossed into Liberland waters, marked by a green buoy in the center of the river. Liberland itself is mostly verdant forest, the roots of which spill into the river, but at its edge floats a small island with white sandy beaches.

The plan was to moor close to Liberland and—if possible—for a more agile craft to deposit a smaller group of brave Liberlandians on the shore. But anticipating trouble on the anniversary weekend, the Croatian police had laid on additional manpower. Multiple police boats patrolled the waters and foot patrols were stationed at intervals along the beach, ready to scoop up interlopers. Jedlička gave them a wave, to an unsmiling response.

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Shooed away, the Liberty parked up on the opposite riverbank, on the Serbian side, just outside Liberland territory. Its passengers disembarked on a makeshift ramp made of planks and a ladder. The others had already arrived. “You haven’t been arrested yet?” said Štern-Vukotić. “Well, the day is still young.”

In spite of the police presence, the scene was a happy one; it was easy to forget, temporarily, the strangeness of the situation. Davide’s twins had built a fire on the bank and were toasting food on sticks. On the middle deck of Liberty, meats were barbecued and served with salads and bread. Liberland-branded wine, made from local grapes, was passed around.

After people finished eating, Jedlička called for attention. It was time to award the newest citizens their Liberland passports. The group applauded and hollered as the passports were handed over and presidential handshakes accepted, and broke into a chorus of “Lib, lib, lib, lib, lib, lib!”—a chant that came out whenever there was cause for celebration.

For the next month, Liberty remained parked on the opposite side of the river to Liberland, with someone stationed aboard to provide support for the settlers coming down the river from Hungary, and to relay Wi-Fi to any that managed to make camp inland.

The rest of the party returned to Apatin on the other boats, but not before another go at setting foot on Liberland. A small craft attempted the crossing, but a police boat shepherded it away from the shore, whipping water into the hull with sharp turns. On this occasion, the would-be settlers were easily repelled.

On the boat ride home, wrapped in a blanket to shelter from the wind, Rubio, the ex-pastor, sat ruminating. For all the celebrations, the weekend had left him worried about the future of Liberland. “Where are all the followers?” he asked.

It was a fair observation. Of the 70 to 80 people at the anniversary, few were not directly affiliated with the Liberland government. Once the president and his cabinet, the delegates, and the speakers were counted, Rubio was one of only a few “followers” that had made the journey. By Jedlička’s reckoning, only 300 or so people have ever set foot on Liberland soil.

Part of the problem is the emphasis on crypto, Rubio believes, which threatens to alienate those for whom Liberland is primarily a political endeavor. “I found the idea of Liberland attractive—the romantic idea of freedom and living in peace. But they are centering the message in technology,” said Rubio. “It’s part of the bones, the skeleton—but you need the heart.” If Jedlička aims to attract the support of libertarians, said Rubio, he should be preaching the new country’s values openly on social media. Nation-building requires activism, after all, and a careful topping-up of momentum.

But Liberland, like crypto projects before it, may not be able to count on its founder to carry it forward forever. Although Jedlička has promised to dedicate his full energy to Liberland at least until “things are really on track,” he has grander ambitions. “I’m quite excited about space exploration,” he said, “and the area of longevity.”

“I think Liberland would already survive without me. But of course it would lose momentum,” Jedlička continued. “I will do my best to make sure that Liberland gets internationally recognized first.”

As the boats headed back through Serbian waters, they passed the ruin of a larger boat, abandoned near the mouth of the Apatin marina. The fallen vessel, also owned by the Liberlandians, had caught fire, sunk, and been sold for scrap. The wreckage listed to the side, the lower deck almost fully submerged. Rubio gestured to the wreck: “I hope this is not a premonition for Liberland.”

This article appears in the September/October 2023 edition of WIRED UK.

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Joel Khalili is a reporter for WIRED, covering crypto, Web3, and fintech. He was previously an editor at TechRadar, where he wrote about the business of technology, among other things. Before turning his hand to journalism, he studied English literature at University College London.
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