Dear fellow travellers
Have you applied for Liberland citizenship yet? Probably not. Though by all accounts lots of folk have been begging the Liberland government to give them passports.
Europe’s new microstate, the so-called Free Republic of Liberland, has had some press coverage, particularly in Britain where the media lap up the eurosceptic sentiments of Liberland’s self-styled (ie. totally unelected) president Vít Jedlička.
Liberland may yet turn out to be merely a publicity stunt, but President Jedlička seems to take himself seriously. The Liberland story is a good yarn about a bunch of eccentrics with libertarian instincts who imagine building a new life, free of taxes and legal restrictions, on an unloved fragment of land on the west bank of the River Danube. Liberland is a wetland wilderness upstream from the point where the Danube is joined by the River Drava. It is shown in green on the map of the region (click on the image above to enlarge the map).
This is a stretch of the Danube where, by and large, the west bank belongs to Croatia. It is a corner of Croatia known as Baranja. The east bank of the river is in the main Serbian — a district called Bačkawhich is part of the territory of the Autonomous Province of Vojvodina.
The border in this region dates back to 18th-century cadastral surveys which in those days mapped the lands belonging to villages on either side of the Danube. But rivers are not static entities and the course of the Danube has shifted over the last 250 years. Old meander loops have been abandoned and in general terms the main course of the river is slightly further west than it was when the first maps were made. In some instances, there was deliberate canalisation, as stretches of the Danube were straightened to help navigation.
As long as Croatia and Serbia were both part of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, this stretch of the Danube was of no great consequence as a border. But with the emergence of Serbia and Croatia as independent states, this has become an international frontier — and is now part of the outer edge of the European Union.
Croatia and Serbia are in general agreement about the broad line of their mutual border in the Danube Valley. But they differ on one important point. Croatia argues that the border was fixed in the old cadastral surveys and has not changed since. Yet Serbia suggests that the principal line of navigation along the current main channel of the Danube marks the international frontier.
The changing course of the river has left several parcels of Croatian territory on the east bank of the river — which Serbia says should now rightly be Serbian. These areas are shown in yellow on the map.
The Danube’s current course leaves one largish parcel at Siga (and three other tiny fragments) of Serbian territory on the west bank of the river — which Serbia says should now properly be part of Croatia. But Croatia rejects the Serbian interpretation of the precise borderline and insists that the Siga loop is not Croatian.
There is a bit of Croatian self-interest at play here — the isolated parcels of Croatian land east of the current main Danube channel are together an order of magnitude larger than the Siga loop. Accepting the Siga loop as part of Croatia would undermine Croatian claims to the much more valuable and extensive territories on the east bank.
Vít Jedlička has spotted this bizarre border conundrum and suggested that, if neither Serbia nor Croatia are interested in the Siga loop, then he’d be happy to take it for his new microstate. This is a postage-sized piece of territory of about 7.5 square kilometres. Liechtenstein is about twenty times as large. President Jedlička anticipates that the Free Republic of Liberland could one day support a population similar in size to that of Liechtenstein — so this part of the Danube Valley could become very crowded. The current human population of the Siga loop is zero.
Vít Jedlička’s dream will surely never be realised. There are very sound reasons why this part of the Danube Valley is so sparsely populated. The Siga loop, like much other land on both banks of the river, is wet, marshy and subject to terrible flooding. Entire communities have been destroyed in catastrophic flooding over the years. The most recent major floods were in June 2013, when almost the entire territory of Jedlička’s fake republic was under water.
Settlers heading for the new republic would be well advised to take along a pair of wellies. And be prepared to beat a hasty retreat as water levels rise. There is little by way of flood defences along this stretch of the Danube.
Meanwhile, we can all smile at the idea of a new nation in a marshland. And smile at the oddities surrounding Europe’s complicated borders. This week, when journalists tried to enter the Siga loop, we saw the amusing spectacle of Croatian police preventing access to a slice of land which they insist really belongs to Serbia.
The one good thing that may come out of the Liberland affair is that it could well nudge Serbia and Croatia back to the negotiating table to hammer out just what is the precise line of their common border. Those discussions stalled some years ago. Neither Zagreb or Belgrade have really had the energy to draw up an agreement. With Vít Jedlička laying claim to Siga, both governments may now be more inclined to settle their mutual border.
Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries
(editors, hidden europe magazine)