August 26, 2023 – Dismissed as a publicity stunt 8 years ago, perhaps Europe’s craziest border story continues to surprise. Visiting Liberland now and then, a comparison.
It has to be the craziest border story in Europe in the last 50 years, a story which keeps on giving, and a story which took an enormous twist on January 1, 2023, as Croatia entered the Schengen zone.
Seven square kilometres on the banks of the Danube, nestled between Croatia and Serbia on the Croatian side of the river, unclaimed by either after the Homeland War and breakup of Yugoslavia.
Unclaimed by anyone at all until April 13, 2015, when a Czech national, accompanied by his girlfriend and best friend, popped down from Prague. Fed up with trying to change the politics in his native country, Vit Jedlicka decided to start a country from scratch. Scouring the globe for unclaimed pieces of land, he made the surprising discovery, planted a flag in the land, and declared it the Free State of Liberland, a Utopian, libertarian society with voluntary taxation, with citizenship applications open to all, with himself as the President.
The story went global, reaching the New York Times and many others, as did the applications for citizenship, some half a million in a month. The Croatian police took a dim view of things, and President Jedlicka was arrested twice in the subsequent weeks – once from Croatia, and once trying to land from the Danube. Jedlicka thanked his captors for recognising that there was a border between the two, and also for taking such good care of the borders, so that the nascent country did not have to budget for security.
How did it come to be that nobody wanted this parcel of land, especially after such a bloody war where territory was a key issue? The answer lies in the changing course of the mighty Danube. When the land registry was mapped by the Austro-Hungarians in the 19th century, the river flowed differently, along the course of the yellow and green above. The yellow are on the Serbian side of the river, but are technically Croatia, Liberland is technically Serbia on the Croatian side.
The Serbs want everything their side of the river, the Croats are claiming what is theirs, and bigger pieces of land. As nobody claimed the small green pocket for almost 30 years, Jedlicka saw an opportunity and pounced, and he is now trying to get international recognition based on the law of Terra Nullius.
Visiting Liberland in 2016 was impossible, as the Croatian police prevented anyone from entering, and if you are new to the topic, I recommend you start with my overview of the first annual conference in 2016 – A Weekend in Alice in LiberWonderland.
But then, on January 1, 2023, something changed. Croatia joined the Schengen zone, and this was no longer a Croatian border, but also a Schengen one. With no borders with Schengen countries such as Hungary, for example, there was no longer a reason to prevent someone with Schengen papers from cruising down the Danube into Liberland or Croatia. If anyone should care, it would be the Serbs, whose land it technically is.
And the Serbs don’t care. Indeed, they are benefitting from Liberland. They have taken a much more practical approach to the situation, and Liberlanders now have a community on the Serb side, as well as pumping considerable amounts into the local economy.
About a month ago, a viral video about Liberland went live (you can watch it above). With almost 8 million views so far, it is one of the best – and best-produced – videos I have seen in a while, and it clearly showed what was possible. The YouTuber visited in April.
Soon after, President Jedlicka announced that the border was open and even had an official border crossing, as we reported recently.
It sounded incredible, and I am well aware how easy it is to make things look different on social media compared to how they are in reality. With a story I had been following for 7 years taking such a turn, I decided to see for myself. Visiting Liberland in 2016 was impossible. Had things really changed in 2023?
It seemed that they had, and the Liberland website had a detailed map, including where to find the Liberland pub. It seems that there were two possible points of entry – an 8-kilometre walk or cycle from Zmajevac (they even had codes for visitors to use some bikes), or by boat. You can guess which option I chose.
I applied for my visa (cost 5 euro, free for Croatian and Serbian citizens) and received the following information:
Here are the instructions for arrival and how to access Liberland.
1. Don’t follow Google maps navigation blindly when coming to Liberland.
2. The entry point to Liberland is located in Zmajevac (45.8094242, 18.8175436 use ONLY this point for Google maps!).
3. Do not enter by car because access is only possible by foot or by bike (8km).
4. *If possible, bring your own bike so you can see all of Liberland and ride to there.
5. There is a limited number of bikes parked at the entry point. For the bike code please contact us.
6. From here head south for five kilometers and turn left into stony road to point where you can park.
7. Another option is to park your car at Zeleni Otok Plaza and our ferry boat will depart 2x a day: 10:00 and 19:00.
8. Here the Croatian river police gets out of the boat and check your passports or EU IDs. (45.7859358, 18.8592922).
9. The Liberland border checkpoint is located on the houseboat Liberty (45.784450,18.866582). Here you can get Liberland border stamp.
10. *Please be advised that you may have problems on other Croatian borders with Liberland stamp.
11. The crossing is currently open during the daylight hours for a walk entrance only. Before the visit make sure you have:
– A valid passport, or ID, that allows you exit Schengen and re-enter Croatia
I contacted PIXSELL, the leading Croatian photo agency, and I asked them if they wanted to send a photographer. And so it was that I met a very skeptical Davor Javorovic in Batina half an hour before our boat was due to leave. All the locals had told him that there was no way the police would allow anyone to go to Liberland.
His skepticism (and now mine) grew as we found the appointed spot called Plaza Zeleni Otok, a delightful spot with lovely sandy beach. But no boat, and no sign of a boat as 10:00 approached.
A message to and from the President. The boat would now go at 11, not 10. And maybe from this beach, or maybe from Batina.
I could feel this not turning out too well, but at least I had time to beg some charging juice for the GoPro from a local. I love that about Croatia. You can knock on any door and ask to charge your phone.
Shortly before 11, a phone call in Croatian giving me instructions to return to Batina to a particular spot. GPS coordinates were sent by SMS, and our spirits were raised.
And dashed. We ended up on a non-descript road of run-down weekend houses, with a tall embankment on the other side. We were in the right spot, but not only would we not see the boat, we could also see no river.
Davor scaled the embankment and let out a whoop of joy.
“I see the boat!”
But that was not all he saw. Just a short distance from the boat (to the left of the photo below), there was a Croatian police car. I didn’t really want to get into a dispute with the police, and neither did he, and we shouted to the guys on the boat, asking for advice.
They went to talk to the police, told us to wait where we were, and they would come and get us.
And that’s when we saw him, our first Liberland citizen, and a man who would play a large part in making our day so successful – Dorijan from Pula, who came jogging towards us in 35 degrees of heat.
It turned out we were not alone, and the CNN crew from Prague were a little more conspicuous than us. I began to relax.
The police were friendly and polite and let us proceed with no ID checks. We boarded the houseboat called Liberty, which had been the customs house for the Liberland border until it sailed upstream for repairs. It was hot, and I was a little sweaty, but the Visit Liberland deckchairs were welcome.
As was the hospitality. I heard English, French, Czech, Croatian, as Liberlanders interacted, shared their food and answered our questions. After about an hour, and with Davor looking at his watch – for his filing deadline was not far away – just one more question. When would we be actually visiting Liberland?
It turned out we were waiting for another boat, captained by a Czech national and flying under the flags of Serbia and Hungary. The Danube on a sunny Thursday in August – it is not dull.
Peter the Czech was a legend. He was making numerous daily journeys to and from Liberland bringing in supplies, and he was thrilled that someone had remembered to bring him some lunch. He told us to relax, put our life jackets on and enjoy the ride, which would take an hour to Liberland.
There was nothing for it, but to try and relax and enjoy a cold beer. It was beautiful, calm, and totally empty.
As we approached, we were told to prepare our passports, and a Croatian police boat came aside ours. The policemen were very polite, but asked us not to photograph them (the one above is cropped). I asked a question about the border crossing, and one asked me if I was Paul Bradbury – without having checked my passport. I decided to accept his explanation that this was a Schengen control with no further questions.
And within two minutes, we waved each other off and were free to enter the Free State of Liberland. Very polite, very friendly, no issues whatsoever.
Closer we sailed, as Peter the Czech legend took us further downriver. Liberland, it seems, is already making appearances on Google Maps.
And the houseboats are getting fancier.
And then we heard the words that freedom-loving Liberlanders have been waiting to hear for 8 years – Welcome to Liberland! and a beach welcome from President Jedllicka himself (see YouTube short above).
We disembarked onto a small sandy beach, where the new Liberland Beach Bar has just opened. Never has a beer felt so free.
It was good to catch up with the President, whom I had last met for a beer in Osijek in December when he bought a couple of copies of our book, Croatia, a Survival Kit for Foreigners.
Davor, the PIXSELL professional, sat the President down for a photo and interview session.
Building a new country has many teething problems, and the President was putting out a few fires, before having to leave for an urgent meeting.
Where else in the world would you see a President in smart jacket hop on a jetski to power upriver to do an interview with CNN?
Peter the Czech Legend had to get back upriver to get more supplies, so we had a quick tour of Liberland – Liberty Square and Jefferson Avenue – one kilometre away by bike. The basement of what remains of the only building in Liberland. It had been a hunting lodge and planned to be State House, until someone mysteriously popped into Liberland one night in 2018, dismantled the whole house, and took it away in the middle of the night.
An official border point.
Some heroics being performed to establish decent Internet.
There are about 20 people in Liberland at the moment, but the number of houseboats seems to be growing.
It is a very tranquil spot, although the mosquitoes are savage. But then with sunrises like this…
So what did I learn visiting LIberland in 2023 versus attempting to in 2016? A little politeness and respect goes a long way – both ways. I had a very positive experience with the Croatian police. I personally have no problem giving them my passport details to enter this tiny territory, which is on the Schengen border. Liberlanders seem to want to be good neighbours, and I can’t see the issue with the Schengen zone knowing who is there as they have nothing to hide. I did hear of problems with some visitors refusing to show their documents to the police.
But overall, there is a lot less tension. It is a VERY unusual situation, and I have no idea how it will end, but one thing is for sure – there will be many more twists in the Liberland story, Europe’s strangest border story on the banks of the Danube.