Europe has a new country. Or at least that is what a tiny territory between Serbia and Croatia is claiming. The Free Republic of Liberland (commonly known as Liberland) has failed to get international recognition, but its leaders are actually claiming control of a land that no other country seems interested in owning. While Liberland is unlikely to become anything more than a curious geographic anecdote, its existence raises questions about the meaning of statehood.
Since the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s, Serbia and Croatia have each claimed several territories along their border, including some islands on the Danube River, that have been put to international arbitration. But in early 2015, Vit Jedlicka, a Czech politician and activist, found a small parcel of land on the western bank of the Danube that is not claimed by either side. And so on April 13, 2015 (Thomas Jefferson's birthday), Jedlicka proclaimed the birth of Liberland, Europe's newest nation. Its name may sound impressive, but its territory is not: Liberland’s area is about 7 square kilometers (2.7 square miles) and is mostly covered by forest. It has no residents, and according to local media it has only an old house that has been abandoned for decades.
Jedlicka designed a flag for Liberland, which consists of a yellow background (representing libertarianism) and a black horizontal stripe (representing anarchism). He claims the country will be ruled by only a handful of laws, and taxes will be paid on a voluntary basis. Liberland's website describes its government as a "constitutional republic with elements of direct democracy" under the motto "to live and let live." Through his website, Jedlicka is offering passports from Liberland — open to anybody except Nazis, communists and "extremists" — and inviting people to invest in the new country. He claims to have a plan to turn Liberland into a financial center and a tax haven.
Jedlicka's critics have accused him of creating Liberland as a publicity stunt, and the Serbian and Croatian governments have minimized the issue. But the case is notable because the Serbian government told American media in 2015 that Liberland would not theoretically violate its territory, since the area is not on Serbian land. Croatia has admitted that the area "is still the subject of negotiations" between Zagreb and Belgrade but said it should be awarded to either of the two countries, not to a third party.
Liberland bases its claim to existence on the argument that no nation has claimed ownership of the area. This would represent a case of "terra nullius" (nobody's land), a concept that describes a territory that is not under the sovereignty of any state and is subject to acquisition through occupation. The concept has existed for centuries and is widely accepted as a principle of international law. It has, however, created several disputes among countries, in many cases leading to war or international arbitration. What makes Liberland so interesting is that, unlike in most cases of terra nullius, no sovereign state seems to be particularly interested in owning this tiny territory.
A somewhat similar case is Bir Tawil, an area of just over 2,000 square kilometers along the border between Egypt and Sudan. Because of discrepancies in the interpretation of the border between Egypt and Sudan, some territories are claimed by both countries while others, like Bir Tawil, are claimed by neither. Over time, several people have claimed ownership of the area, but because of its inclement weather and hostile geography, most of these claims exist only online. In 2014, however, an American citizen traveled to the area and proclaimed the Kingdom of North Sudan.
According to its website, the Kingdom of North Sudan is "a nation of love and progress" that means to "bring together the world's best scientific minds and concerned global citizens wishing to fund cutting edge scientific advancement in sustainable agriculture, water and energy conservation." To do so, the country launched an online fundraising campaign in 2015. North Sudan has also applied for observer entity status at the United Nations, but so far no relevant international actor has recognized its existence.
Still, that Bir Tawil is unclaimed does not necessarily mean it is unwanted. Tribes from the region often visit the area, leading to accusations of racism against North Sudan's American "king." Unsurprisingly, North Sudan is one of the few "countries" that has recognized Liberland. The Kingdom of Enclava, a patch of land at the border between Slovenia and Croatia that also claims to be Europe's newest country, has recognized Liberland too.
The cases of Liberland, North Sudan and others raise questions about the concept of statehood. A traditional line of thought established that something could be considered a state only if it was recognized by other sovereign states. The Congress of Vienna (1815) was crucial for the development of this position because it decided that future states would require recognition from the existing ones to be part of the international community. In other words, the Great Powers of the 19th century wanted to make sure they decided what could become a state and what could not.
But this theory led to disputes over what "recognition" actually means. After all, acknowledging the existence of a new territorial entity is not the same as granting it formal diplomatic recognition. This line of thought also faces problems in the many cases in which a new entity is recognized by some states but not by others. This remains a valid question to this day, since many states are not fully recognized by the international community. Places such as Kosovo and Palestine are not members of the United Nations but are recognized by several of its members.
A more recent line of thought holds that states need to meet certain criteria, such as a defined territory, a permanent population, a government, and a capacity to enter relations with other governments. From this point of view, the recognition of other states is not a critical condition for statehood. These principles were formally laid out in the Montevideo Convention of 1933, a foundational document on statehood. Some experts on international relations have argued that since Liberland represents a clear case of terra nullius, it could theoretically satisfy Montevideo's requirements.
The Principality of Sealand, arguably the world's most famous self-proclaimed microstate, offers a case study for these issues. In 1967, a British family occupied an offshore platform in the North Sea and declared it an independent state. Though Sealand has not been formally recognized by any states, its government claims to have been de facto recognized by countries including the United Kingdom and Germany (for the simple reason that both governments have acknowledged it exists). Sealand also claims to have a government and a population (even if a caretaker seems to be the only permanent resident), which make it a state according to the Montevideo requirements.
According to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, however, artificial installations do not possess the status of islands and do not qualify as "territories" in the traditional sense of the word. This has not stopped Sealand from establishing several business operations, most notably an internet hosting facility, or "data haven." Sealand may not be internationally recognized, but it has managed to remain economically viable for half a century.
A Rush and a Push and the Land Is Ours
Liberland, North Sudan and other self-proclaimed microstates will have a difficult time if they truly want to become formal states (whether their self-proclaimed leaders actually have this goal remains a subject of debate). The most basic of the obstacles to formal statehood is to actually occupy the land they claim to own.
The fact that countries have not claimed ownership of certain territories does not mean they are not willing to react if they feel threatened by third parties. Croatia and Serbia may currently consider Liberland little more than a joke, but they would almost certainly take action if there were any real attempts to populate it and establish an independent country. Since the case of Liberland became famous, Croatian police have been deployed in the area and have arrested several people trying to reach it. Egypt and Sudan may look at different maps when they think about their common border, but they would probably not be happy with a new state emerging between them.
Countries dealing with unclaimed territories would reach bilateral solutions on these lands rather than allowing Czech activists or American kings to occupy them. Ironically, this could lead to conflict if the involved governments simultaneously decide that they want to own an area they previously ignored. Most disputed territories have that status precisely because two or more actors claim ownership over them. Liberland is a curious case because, in principle, none of the actors that could claim control over it seems interested in doing so. But this will probably remain a curiosity with negligible consequences at the international level. For the rest of the world's disputed territories, violence and diplomacy will remain the main tools to claim ownership.