Dodging guards with inner-tubes, decoys and diplomats – Cointelegraph Magazine

Dodging guards with inner-tubes, decoys and diplomats – Cointelegraph Magazine


Disembarking the Liberty houseboat moored off the frontier of the European Union, we’re met by a pair of Serbian police officers, their lit squad car nearly blinding us in the dark forest.

“How many people are staying on the boat?” one asks, holding a large dog at bay. “I really don’t recall,” says my colleague from Reuters. Fortunately, they let us go.

We must run, using phone lights to navigate the muddy path to the rally point a bit further in Croatia, in hopes that the departing presidential convoy has not left us behind.

We are meters from the border of Liberland, an unrecognized micronation of crypto fans claiming a piece of land between Croatia and Serbia on the Danube river. At just seven square kilometers — 2.7 square miles — the piece of land is roughly the size of Gibraltar.

Ledger

Liberland “president” Vít Jedlička explains it had not officially been claimed by either neighboring country, making it terra nullius — nobody’s land — when he planted a flag there on April 13, 2015.

Though neither permanent infrastructure nor habitation has been established, the project has attracted a sizable community of Libertarian-minded folk. The de facto home in exile in Liberland is Ark Liberty Village, a nearby campground on the Serbian side.

It’s here that Magazine attends Floating Man, a Liberland festival including wilderness and water survival training, music, a two-day blockchain conference, and a daring visit to Gornja Siga, also called Liberland. Getting into the independent state is going to be tricky, says Jedlička.

“It’s good to get in and out of Liberland without being beat up.”

Breaking into Liberland

As the conference concludes, the president takes the stage in front of a huge Liberland flag, pointing out the borders of Croatia and Hungary and the best ways to cross into the micronation on the map.

The route straight into Croatia to access the Danube is fastest, but most perilous — the border police know about our gathering and are expecting an incursion and, as such, are likely to prevent suspicious vehicles from entering. Flags, stickers or even Liberland-branded beer are a no-go at the crossing, as they will be confiscated, he explains.

The Croatian border, where officers were serious but friendly. (Elias Ahonen)

Entering the Schengen area through Hungary is more certain, with the Hungarians being indifferent to Liberland, making it possible to drive into the Croatian countryside and get to its land border with Liberland without prior detection.

The presidential convoy will go this route, while a boat carrying “settlers” will go upstream from a nearby port in Serbia to distract border patrols. Jet skis dragging inner tubes will take yet another route, with the aim of landing on Liberland’s island before interception.

“They may arrest you, but you are not breaking any law, so the longest they can hold you without charge is four hours.”

It feels like a military operation.

I begin to have doubts and unenlist myself from the jet-ski expeditionary troops to instead go with the convoy — I hadn’t bought a bathing suit, and being detained in international waters in my underwear was more than I’d do for a story.

Also read: Why are crypto fans obsessed with micronations and seasteading?

Not to mention that the last time someone took a jetski to the island, they were brutalized — tackled and kicked on the ground — by Croatian police in an incident for which the police offered an apology and disciplined the officer in question. The event was widely reported in the country, in part because Croatian police were operating outside the nation’s borders.

Travelling to Liberland on Jedlička's presidential convoy felt like teetering on the edge of reality - too real to be unreal, yet still not quite reality
Traveling to Liberland on Jedlička’s “presidential convoy” felt like teetering on the edge of reality — too real to be unreal, yet still not quite reality. (Elias Ahonen)

Terra nullius not on firm legal ground

From the perspective of international law, the validity of Liberland’s claims depends on which theory of state recognition is considered. According to Declarative Theory, supported by the 1933 Montevideo Convention on the Rights and Duties of States, an entity is a state — regardless of outside recognition — if it meets four criteria: a defined territory, permanent population, a government and the capacity to enter into relations with other states.

The area in question is neither Croatian nor Croatian-claimed — Jedlička says that matter was settled when Croatia entered the visa-free Schengen area at the start of 2023, with clearly defined borders being a set requirement of entry.

The land is also not Serbian. As un-owned and unclaimed land accessible from an international waterway, it appears to fit the definition of terra nullius, nobody’s land, which may be freely occupied. A permanent population is the only missing feature, which Jedlička says is only a matter of time. If they can get in, of course.

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The competing Constitutive Theory of Statehood asserts that a state only exists if it is recognized by another state. Here, Liberland fails, though Jedlička argues it is passively recognized already.

“They are checking people’s documents before they go to Liberland, and then once in Liberland they don’t really care — so it’s happening already,” Jedlička explains as we drive toward the border for a ceremony marking the “opening the land border with Croatia.”

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Web3 nation?

Jedlička recalls that he first heard about Bitcoin through his Libertarian circles when its value was under $1 and began to buy it on Mt. Gox for $32. When he proclaimed Liberland’s independence in 2015, the coin stood at $225. With many of the early participants in the projects making their contributions in BTC, the treasury gained value with each bull market.

“Bitcoin is really one of the most foundational parts of Liberland — 99% of our reserves are in BTC.”

Attracting blockchain companies is a key part of the micronation’s strategy, with the vision to offer a low-regulatory jurisdiction with only “voluntary taxes” just off Europe, directly accessible via the Danube river.

Who can become a Liberlander? Just about anyone willing to pay $150 for an e-residency, which comes with an ID card that looks like any other. Citizenship requires 5,000 Liberland Merits (LLM) — a little over $2,000 — or can be earned via contributing to the project. 

According to “Minister of Justice” Michal Ptáčník, while Bitcoin is the preferred currency in Liberland, the Liberland Dollar (LLD) will be used to pay transaction fees on the Liberland blockchain, which is envisioned as the backbone of on-chain companies, the judiciary, government contract execution and Liberland’s stock market.

The chain is built using Polkadot’s Parity Substrate Network, a solution from which customized blockchains can be built using modular components. 

As we stand by the Hungarian border crossing, waiting to go in, I chat with the head ambassador of Polkadot, David Pethes. He notes that Liberland’s governance token, the LLM, already has 19 live validators, and the website explains the requirements:

“Only Liberland citizens can run validators, adding an extra layer of security against bad actors even in a scenario where less than 50% of circulating LLD is staked.”

Pethes, who is Polkadot’s man in Eastern Europe, notes that “Liberland is not on our list yet, but I’d like to have it formally included in the Polkadot ecosystem.” He sees the projects as ideologically aligned. “The participants in the ecosystem have very similar views on how money should work, how you can send value without a central point of failure,” he says.

“Liberland governance and corporate governance have many similarities — the blockchain is basically forked from Polkadot,” he notes. A land registry functioning on NFTs is also on the roadmap, as well as the Liberverse.

LLM Tokenomics
LLM tokenomics. (Liberland)

Journey to Liberland

It begins to rain as we approach the Hungarian border. This apparently causes their internet to malfunction, resulting in an hours-long line for processing. Nearly giving up, we pull into the diplomatic channel, which the Hungarian officials are unhappy about upon recognizing Jedlička. They let us through, making us stay put for perhaps 20 minutes after processing, in what I understand is a summary “slap on the wrist” for abusing diplomatic convention.

Journey to Liberland
The border guards have a word. (Elias Ahonen)

Crossing into the Hungarian countryside, we encounter a roadblock meant to catch illegal migrants. But we’re able to continue and cross into Croatia by ferry.

I am told stories of previous journeys. Last year, police warned that it would be dangerous to venture into Liberland because it was hunting season. “We could hear gunshots some distance away, but they thought we could not tell hunting rifles from pistols — no one hunts with a pistol,” explains our driver, suggesting that police were firing their service pistols to scare them away.

Other times, border patrols would take it upon themselves to “rescue” those they deemed stuck in Liberland — against the wishes of the rescued. Technically, such actions may constitute kidnapping per both Croatian and Liberland law. Jedlička also notes that Liberlanders have been arrested for disobeying a no-parking sign installed in the forest.

“We’re on the northern border,” Jedlička notes as we turn to a back road near the Danube river. Others have already arrived, and a Croatian police boat is tied to the shore with an officer respectfully collecting everyone’s passports and taking them to the boat. Another police vessel speeds to the location, but within 20 minutes, passports are returned.

Jedlička takes a picture of the BORDER CROSSING LIBERLAND-CROATIA sign. Houseboat visible on the right
Jedlička takes a picture of the “BORDER CROSSING LIBERLAND-CROATIA” sign. Houseboat visible on the right. (Elias Ahonen)

The supply van is opened, and each Liberlander takes what they can carry — boxes of equipment, rucksacks of supplies, coolers of food and drink. I carry water. We trek 700 meters into the forest, turning toward the river where a houseboat bearing the Liberland flag is moored.

Pictures are taken, and Jedlička carries the border crossing sign to a nearby tree, to which it is attached.

Someone announces that it is time for border control, and a line forms to get Liberland, American and Swedish passports stamped.

Passports, including from America an Sweden, being stamped as people prepare to board the Liberland houseboat
Passports, including from America and Sweden, being stamped as people prepare to board the Liberland houseboat. (Elias Ahonen)

“Will the stamp cause a problem if I have it in my real passport?” one nervous visitor asks.

The answer is yes, it will, but at that moment, we were not aware of the headache it would create.

Liberland stamp on an American passport
Liberland stamp on an American passport. (Elias Ahonen)

There is an element of theater — the tree and passport table are on shore, still in Croatia. The real border lies 200 meters further down the path, where officers lean against their cruiser, guarding the exit from Europe. I approach them.

Though they at first deny permission to pass, I returned with others to inquire again. They discouraged our entry, saying the forest is too dangerous due to wild boars. I asked how big they are, and the taller officer laughs and brought his hand near chest-level, suggesting that there are monsters beyond the boundary.

But they eventually allow us to pass on the promise that we would return before dark. I walk into the dimming wilderness, exiting the EU and Schengen area. I’m in no man’s land — Liberland. It’s something of an anti-climax.

Journalist Elias Ahonen in Liberland
Journalist Elias Ahonen in Liberland. Looks very similar to Croatia in fact. (Elias Ahonen)

After 20 minutes, we return and our passports are again checked to reenter Croatia.

Back on the boat, there’s is much eating and drinking and with some fanfare, “Radio Liberland,” whose signal was “sent from soil of Liberland,” makes its first broadcast.

Below deck, 26-year old Patrick Banick, a “settler” who has been living on the boat for two months, offers me a beer.
Below deck, 26-year-old Patrick Banick, a “settler” who has been living on the boat for two months, offers me a beer. (Elias Ahonen)

“I’m an unusual person — I don’t feel like myself when I have things tying me down, like being in a strict relationship with having commitments to be in certain places at certain times,” he explains, saying that he was attracted to the project for its Libertarian philosophy.

“I originally expected that we would just go to the land, build a camp, and refuse to leave — but it’s been very different. I’ve learned a lot about how diplomatic you have to be,” he reflects on Jedlička’s approach.

Banick is optimistic about the project’s blockchain aspirations. “From my understanding, they create smart contracts that can be enforced as a sort of immutable court without third parties, without corruption.” He also sees cryptocurrency as promoting “economic freedom, which correlates with every single boost in the standard of living, including longevity, literacy rates and infant mortality.” He is a true believer.

“They’re interested in utilizing smart contracts and blockchain to revolutionize governance and law.”

Elias Ahonen (center) with Patrick and Jonas on Liberty, the houseboat where they were living.
Elias Ahonen (center) with Patrick and Jonas on Liberty, the houseboat where they were living. (Elias Ahonen)

Jonas, a Czech national who was moving on to the boat that day, compares his vision for Liberland with Hong Kong’s former Kowloon walled city, which once contained 35,000 residents on 2.6 hectares. “It had like the cheapest rent, the cheapest medical care, the cheapest food, even though it was like the densest population of any place ever,” he explains — though by most outsider accounts, the city was not exactly a comfortable place.

As I return above deck, there is silence. I’ve been left behind.

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Croatian border guards break the law

Though some cars have already left, I manage to catch a ride with Jedlička after having my passport checked yet again by newly arrived police officers. Less than two kilometers away at the old guard post, we are again stopped for passport checks.

The final challenge was encountered at the Batina Croatia–Serbia border crossing, where Croatian officers took issue with two Americans and a Swede, whose passports were stamped by Liberland, refusing to return the passports unless they each pay a 230-euro fine.

The 7th time passports were needed
The seventh time passports were needed. (Elias Ahonen)

A Croatian-American dual national with a Liberland stamp in her American passport says later that, in a private room, the Croatian officials threatened her with immediate loss of her Croatian citizenship if she refused the fine. This is legally impossible.

Throughout the ordeal, the officials at the otherwise deserted border post held all passports — including the author’s Finnish passport — for approximately two hours and refused to explain the reason for the delay.

Driving back to the Ark camp through Serbia in the wee hours, we come across a melancholy sight: several dozen migrants traveling under cover of darkness, making their way to the Schengen border. Seeing them struggle and risk it all to get to Europe made me question whether what we had just done — with far greater resources and far lower stakes — made a mockery of their struggle. Could Liberland realistically become much more than a bunch of Bitcoiners LARPing sovereignty?

And while the early August Floating Man festival appeared — a turning point at the time — with the construction of small cabins and the establishment of a small settlement on the land mass, relations with neighboring Croatia have since taken a turn for the worse. On September 21, Liberland Press reported an “unannounced extraterritorial incursion” in which multiple settlers were arrested, newly built structures demolished, and equipment, including a generator, quad bike and food, were taken under the oversight of Croatian police.

The story of Liberland appears far from over.

Elias Ahonen author at Cointelegraph Magazine

Elias Ahonen

Elias Ahonen is a Finnish-Canadian author based in Dubai, who bought his first Bitcoin in 2013 and has since worked around the world operating a small blockchain consultancy. His book Blockland tells the story of the industry. He holds an master’s degree in international and comparative law and wrote his thesis on NFT and metaverse regulation.



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