The Vague Charges Against Liberland Citizens
As the citizens of Liberland prepared to celebrate their President’s 40th birthday along with the settlement’s anniversary, President Vít Jedlička and two other settlers found themselves not in the midst of a joyous gathering but behind the bars of Duboševica jail in Croatia.
The trio met with their respective attorneys, facing the grim prospect of being expelled from Croatia for a period that could extend up to twenty years. The reason cited for this drastic action? A vague and undefined term: “public security.”
The unsettling question that arises is: What were their misdeeds? Let’s see:. President Jedlička and the settlers had come to Liberland, or Gornja Siga as referred to by Croatian authorities, with the sole intention of contributing to the settlement’s growth and celebrating a milestone birthday. The Croatian Border Police had not issued any prohibitions against the planned festivities. Yet, inexplicably, they found themselves incarcerated.
Croatia’s Security Concerns
Soon, the three were brought before the police organ, and the proceedings began. Vít Jedlička came first, and he was informed about the nature of the problem. He noticed that the presiding policeman spoke little of him compared to how much he spoke of Liberland.
The Security Agency of Croatia, he informed, considers Liberland to be a “parastatal project.” According to a report, which neither the President nor his legal team were permitted to review, proponents of Liberland had engaged in “extremist actions” aimed at “undermining the position of Croatia.”
The so-called “extremist actions” cited by the authorities included the construction of a camp and a border control post. Additionally, the use of what were termed “fictitious” passports was mentioned, although no clarification was provided as to what rendered these passports fictitious. The policeman also added that these actions were performed “in a particularly brazen manner,” leaving many to wonder what exactly constituted this “brazenness.” Were there provocative slogans on Liberland flags, or was the mere act of settlement building now considered audacious?
The Terra Nullius Question
The aim of these actions, as inferred by Croatian authorities, was to compromise Croatia’s stance that Gornja Siga was never a terra nullius—a land belonging to no one. This raises an intriguing question: if not terra nullius, then what exactly is the status of Gornja Siga?
The land was ostensibly reserved for future arbitration, but from 1993 until the present day, no such arbitration has occurred. Article 38 of the International Court of Justice (ICJ) statute, which serves as a reliable source for international law, recalls “the general principles of law recognized by civilized nations.” This means the same here as “the law of the lands surrounding the area”. According to all those legal systems, land abandoned for more than twenty years (usually less than that) reverts to state ownership.
However, before 2015, there was no state to claim it, as both Croatia and Serbia had explicitly disavowed ownership—a stance they maintain to this day. The Croatian Ministry of Foreign and European Affairs did establish a security measure over the area in light of Croatia’s ascension into the Schengen Area. Yet, as recently as August 2023, it communicated to its Serbian counterpart (Diplomatic Nota 4513/2023) that such actions “do not in any way finalize the determination of the border in that area, which has yet to be reached in the demarcation process between our two countries in accordance with international law.”
The Croatian Ministry of Foreign and European Affairs further clarified in the Diplomatic Nota, “The Ministry expresses its belief that the Serbian side also shares… according to which no country exists, that is, an area without authority and control that could be the object of occupation by a third party between our two countries, because the border, although existing as a republic in the era of the former state, has not yet been finally determined.”
Given this lack of final determination and the absence of any state claiming the land before 2015, the question arises: What else could it be but a terra nullius—an area without a recognized owner? On what legal basis does the statement of the Ministry of Foreign and European Affairs stand? We received no satisfactory answer.
The status quo, which, maybe in practice, might have resembled the ministry’s description, was finally upended in 2015 when President Vít Jedlička arrived and founded Liberland, thereby taking interest, hold, possession, and ownership of the land. Now, there is a state to claim this long-abandoned territory: Liberland.
Liberland’s Response: A Case for Peaceful Coexistence
As we recall, the activities of Liberland were judged dangerous due to the possibility of influencing the outcome of the international dispute. In this dispute, the land of Gornja Siga remains an open wound in the side of Croatia, but one which is not easy to mend. Were Croatia to take over, other lands on the Serbian side of the Danube would fall in Serbia’s hands. This has been, so far, an unsolvable conundrum.
The President responded: We know very well that the Republic of Serbia does not consider the Gornja Siga area as its own since the statement of the Minister of Foreign Affairs… the Republic of Croatia (also) does not consider Gornja Siga as its territory.., in the future, if it wants to succeed in the arbitration procedure, it would be wise for it not to claim that territory, and that means that both countries effectively renounce that territory.
Comes Liberland and fills in the gap: now there is an authority and control, namely, that of Liberland’s state administration. Does this present a real threat to Croatia? It would if Liberland were hostile to it, but that is certainly not the case.
The President, therefore, stated during the proceedings: Liberland is not a threat to the national security of the Republic of Croatia, nor to its territorial integrity, and that Liberland is an independent state that accepts and respects the institutions of the Republic of Croatia, but on its territory.
He restated Liberland’s commitment to peaceful international relations:
We have never used violence against Croatian citizens and the Croatian police, nor do we plan to use violence. The same can’t be stated about the Croatian police.
This argumentation wasn’t accepted, but neither was it contested. The President’s words were instead dismissed. The narrative had to be maintained: that Liberland supposedly harmed Croatia. But is “influence the outcome of the dispute” the same as “adversely influence?”
Can someone who influences the outcome of this dispute a priori do nothing but harm? Hardly so. The President recalled the possibility of building up a new Monaco, the Singapore of Europe. He reminded everyone of the situation of Baranja and how much it would help everyone there to have an international city-state bustling in their neighbourhood.
Expulsion and Unanswered Questions
It didn’t help. For bringing a solution to this hitherto unsolvable dilemma, for offering investment, jobs and international prestige to Baranja, the President and two other men were now named extremists and considered for administrative expulsion.
Those threats were soon to materialize. Later that day, the three men found themselves in Hungary, fifty meters beyond Croatia’s border. Their sentence: an administrative expulsion for five years. Same sentence for all men, very similar reasoning. No attention is given to their individual situation.
Implications for Liberland: Recognition and Future Challenges
When one reads the proceedings and the decision, it is clear that this was not about these three men. Liberland stood on the stand of the accused on this day. In 2016, the Minister of Interior of Croatia named our country “a provocative idea that has reached dangerous proportions”. He urged that it should be suppressed by “means lawful and otherwise”.
Whatever happened on the 8th of September wasn’t the fulfilment of the legacy of the honourable minister; quite the opposite. Liberland was examined as a subject, an entity – and thereby given a degree of recognition. It was typologized as a parastate. It was thus named and described and given space in the proceedings. More than that:
As the President held the decision in his hand, he noted that he received two expulsions: One from the territory of Croatia and one from Gornja Siga, mentioned specifically.
Gornja Siga is recognized to be not Croatia.
Liberland was thus, at least in potential, allotted a territory. A territory which, by the correct application of public international law, can’t belong to anyone but Liberland.
In addition, the passports were mentioned during the proceedings, and the border crossing: State institutions and the border service, for the other two men were expelled for being a part of it. All these attributes of the state became a part of the official record.
The President had ended his defence, Liberland’s defence, thus: Liberland … is the greatest economic opportunity for the Republic of Croatia since the founding of the Republic of Croatia. I thank you for recognizing our existence, the existence of our borders, travel documents and our security services. … Liberland is a neutral country that wants peaceful and friendly relations with other countries.
Now is the time to move on and build up this opportunity. In the long term, Liberland will prove its point by bearing the fruits we all intend for it to bear.
In the short term, the three men agreed that they would not leave this unanswered. An injustice has been committed, and Liberland is preparing a legal response. Our President and our settlers will, we hope, soon be able freely to visit both Croatian and Gornja Siga once again.