Daniel Jackson, an 18-year-old from Melbourne, is the president of the world’s newest microstate.
In 2019, he and some friends discovered – and made a claim on – some terra nullius in the Balkans. A longstanding border dispute between Croatia and Serbia had left pockets of land along the Danube that neither country accepted ownership of. Their claimed land is about the size of Vatican City.
Since then, they have been working to gain international recognition for The Free Republic of Verdis. They have received over 15,000 citizenship applications but have only accepted around 350 so far. Daniel says it is important to be selective due to the state's size. Preference is given to people who can bring skills relevant to this early stage of the state-building process, like wilderness survival, construction and international law.
I met Daniel in Ukraine where he was doing humanitarian aid volunteering through the newly created Verdis Red Cross. One of his goals is for Verdis to serve as a hub for different humanitarian organisations, as well as be a neutral area that can host diplomatic meetings between other states or organisations.
While in Ukraine, Daniel and his government were planning an expedition to Verdis to create a settlement on the land. A permanent presence is necessary for gaining recognition as a sovereign state and would also show potential investors that Verdis is a serious and legitimate enterprise. He invited me to join the expedition.
A month later, when I met Daniel on the boat ramp in the Croatian town of Aljmas, his first words to me were, “So, we might have a bear problem”.
Daniel and three other Verdisians, Luke, Vince and Matt, had arrived the previous night and set up camp on Verdis. They were sitting around the fire when they heard a deep rumbling growl behind them. Luke, a tall, bearded man with shoulder-length light blonde hair, yelled for everyone to run to the boat as he grabbed his machete and headed into the forest towards the growls, yelling and waving the weapon around. He could probably have passed for a Viking if not for the bathrobe he was wearing. “I just saw him disappear into the darkness,” Daniel said.
As Daniel was relaying this to me, I heard a rustle, looked down and saw a viper we'd scared slithering away out of a bush next to me. A Google search for a list of dangerous animals in Croatia confirmed that the snake was venomous, and that the bears in this part of the world are very large and best dealt with by playing dead. I started having doubts about the trip. But then again, both this snake and the bear had proven to be cowards.
While we were getting ready to go, Daniel got a call from Vince and Luke who had stayed at the Verdis camp. Croatian police had turned up in police boats, were waiting for Daniel and he was probably going to be arrested. He and I got in the boat and started the journey up the Danube.
Verdis is inaccessible by land, so the best way there is to take a nine-kilometre boat ride from Aljmas. Against the current and with horsepower you can count on one hand, we arrived in Verdis one hour and 40 minutes later.
The first thing the police officer in charge had done when they arrived was walk up to the Verdisian flag hanging at the campsite and wipe his muddy hands on it. Another officer at the police station would later tell me, “We are allergic to new states being formed here”. This is fair enough given the bloody horrors that followed the declarations of independence by Croatia and Slovenia from Yugoslavia in 1991. But this comment was also referencing another microstate just upriver.
The Free Republic of Liberland was created in 2015 on another, much larger, unclaimed pocket of land. However, for most of its existence, it had been blockaded by Croatian authorities. Very few citizens or government ministers had been on the land. That changed this year when a YouTuber managed to plant a flag on Liberland and document the aggression of the police afterwards.
The publicity from this incident led to the blockade being lifted. But after letting settlers onto the land, they began confiscating their equipment, around 70,000 euros (AU$117,070) worth, citing environmental cleanup laws.
While it seemed like our equipment was safe, we were told to hand over our passports and pack up the campsite. Then we waited for a park ranger to finish writing a report before the four of us were taken upriver to a police station in the two police boats.
The park ranger was apologetic about the whole situation. Shaking our hands, he said we had nothing to worry about and we were just being taken to talk to the police superiors. I hadn’t been worrying until this point, but now wondered if we were going to get acquainted with some police batons.
By the time we were released, I was bored and hungry enough to wish we had just been roughed up and then sent on our way. Eleven hours would pass, most of it spent sitting and waiting to be questioned in the police station, before we were dropped off back at Verdis so we could take the boat and our gear back to Aljmas.
Two of the settlers were fined for being in the restricted national park area of Kopački Rit. However, they went to the Kopački Rit Nature Park office the next day and checked the official maps which showed this was not the case. All four of us were given seven days to leave Croatia and a ban from the country for three months.
While both Liberland and Verdis have been very careful to abide by international law, Navid, the finance minister of Liberland, said he understands how the Croatian authorities would be nervous about a group of people coming and setting up a new state on their border.
Liberland is making a diplomatic push to convince Croatian authorities they will be a benefit to the region through the money their state will bring with them. For Verdis, which borders Kopački Rit, they need to ensure they are not seen as an ecological threat to what is one of the best-preserved floodplains in Europe.
Liberland has begun legal proceedings against the Croatian police, but these cases will take time to resolve. Reducing the threat perception of their neighbours will be crucial to both the short and long-term success of both settlements.
Despite this experience, Daniel said he still thinks Verdis can be successful:
“It’s just going to take time to get things on track. The current plan is to keep pushing and take things to legal.”
Daniel has a great ability to keep long-term risks and goals in mind while navigating short-term hurdles, so while his plan is audacious, I never got the sense that it was reckless. His earnestness, combined with the tangible progress he and his government have made, gives the people he meets a sense that not only is his vision for Verdis possible, but it could be something really great.
Timothy-Charles Marriott holds a Bachelor of International Relations from La Trobe University. He is currently volunteering with a UK aid organisation in Ukraine while writing about the war.
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