Altered State: Micronations

Last May, Eli Avivi, the founder of Akhzivland – a boho country within a country in Israel – died, leaving his wife as the sole inhabitant. As a tribute, we celebrate the phenomenon of the micronation with this guide to the world’s smallest countries.

  • Words: Avaunt

Neither Sudan or Egypt is worried about defending the ‘scrawny and neglected’ Bir Tawil.

Bir Tawil
In 1899, statesmen from London and Cairo signed an agreement establishing an Anglo-Egyptian Sudan. After 18 years of fighting between British and Egyptian forces on one side and Mahdist rebels in Sudan on the other, the boundary between the two countries was set at the 22nd parallel.

It was just the beginning of the complications. The nomadic Ababda tribe let their animals graze on a piece of land called Bir Tawil, just to the south of the 22nd parallel. This tribe had stronger links to Egypt than Sudan, so in 1902 the boundary was redrawn so Egypt could administer the area.

To add to the diplomatic fun and games, the Beja people, with closer links to the Sudanese, lived on a triangle of land called Hala’ib that was north of the 22nd parallel. So Hala’ib was placed under the protection of the British governor of Sudan.

So far so convoluted. Not least because Egypt continues to claim the original border from 1899, which places the Hala’ib triangle within Egypt and Bir Tawil within Sudan, while Sudan claims the administrative border of 1902, which claims the reverse. This has led to an Alice-in-Wonderland-worthy state of confusion in which both assert possession of Hala’ib, while neither is worried about defending the more scrawny and neglected Bir Tawil.

International law will not let either Egypt or Sudan claim both territories, and neither of them want to give up Halai’b. And for more than a century, no third state came to lay claim to Bir Tawil. Then in June 2014 a farmer from Virginia called Jeremy Heaton pitched up and planted a flag there, telling the world that it was so his six-year-old daughter could be a princess. His action provoked a flurry of amused news stories before the perhaps predictable outrage that a white man should attempt such a flagrant act of colonialism.

Three years later an Indian computer coder from Indore, called Suyash Dixit, also laid claim to the territory, planting a flag and some seeds. Heaton challenged him, and a war (thankfully only verbal) ensued. In a manner entirely inappropriate for these surreal times, a Russian ham radio operator got involved too, saying that Bir Tawil was his. Heaton and Dixit resolved the issue by jointly denying his claims and agreeing to develop the territory together.

The Principality of Sealand began life as an anti-aircraft gun platform in World War II to guard Harwich. Photography: Roger Ashford/Alamy.

The Principality of Sealand – which marked its 50th anniversary last year – began life as an anti-aircraft gun platform in World War II, to guard the port of Harwich in Essex and beyond that the Thames estuary. Initially it was known as HM Fort Roughs – because of being situated on Roughs Sands.

After it was decommissioned, it was taken over briefly by the pirate radio broadcasters Jack Moore and his daughter Jane. Then Roy Bates, a pirate radio broadcaster, and a former major in the British Army, evicted them in 1966. Prior to this he had broadcast from Knock John Tower, establishing the first pirate radio station to provide 24-hour entertainment. That same year he had been convicted for violating Section One of the Wireless Telegraphy Act 1949. He responded by changing the station name to Britain’s Better Music Station, and continuing to broadcast. This led to a fine of £100. On Christmas Day the station ran out of money.

Bates transferred all of his equipment to Roughs Tower, but realised that the new laws enforced under the Marine Broadcasting Offences Act of 1967 made it too expensive to start again. So on 2 September he declared it as a principality, making himself the ruler and his wife Joan the princess.

In response, the army blew up several sea forts so that other wannabe state creators wouldn’t follow his example. According to the principality’s website, ‘a government vessel steamed to within fifty feet of Sealand, its boisterous crew shouting threatening obscenities at Michael [Bates’s son] and his sixteen-year-old sister. Warning shots were promptly fired across the bow by Prince Michael[.]’

Today Sealand has its own flag, its own currency and even its own football team. The website shop offers the chance to become an aristocrat of Sealand – though to become a duke or duchess you must part with £499.99. There are also stamps, and of course mugs and keyrings. A personalised coat of arms from the principality will set you back £149.99. Ed Sheeran is apparently a baron.

Bates himself died in 2012, but his son ‘Prince’ Michael continues to control Sealand. He declares, ‘We’re perhaps the most undemanding state in the world. We don’t force anybody to worship any god or religion or anything. Maybe that’s why we’ve been around for so long.’

The flag of the Space Kingdom of Asgardia.

This June, Igor Ashurbeyli – the Russian computer scientist and engineer – was formally inaugurated as Head of the State of Asgardia. Billionaire Ashurbeyli founded Asgardia in 2016 as a ‘space nation’ that would give citizens access to outer space free of the control of existing governments. It has already launched its first satellite, and wants to build space platforms called Space Arks where people will eventually settle. Ashurbeyli also wants to establish an Asgardian colony on the moon.

Though anyone who wants to can apply for citizenship now, Ashurbeyli’s aim is to attract the world’s most creative minds. This may mean eventually that anyone who’s interested will have to take an IQ test. A new 147-seat parliament currently represents more than 200,000 Asgardian citizens from all over the world.

Ashurbeyli himself is something of a figure of mystery. He is regularly reported to be a billionaire, but has never appeared on the Forbes rich lists. He founded Socium, a software and consulting firm and has also worked in space and defence technology. In 2010 he was awarded Russia’s State Science and Technology Prize and in 2016 he was presented with the UNESCO medal for contributions to the development of nanoscience and nanotechnologies.

He has declared, ‘Asgardia was founded on three principles: peace, access, and protection. First, Asgardia seeks to ensure that there is peace in space and that Earth’s conflicts don’t get transferred into space. Next, Asgardia seeks to deliver equal access to space to the people of the world. Last, Asgardia seeks to deliver equal protection to individuals and countries (particularly developing nations) from space threats.’

Most ambitiously Asgardia wants to become a member of the UN, though if this is going to happen, the UN’S Security Council first has to approve of Asgardia’s application to be a nation.

Ashurbeyli has described how Asgardia is a project he has been dreaming of since childhood. ‘I was interested in doing something unusual that nobody else was doing,’ he said. ‘It was my dream to create an independent country.’ Though he concedes that, ‘All countries have problems, and soon we will have the same problems. But we will have more than normal countries because we are not on earth.’

Other virtual nations include Elgaland-Vargaland, another micronation formed by Swedish artists. It’s the project of Carl Michael von Hausswolff and Leif Elggren, and it was set up in 1992 as a reaction to Sweden still having a monarchy. It makes regular appearances in exhibitions and concerts. Summing up its ethos, Elggren often references the figure of ‘a street-corner lunatic with a paper crown who declares himself King’. Meanwhile, Celestia was founded in 1949 by James T Mangan to stop other countries from claiming land in outer space. Its formal title is the Nation of Celestial Space. On 1958 Mangan went as far as to apply for United Nations membership, putting up a flag outside the New York UN Building in front of millions of TV viewers. Among other stunts, he has issued passports to astronauts.

The office of the General Secretary of the Conch Republic, which seceded from the city of Key West, Florida in 1982. Photography: Léo Delafontaine.

For centuries the Balkans has been defined by its inflammatory territory disputes. Liberland is intriguing because even though it was established on the western part of the Danube, between Croatia and Serbia, it seems unlikely that it will cause any bloodshed. It was created by a Czech right-libertarian politician, Vit Jedlicka, on 13 April 2015, and occupies seven square kilometers. He has declared that since neither Croatia nor Serbia has ever had sovereignty over the area – making it a terra nullius territory – his establishment of an international state is within international law.

His statement on its creation declared, ‘The objective of the founders of the new state is to build a country where honest people can prosper without being oppressed by governments making their lives unpleasant through the burden of unnecessary restrictions and taxes’.

Though it is not officially recognised by most other countries, by the end of last year it had received 480,000 citizenship applications. Citizens – as the founding statement implies – can do what they want: there are, for instance no laws against smoking marijuana. Business is conducted through cryptocurrency – Liberland accepts Bitcoin, Bitcoin Cash and Ethereum. The country’s motto is ‘To live and let live.’

San Martino Church in Seaborga. Photography: Rupert Hansen.

Giorgio Carbone was the head of a local flower-growers co-operative in Liguria in the early 1960s when he decided it would be a good idea for Seborga to reassert its independence as a principality. The people living there elected him as their head of state, crowning him as Giorgio I, Prince of Seborga. It’s a beautiful area, famed for its olives and ornamental flowers, and consequently has many tourists. Giorgio died in 2009, and was succeeded by Marcello Menegatto who was elected for the first time in 2010, and re-elected for a further seven years in 2017. One of the highlights of the principality’s year is the festival of its patron saint, St Bernard. A statue of the saint is carried through the streets on 20 August every year, followed by a procession of adoring citizens.

The Molossian Fire Brigade. Photography: ZUMA Press/Alamy.

Republic of Molossia
There are all sorts of Americans acting out their fantasies in Nevada. One of them is Kevin Baugh. In 1977 he declared the Republic of Molossia, a new micronation that has its headquarters near Dayton, Nevada. Things that are forbidden in the Republic of Molossia include: firearms, ammunition, explosives, catfish, spinach, missionaries and salesmen, onions, walruses, and anything from Texas with the exception of Kelly Clarkson. Visitors to the country can see its miniature railroad, national parks, battlefields and cemeteries. Baugh is a retired sergeant first class from the US Army, and appears in full military regalia – from Molossia of course – complete with sash and golden epaulettes when showing tourists around. The country’s motto is ‘Nothing Ventured, Nothing Gained’.

Nimis, Ladonia.

Ladonia was set up in the 1990s because of a dispute between Swedish artist, Lars Vik, and the local authorities. Vik had created two large sculptures, one called Nimis out of 75 tonnes of driftwood and one called Arx made from stone. He placed them at the edge of a nature reserve on the Kullaberg Peninsula, and weren’t seen by the council for two years. When they did discover them, they pronounced that the sculptures were in fact buildings, and ordered him to take them down. Vik launched an appeal, but the government ruled in the council’s favour. In protest he declared the part of the nature reserve where his sculptures were as the microstate of Ladonia. It most recently hit the news in 2016, when arsonists set fire to several sculptures there.

Christiania. Photography: Jan Fritz/Alamy.

Christiania was set up in 1971 by squatters in a former military area in Copenhagen. For half a century it was famed for its cannabis trade and its anarchism. Now it’s a destination for those seeking out its progressive architecture and lifestyle. There are no cars or police in its streets. The rules established by its residents forbid stealing, violence, guns, knives, bulletproof vests and hard drugs – though soft drugs are permanently on sale in Pusher Street. Popular live music destinations include Jazzklubben. Since 2010, it has also attracted visitors to its sought after fortnightly event called Science and Cocktails, which draws in those who want to sample ambitious and unusual drinks while listening to the latest ideas about science.

Former Micronations
Poyais represents an infamous case of fraud. In October 1821, the Scot, Gregor MacGregor, announced himself as the Cazique of the land of Poyais, which lay along the Black River in Honduras. Fertile, and mineral-rich, all it apparently needed was investors. His alluring vision managed to raise £200,000, but when investors crossed the Atlantic to see it, all they discovered were rocks and wasteland. Redonda, as uninhabited island and a dependent of Antigua and Barbuda in the Caribbean, supports no humans yet is abundant with wildbirds. As a result ‘guano’, or seabird poop, became a profitable trade from 1865 till 1912. It was the fantasy writer MP Shiel who claimed kingdom status for it in 1929 – though to this day there are various individuals around the world who all claim to be its only legitimate monarch. The Consulate of La Boirie was founded by three friends, Phillipe, Pascal and Sebastien in 2006 in a seven hectare territory in France. United by a love of French history, geography and politics, they set up a consulate to celebrate the values of eco-citizenship and hedonism – kit out in dress best described as ‘romantic military.’ The consulate was closed in August 2012 after co-founder Pascal’s death.

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