The identity crisis of self-declared nations

Groups of people who live under their own invented flags are now facing a war. It’s not the traditional war nations face, country versus country but instead a struggle to hold onto their unique identity and not fade back into mainstream society.

By Francine Crimmins & Emily Mundzic

For some people, living in an average neighborhood may not cut it as the ideal lifestyle choice. So what do you do when you live in a country that doesn’t support your ideas? Well, you can create your own one. Known as “micronations” these self-declared states exist as alternative communities that promote their own rules, ideology and even in some cases, constitutions.

But once established, these groups often struggle to hold onto the unique identity that made them break away from society in the first place. Freetown Christiania in Copenhagen and The Republic of Užupis in Lithuania, now face extinction due to rising real estate prices, tourism and people simply growing “bored” with them.

Characteristics of a micronation

Common features of a micronation are similar to any sovereign state. They have territorial claims, governmental institutions, regalia and of course, citizens who choose to live there.

“When you have a group of people in a community doing something together, when does it start being a micronation? When it starts having all the artefacts that are typically associated with a country,” Says Julien Oeuillet, Belgian-born journalist who examined micronations around the world and wrote the paper: Micronations; Make them Real, Keep them Real.

He says, “You’re a micronation when you want to be.”

But wanting to be a micronation and proclaiming yourself the king of an unrecognised empire may not be enough to survive and make a serious impact today.

“There is a point when what made it special and warranted attention of the people involved starts simply to get old,” Says Julien.

When this happens the concept of the micronation often becomes abandoned. In the face of change, many existing micronations are trying to hold onto the ideas that brought people together in the first place.

Christiania in Denmark may be losing momentum

When visiting the Freetown Christiania, reporters Francine Crimmins and Emily Mundzic capture live through snapchat some of the quirkiness that makes the community stand apart from the rest of the Danish capital.

Founded: September 26, 1971

Motto(s): “Just relax, everything is temporary” and “Governments come and go, but Christiania remains.”

Location: Copenhagen, Denmark

Political System: Social experiment/anarchist commune

A walk through the Danish capital can be compared to many other European cities. In the summer, the streets are alive with locals biking around and enjoying the sunshine. Screams of delight roar from the grounds of the Tivoli theme park. Heading East toward Christianshavn feels like entering another affluent area with real estate attractive for young people. The area is also home to the infamous Christiania.

“Is she stupid?” A Danish man calls towards two tourists wandering through the streets of Christiania. He is standing at the entrance of ‘Pusher Street’ wearing a ski mask and dressed all in black.

“You realise you’d be stupid to take that photo,” he continues. The two girls grow timid and put their smartphones back in their pockets before scurrying away. This part of Freetown Christiania now draws the most attention. The marketplace in the middle of this freetown utopia has stood outside of Danish law for a quarter of a century offering customers the most extensive hash options in one place in the world.

Although it wasn’t always the drug market which was at the forefront of people’s minds when this free community was founded. It began in 1971 when the once abandoned military barracks at the site were overrun by squatters who staked the area out as being a “free city.” This included being absent of all ownership, meaning there could be no taxes in Christiania. Shortly after it established its own laws, a flag and anthem was also created.

Tourism the reason for the failing state?

Residents in the micronation Christiania are now having to build fences to stop the increasing numbers of tourists to the town walking through their homes. Photo: Francine Crimmins

Lawyer, Line Barford from Foldschack & Forchhammer, works on legal matters involving Christiania. She says that tourism is a major problem for residents living in Christiania today.

“It’s a huge problem that there are a lot of guests, both tourists from other countries but also a lot of Danes,” she says.

Many residents are not very entertained by the hoards of tourists that visit the Freetown. Guests have often been found to walk across the grounds of peoples homes as well as disturbing the peace.

Long time resident of Christiania, Tanja Fox was not willing to describe in detail why she lives in the Freetown compared to another part of Denmark.

“I don’t know,” she said. “It’s just my hometown; that’s why. No different to whatever your home town is.”

It is also made clear to tourists that everyday practices welcome in all other parts of Denmark such as photographs are forbidden in the ‘Freetown’. This is advertised on large signs, especially when walking into the ‘Pusher Street’ area. Julien Oeuillet says that in a place like Christiania, they do not want tourists.

“I mean you have all these signs not to take pictures everywhere, they do not want it [tourism] at all.”

But a more troubling trend to the Freetown may not be the people passing through, but instead, the people who want to redevelop the area.

The “Creative Copenhagen” initiative to redevelop areas of Copenhagen is yet another threat to the longevity of the Freetown. It is a State generated plan to renew city spaces including Christianshavn where Christiania is located. It plans to make the city more attractive to investment, an idea that is in contrast to the foundations of Christiania.

Christiania is a social experiment based on the belief that private property of any kind is corrupting and immoral, this image is a paradox between its pioneering ideas and changes they are facing. Photo: Emily Mundzic
Christiania is a social experiment based on the belief that private property of any kind is corrupting and immoral, this image is a paradox between its pioneering ideas and changes that are being forced upon the Freetown now. Photo: Emily Mundzic

In an attempt to combat the encroaching threat of private ownership, residents of Freetown Christiania have been caught up in legal battles involving unapproved building in the area.


Gentrification threatens bohemian republic in Lithuania

In the Republic of Užupis reporters Francine Crimmins and Emily Mundzic capture live through snapchat the artistic hub that transformed a neglected district in Vilnius into its own mini country.

Founded: April 1st, 1997

Motto:  “Do not defeat, Do not fight back, Do not surrender.”

Location: Vilnius, Lithuania

Political System: Tongue-and-cheek/artistic venture

Travelling east to Lithuania another self-proclaimed state exists in the capital Vilnius. The Republic of Užupis is found in the old Jewish quarter, left abandoned after World War II with a bad reputation. In Užupis, housing was cheap. The area attracted a community of artists, bent on testing their new-found freedom following the end of Soviet occupation in 1991.

Parallels are drawn between this micronation and the Freetown of Christiania. Despite both communities being founded by squatters, this is where similarities end. You can cross into the Republic via footbridges and street signs that welcome visitors.

The welcome sign for the Republic of Užupis pronounced in several different languages and universal symbols announcing their rules and intentions: smiling, no speeding, and experience the art. Photo: Emily Mundzic
The welcome sign for the Republic of Užupis declared in several different languages and universal symbols announcing their rules and intentions: smiling, no speeding, and experiencing the art. Photo: Emily Mundzic

The word Užupis means “behind the river”.  The Republic itself  is bordered by a river, a defensive moat that seems like the perfect device for an independent state.

The constitution preserves some of the things residents and visitors can ‘stand for.’ There are 39 articles of the constitution in 22 different languages. These rights range from, “Man has the right to individuality”, to the more eccentric and baffling, ““People have the right to have no rights.” Other articles hint at the country’s communist history and the motivations of the Republic, “Everyone is capable of independence.”

On one of the bridges that cross into the Republic of Užupis, the artistic quarter is separated from Old Town Vilnius by the Vilnelė River. Photo: Francine Crimmins
On one of the bridges that cross into the Republic of Užupis, the artistic quarter is separated from Old Town Vilnius by the Vilnelė River. Photo: Francine Crimmins

New residents and a fading identity

When Užupis was formed, creators wanted to revitalize a dying part of town.
“What they wanted was to create delirium, to create an artistic statement, to reshuffle some life into a derelict district. This has meaning, this is a successful micronation,” Says Julien Oeuillet.

Now Užupis has achieved bringing life back to the area, it struggles to sustain its relevance.
“In the case of Užupis,  it is losing purpose now through gentrification, a lot of people in Vilnius are just not impressed by Užupis anymore.” Says Julien.

Indre Mickaite is the Manager of the Užupis art incubators gallery. She feels the essence of the community is also changing.
“Now it is renovated. There aren’t so many squat places anymore, property and real estate is very expensive. People still come, but it is changing. Before, it was wilder and more bohemian.”

Unlike Christiania, tourists are not having an impact on life in this micronation. Instead, it is the new residents.
“The community is divided now, between new people who came here to live and the old ones. There isn’t any goal that people can work on together.  It’s a bit like: “I live in Užupis” but I don’t know if they feel apart of the community.”

The Angel of Užupis separating the renovated homes on the left and the more dilapidated on the right, with the residents smoking at the centre. Photo: Francine Crimmins
The Angel of Užupis separating the renovated homes on the left and older buildings on the right, with residents smoking at the centre. Photo: Francine Crimmins

Rental rooms are now advertised on online platforms such as Airbnb, proclaiming Užupis as, “one of the most prestigious and expensive districts in Vilnius.”

Indre Ulirke Andel is a social anthropologist from Vienna who examined micronations. She says these places can become inactive, which may be the case for Užupis.
Some micronations can be inactive but have an important history and therefore they are not disappearing.”

Making an impression in real life

Experts suggest  the communities struggling to hold onto a unique identity is linked to how long they have existed for. With Christiania now in its 45th year and the Republic of Užupis reaching 19, it is no wonder that both are having problems with their coming of age.

But according to Julien Oeuillet, the meaning and identity of micronations can survive if they are making a real difference in the lives of people within them.

“When you are a private people and you want to act in society, what can you do? You can create a non-for-profit organisation, you can create an NGO, you can create a company, you can create a labour union, a political party, you’ve got plenty of tools. Micronations, when done cleverly and when done interestingly, they become another tool that private people can use to achieve their goals.”

In the case of Christiania, residents have goals for the future survival of the community. They say they have “fought to maintain the Freetown as the property of everyone and no one.” Part of this fight includes an agreement reached with the Danish government where residents will pay back 76 million Danish Kroner (almost $13 million) for the land they are living on.

Tanja Fox from the Christiania Share office that is responsible for reaching this goal says there has been a response from people all over the world who want to ensure that life continues in the Freetown. They have currently raised just over 12 million DKK ($2 million), and while they are facing a race against time, she is confident it is going well.