Ever dreamed of starting your own country or want to understand how it’s been done by others? Here are the essentials of building a micronation.
ANU College of Law
The night was humid. The 6’2 African man was not up for small talk. “Get into the car,” he said and gazed around. This sounds like the beginning of a pulp fiction novel, but it’s what happened when I stepped off the plane in Khartoum about 15 years ago and was escorted to the American embassy by a security guard.
As an academic, it has been my job to advise governments on how to create new states. Back in 2008 I was in Sudan as an adviser to the United States State Department, helping set up a new country after the ravages of civil war.
More recently, I have been involved in setting up a new country in Bougainville, after it voted for independence from Papua New Guinea in a referendum in 2019. Bougainville, like many other places I’ve been, is relatively small.
So, is it worth establishing new nations in such tiny jurisdictions? Can it be done alone? What are the challenges and can they be overcome?
Frankly, states can be very tiny and yet, survive. Sometimes, they are known as microstates or micronations. There’s no simple definition, but micronations often have fewer than 100,000 inhabitants. Tuvalu, for example, only has 11,000 residents – roughly 1,000 fewer than Nauru.
Of course, some states are too small and some are created as a bit of a joke. There are several examples of this in Australia, which has more micronations than most places in the world, dating back 50 years.
Established by Prince Leonard in 1970 following a feud over wheat production quotas, the Principality of Hutt River in Western Australia was the country’s oldest micronation. It was ceded in 2020 to settle tax debt. In Mosman, Sydney, a local resident set up a new ‘nation’ called The Principality of Wy in 2004 following a dispute with the local council over planning permission. These are two of more than a dozen.
But there are other, more serious contenders for becoming new states, such as Bougainville. The lesson for these nascent nations is that size does not matter so much as law, politics and money.
In setting up a new state, there are legal questions. When are you a state? Some people seem to think you need to be recognised by other states. That is useful, but it is not essential.
Legally, to be a state you need to have a defined territory, a defined population, be able to perform the functions of a state (raise taxes, pay child support, and so on) and not rely on another state.
The last aspect is important. When Russia illegally set up a new state in part of eastern Ukraine, it failed to meet the requirement not to lean on another nation. The so-called People’s Republic of Donbas is what we call a ‘puppet’ state – it does not exist independently of the Kremlin.
I often get asked is if it is difficult to set up a new state. My answer is what we might call ‘the Neil Sedaka’ response; an allusion to the cheesy doo-wop song Breaking up is hard to do.
What is hard is not necessarily the legal aspect, but the political one. When you want to create a new state, especially a microstate, you need to have powerful allies. It’s only possible to break up from a former union if a new nation makes fast new friends.
A couple of examples will help.
When Iceland became an independent state in the 1940s, it was with the blessing of the United States, and when Norway broke away from Sweden in 1905, it was only possible because Britain – then the major power – promised to support the new nation.
So, if you are an aspiring new country, make sure you have powerful friends that are willing to help you on the battlefield. Kosovo, which became an independent country in 2008, had the support of the European Union and America. ‘Nuff said!
Another problem for any new states is money. As I outline in my new book, I Want to Break Free, it is costly to set up a country. On average, the economy shrinks by 10 per cent when you become independent.
But it is not all doom and gloom. On the plus side, when you become independent you don’t have to pay your share of the national debt. To give a concrete example, if Scotland were to become independent from the United Kingdom (UK), the new government in Edinburgh would not have to pay its share of the UK’s considerable national debt. But, of course, international banks can refuse to lend you money. So, you must consider the options carefully.
Before you decide to set up a new state, you need to think about the consequences – from demographics and dollars, to new friends and basic functions. Maybe you are determined. If so, fine, get on with it. But if you want a quieter life, perhaps settle for something less ambitious like quantum physics, playing the saxophone or learning Japanese.
Professor Matt Qvortrup‘s book I want to break free: A practical guide to making a new country will be launched on 15 February in Canberra. Register to attend the event at Eventbrite.
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