Have you ever heard of the Republic of Uzupis? It is nestled within the city of Vilnius. Have you heard of Vilnius? It is the capital of Lithuania. Can you point to Lithuania on a map? It is a Baltic country east of Poland, about 500 miles west of Moscow.
Many residents of Uzupis, meaning “the other side of the river,” had settled the sector of the city because of its cheap living back in the early 90’s, just after the Soviet Union withdrew. But the reason it was so cheap was because it was run down and slummy. As artists, they decided to revitalize the neighborhood through beautification.
While visiting Lithuania recently, I had the pleasure of touring Uzupis. I entered the district over a bridge lined with padlocks, which struck me as a statement about the false security that one might feel in their country–all the locks give the appearance of security, without actually locking anything. People can and do add their own padlocks to the bridge; one was in the shape of a heart. Under the bridge, hangs a swing where you can dip your feet while sitting next to a friend or lover.
*Edit: I have been told by a native of Lithuania that the locks are usually left by couples when they get married (but she liked my interpretation!) Oops!*
The district declared independence on April 1, 1997–but if it is all a big April Fool’s joke, they have kept a straight face for almost 20 years. A former mayor of the city of Vilnius lives in Uzupis, and regularly participates in their sovereign festivities, focusing mostly on the arts. The republic has a President, and an army of 11 men. I even got my passport stamped at this shop by the river.
Uzupis also has its own constitution which is posted publicly in a variety of languages. The articles include: “3. Everyone has the right to die, but this is not an obligation… 8. Everyone has the right to be undistinguished and unknown,” and “12. A dog has the right to be a dog.”
The constitution certainly seems to be a lighthearted document; in true artistic form, there is much left open to interpretation. But within the jokey-articles like “24. Everyone has the right to understand nothing,” and “13. A cat is not obliged to love its owner, but must help in time of need,” lies more serious proclamations.
When reading between the lines of the cultural lightheartedness of Uzupis, some articles stand out to me in expressing the true philosophy of the republic.
“20. No one has the right to violence…
29. No one can share what they do not possess…
32. Everyone is responsible for their freedom…
36. Everyone has the right to be an individual…
39. Do not defeat
40. Do not fight back
41. Do not surrender”
I can’t say I agree with everything in the constitution of Uzupis, nor that it is completely consistent. For instance, if I am responsible for my freedom, wouldn’t fighting back be one way to maintain that freedom? Perhaps it was meant to read more along the lines of, “do not sink to the enemy’s level.”
Or maybe I am twisting the words of the Uzupian constitution to fit my own preconceived notions of “good government.” But again, I interpret “No one has the right to violence,” as similar to the Golden Rule, or the non-aggression principle. Either way though, you cannot mistake the celebration of the individual and uniqueness.
And there are some articles that I cannot make sense of, or mold to my philosophy, such as, “2. Everyone has the right to hot water, heating in winter and a tiled roof.” A right cannot be something that must be provided, because it would violate others’ rights to force them to provide it.
This is a reminder that there is always room for improvement when it comes to government, and even micro-states, startup societies, and geolibres are not necessarily perfect.
So what can we learn from the Republic of Uzupis, in regards to the proper way to pursue secession and separatism? Mostly, a lesson in public relations. Perhaps political separation is not the first step towards having a micro-nation or geolibre accepted and recognized.
Uzupis has been 20 years in the making, and if they were to now become serious about political separation, it might not seem so strange, scary, or out of place. In fact, as the current Mayor of Vilnius identifies as an anarcho-capitalist, it may not even be ill received.
But for now, what a lovely cultural precedent that has been set for withdrawal from systems with which we disagree: non-violence, a focus on the individual, and fun! I would say the political aspect of Uzupis is the weak point of the republic. What they got right, was focusing on forming a unique and vibrant culture. And that is what geolibres should emulate if they wish to be recognized as independent.
Maybe others could pick a more relevant “patron saint” than Frank Zappa though, as Uzupis chose. He never visited Uzupis, or even Lithuania… But there is a statue of him that replaced Stalin.