The Breakaway Republic of Užupis

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Užupis was the bohemian quarter of Vilnius, until 1997 when it declared itself an independent republic.

It was a peaceful secession, unlike Lithuania’s from the Soviet Union. No tanks rolled over the bridges across the Vilnia River. Lithuanian troops never engaged the 12-man Užupian army. The authorities did not tear down the Užupian flag (a hand with a hole in it against a background whose colour changes with the seasons). They stood by as the self-declared president appointed a council of ministers, and the new government erected signs either side of what it claimed as the international border.

But neither Lithuania nor anyone else recognised the breakaway state.

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Užupis still has the broken-brick, rotten-wood, flaking-paint post-Soviet shabbiness which has mostly been gentrified out of the Baltic states, now; but there is a cheerful, arty atmosphere amid the dilapidation. The hipsters who drink at the fashionable bars coexist happily with the marginal types who squat in the crumbling apartments. Artist and Drunkard are popular occupations.

There are no multinationals here; not even Subway, KFC, Costa and Tesco, which all must have outlets on the moon. The businesses there are, a convenience store, a dentist, a café, and several bars, restaurants and galleries, are local concerns. Most have Užupis, or some derivation, in their company name; many fly the national flag.

On one wall on a side road just off the main street, there are stainless steel boards engraved with the constitution in 23 languages. It is unlike any other constitution.

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The world would surely be a nicer place if all governments acknowledged that “Everyone has the right to love,” “Everyone has the right to be happy” and “Everyone has the right not to be afraid”. The idea would, of course, enrage the icy-hearted misanthropes who write for the tabloids. That is reason alone to promote it.

All constitutions should recognise that “Everyone has the right to love and take care of a cat” and, correspondingly, that “A cat is not obliged to love its master, but it must help him in difficult times”. Likewise that “Everyone has the right to look after a dog till one or the other dies” and that “A dog has the right to be a dog”.

Yet it is not all so enlightened. “Everyone shall remember his name” could lead to grave injustice, particularly on a Saturday night.

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For 364 days of the year, the borders with Lithuania are as open as any in Europe, outside countries like Bosnia, Belarus and Britain. But once a year, the authorities post guards on the bridges to check and stamp passports.

It is done symbolically to mark Independence Day, which falls on the 1st of April: a clear indication – if any were needed – that the founding fathers were not so much fired by patriotic zeal as kind of taking the piss.

© Richard Senior 2015

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