PHOTOS BY KRISTIAN BENGTSSON
President Ewert Ljusberg in his presidential caravan.President Ewert Ljusberg entering Storsjöyran’s main stage on a zeppelin in 1998. Image courtesy of Storsjöyran.
If you travel far enough north along the border between Norway and Sweden, you’ll eventually be in the Republic of Jämtland. Jämtland is a self-proclaimed state that started in the 1960s as a spoof on Sweden’s centralized government and a protest against its industry-oriented politics that were forcing people to move to the big cities to find work. Fifty years later, the Jamts still have their own president, flag and national anthem—something they celebrate annually at their Liberation Movement’s “freedom festival,” Storsjöyran.
Storsjöyran usually goes like this: 20,000 people gather in Jämtland’s capital, Östersund, and dress and paint their faces and the city’s pedestrian crossings in the national colours of blue, white and green. Then they get shitfaced, wave miniature flags and skinny-dip in fountains. It’s a bit like football firms on tour, but with less stabbing and chair throwing.
The pinnacle of this patriotic expo is when their president, Ewert Ljusberg—an entertainer who hosted the nationwide comedy show Har du hört den förut? in the 70s and 80s—takes to the main stage, usually in some spectacular way, like riding in on an elephant.
While the president mocks the Swedish government, the EU and current affairs such as the royal wedding and the BP oil spill, the crowd goes wild. When he sings the national anthem, 20,000 people sing along like there’s no tomorrow.
Having grown up in Jämtland, I found all of this super embarrassing, so I never gave it a second thought. But upon returning after a couple of years in Stockholm, it struck me that what started as a gag has recently taken a turn for the serious. Whimsical, free ’n’ easy Jämtland has suddenly become a sort of nationalist front, preoccupied with setting up road blocks, demanding non-Jamts entering the region show their passports, and kidnapping local politicians. I managed to speak to the president to ask him about the situation.
Young Jamts cheering the president and singing along to the national anthem.
Vice: Hello, president of the Jamts, what’s up with all the roadblocks and kidnappings?
Ewert Ljusberg: Well, that’s the work of the Freedom Movement, the JRA (Jämtland’s Republican Army). I have nothing to do with all that. They’re autonomous and mind their own business. I wouldn’t say they harass people; they just provide them with a tourist visa and clarify the laws you must follow within our borders.
Yes. They’re called “Jamtelagen”, which is a pun on the Swedish word “jantelagen”—the Swedish “who do you think you are?” attitude. The laws are mostly puns on Swedish terms, so there’s no use translating them, but they all revolve around humanism and respecting yourself and your environment.
So what’s your role in all this?
My main presidential assignment is to give a speech to the nation at midnight on the last weekend of July, during which I try to spread some humanism to 25,000 howling teenagers. Aside from that, I occasionally attend openings, kick-offs, our national day on March 12 and the elk hunt on the first Monday in September. I also have my very own presidential beer.
Did you pick the beer out yourself?
No, a brewery here in Jämtland asked me if they could make a “president beer” with me on the label. It’s a popular beer, so I’m happy that I accepted and I can pick up free bottles whenever I happen to pass by. I’m not a big beer drinker, though.
How did you become president? Was there a democratic election?
I was voted president through an election in a local paper in 1989, about 21 years ago. I guess only me and Mugabe have been in power for that long. And Castro, of course. I like my presidential assignment, it’s a good way to make fun of people’s need for a leader. Those in power today have a bully’s sense of humour, if they have one at all. It’s a huge problem. As [Danish scientist] Piet Hein said, “The noble art of losing face may one day save the human race and turn into eternal merit what weaker minds would call disgrace.”
What do the king and prime minister of Sweden think of the Republic of Jämtland and you being president?
I met the now former prime minister Ingvar Carlsson many years ago and he seemed quite amused. I haven’t met the king but I’m sure he feels the same way.
This JRA guy looked super proud when waving the flag and singing old Jamtlandic tunes and ABBA songs during the community singing the night before. When I asked him what the JRA do during the winter, when they’re not busy preparing the festival, he made it sound like they’re very, very busy liberating the republic from the ”Big Swede”, and that “on the republic’s national day in March, we hijacked a bus and told the driver he couldn’t charge anyone, so everyone got to ride for free.” He was so excited about it that he was wiggling his toes when telling me the story.
So if it’s all a gag, why do you lot seem serious about it?
Well, the republic was founded not only as a joke, but also out of a yearning for respect and justice. Jämtland was its own republic circa 1000 AD, but since then we’ve been occupied and tossed between Norway and Sweden. In the 1950s and 60s, when the Swedish government decided everyone had to move to the big cities and harbour towns to increase the industrial profits, Jämtland became the least profitable part of Sweden. There was even talk about whether we should be allowed to remain a county or be merged with a surrounding province. That’s when the Jamts had enough and the Liberation Movement was born. I guess you could say the Republic of Jämtland is 51 percent joke and 49 percent serious.
So what are you fighting for? What’s your goal?
Nothing, aside from having fun and doing PR for our republic, just like other so-called republics, like Önneköp, Bullaren, Risön, Älvdalen and Uzupis in Vilnius. Ours is just bigger and more famous.
What about the Liberation Movement and the JRA?
Their main focus is to preserve and promote the Jamtlandic culture and introduce the Jamtlandic language, jämtska, into schools. I think that’s important because, back when I was a kid, Jämtland was filled with farms, cows and meadows. Nowadays the countryside is depopulated and the old local shops have closed down. You can’t even find a single bookshop. It’s depressing and makes me feel like one of the last dinosaurs in a world that’s veered off its course.
Yep. Things change. I remember you throwing made-up Jamtlandic currency into the crowd in 2003. I thought that was because you wanted Jämtland to be completely independent and have its own currency.
Of course not!
How do you feel about the republic’s patriotism being criticised in local papers?
My predecessor Moltas Eriksson put it quite well: “I now understand how Hitler must have felt…” Something I presume he said to point out that we definitely don’t have any such values but are sometimes faced with them. We’ve taken out most of the “us and them” thinking from the speech. Before that we used to talk shit about neighbouring counties, giving them nicknames and so on. But we don’t do that anymore.
The 20,000-strong crowd watching the president speak.
Your entrances at the yearly State of the Nation speech are infamous. Especially the ones when you rode in on an elephant, flew in on a zeppelin, and slid in on a ropeway dressed as Robin Hood.
I must admit that I didn’t fly that zeppelin myself. It takes years of practice to manoeuvre those ships. I think my favourite entrance was riding the elephant because she was such a magnificent and friendly animal and I got to practice riding her at the zoo.
You should try riding an elk next year. Is that doable?
I believe people tried to in the 18th century, so probably. Another good entrance would be a carriage dragged by Lady Gaga, the Pope, Osama Bin Laden and Bill Gates.
Right. Um, so… do you get paid to be the president? Do you have taxes?
I get a fee for holding my speech at Storsjöyran, just like all the other artists. But we do not have any taxes because the Republic of Jämtland is, as I’ve said before, a gimmick. Anyway, does our republic make more sense to you now?
Not really. Does it make sense to you?
Maybe not. But imagine how lucky I am to have a people that takes care of themselves.
To watch this year’s presidential speech, in which Ljusberg enters the stage disguised as a hipster DJ, visit yrantv.se.