This article is part of the openMovements series on Open Democracy inviting leading social scientists to share their research results and perspectives on contemporary social struggles.
In recent years, we have seen the rise of mass protests in central and eastern Europe and most notably in south eastern Europe. In Bulgaria, Romania, Slovenia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, for instance, people have taken to the streets to manifest their disappointments with corrupt and unresponsive political elites and a societal development benefiting the few rather than the many. The protests have contained a mix of transnationally inspired anti-neoliberal and anti-austerity critiques and disillusion with domestic political leaders and parties.
Other forms of grassroots mobilization, however, tend to go unnoticed. An equally important sign of the transformation of post-socialist civil societies as the street protests is the rise and development of urban grassroots activism in the cities across the eastern European region. This type of local, often small-scale and low-key form of activism, related mostly to everyday life problem-solving, easily escapes the attention of the media as well as the lens of social movement researchers who tend to focus either on NGOs and advocacy-organizations capable of the effective lobbying of policy-makers or on more traditional protest events, such as mass demonstrations.
Even so, the protest-event analysis carried out by Ondrej Cisar in the Czech Republic and Slovakia suggest that local ‘self-organized’ civic activism, i.e. collective action mobilized without the involvement of an organization, is the most frequent kind of civic activism in these countries. This form of activism is based on ‘many events, no organizations, and few participants’.
The prevalence of small-scale and informal forms of activism occurs also in Poland, but is likely to be equally true of many other countries in post-socialist Europe and Russia. Indeed, many mobilizations with regard to the ‘urban question’ in this region would be of this kind.
Global inspirations and local actions
Decades of neoliberal restructuring of cities, and the free reign of private investors and developers in shaping urban space in central and eastern Europe (as in many other parts of the world) have resulted in eroded service-provision and life-quality for large parts of the populations.
Unsurprisingly, this development has spurred numerous protests across the region and among residents demanding changes to urban policy with safe living conditions and affordable housing, and it has generated a mobilization against the privatization and commodification of public space. Mobilizations against illegal exploitation of city space or to protect green areas and defend other interests in the local living environment, take place all over the region, Russia included. Mobilizations in protection of cultural heritage as well as architects or artist-led urban activism are also common.
The urban grassroots activism in central and eastern Europe has developed in response to local problems and needs, while often being inspired by urban movements across the world. Several countries of the region have seen local versions of Occupy Wall Street and the Right to the City-kind of activism, and urban gardening is appearing in increasing numbers of cities.
In Warsaw, tenants’ organizations and squatters have somewhat unconventionally joined forces in defending tenants’ rights and in generating demands for voice and participation on urban matters on local authorities. They have here borrowed from each other’s protest repertoire, as tenants have begun to use direct action methods (e.g. eviction blockades) while squatters have become engaged in dialogue with policy-makers.
Community organizations exist in Russia and other post-Soviet countries. Lithuania, for instance, has seen a dramatic rise in the number of community organizations established in urban and rural areas, developed in response to the disinvestment in public infrastructure in many neighborhoods. They have been formed by local residents in order to more effectively make demands on local authorities. But in Lithuania, the availability of funding from the European Union’s structural funds has provided an additional incentive for the formation of community organizations.
Understanding urban activism in central and eastern Europe
Social movements are shaped by the context in which they appear. The post-socialist context illustrates well the limitations of having a single focus on protest, mass or street, in the study of social movements: with such a focus, researchers and other observers run the risk of missing other relevant forms of protest action and thus of underestimating or misunderstanding the collective action actually taking place on the ground. Moreover, in expecting social movements in the post-socialist countries to follow the same repertoire of action as, for instance, in western Europe or North America, we risk missing out on important forms of collective action.
For instance, the ‘either-or view’ of social movements — either they are engaged in protests or they risk becoming service organizations or self-help groups — is not helpful in understanding collective action in this social context (if indeed anywhere); in many cases, groups are engaged in both and in parallel. An ‘either-or view’ is particularly ill-suited for the understanding of urban movements, as they typically transgress such dichotomies. Instead of ‘either or’, urban movements are typically ‘both and’, being multifunctional in nature, at once oriented to practical problem-solving and opposition.
Protest can take many forms. When faced with non-responsive or repressive authorities, symbolic resistance, court litigation, collection of petition signatures and even letter writing to authorities constitute protest action. Taking issues to courts and trying to attract media attention for the court cases are strategies used by urban activists to try to compensate for the fact that lobbying may not be a viable option when faced with unresponsive policy-makers.
Admittedly, many of the mobilizations are of the reactive kind, sparked by threats in the immediate environment of people. However, this does not mean that such mobilizations could or should be written off as simply NIMBY (Not in My Backyard)-type reactions.
First, issues relating to one’s everyday life are not only highly legitimate — they are also conducive to a wider politicization of issues. Shared experiences in everyday life provide the basis for solidarity and collective action among citizens with little experience of political claim making.
Transcending the borders between the domestic sphere, the civic sphere and the political sphere to achieve collective action represents a significant challenge in post-socialist societies, as does the overcoming of political disillusionment, general mistrust of the motivations of collective action and the preference for individualist problem-solving strategies.
What local urban activism promotes is a sense of togetherness, providing a first step towards the building of the more generalised (social) trust needed to overcome the low-trust traps of post-socialist civil societies. Additionally, in contexts where the ‘political’ is associated with ‘dirty’ politics, risky or outright dangerous, strong commitments to common places are factors that enable political subjectivity-formation. With a collectively shared and highly valued cultural and spatial relationship with one’s city or one’s neighbourhood, ordinary people can move into activism.
Secondly, to qualify the picture frequently presented of local mobilizations as simply NIMBY reactions, it is useful to follow protesters over time to capture the social processes that unfold. Mobilizations that may initially appear as not much more than reactive responses to external threats, like protests against development projects unwanted in one’s own neighbourhood, can in fact trigger wider processes, with far-reaching consequences.
For instance, they may lead to the generalisation of claims, the building of new social relationships or the overcoming of mistrust among neighbours and citizens, all laying a basis for future collective action. In a repressive context where public space is severely confined, such as in contemporary Russia, the ‘backyard’ in fact serves as a semi-public space conducive to processes of politicization of everyday realities and claim-making.
Thus, citizens taking action and defending their interests in relation to their immediate environment carry an importance, which goes beyond the tangible successes or defeats of these urban struggles. These struggles represent a process of reconstruction of the civic significance of urban space in the region, through the fostering of civic outlooks and identities and claiming the right to influence public policy, thus serving as a renewed basis for active citizenship in this social context.
Urban grassroots and the development of post-socialist civil societies
I would go even further and argue that urban grassroots activism represents an important new phase of post-socialist civil society making. Firstly, the growth of urban grassroots activism forces us to update and re-think the conventional images of post-socialist civil societies as ‘weak‘, ‘passive’, ‘NGO-ized‘ and sponsor-dependent in nature. In contrast to the NGO-ized civil society that developed during the first decades of political and economic transformation with support from abroad, this urban activism is almost exclusively domestically funded — if funded at all — and grassroots-driven (the EU funding of some projects run by community organizations in Lithuania is one of the few exceptions, but even there the lion’s share of the work is based on voluntary work and local funding.)
Secondly, civic activism in the urban context provides evidence of important developments within post-socialist civil societies, both in terms of strengthening the internal structures of civil society and its relationships to public authorities. In several countries of central and eastern Europe, we see the development of increased collaboration and the development of deliberative structures within civil society.
Poland in particular stands out in terms of its participatory and deliberative governance arrangements that have been developed both within civil society and between civil society and the public authorities. This includes local and central public consultation structures, a Public Debate Forum in the President’s Office, the institutionalization of citizen’s initiative where civic law proposals may be submitted with the support of 100,000 signatures, participatory budgeting processes in a large number of Polish cities, citizen panels/juries, not forgetting all the dialogue processes ongoing on social media.
Urban activist groups joined in the Congress of Urban Movements, held for the first time in 2011, as an informal coalition of diverse urban activist groups formed, inter alia, in order to gain leverage in relation to local authorities.
The Congress of Women in Poland, held for the first time in 2009, is another example of the formation of a deliberative forum by civil society organizations and groups.
The forming of umbrella organizations of community organizations in Lithuania, at city as well as national level, represents yet another example of the strengthening of civil institutional structures and thus the voice of civil society in relation to policy-makers. In other countries too, structures for dialogue between civil society actors and local authorities are in place and are gradually beginning to function.
Moreover, a loose ‘Urban Movement Coalition’ was formed to support urban activists to run as candidates in the November local election in 2014 in various Polish cities all over the country. Eventually candidates representing urban movements got seats in six city councils as well as the Central District Council in Warsaw.
Having said this, many other urban activist groups in Central and Eastern Europe have chosen to follow the legacy of ‘anti-politics’, i.e. opting for civic self-organization on more than arms-length’s distance to ‘dirty politics’. This is especially true in relation to institutional politics on the national level. However,action that is explicitly framed in non-political terms is still a way of articulating social cities and negotiating urban rights (or the right to the city).Take for example, the popular Critical Mass biking events in the region, frequently offering ways of articulating social critique and negotiating urban rights.
Contestation can take many forms and the actual practices depend on the context in which contestants find themselves. So what is the state of post-socialist civil societies? Well, they are not as bleak as accounts of the ‘NGO-ized’ and ‘weak civil society’ typically has led us to believe. The mobilization of urban grassroots challenges the image of the overly professionalized and advocacy-oriented NGOs as the main civil society actors in a post-socialist context. It remains to be seen, however, what the new type of grassroots activism may actually achieve in political terms.