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The Delicate Art of Urban Activism in Eastern Europe

At a diverse gathering in Prague, a heated discussion ensues on the virtues and pitfalls of “going mainstream.”

by Kate Syme-Lamont 26 March 2018

“Projects that rely on public funding are fragile,” a veteran organizer of civic projects tells the room. “You need to take the issue out of the shadows and put it in people’s faces. You need to explain why it’s important.”


“But [going mainstream] can have drawbacks,” a young Georgian woman intervenes. “When the protest turned into a trendy issue … many people turned up but the question for us was: ‘Do they know what’s happening, or are they just here to party?’ ” She was talking about Panorama Tbilisi, a massive business center planned for downtown Tbilisi that is bankrolled by former Georgian Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili. The project has been criticized for violating historic and natural landscape preservation regulations.


I’m at a conference in Prague for urban social activists, which has brought together people working in this field from Eastern Europe and Central Asia – to share stories, best practices, and network. Organized by the Prague Civil Society Center, the entire four days runs bilingually in English and Russian and hosts a group of around 40 people including representatives from smaller civil society organizations, urban planners, architects, academics, and artists – all working in the post-communist region.  


The distinction between urban renewal and urban activism is often blurred, but usually relates to the process of change. Urban renewal projects are – while frequently well-intentioned and responding to a real need – sometimes maligned as top-down, opaque, and easily corrupted. Grassroots activists tend to both align themselves with urban renewal concepts while also holding larger projects to account. For socially responsible people working in urban renewal and urban activism, the goal is usually improvement of access to “commons”: parks, museums, footpaths, and space.


Urban activists engaged in a discussion during the conference


The people involved in these kinds of projects vary wildly – earnest academics sit alongside scruffy looking activists – partly because the scale of the projects varies wildly. Groups engaged in social urban renewal projects often carry out their activities under enormous pressure. There is frequently no money, and indifference from the political sphere is actually preferable to calls to sit down and shut up – also a commonly cited experience. It requires adaptability and no small amount of optimism to see a project through.


Urban renewal and activism cannot, of course, only be found in the post-communist space but the massive transformation of many cities during these years of transition has resulted variously in deserted industrial areas, overpopulated new districts, and the rapid deforestation of previously public areas. Towns and cities rose and fell, and economic upheaval, migration flows, and corruption during privatization have often led to a marked divide between rich and poor. Even seemingly innocuous features of city life can symbolize the unequal access residents have to rapidly changing urban environments.


“In Chisinau there is a generation of people who grew up with a billboard outside of their window,” Vladimir Us – an artist, curator, and founder of the Oberliht young artists association in Moldova – told me. “They don’t even know what the façade of their building looks like.”


Buying In or Selling Out?


That the event is held in Prague highlights the issue of networks, or lack thereof, in the eastern part of the region. Many see the Czech Republic, and more broadly, Central Europe, as an example of what is possible when public support for civil society initiatives is combined with regional cooperation and mobility. The existence of opportunities like those provided for the V4 countries – the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia – through programs such as the International Visegrad Fund mean that likeminded activists from Bratislava often have a direct line of communication with those in Poznan. A network exists.


Not so in the East, say a number of participants. “When we can hold one of these events in Kyiv or Chisinau, or even Minsk,” Vladimir tells me, “then we will know something is starting to happen.” 


In Central Europe, developed civil society initiatives are often seen to have eclipsed the activist stage and become consolidated. In Prague, for example, the communal space Klinika, which began as a squat, has now become a respectable point of cultural exchange. For some, this development is seen as positive, even inevitable, but it can also arouse suspicion, even among participants at the same urban renewal conference.


A heated discussion, for instance, breaks out over a slide included in one presentation from a Slovak group that mentions that NGO work can act as a kind of training program for young socially minded people and that some members from their organization had gone on to enter local politics. The point is made that civil society organizations have their limitations and for some people, a progression into a political role allows them to have more impact. A young man from Kazakhstan voices a major objection. He asks if it is ever appropriate to cross over from civil into political life and whether such as move is not rather motivated by a selfish concern for one’s own career. In his eyes, he says, such a person is a sell-out.  


It is a charge of elitism – a dangerous label – that can attend discussions about civil society across the region, from West to East, from Central Europe to Central Asia. It reminds one participant of Gorky’s famous play, “The Children of the Sun,” in which the privileged, intellectual elite theorize high-minded solutions to problems with which they have no direct experience. Framed like this, the idea is repugnant and convincing, as well as a basic tenet of populist rhetoric. And the familiar labels – foreign, cosmopolitan, globalist – are weaponized by those who want to limit popular support for pesky and provocative civil society groups.


No Cookie-Cutter Solutions


It is widely acknowledged, but often forgotten, that the post-socialist space is heterogeneous. Solutions to commonly experienced problems vary because despite their regional nature, the interaction between place and community is a local experience.


This idea is articulated by Fuad Jafarili, an urban planning professor from Baku, as he describes the complex problems of housing and public space in Azerbaijan. After the system change, large swaths of public housing were abandoned when residents and local governments could not afford the upkeep. At the same time, large-scale migration from rural areas to the cities, and into previously abandoned public housing, created rapid socioeconomic segregation.


As we speak, he tells me, many of these buildings are being demolished and there is no replacement. The housing shortage compounds the already pressing issue of population growth and diminishing green or common areas. Women – who tend to be excluded from the already limited public spaces – are disproportionately affected.


An attempt to temper this problem gave rise to a scheme to establish public areas of access to civil projects with the cooperation of multi-national corporations. McDonald’s restaurants in particular, Fuad tells me, provide safe, female-friendly, social meeting spaces.


“In the West, McDonald’s is thought of as a big, bad corporation, but in Azerbaijan, McDonalds is safe,” he says.


The balance between the provocative side of urban activism, the necessity to provide working solutions that people care about, and the impression – whether real or imagined – of working too close to centralized power, is a delicate one.


In Ukraine, power dynamics and economic realities mean that art and culture tends to be the domain of local oligarchy, a curator working in the field tells me. It’s not necessarily bad she says: after all “Viktor Pinchuk has good taste,” referring to the Ukrainian oligarch, philanthropist, and patron of the Pinchuk Art Center.


But this too goes to the heart of the mainstreaming debate. If the support for your project lies solely in its popularity, it can be vulnerable to shifting interests. Something important can easily lose out to something that’s more headline-grabbing.


Two Georgian activists told me that their organization’s mission to campaign for more parks, better footpaths, and better public transport in Tbilisi was overshadowed by a social media drive to support drug decriminalization – a push supported by local nightclub owners. At the same time, discussions around “urban resources” or “commons” are seen as cosmopolitan issues, removed from the everyday experiences of ordinary citizens and without the flashy pull of something as provocative as legalizing drugs.


“People who are too poor to buy food don’t care about the cultural and civic use of public spaces,” one of the activists said.


It’s the point the Slovak group was trying to make: by utilizing the organization and communication skills intrinsic to civil society groups – by really engaging with the public – a individual from an NGO can become a politician who understands the issues of broader civil society and not just those of the Children of the Sun.


While mainstreaming urban activism may be uncomfortable for some, others see new opportunities for impact and influence.


“I feel like Central Europe had its time of activism 30 years ago,” a young Ukrainian woman working in art and culture tells me, “now it’s Eastern Europe’s turn.”

Kate Syme-Lamont is a freelance writer and organizer of a Budapest-based artist-in-residence program.

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The Moldovan Diaries is a multimedia, interactive examination of the country's ethnic, religious, social and political identities by Paolo Paterlini and Cesare De Giglio.

This innovative approach to story telling gives voice to ordinary people and takes the reader on the virtual trip across Moldovan rural and urban landscapes. 

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