A strong civil society is built on trust

An interview with Kerstin Jacobsson, professor of sociology. Interviewer: Agnieszka Lichnerowicz.

AGNIESZKA LICHNEROWICZ: What would you say is particularly unique about urban movements in Eastern and Central Europe, as opposed to those in Western or Northern Europe?

KERSTIN JACOBSSON: Of course, there are many similarities. In Eastern Europe, urban movements are very much a reaction to the liberalisation of the city. Yet I feel that in this region, you have a really high level neo-liberal urbanisation. Moreover, in many countries in this region, urban governance has not been as inclusive as it is in the West. For example, citizens do not have much of a voice regarding urban governance issues in a country like Russia. So, certain problems are more pressing here, but the majority of issues are very much like urban activism in Western Europe.

What do you mean when you say neo-liberal urbanisation?

I use this phrase to refer to the mass privatisation of housing and public space, or in other words, the commodification of public space. This has also manifested itself as messy urban planning. In Western Europe, city development is much more controlled, both in terms of public planning and in the way that citizens have more of a say when it comes to governance matters. In this region, city development has been more chaotic and private developers have much more free reign.

In other words, urban movements are more necessary here than in the West?

Yes, but many things are the same. I see two types of urban movements. One is more reactionary, responding to pressing needs in the neighbourhood. An example of this could be defending a green area against construction or a site of historical interest against destruction. Here, the pressure can be quite intense. The second type is more proactive, something akin to an active local community. For example, community gardening aims to make the city a more hospitable place to live.

Do you see differences between Central and Eastern Europe?

Yes, there are many differences. Urban mobilisations are typically rather fragmented, as they are emergency reactions to different threats. But in Poland, there are some early signs of collaboration, like the Congress of Urban Movements. There are similar examples elsewhere in Central Europe in countries like Slovakia, but they are not on the same scale. In Poland, these movements are the strongest, most developed and the most political ones in the region. They are more politically-oriented because they address policy-makers explicitly and some members even join local councils. In other countries, many of the movements do not want to be labelled “political”. For example, in Serbia, biking activists make claims about their rights in the city and are critical of neo-liberalism, but they specifically refer to themselves as “non-political”.

I would add that in Poland, urban movements also have broader agendas, which include issues of social rights, not just direct urban issues. I find the alliances that are built across class divides very interesting. For example, tenants who belong to a socio-economically weaker group work closely with activists who come from a middle class background. In other parts of Eastern Europe, this type of collaboration is rarely seen.

So would you say that Polish movements more closely resemble their western counterparts?

Yes, definitely. However, you also have to understand that the political context is very different. For example, in Russia, these movements are very constrained, so they have to find other strategies.

Can they still be effective?

At the local level, absolutely. I can also see it in Lithuania. There, urban activism takes slightly different forms. People create formal community organisations in order to be eligible to receive funding. However, they also do so to gain leverage over policy-makers. They have umbrella structures at both the city and the national level. It has certainly empowered them. By contrast, in Romania, these tactics are less effective. We have studies that show that policy-makers are less responsive to these sorts of movements there.

In Russia, urban movements are very careful not to show any political ambitions. Do you think this has helped them be effective?

There are some examples where groups have been able to stop construction taking place in their neighbourhood. I call this “fire emergency”, since they mobilise in relation to a particular threat. They may have some success, but it is very difficult for them because as you said, they cannot formulate an agenda that would in any way threaten the authorities.

On the other hand, I am fascinated by these groups because they find very creative ways to carry out their work. They cannot organise a public gathering so picketing is done alone, in shifts. The protest ends up being one person who takes turns, standing all day and night in order to stop construction. Groups cannot organise a meeting, but they can organise a small “market”, which they use as a chance to discuss activist issues. Nevertheless, it is of course very difficult to have a major impact.

It seems that in Russia, construction is often the main mobilising factor…

This is true, partly because there are no laws or public planning structures. Authorities give pretty much free reign to private companies who want to undertake certain projects. For example, there is no public information about plans to build a highway in someone’s backyard. Ordinary citizens have little chance to influence things like that. Often, such construction is illegal, hence you have these “fire emergencies”. Even so, it is true that you rarely see a long-term ideological agenda.

Are there many of these so-called fire emergency protests?

Everything is relative, although these types of mobilisations constantly take place in cities like Moscow or St Petersburg. In the latter, a lot of the protests are about the protection of cultural heritage and historical buildings while in Moscow, it is more about illegal construction. The media do not give much attention to these movements and little research is carried out on them as well. They are small-scale, local and not very spectacular, but they are happening.

Do you think these movements are slowly changing Russian society?

That is a very good question. Sociologist Carine Clément analyses the process by which ordinary Russians, who have no experience of activism, start getting involved in their neighbourhood in response to an immediate threat. This starts a process that Elżbieta Korolczuk calls “political becoming”, where people gradually become politically-minded and politically-engaged. They also regain a sense of agency, since in Russia, people tend to keep more to themselves. They do not mix in the public sphere because it is dangerous. You do not know whom you can trust. You stick to your own. Yet with this type of mobilisation, a network of neighbours is slowly built up. Little by little, you see that you can initiate change, you learn to speak for yourself and you learn to trust others, at least in your own neighbourhood. It starts a whole process.

In this region, there is typically a low level of trust in society. In order to build a strong civil society, you need to learn to trust people that you do not know. This type of activism, where you start interacting with other people, starts a process of relationship and trust building and it forms a path to a stronger society, when the political context becomes more open. However, it is a balancing act for them. They need to stay on the right side of acceptability while stretching its limit as much as they can.

So how would you assess the strength of these movements in this part of the world?

I think that researchers have not really systematically looked at this type activism yet. I think that civil society is not as weak here as it is perceived to be. What I have observed in the last 15 years is what I call a wave of urban activism in this region. There has also been a noticeable increase in the use of participatory budgeting in countries like Poland and Slovakia. So I think there has definitely been a shift in the last 15 years.

Kerstin Jacobsson is a professor of sociology at the department of sociology and work science at the University of Gothenburg. One of her research interests relates to social movements and civil society in Central and Eastern Europe. She is the editor of the book Urban Grassroots Movements in Central and Eastern Europe

Agnieszka Lichnerowicz is a Polish journalist and a foreign desk chief at the radio station Tok FM. 

1NEE_2012.jpg This interview was published in New Eastern Europe Issue 3-4 2016: One for all, all for one?