‘Municipalist’ movements from all over Europe met in the Serbian capital last weekend to exchange ideas and plan a common strategy against deeply entrenched political structures in their home countries.
Municipalist activists from all over Europe descended on Belgrade in Serbia at the weekend for the fifth Fearless Cities conference, an event that seeks to elevate the discussion about the role that grassroots city-based groups can play in countering entrenched political structures and the rise of the far right.
The conference last weekend was hosted by activists from Serbia’s Let’s Not Drown Belgrade [#Ne_davimo_Beograd], which was formed in 2014 to oppose a massive development project on the riverbank of the Serbian capital.
The global municipalist movement met for the first time at the Fearless Cities Summit in Barcelona, Spain, in June 2017, at the invitation of Barcelona En Comú, with the stated goal of “radicalizing democracy, feminizing politics and standing up to the far right”.
In a world in which it says “fear and inequalities are being twisted into hate, the movement says it is “standing up to defend human rights, democracy and the common good”.
“It is a good opportunity to see how both smaller and bigger European cities are doing, and how we are actually on the same page for how we want to introduce citizens to decision-making,” Radomir Lazovic, one of the founders of Ne Davimo Beograd, said.
“We are against the privatization and commercialisation of public assets, and we want to develop cities that belong to us, as citizens,” he told BIRN.
Besides opposing the Belgrade Waterfront, Ne Davimo Beograd has supported months of protests in the Serbian capital against the government of President Aleksandar Vucic.
The “1of 5 million” movement launched a series of protests on December 8 last year, demanding that Vucic and his governing Serbian Progressive Party resign, as well as more media freedom and fair elections.
At the event in Belgrade, one of the panels gathered individuals from all over the Balkans, including North Macedonia, Albania and Croatia, to discuss the rise of local movements in their respective countries, and whether these movements actually have the potential to affect real change.
Many panelists emphasized that in their home cities, members of the public often didn’t even know that they had neighbourhood councils and could have a real say in matters affecting their cities and towns.
“Connecting and expanding our knowledge on the practices we are interested in is important, especially at a time when we see that right-wing formations and political parties are much better organized, much better mobilized and much more present in the general media with a higher impact on the general public,” said Ivana Dragsic, from the Skopje-based organization, #Freedom_Square.
How municipalist movements can help shape the future of European politics was the main topic of discussion in #Belgrade.
“Municipalism” emphasises the importance of allowing cities and towns to make their own decisions on issues like affordable housing, sustainable environmental policies and transparency.
“Political parties have a problem because they … don’t follow the real process of societies,” said Ana Méndez de Andés, a member of the organization Ahora Madrid.
“Municipalism looks at other ways of organizing. It’s about understanding that there is a need to change institutions and open up radical democratic processes starting from a scale that is closer to the citizens,” she told BIRN.
Speakers from groups such as OccupyGaguta in Moldova, The City is For All in Hungary and Organized Society S.O.S. in Romania also presented their views at the conference, highlighting issues like participatory democracy, evictions, and environmental campaigns.
“I am here in the Balkans because, as a Romanian, I can learn more about the experience in Southeastern Europe than I can from Western countries,” said Adrian Dohotaru, an MP in Romania and a member of Organized Society S.O.S.
“We have a similar experience of commodification and privatization of public goods, a neoliberal system and in order to reverse this, we need to provide better policies against corruption.”
Environmental justice was addressed by several speakers, including members of Keep Upright, KOD, from Montenegro, and Zagreb je NAS! [Zagreb is us], from Croatia.
Other organizations like Spasi Sofia [Save Sofia] focus on promoting good quality public transport and green public spaces in the Bulgarian capital.
“When the local government in Sofia canceled a big tramway project for the city we said: ‘This is enough. We have to really vote for ourselves because we love the city and we have to do something about it,’” said Andrej Zografski, from Spasi Sofia.
“We have to learn from each other because we don’t have any other allies than ourselves,” he added.
Opportunities to learn about issues specific to Belgrade were also offered at the conference, including tours of the Belgrade Waterfront and of the Kaludjerica settlment, which is often referred to as an illegal settlement due to the number of buildings built there without permits.
Workshops to learn about different issues facing people in Serbia, like LGBT rights and the construction of hydro-power plants against public will, were offered as well.
One of the discussions at the Belgrade event addressed the feminization of politics within a global context.
Speakers from Colombia, Spain, Serbia and Croatia discussed the challenges of women trying to navigate and change patriarchal political systems.
“If we don’t have a feminization of politics, we’ll lose many voices that are important in politics and, unless we change this, it’ll be difficult for these people to participate on equal terms with others,” said Laura Roth, a member of Barcelona en Comú.
“This means distributing responsibilities in different ways and trying to break traditional gender.