The label “Central and Eastern Europe” (CEE) in the context of municipalist politics is a somewhat problematic geopolitical denominator. Political landscapes at the local level vary significantly across countries in the region. While movements such as Zagreb je Naš! (Zagreb is Ours!) are thriving and together with their left-wing and green allies recently won local elections in the Croatian capital, in Hungary and Poland central governments keep on tightening their grip on civil society organisations and progressive movements.
As democratic municipalism is not a fixed ideological paradigm or a blueprint for turning political strategies into practice, there are many ways in which it can be understood and put in motion. Certainly, nearly all CEE nations have a rich tradition of bottom-up politics and challenging central power with diverse and dynamic social movements. Nevertheless, phenomena such as the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, the Solidarity movement in Poland, or the multi-ethnic workers’ movement in the former Russian Empire now belong to the past and their legacy – however praiseworthy and inspiring it might be for future generations – is today being undermined, distracted or reinterpreted in a way that often obscures these movements’ core progressive values.
After the fall of Soviet-style state socialism in 1989, local politics became an important factor in systemic change. In Poland, an administrative reform was introduced in 1990 in order to replace corroded party-state structures with self-governing, democratically elected authorities. The second phase of that process was carried out in 1999 when a three-tier administrative division was implemented and the number of voivodeships (which roughly translates as regions) was reduced from 49 to 16. It was an important decision that enabled a more effective distribution and management of EU structural funds after Poland’s accession in 2004. But at the same time, inhabitants of many medium-sized cities started to feel neglected and marginalised. That feeling was enhanced by other effects of 1989: the recurring mass unemployment, precarious living conditions, aggressive privatisation, the dismantling of local industrial infrastructures and public transport. It soon turned out that the empowerment of local communities was in fact very limited and was overshadowed by the emergence and solidification of local elites. Poland became a poster child of this “successful local democracy building” but similar reforms were introduced in other countries as well.
There are significant differences between the political cultures of the different countries in the region. However, generally speaking, CEE cannot be described as a melting pot of neighbourhood assemblies, district committees and grassroots councils. At least to some extent, the social energy to bring change from below has been hijacked by the neoliberal narrative of “local democracy”. Despite its undeniable role in putting an end to the broken state-socialist rule, this narrative and the politics it has produced has nothing more to offer than a partially electable local administration and a very limited version of civil society: survival of the fittest NGOs, careers for the chosen few, and so on.
When a massive wave of protests spread across the world in 2011, bringing down regimes in Arab countries and creating or enhancing horizontal social movements across all continents, this part of Europe did not experience a similar level of popular protests organised along radically democratic lines. However, over the last few years, the region has seen multiple cases of political upheaval. Among them have been massive demonstrations against the policies of the right-wing regime in Hungary in 2018, a series of street protests against the Romanian government between 2017 and 2019 and the public outrage in Slovakia after the murder of an investigative journalist Jan Kuciak and his fiancée Martina Kusnirova – to name just a few. Since 2015, Poland experienced several nationwide waves of large demonstrations against the authorities’ attempts to severely limit women’s reproductive rights. In 2020 those attempts turned out to be successful when the constitutional court’s final ruling introduced a near-total ban on abortions. Followed by unprecedented mass street protests, this coup against women living in Poland ignited a near-revolutionary situation. However, internal divisions within the Women’s Strike movement – and a general feeling of defeat – resulted in a significant decrease in political mobilisation.
Looking from the Spanish state or other Southern European countries where democratic municipalism is infused with feminist, left-wing, pro-migrant and – at least to some extent – class-based politics, CEE’s political tendencies created from below might look a little perplexing. Generally speaking, in the Baltic countries, Hungary and Poland, the Left has been waning for a considerable time now and although mainstream left-wing parties are represented in national parliaments, traditional left-wing values and areas of political practice (such as workers’ rights, social equality, minorities’ rights) remain overshadowed by a nationalist discourse and oversimplified, right-wing populist interpretations of social and economic challenges. In Poland, for a local political initiative built from below to adopt an all-out left-wing identity will likely lead to oblivion. This is why “no-label” strategies prevail among urban movements, as clear ideological stances (not even dogmatic but flexible and inclusive ones) are perceived as conveying a very high risk of antagonising potential voters. A similar situation can be observed in Hungary, however, at both national and local level, opposition to the ruling right-wing regime seems to be more unified and ideologically open to an agenda that goes beyond the objectives of a “radical centre”.
In many countries in the region, there is a lively debate on the issues of public space and fair governance of cities. Neoliberal capitalism invading former socialist villages, towns and cities produces peculiar problems. Modernisation is starting to be regarded as a challenge along the way to a prosperous and fair society, not just a set of refurbishments that should be done on the cheap and bring glossy effects. There are many examples of successful initiatives aimed at raising awareness of crucial ecological challenges like air pollution (Poland), illegal logging (Romania) and many others, where the focus has been put on uniting local communities in a struggle for a common good and then bringing the issue to the national level.