06/14/2013 10:59 am ET Updated Aug 14, 2013

Challenging Gentrification in Eastern Europe

Certainly 1989 was a watershed year for politicians, political scientists, and human rights activists in East-Central Europe. But the people that really must have felt the ground shake beneath their feet were: real estate developers. Just imagine all the amazing housing stock that suddenly became available in the heart of beautiful historic cities: medieval buildings, castles, villas, Art Deco apartment complexes. The region was one enormous fixer-upper.

But who had the money to buy these properties? In the 1990s, the region as a whole was hit by massive economic dislocation with the closure of factories and farms, the shrinking of governments, and the wholesale shift to capitalism. Prices were low, but the unemployment rate was high and people were burning through their savings. Still, some people did very well indeed during the transition, and there were also plenty of outsiders who were eager to buy a little piece of Prague, a small corner of Krakow, or a few buildings in Budapest.

You can see the change most visibly in a place like Prenzlauer Berg, in what was previously East Berlin. After 1989, the area was a squatter's paradise, with many empty apartment buildings and even huge empty complexes like the old brewery now known as the Kulturbrauerei. Today, Prenzlauer Berg is the Brooklyn of Berlin, home to hipsters and expats and young couples with children, and the rents are rising accordingly.

You can find these neighborhoods throughout the region. Just step outside and smell the cappuccinos. In many places in East-Central Europe, gentrification has taken place quietly and without barely a protest. But not in Zagreb.

A couple years ago, an effort to construct a shopping mall and luxury apartments in the center of Zagreb's old city met with spirited resistance from groups like Green Action and Right to the City. The developers eventually won the fight over the mall at Flower Square. But it was not a total victory.

"The shopping mall was built there," explains Petar Milat, a philosopher and co-director of the independent cultural center in Zagreb called MaMa. "But other projects were prevented. True, partly that was because of the real estate bubble that burst during the crisis. But we were able to intervene into public opinion and make people more cautious toward those huge investments, and this had significance beyond discourse. There was some improvement in legislation, for example. But much more significant was that the investors, and the national public administration promoting investments, have had to fight back with intellectual resources that they usually lack."

The anti-gentrification struggle prefigured the Occupy movements that swept through the United States and Europe the following year. But it was also important at a theoretical level, for it symbolized an effort to re-establish some sense of the commons after a couple decades of emphasis on privatization, private property, and individualism.

At MaMa, Petar Milat works on a number of initiatives that blend theory, activism, and art. The interior of the space resembles an airport lounge designed by postmodernist hackers. It's only a short distance from the new mall on Flower Square. But it's a world away.

The Interview

Was there a specific moment in your life when you became an activist?

For sure there was, though I would never claim to be a hardcore activist. I'm probably more of an oblique activist, a kind of leftist liberal more suited to speak about the hegemonizing of the cultural sphere.

But since we met last time in Zagreb, my own institution the Multimedia Institute (MaMa) and many of my friends all became more activist and militant. There was a huge struggle in Zagreb around the anti-gentrification issue. It was just emerging when we talked last time. But then in 2009, this anti-gentrification struggle became highly visible in Zagreb and then along the whole coastline of Croatia: Dubrovnik, Split, Pula. It was a real struggle, not just our pretension to be socially relevant.

In December 2008 we held a conference called The Frontiers of Neoliberalism. Back then we thought because of the emerging financial crisis that neoliberalism was already a dead horse, that it was non-operative. We held this conference hoping to get beyond this discourse, this vocabulary. But somehow we got stuck in the neoliberal discourse. Yes, we got out on the streets and became a political factor. But this struggle is already lasting for four to five years now, so it's probably time for a change, for new institutions.

Are people still coming out on the streets on this issue?

In Zagreb not as much. On October 11, the unions were out on the streets here in Zagreb. As for anti-gentrification, there is less action. It is more in Dubrovnik or Split, which is also partly coordinated by my friends and colleagues. Now we're actually trying to channel this kind of political unrest and insurgent practice into the format of parliamentary politics, be it local or national.

Has the political victory of a more-or-less left-wing government changed the dynamic of the anti-gentrification activities?

Unfortunately not. Perhaps it only changed gear a bit. For the so-called autonomous cultural sphere, which is pretty vibrant in Zagreb and Croatia, the hopes were high that the new government and the new ministry of culture in particular would legitimize themselves on taking over power by embracing values of autonomy, regional European cooperation, sustainability. Now, after almost 10 months of the new government, we can probably tell that everything has stayed the same. Left-liberal circles are pretty much disillusioned with the new government.

The people coming to power last December replaced a conservative party so corrupt that it couldn't introduce the neo-liberal policies it wanted. The new government has backed up its legitimacy with the discourse of crisis and of Croatian comparative advantages and disadvantages. At least one part of the government is not even trying to pretend that it's not neo-liberal. The so-called Croatian People's Party (HNS) is openly entrepreneurial. The name is misleading: it's actually a liberal party that wants to improve the entrepreneurial climate and the investment atmosphere.

Did the Occupy movement have any effect on the amount of interest or the discourse here?

These things already happened in 2009 with the occupation of the academic faculties here in Croatia, though they called it blokada. Another movement that prefigured Occupy was the anti-gentrification actions in 2010. The physical struggle on the streets lasted until early July 2010. For six or seven months people were occupying a particular street here in the center of Zagreb called Varsavska Street. Occupy, at least the American model, was looked at more in terms of solidarity. In the sense of a model, it was of less importance.

Of course the Occupy Movement attracted huge attention. Some of the intellectual interventions describing what was happening on U.S. streets and squares provided new input for the local movement here. All those images could be used to tell people that something was going on in New York, in London, in Greece or Spain, something we connected to, a broader context. Which meant that there was less discursive work that we had to do. We didn't have to make up a huge conceptual framework to convince people that what we were doing here was important and had global relevance.

For the last four or five years, can you point to any accomplishments for the anti-gentrification movement beyond the rhetorical achievement of bringing the concepts into the public sphere?

To read the rest of the interview, click here.