All posts ELMO series: CEE housing movements resisting neoliberal urban transformations

How to Turn the Locus of Deprivation to a Place Called Home: A Discussion on the Main Housing Struggles in CEE

Photo credit: Nenad Ilić

Note from LeftEast editors. This article is a report of the closing panel discussion of the multilingual ELMO series CEE housing movements resisting neoliberal urban transformations. All articles from the ELMO series, as well as the introduction, are available here in English. At the end of each English language article you can find links to CEE language versions – each piece is translated to a minimum of five local languages on ELMO member platforms. The next ELMO thematic article series will be on migration.

The  recent thematic series by ELMO (Eastern European Left Media Outlet) “CEE Housing Movements Resisting Neoliberal Urban Transformations” ended with a panel discussion on June 30th. Speakers active in the housing justice movement from four countries, some of them affiliated with ELMO member platforms, took part in the event: Alona Liasheva (Spilne) from Ukraine, Ana Vilenica (Radical Housing Journal) from Serbia, Enikő Vincze (Social Housing NOW! movement) from Romania and Vitalie Sprînceană (Platzforma) from Moldova, moderated by Nóra Ugron (Social Housing NOW!/LeftEast) from Romania.  The discussion was live-streamed on Facebook and cross-posted across ELMO’s members’ platforms.The speakers first presented themselves and the main struggles in their respective local contexts. Alona Liasheva from Ukraine, who had been studying housing processes in big Ukrainian cities for seven years, reflected on the importance of comparing these processes in different CEE cities. In her work she has tried to find patterns of housing financialisation and recognise the variety of forms and strategies that struggles for housing rights take in different contexts. 

Liasheva explained that she has mostly focused on struggles for housing rights for internally displaced people in Ukraine during the last few months, but also warned that researchers and activists need to discuss what lies ahead. Ukraine faces a twofold housing crisis, due to the massive devastation of the war and to the pre-existing housing crisis from before the war.

Vitalie Sprînceană from Moldova is a sociologist who has been drawn to the topic of housing through activism. Sprînceană agreed with Liasheva on the important similarities and differences between CEE cities, as well as activists’ and researchers’ work in different contexts.

Focusing on Chișinău, his hometown, Sprînceană singled out the degradation, privatisation, and commercialisation of public space as the biggest issue, one that has gathered together a number of activists and researchers. He explained how activists have opposed the automobilisation of the city as well as the policing of public space in the name of morality, civility, and the tourist industry. These activists are also working against the exclusion of the homeless from public space, and, more broadly, against the exclusion of residents from the decision-making processes of the city. “I’m talking about public spaces a lot because we are struggling and fighting around public spaces a lot”, explained Sprînceană jokingly.

Ana Vilenica from Serbia, a feminist, anti-racist, urban, no-border activist and researcher, reflected on her theoretical and practical work. She explained that her theoretical work is driven by “a necessity to intervene in the existing knowledge-production in the last 20 years”, which she recognises to be “decisively colonial” (using transitology, a “catching-up” discourse dominant in CEE as an example).Sketching out the situation in Serbia, Vilenica said that when it comes to housing the most prominent struggle is against evictions, which involves direct action and questions the entire legislative framework for evictions in Serbia. 

Vilenica also explained that Serbian activists are organising against new – and potentially harmful – urban planning documents, and also providing help to migrant workers brought by foreign corporations to work in Serbia, who live in slavery-like circumstances and to migrants on the Balkan route, who are trying to find temporary accommodation in Serbia and are raided daily. 

Enikő Vincze from Cluj-Napoca in Romania is an activist academic, which she sees as allowing her to produce knowledge that can be used in practical actions. She noted how housing is a deeply interrelated problem embedded in many other issues. 

“In my years of research, I found out that housing is central to each of the issues I was researching, including exploitation, exclusion, marginalisation in the school system, healthcare, and other sectors. Everywhere I went I could discover how the people who were suffering from these problems were also facing housing problems”, stated Vincze.

Vincze described the informal national network struggling for housing justice in Romania – The Block for Housing (Blocul pentru Locuire). The network was created in 2017 when activists recognised that there were several local movements that could act together when solidarity was needed. She is herself active in Căși sociale ACUM (Social housing NOW!)

“The movement emerged from anti-eviction actions in 2010, and in the meanwhile we learned how to recognize the structural causes of evictions. Now we address housing politics in general and all the particular issues Vitalie and the others already mentioned. We are witnessing very similar processes of  capitalist urban development in our countries”, says Vincze.Vincze also mentioned the Right to the City (Dreptul la Oraș) group active in Timișoara, who also work with migrants, and connect a number of struggles aimed empowering disadvantaged Roma communities: “Our comrades from the Right to housing have a similar orientation that we have, connecting anti-racism with the struggles against the increase of housing public fund.”

Reflecting on the four speakers’ presentations her own experience as an activist, Ugron noted that one of the problems of CEE is that activists are losing their cities to the violent enclosures of neoliberal capitalism – about which you can read more in Veda Popovici’s article from the series “Becoming Western: the story legitimising neoliberalism, violence and dispossession in Central and Eastern European cities”. 

“Reclaiming our housing and our streets as common and public spaces has long been on the agendas of all kinds of social rights activists”, stated Ugron. 

The speakers then discussed how radical discourses and practices could include a critique of the civilisational discourse that is implicated in violent neoliberal development from a decolonial perspective.

In Vilenica’s opinion, Eastern Europe is dealing with a complex colonial field which she described as a “trans-colonial situation”, suggesting that researchers need to be able to look at these “assemblages of colonisation” in order to be able to suggest or practise decolonial politics and activism. 

“I would say that what is most certainly of colonial intent is the eviction crisis we are facing. This is a direct effect of the EU who pressured Serbia to introduce new legislation in order to open some chapters regarding court reforms. The EU made a remark that the court system was very slow and that many cases were blocked – which is still true – but the way it was ‘solved’ was that an institution of public-private bailiffs was introduced”, Vilenica explained , adding that public-private bailiffs have a public function, but make private profit. Evictions are themselves good for profit. 

Vilenica pointed to another example from Serbia, a situation between 2009-2012, when massive slum clearances were done to make space for big European infrastructural projects such as Corridor X, and  major sporting events. She pointed out that these cases deserve to have a decolonial perspective integrated in their critique.

Vilenica added that there are two types of problems activists face when dealing with such issues:

“One is that East Europe is sort of occupied by its political right wing, which is anti-EU and anti-NATO, while  the left can’t find a proper language to produce anti-colonial politics and implement it in their everyday struggle. The other one is – I don’t know how to call it, but maybe internal colonisation is the right term. There is a lot of what could be called white saviourism in the mainstream activism regarding Roma people and the way they live.”

Sprînceană continued that it is the right-wing that dominates anticolonial discourse in Moldova, preventing it from being subject of open discussion or a part of inclusive practices. 

“What we’re doing as a first step is to deconstruct, to unpack, to question this whole civilisational discourse because it’s everywhere. It comes in the way of this white saviourism, which you can argue easily is an ideological figure; but it also comes in the disguise of “neutral” forms and policies – for instance, within the discussion about the smart city. The smart city is posed as a neutral, technical solution, but in the world that we live in, technical solutions which pretend to be above/beyond/clean of ideology are never so”, Sprînceană argued.

For Vincze, the history of colonialism and imperialism boils down to integrating non-capitalist territories into a capitalist world order; and the function of civilisational discourse is to legitimise the transformations imposed on the non-capitalist, non-modern Other. Therefore, in order to give back the city to its inhabitants researchers must advance an anti-colonial critique of urban development that includes a critique of neoliberalism as a colonial hijacking of the city, one citizens can fight by claiming more participation in decision-making processes. 

Vincze pointed out that nowadays the mainstream discourse claims that socialist modernisation was not in fact modernisation and that post-socialist countries need to let go of their communist past in order to modernise through the EU and NATO. 

“In terms of housing policies”, she stated, “we all know that it was a push from the European Commission, and the IMF and the World bank to transform the whole housing regime produced by the socialist industries and to reshape the whole legacy of the socialist (public) housing fund into something ‘useful’ from the point of view of the market economy—and there we see civilisational discourse again”. 

This discourse is active in Ukraine, too, added Liasheva, reflected in the push for the Ukrainian cities to be shaped according to the “perfect Western scenario”. She pointed to the fact that this discourse justifies the interests of local elites who are more often than not in conflict with Western capital, stating that such conflicts need to be analysed further. 

At the initiative of the moderator, Vincze discussed the possibilities of a struggle against such discourses in Cluj-Napoca, referencing one of the articles from the ELMO housing series, “Countering Housing Dispossession in Cluj, the Silicon Valley of Eastern Europe” by George Iulian Zamfir. Ugron also referred to Veda Popovici’s article, which lists the seven processes of neoliberal urban transformations that legitimise violence and help CEE cities to pass as Western. One, she explained, was the already mentioned “smart city”, and another is on-going anti-communist aesthetisation of public space. With that in mind, Ugron asked Vilenica about the systematic destruction of the monuments to the anti-fascist resistance in former Yugoslavia. 

Vilenica used the chance to broaden the subject and elaborated on the overall destruction of anti-fascist heritage, which celebrated the struggle against Nazi occupation and tried to produce a Yugoslav identity based on brotherhood, unity and, later, self-management. “This heritage stands as a monument to a possibility-of-the-impossible anti-capitalist, anti-fascist, revolutionary, liberating, anti-colonial society of the oppressed”, she pointed out. Still, while anti-communism is at the core of “transitional” urbanism, the speakers agreed, Vilenica accentuated that revisionism also works in more complicated ways, using the example of the Belgrade Waterfront development. 

Asked to talk about the anti-communist sentiment that was present in Ukraine before the Russian invasion and the erasing of the past on the part of the Russian-imperialist, but also Westernizing discourses, Liasheva first made clear that Russian propaganda and the actual state of affairs are miles apart, and that propaganda is no means to be trusted. 

“To fact-check Russian propaganda doesn’t make sense. At the same time, to try to make a counter-explanation about what is actually going on in Ukraine, it’s first of all important to look at the context and the actual people who actually took part in some processes.”

The so-called de-communisation, she stated, started several years ago. It has a legislative basis, but the laws in question are “blurry”. Liasheva then explained the matter in more detail, talking about the contradictory ways of expressing anti-imperialist sentiment that are now present in Ukraine:

“I would say that this de-communisation in the urban context is a very conflicting process between the state, which tries to control the national discourse, the grassroots anger at Russian imperialism and other discourses. And, at the same time, there is a huge interest of the private actors, which are always ready to justify any kind of public space development.”

She added that as these processes intensify there will be more space for the grassroots activists to ask difficult questions.

Ugron encouraged Liasheva to say a few words about her article for the ELMO housing series, “Without Shelter: Housing Policy in Wartime,” which analysed the condition of internally displaced people in Lviv, thus illustrating how the war intensified the existing housing crisis in Ukraine. Liasheva then spoke about the wide self-organisation in Ukraine, and the role of the decentralisation of housing decision-making. In her words, the struggle around housing is slowly becoming political, and the main question is whether the existing strong self-organisation will be scaled up to the level of national policy. She also talked about the kinds of international mobilisation that would be needed in order for the housing crisis in Ukraine to be solved:

“Is help going to come in the form of grants or in the form of loans? Is it going to be spent on the state-run financialisation of housing, or invested in non-profit housing? And what about foreign debt?”

The speakers continued to discuss (the lack of) radical housing organising and social justice in Moldova, and the possibility of cross-border, regional housing organising. The discussion was followed by a Q&A session.

Iskra Krstić is an independent researcher from Belgrade, with a focus on critical urban studies. She is a PhD candidate at the Faculty of Political Sciences, University of Belgrade. She graduated from Faculty of Architecture and the Faculty of Political sciences, UB. Krstić is an author at