What is the opposite of an activist

By Anna Zhelnina (Institute of Sociology of the Russian Academy of Sciences, St. Petersburg)

The myth of Russians' political passivity is surprisingly long-lived, despite ample evidence to the contrary, both nationally and locally. The article deals with local activism in the big cities of Russia. This type of activism receives less attention in the national media, but it is precisely the attempts of city dwellers to shape their lives together on site and in the renovation, redesign or redevelopment of urban areas that are central to the sustainability of civil society Play a role in demanding that their interests be safeguarded. By participating in local initiatives, city dwellers acquire new skills; in addition, they create new political identities and social connections.

Protests often have an urban character

Urban social movements occupy a strange place in political science and sociology. They are popular as a research project, but scientists do not always take their urban character into account. Sometimes they consider local protests to be insufficiently "political" or too minor. At the same time, the fact that these movements and initiatives arise from the everyday life of city dwellers: inside or because of urban spaces that are literally not far from one's own home and city centers, has a considerable influence on the mobilization potential, on their composition as well as on the character of them social and political consequences.

Studies on urban social movements in different national and cultural contexts regularly provide evidence that city dwellers learn to use instruments of citizen participation, especially in the format of specific local initiatives, and to build activist networks that remain active after the end of the respective conflict; they also develop new political identities and contexts of meaning. In the context of authoritarian regimes, where political participation carries a number of risks, local activism may be the only acceptable format in which citizens can make their demands. City dwellers can perceive local conflicts as being forced upon them because the mobilization often results from questions that are embedded in everyday life and that evoke strong emotional reactions. Finally, the civil society skills and contacts that are gained in the course of urban conflicts can be transferred to other policy areas and thus form the basis for civil society infrastructures.

Urban conflict occupies a prominent place among the movements and protests in Russia. According to calculations by political scientist Andrei Semyonov, urban issues are the most common reason why Russians are collectively active. They mobilize even more than economic and socio-political problems or questions of the political regime. The team of the research project "Mechanisms of the reconciliation of interests in processes of urban space development" (http://urbanconflictsrussia.ru/) has identified over 8,000 conflicts in connection with urban space development on the basis of a specially created collection of media publications from the years 2012 to 2016. Among these conflicts, protests by the urban population against infrastructure projects (24%), against densely populated buildings (23%) and the construction of recreational areas (21%) were particularly frequent, which together account for two thirds of the cases we analyzed.

In most of the cases of disagreement and protests, the conflicts concerned areas associated with everyday urban life and part of the urban population's environment (residential and recreational areas, and places for trade and services). What is special about many of these social movements is that they attract people who have no experience of civil society resistance, who appear for the first time as actors in the political field and who set up new networks of activists and create a new repertoire of instruments for political debate.

Formal and informal civil society infrastructures

Civic participation, which also includes collective action on the occasion of urban development measures, not only requires motivation on the part of the citizens, but also a certain infrastructure, namely rules, resources and platforms for interaction, with the help of which the actors can try to achieve their goals. The infrastructures through which the urban population is involved in negotiation and decision-making processes can be described as civil society infrastructures.

According to Russian legislation, the citizens of the country have a whole range of formal, legally anchored instruments of participation at their disposal, which can be described as formal civil society infrastructure. These include elections, participation in voluntary organizations, municipal self-administration, self-organization and cooperation between homeowners, participatory budgeting, etc. Recent studies on civil society show that the formal structures are supplemented or even supplemented by informal networks and relationship structures of civil society self-organization - i.e. by informal civil society infrastructure be completely replaced. This includes informal associations, networks of friends and acquaintances, which nonetheless concentrate on the creation and preservation of a certain common good. An important element of the informal infrastructure are the citizens themselves - activists and those who support them - who have a certain view of their place in city administration and a vision of their rights and opportunities to influence their surroundings .

The formal and the informal civil society infrastructure are not opposed to each other, but rather represent a mutual prerequisite for their respective functioning. Thus, Russian legislation provides for the possibility of so-called territorial social self-government (Russian: territorialnye obschtschestvennyje objedinenija, TOS), which have a fairly wide range of decision-making powers at local level. However, these formal legal provisions do not work with full force and do not allow all powers and possibilities inherent in them to be realized unless they are underpinned by informal connections in the urban population. Because they are embedded in a political context that is characterized by a lack of social trust and distrust of the authorities. In addition, a formally anchored and compulsory element in urban development measures such as the public hearing is often only held in order to "tick off" it, namely without the residents being fully informed.

However, even such formalistic stages can be filled with meaning by mobilizing the urban population and their activity. This allows activists to prepare and turn a formal process such as a public hearing on a controversial project into an important public action that attracts media attention and creates the emotions necessary to mobilize and retain new followers . This also applies if decisions of the public hearing should only have the character of recommendations.

Another example of a more harmonious, mutual enrichment and underpinning of the formal and informal infrastructure of citizen participation is the strongly developing instrument of participatory budgeting. This form of citizen participation has been formally anchored in many countries on the initiative of grassroots movements. In Russia, especially in St. Petersburg, urban activists who have experience in formulating demands or implementing urban projects are recruited to develop and anchor the ideas behind participatory budgeting.

Differences between cities

A large part of the formal instruments for civic participation in Russia is regulated by legislation at the federal level, for example the urban development and housing codes that apply in all regions of the country. In every city, however, unique configurations of actors and platforms emerge on which cooperation for urban development develops. Each city has its own configuration of informal relationships and civil society infrastructures, which can have a significant impact on the way city policies are pursued and conflicts in the city are resolved.

As part of the research project "Mechanisms for the reconciliation of interests in processes of urban space development", the situation in six Russian cities with over a million inhabitants was analyzed, namely in Moscow, St. Petersburg, Kazan, Nizhny Novgorod, Samara and Novosibirsk, in addition to the statistical recording of urban conflicts. An in-depth analysis of media reports and interviews with those who were involved in urban conflicts (both with activists and with representatives of the administration and of urban development companies) have allowed us to identify the specific outline of the urban in each of the six cities to recognize political arena.

One of the interesting features of the transformation processes in each of the cities is related to the respective initiators: inside controversial projects. In Moscow, for example, in 23 of the 44 cases we analyzed, the projects that led to the protests were promoted by bureaucrats. At the same time, most of the conflicts examined in St. Petersburg revolved around corporate projects (27 out of 44). In Moscow, the proximity of the central budget and the decision-making centers had an impact on the dimensions of the projects and the aggressiveness with which the initiators proceeded. In this case we can speak of the well-known phenomenon that entrepreneurial structures grow together with the authorities. This configuration of strong actors who drive a project forward makes the work of activists very difficult or even completely blocks any attempts by the population to influence the course of events in any way. Experienced Moscow activists often mentioned this constellation in the interviews, emphasizing that corruption and informal agreements by the Moscow bureaucrats greatly reduce the activists' chances of success. Interestingly, this topic was raised less often in St. Petersburg, as there representatives of the administration appeared less frequently as the main initiators of controversial projects. Of course, we cannot rule out an informal interest on the part of bureaucrats in projects there.

The difference between the entanglement of bureaucrats in urban transformation projects in Moscow and in St. Petersburg creates an important context for attempts by activists to influence the course of events. In Moscow it is much more difficult to oppose the representatives of the bureaucracy: According to our data, the majority of the projects initiated or supported by bureaucrats are being implemented unchanged. Our interlocutors also said that it is easier in Moscow with builders who enter into a dialogue with local activists and MPs than with representatives of the city authorities, who are practically deaf in the opinion of the local population. In comparison, projects in St. Petersburg that were pushed forward by bureaucrats have been abandoned or heavily modified in several cases due to demands from citizens.

Consequences of mobilization

In addition to the myth of the passivity of the Russians, there is also the notion that protests in Russia are pointless and ineffective. However, our data show that local protests can produce results, namely abandoning or at least significantly modifying a controversial project (in around half of the cases). In 30 percent of the cases analyzed, the announced project, which had caused public displeasure, was implemented unchanged, and in a further 13 percent of the cases minor changes were made. At the same time, projects were completely abandoned in 29 percent of the cases and significantly changed in 16 percent of the cases (e.g. relocated to another location, changed in the planned height, etc.).

This is also where the difference between the different urban contexts can be seen. If we compare Moscow and St. Petersburg, on the other hand, we can see that the urban protests in St. Petersburg have achieved something more often than those in the capital. In Petersburg half of the projects were abandoned, another third was modified. In Moscow, the situation is reversed: Almost half of the projects here were implemented unchanged. One of the possible explanations lies in the amount of resources, including financial ones, that are used in refurbishment or development projects. Also relevant here is the fact that the officials in Moscow have strong levers of power and that actors at the federal level are also involved in the transformation projects in the capital.

But the characteristics of civil society actors should not be ignored either. Our analysis shows that the peculiarities of the civil society infrastructure are also important. An interesting peculiarity of the protests in St. Petersburg was that they were often joined by a broad coalition of actors during the period we examined: representatives of various social organizations and activist networks come together to form the protesters to support a concrete dispute, to bring them together with influential MPs who are involved in these networks, and to point the direction of action. In Moscow, residents are more likely to act independently or, at best, seek the help of committed activists among the local MPs.

One can assume that there is a special history of the defense of the urban structure in St. Peterburg, which has created the basis for a lively and committed civil society infrastructure. This includes long, extensive protests against the demolition of historic buildings and new buildings in the city center, but also the connections between people and public resources that beginning activists can use, for example groups and pages in social networks. In the cases we examined in St. Petersburg - the struggle against the development of Malinovka Park, against the demolition of substation No. 11 (»Blokadnaya podanziya«), The conflict over the Westtangente (a toll motorway) - the most important activists knew each other before the protests, which accelerated the mobilization and facilitated cooperation. In addition, experienced activists and experts challenge controversial urban development projects without the participation of the "ordinary" local population, especially in the area of ​​preserving the historical heritage.

In Nizhny Novgorod, the presence of a dense network of activists and experts who stand up for the preservation of the historical heritage in the city enables them to react quickly to emerging threats to the historical building fabric. However, in Nizhny Novgorod, the protection of historical buildings from demolition - unlike the much sensational ecological problems - does not always meet with the same understanding and support from the "ordinary" population; without this support, even the work of such active, committed civil society networks will be made more difficult. Discourses, ideas, values ​​and other elements of worldview are also a necessary instrument for civic participation. In contrast to St. Petersburg, where there is widespread awareness of the value of historical heritage, activists in Nizhny Novgorod have emphasized in talks, that the residents of their city see historical buildings more as "clutter" than as values.

All of these characteristics - the existence of activist networks, public platforms for the exchange of news and experiences, the course of certain values ​​and ideas in urban discourse - are of fundamental importance for the success of urban social movements. However, they are also a potential result of local initiatives. Whenever there is a mobilization, even if the protesters do not achieve their immediate goals, that changes a lot: those involved get to know each other, meet experienced activists and sympathetic politicians and find out which approaches are more or less effective .It is also important that in the course of mobilization new values, ideas and social and political identities can be developed.

Through these effects of participating in a joint approach, even unsuccessful actions can lay the foundation for a more effective approach in the future. Activists usually emphasize the importance of those defining moments that mark a turning point for them. For example, our interlocutors in Moscow said that an example of such a turning point was the active and successful fight against the dismantling of the Shukhov Tower in 2014. He had shown the authorities and construction companies that an attack on objects of historical heritage can turn into a protracted and resource-guzzling struggle with the citizens.

If one looks at the development of urban activism in the cities of Russia, one can see a gradual increase in civil society infrastructure: experience and knowledge in the ranks of activists, activist networks and social organizations have increased. Values ​​and discourses have emerged that are essential for citizens to participate in urban politics. In addition, a protest activity in the city has an influence on the behavior of the authorities, who then start planning urban development, taking into account the potential for resistance based on previous experience. Sometimes formal and informal civil society infrastructures "meet" and complement each other in a conflict-free way. More often, however, the people in the city have to do a lot of work and fight for their rights in order to be heard.

The contribution is based on materials from the research project "Mechanisms for the reconciliation of interests in urban space development processes" (http://urbanconflictsrussia.ru/).

Translation from Russian: Hartmut Schröder