(2019) Urban activism in Zagreb (Croatia)

Saturday 27 July 2019, by Miguel Angel Martinez

All the versions of this article: [English]

Urban activism in Zagreb

Lured by the 29th INURA (International Network for Urban Research and Action: https://www.inura.org/v2/) conference, I had the opportunity to visit Zagreb and better know some of the urban struggles that took place there over the last decade. The programme was very intense, with morning and afternoon tours in addition to evening public debates (https://inura19.wordpress.com/). It was a full immersion in the history and conflicts of the city, led by very well qualified activist-researchers, with very rich intellectual discussions and on site understanding of socio-spatial processes. An absolute joy for me, especially if I compare this format and content with other more conventional conferences. In parallel, I was hosted at the AKC Medika which allowed me to see first-hand how they operate as an artistic sort of after-squat within the highly neoliberal and corrupt environment of urban politics in Zagreb.

AKC Medica

This Autonomous Cultural Centre is described in a City Guide for nightlife as:

“Located in a former pharmaceuticals factory tucked behind the Westin hotel, Medika is basically an anarchists’ squat that was granted official status by a city administration eager to pucker up to Zagreb’s alternative community. A regular menu of punk, ska and jazz gigs plus raucous DJ-driven club nights attract a healthy cross-section of hedonistically-inclined youth - so you don’t need either dreadlocks or a dog on a rope to fit in.” (https://www.inyourpocket.com/zagreb...)

Not a very misleading introduction. During my stay at the centre, I saw “death metal” musicians and a black-dressed crowd alike, young artists preparing a video performance, digital-glitch artists writing a manifesto and running a hacklab, and many different people -mostly youngsters- hanging out, mostly at night time. The walls are full of colourful graffiti. Some sculptures and other forms of underground decoration are also marking the entrance door, the yard and the balconies. Dogs seem to be at ease too. Although I was not lucky in terms of timing to attend any gig, it seems the centre has a regular agenda of events -not only around music, but the concert venue is probably their best visit card. The association in charge of everything (Attack!) is managed by members who get some income based on external funding. Thus, I was introduced to three women in that capacity, but I do not know how many other people are involved. As for their politics, I observed plenty of antifascist and leftist signs everywhere, but my impression was that DIY (do-it-yourself) art and a very autonomous and low-cost way of self-managing the buildings and activities are their most distinctive features. In practical terms, they usually avoid explicit clashes with the municipal government. More generally, as it is formulated in their foundational document, they advocate a politics of autonomy:

“Attack! is a nonprofit, nongovernment volunteer association that creates and shares cultural and political alternative as well as alternative economy, providing a public space to all those who want to express themselves creatively and participate in changes on a local level that lead towards a free society. (…) The principle motivation was to provide space for young people where they can express themselves in an authentic manner and to provide a space for activism. As a citizens association we do not function on the basis of hierarchy but we are divided into sections – teams, which function autonomously in regard to its field of interest. Our main executive body is an assembly, while the right to represent the association is in the hands of five members.” (https://attack.hr/more-about-attack/)

Interestingly, the Westin hotel is a tall five-stars hotel just at the back of Medika. I was told that artists painted ironic and critical messages at the roof of Medika addressing important guests at the hotel, so they could look at them every day of their stay. Diplomats and tycoons were so annoyed by these messages that the local authorities forced Medika to delete them and even send the police to prevent similar symbolic actions every time there is a new high-rank event in town.

The history of AKC Medika / Attack! is summarised in their website:

“Autonomous Cultural Centre – Attack! is open for all young artists representing their work in the public for the first time, with the aim of serving not only as a workshop but also as a place for representation of creativity and art to general public. Except the physical space Attack! also provides media coverage for young and unrecognised artists. The organization of activities is usually in collaboration with other youth associations and independent cultural centres from Croatia and abroad. In the year 2003, after losing an inadequate space in the Jedinstvo factory, we focused our activities on programmes in host associations and clubs such as Močvara, Studentski centar, Kset. Our efforts were recognized by the City of Zagreb in the year 2009 which then provided us with a venue (old abandoned factory Medika), and in that way finally enabled smooth operation for implementation of organization′s activities. (…) The activity of the association is mostly based on volunteer work, which is rewarded with occasional fees, but since recently there is also few people employed in the association. Attack! was forced to work without its own space for six years, and at the time the lack of space for incubation of new ideas, projects and creativity of subcultural groups became evident. After six years without the space, in the beginning of 2009 the city of Zagreb gave us space in the old abandoned factory Medika. Just within few months of active work, AKC Medika became a gathering place for many members of subcultural and independent scene, artists and activists.” (https://attack.hr/more-about-attack/)

According to this and other stories I heard, I assume that the group squatted Jedinstvo factory first (by 1997); they were evicted in 2003, but kept organising “subcultural” activities and pressing the local authorities for granting them a suitable venue; in 2008 they squatted the former pharmaceutical factory Medika, the current space still in use, which is part of a larger complex of old buildings (with some squatted apartments and official agencies as well); by 2009 Attack! and the City signed a rental agreement which represents a cession of the space by the local government. Some think that the fact that the son of a well-known politician in Croatia was a member of the activist group facilitated the negotiations. However, the local authorities recently (2017-2018) proposed to demolish the Medika complex and set up a fancy congress venue in its place. The rental contract has thus expired, but Medika users keep paying the agreed rent (around 1000 Euros per month). As a consequence, the city wanted to evict Medika, but no clear deadline has been determined so far.

The vibrant programme of activities is supported by various forms of grants and institutional sponsors. Some artists are there “in residence” for some weeks or months, and musicians who perform in Medika are usually hosted too. Rules requesting a tidy maintenance of toilets, showers and kitchen are placed everywhere, at least in the buildings for rooms and studios. Pipes and roofs are not in very good condition, but there are no hopes that the municipality will ever invest in repairing and upgrading the building. The website also displays annual reports, information about the current projects and other documents in Croatian language.

Curiously, the INURA conference did not include Medika in the tours. Anyhow, a member of the civic-public partnership Pogon Jedinstvo (Zagreb’s Center for Independent Culture and Youth) leading one of the INURA visits, told me that they collaborate with Medika sometimes.

Pravo na grad / Right to the City Zagreb

Another great discovery during this trip is the outstanding organisation, and almost urban movement, Pravo na grad (Right to the City) Zagreb. It started in the early 2000s with the joint effort of cultural, youth and environmental groups, and it has grown substantially since then. It was later formalised as an NGO (2012). Friends of the Earth / Green Action and the Institute of Political Ecology are two of the environmental groups they work closely with. According to the Monoskop website (2012):

“Pravo na grad [Right to the City Zagreb] is an organisation engaged in advocacy and public campaigning against the economic overexploitation of spatial resources, corruption of public governance for the benefit of private interests, and the disenfranchisement of citizens in spatial planning processes in the city of Zagreb and Croatia. (…) Over the last five years Right to the City has undertaken a number of protest actions raising the public awareness about failing and corrupt urban development and planning policies of public authorities in the city of Zagreb, mobilizing the public against a very visible project of a shopping mall planned in the very centre of Zagreb’s pedestrian zone (Flower Square and Varsavska Street), as well as other cases of mismanagement in spatial policy. Ever since the end of the campaing in Varšavska, Right to the City has been working on helping similar citizen, activist and worker initiatives such as Kamensko, Inicijativa for Marjan, and Srđ is ours!” (https://monoskop.org/Right_to_the_C...)

The original network of organisations faced the de-industrialisation of the city centre and opposed urban policies related to its spatial and economic restructuring. Many factories were empty and some even squatted (and evicted). Workers from former self-managed companies were forced to sell their shares and lost their jobs. In some cases, such as Kamensko, enduring strikes took place and were supported by the The Right to the City network and students, although the new owners succeeded in their attempt to redevelop the industrial premises. Female workers and labour unions were thus mobilised not only against the scam of privatisation, but also questioning the gentrification of the urban core that followed suit. Moreover, the privatisation of socialist industries was not alone. The so-called “restitution” policy of properties to pre-1945 owners also attracted aggressive foreign investors to participate in the rising profits. The real-estate boom produced a wave of housing prices inflation and extreme housing unaffordability. In parallel, all the institutional facilities “to buy” were implemented after the 1990s war, which turned 90% of the Croatian population into homeowners -in particular, heavily indebted homeowners.

This group of urban activism began in close connection with youth, (sub)culture and urban vacancy issues:

“It started with a collection of grungy Croatian underground music venues and youth clubs in the early 2000s, which eventually came to be known as the Clubture network. There was a growing frustration in Zagreb with the lack of facilities for young people to find creative outlets and space for expression. The city had no shortage of empty and run-down factories and warehouses but they couldn’t get legal access to any of them, and when they tried other means they were often brutally removed by the police. The reason soon became apparent. Politicians – led by the populist mayor Milan Bandic – and their property development acquaintances - had grand designs on these sites, for commercial use. Not that there was anything wrong in principle with anyone wanting to redevelop the rotting hulks of Zagreb’s industrial past, but what aroused suspicion was the secrecy and the top-down approach, excluding young people, or anyone else, from having a voice in what might happen in large swathes of the city. Furthermore, prior to the mayoral elections all the candidates, including the winner, Bandic, had signed a pledge to provide the city with youth facilities, and now he was trying to play dumb over the issue.” (https://subversiveurbanism.tumblr.c...)

The most intense campaign that consolidated the network occurred from 2006 to 2012, according to Iva Marčetić (https://thefunambulist.net/podcast/...). Although the opposition to the construction of a shopping mall in Flower Square and Varsavska Street failed, activists continued united an became engaged in new struggles. Most of these were related to the planned destruction of green areas in both the city centre (for example, the so-called Pedestrian centre of excellence” aiming to foster tourism) and its fringes (for example, in Tresnjevka / the Cherry City, with new residential developments going on; and Savica, where a Catholic church and sport facilities were to be built). The movement is also concerned with the privatisation of commons in general, ranging from infrastructures and land to all public services (water, energy, waste management, education, etc.). The refugee crisis of 2015 sparked actions of solidarity as well.

In terms of tactics, the following account is very illustrative:

“Teo Celakoski and Tomislav Tomašević used tactics which ran rings around the security forces. Learning from the violent but largely futile anti-capitalist campaigns of the ‘90s, they chose never to engage in direct confrontation whatever the provocation might be. Learning also from successful Green activism, they employed effective methods, like chaining themselves together and encasing their joined hands in plastic tubing, which required long painstaking efforts with chain saws by the police to separate them.

Some methods made great use of symbolism combining the skills of artists and advertising creative within their membership. At one rally everyone arrived wielding toilet plungers, sending a clear message of what they thought Mayor Bandic was doing to Croatian democratic institutions. Another time they manufactured their own brand of bottled water called Mutna (or muddy) and filled it with a foul and filthy liquid which once again hinted at the murky dealings within city hall. And in a guerrilla action at the offices of the municipal planning department, they surrounded and sealed-off the building with police-issue ‘crime scene’ tape.

Other tactics employed were, frankly surreal – like the 5 by 7 meter Trojan Horse. For several weeks in a courtyard overlooked directly by the Ministry of Finance, they built an enormous wooden horse, without ever attracting the curiosity of the authorities. It then took 50 people to wheel it down the street at 4 in the morning to position it in Varsavska, whilst the hapless security guards were looking the other way. The presence of the horse became a rallying point for the final struggle to prevent the excavations and captured the imagination of thousands. The symbolic message here was that Bandic had promised to work for residents ‘like a horse’ but in fact had behaved more like a modern Trojan horse, smuggling his own private commercial interests into city hall.” (https://subversiveurbanism.tumblr.c...)

During the INURA conference, Right to City Zagreb and partner organisations brought about a public debate to question another urban project to come -the still blurry named Manhattan Zagreb. The mayor had released an international contest of proposals within a 18-days period. An Emirati firm of investors, Eagle Hills, was appointed as the winner. The reward for the investors is to have the right to develop around 1 million square meters of the city central parts surrounding the Sava river. The main consequences of this future development are the privatisation of urban land and the destruction of a unique and vast green area located at the river banks. Residents in the nearby residential area of New Zagreb collected more than 14,000 signatures to urge the city council a prompt response to exclude this project from the Master plan in which it is being included. The Right to the City alliance backed the initiative and wrote together with INURA members a letter of strong disagreement with the proposed project. The same obscure investors are also behind a similar waterfront megaproject in Belgrade that local activists are painstakingly trying to halt. (https://balkaninsight.com/2019/07/0...) According to INURA members who remained in Zagreb after the conference, the decision about the Master Plan was postponed due to the criticism of the Croatian Minister of Building, but also because of hundreds of activists who showed up at the city hall with noticeable red cards in their hands in order to express their discontent with the non-democratic procedure of this new case of crony capitalism led by the city mayor.

Academic references to Right to the City Zagreb can be found in the book edited by Kerstin Jacobsson (2015) Urban Grassroots Movements in Central and Eastern Europe (Routledge) -chapter “‘Right to the City’ and pride parades in Serbia and Croatia” by Bojan Bili and Paul Stubbs. A book chapter in Maple Razsa’s Bastards of Utopia: Living Radical Politics after Socialism (2015, Indiana University Press) is also dedicated to this activist experience. Likewise, a recently published and brilliant article contends that:

“The Right to the City protest movement seems to have avoided the ‘unavoidable’ destiny that the literature on social movements predicts: ‘routinising’ into a conventional organisation under Michels’s ‘iron law of oligarchy’, or dissipating as a result of ‘burnout’ (Tarrow 2011, 2012). Instead, this Right to the City movement has exhibited a remarkable capacity for metamorphosis, always managing to prioritise political confrontation over concerns for organisational self-preservation.” (Danijela Dolenec, Karin Doolan & Tomislav Tomašević 2017: Contesting Neoliberal Urbanism on the European Semi-periphery: The Right to the City Movement in Croatia, Europe-Asia Studies, p.2)

These authors argue that the Right to the City Zagreb has neither been co-opted nor shifted to a moderate repertoire of protest. Despite the failure of the Flower Square struggle, it experienced other wins in the city (Savica, for example), gained a broad social recognition in the Croatian society, used “communicative guerrilla” tactics, and did not avoid an increasing confrontation with the corrupt local administration. All this helped the movement to persist alive and kicking. Dolenec and colleagues also identify two key political features of this urban movement: “‘tactical shapeshifting’ whereby an organisation is understood as a framework rather than as being embodied in an institution (…) [and] ‘tactical networking’ with actors and organisations across various domains.” (p.16) One of the authors, Tomašević, is also an INURA member and a current representative of a “municipalist” platform at the local council. This move represents new challenges for the articulation of the movement with this municipalist political party. Obviously, they hold close ties but they also struggle to differentiate their respective fields of action.


In one of the tours I attended, three grassroots activists told us the story of a successful defence of a public park in their own residential area, Savica. Apparently a NIMBY (Not-In-My-Back-Yard) reaction, the Savica campaign has, nonetheless, larger implications.

Savica is a semi-peripheral area located at the South-Eastern part of Zagreb, near the river Sava, as an extension of the socialist housing developments of New Zagreb. It looks like a suburbial middle-class neighbourhood, with functional and relatively new buildings (from the 1960s onwards) surrounded by plenty of public space, and convenient local facilities such as schools. The activists we met are professionals (high school teacher, web developer and engineer) and speak English very fluently. They had no activist experience before their engagement in the struggle to prevent the construction of a giant Catholic church in the main park of the area.

In a country where more than 90% of the population declares to profess Catholicism, the Church enjoys numerous privileges -mainly achieved after 1989. In the real estate sector, the Catholic Church developed an aggressive campaign to build new temples across the country, which in most cases did not comply with the land use regulations in force. Although there were already churches in the fringes of the new housing developments, their intention was to move to the central parts. This implied to take over parks and recreation areas built during the socialist period. In Zagreb, the Catholic Church had all the support of the city mayor, Bandic. Their construction plans were supposed to be facilitated by under the table bribes and illegal agreements. The Savica neighbourhood was one of the targets of these plans but, luckily, rejected by an exhausting campaign of opposition by local residents.

The temple to be built had a design that occupied more than two thirds of the park and doubled the height of the existing buildings (up to 5 floors-tall). The construction plans were almost secret until one resident, Sacha, found them out. He distributed leaflets among other neighbours and called for an assembly. Since he has a partial Sudanese background, some residents suspected he was just opposing the Catholic religion. However, other concerned residents joined him and tried to frame their struggle with slogans such as “For the Church, but not in our park”. They also made pins and badges that stressed the message that to save their park meant to save the city from the speculative operations of the Catholic Church in collusion with the mayor’s firms and cronies. Local activists prompted their neighbours to file objections to the plan, and they even made legal appeals with the help of lawyers and urban planners. Nonetheless, the works started all of a sudden, without previous notice. As a response, activists set up a camp of tents and prevented the machines to destroy the park. This actions lasted for a month, including night shifts. It was later replaced with the installation of video-cameras to inform about new attempts to start the construction works.

The support of the Right to the City Zagreb network and other residents’ struggles across the city was crucial to gain leverage and a broad media coverage. Igor and Nena were the spokespersons of the campaign. Probably, they did not choose Sacha because of the potential backlash that could be sparked by his brown skin and non-Catholic identity. The solidarity they obtained from other activist groups (Tresnjevka, for example) countered the NIMBY character of their campaign. In addition, they help uniting many dispersed struggles by calling them to festivals, celebrations and demonstrations. A side effect was the substantial erosion of the electoral support of mayor Bandic in the Savica neighbourhood.

Once the construction plans were legally and institutionally defeated, the mayor even attempted a final revenge. Without any planning support, he instigated the development of an amenities park on site that would replace the whole green surface of the area. Again, billboards were placed and trucks and cranes were sent to the park. Activists quickly reacted by physically blocking their works and also legally questioning the project. This victory was eventually reflected in the prospects of the new Master Plan for Zagreb, which is still under deliberation. Furthermore, the Church has not given up. They still intend to build a temple in a contiguous green area and are also lobbying to name the park after a Cardinal who was associated to the Nazi-puppet regime of Croatia leading to the Second World War. This symbolic naming, if successful, could pave the way for further erect a statue and another temple that would jeopardise the beautiful meadow that the residents still enjoy today. On top of all this, the mayor seems to punish the area by instructing not to cut the grass of the park which is annoying for many residents.

In sum, the park was saved but the threats are still in place. It was a long lasting struggle that turned residents into activists, especially given their middle-class background, resources, alliances. Their success is due to the broader network of solidarity that was built (in which the Right to the City became a crucial partner), but also due to the increasing disclose of the corrupt practices carried out by the local government in collusion with construction firms and the real estate business and politics of the Catholic Church. Activist efforts combined direct actions, gatherings and celebrations, petitions and legal objections, press conferences, and demonstrations that were well focused despite being very demanding for the activists.

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