City as a geopolitics: Tbilisi

City as a geopolitics: Tbilisi, Georgia — A globalizing metropolis in a turbulent region

By Joseph Salukvadze and  Oleg Golubchikov

Published in Cities

Volume 52, March 2016, Pages 39-54

ABSTRACT

Tbilisi, a city of over a million, is the national capital of Georgia. Although little explored in urban studies, the city epitomizes a fascinating assemblage of processes that can illuminate the interplay of geopolitics, political choices, globalization discourses, histories, and urban contestations in shaping urban transformations. Tbilisi’s strategic location in the South Caucasus, at the juncture of major historical empires and religions in Eurasia, has ensured its turbulent history and a polyphony of cultural influences. Following Georgia’s independence in 1991, Tbilisi found itself as the pivot of Georgian nation-building. Transition to a market economy also exposed the city to economic hardship, ethnical homogenization, and the informalization of the urban environment. The economic recovery since the early 2000s has activated urban regeneration. Georgia’s government has recently promoted flagship urban development projects in pursuit of making Tbilisi as a modern globalizing metropolis. This has brought contradictions, such as undermining the city’s heritage, contributing to socio-spatial polarization, and deteriorating the city’s public spaces. The elitist processes of decision-making and a lack of a consistent urban policy and planning regimes are argued to be among major impediments for a more sustainable development of this city.

Keywords

Post-socialist city
Post-Soviet city
Transition
Urban planning
Urban governance
Tbilisi

1. Introduction

Tbilisi is the capital of Georgia, a post-Soviet country in the South Caucasus.1 The 2014 census estimated its population at 1.118 million (Geostat, 2015).2 Tbilisi is not only the largest city in Georgia, but is also one of the key socio-economic hubs in the Caucasus as a whole. The city presently accommodates 30% of Georgia’s population, but produces almost a half of Georgia’s GDP and, furthermore, contributes 60–75% to the country’s key statistics in entrepreneurial and construction activities (Geostat, 2014a; Geostat, 2014b).

‘Tbilisi… is like a Janus: one face towards Asia, and the other Europe’, wrote the Zakavkazskiy Vestnik newspaper in 1847 (Vardosanidze, 2000). Such hybridity remains a hallmark of the city located at the conjunction of the European and Asian continents, different cultures and geopolitical realms.

Tbilisi rose to its prominence through the centuries of a turbulent history. Its location on the edge of ancient and modern empires (Persian, Byzantine, Arab, Mongol, Ottoman, Russian) and on major trading routes, rendered the city geopolitically and economically significant — if only guaranteeing a continuous struggle for survival. The historical dynamism has left its marks on the social and cultural hybridity of the city. Tbilisi traditionally featured a cosmopolitan and multicultural character, as well as the tolerance of ethnical and religious differences (Frederiksen, 2012). Its urban forms and spatial fabric similarly inherited a peculiar mix of different cultural layers, superposed on the city’s rather peculiar topography.

The modern Tbilisi could have recreated itself through this indigenous tradition of distinctiveness, polyphony and tolerance. Becoming the capital of a newly independent Georgian state in 1991, the city, however, found itself entangled in the turbulent economic and political processes. The installation of a market economy coupled with an economic freefall in the 1990s, the rise of nationalism and the territorial disintegration of Georgia, as well as its government’s entanglements in the geopolitical tensions between Russia and the NATO powers have all produced a myriad of previously untested challenges — which have also left their marks on the city’s social and physical change.

As a globalizing city in a small nation in an economically peripheral and yet geopolitically strategic region, the case of Tbilisi can make an important contribution to urban studies, such as with respect to the meaning-making of the trajectories of “ordinary” non-Western cities in global urbanism (Robinson, 2006), to comparative and conceptual post-socialist urban studies (e.g. Borén & Gentile, 2007; Golubchikov, Badyina, & Makhrova, 2014; Sjöberg, 2014; Sýkora & Bouzarovski, 2012; Wiest, 2012), to a better understanding of variegated pathways of transition and neoliberalism (Brenner, Peck, & Theodore, 2010; Pickles & Smith, 1998), or even to the critical urban pedagogy of transition (Golubchikov, 2015). However, despite attention to Georgia from the disciplines such as international political studies, there is still a lacuna of internationally circulated knowledge of urban change in Tbilisi (although see Van Assche, Salukvadze, & Shavisvili, 2009; Van Assche & Salukvadze, 2011). With this contribution, we intend to further unlock Tbilisi for urban studies by providing an overview of its urban trajectories as a basis for hopefully further localized and comparative investigations. By doing so, the paper outlines some of the essential, even if controversial, processes, problems and outcomes of the city’s convoluted past and present.

The paper is structured as follows. We start with outlining the location, demographic and physical conditions of Tbilisi and then proceed with its main historical development phases — from the medieval period to the Russian Empire and Soviet eras and to the more recent period of post-socialist transition. We then consider the establishment of the real estate markets and recent urban policies and transformations in the built environment, and pay particular attention to the current urban development initiatives and associated political, planning and governance issues and concerns.

2. Physical, administrative and demographic settings

Tbilisi is located 120 km south of the Great Caucasus Mountains, on the Kura River (Mtkvari in Georgian). It shares the latitude of cities such as Rome or Barcelona, similarly enjoying a mild climate. The city has a complex topography, shaped like a large amphitheater surrounded by mountains on three sides. These physical conditions, once favorable for controlling the valleys, today represent a physical obstacle for urban growth. However, the climate, topography, and hydrography have also granted Tbilisi a unique cityscape, attractive panoramas, and peculiar architecture featuring laced wooden balconies and internal patios, traditionally used as places for socialization (Fig. 1).

Traditional wooden balconies in Old Tbilisi

Fig. 1. Traditional wooden balconies in Old Tbilisi. Photo by Oleg Golubchikov.

The present-day Tbilisi has a special status of the capital of Georgia. Internally its territory is divided into six administrative districts, with five of them being further subdivided into Ubani — 30 in total. These spread on the territory of 504 km2. However, the city topography circumscribes an island-like geography, with a few densely built-up areas surrounded by undeveloped land: more than half of the city’s incorporated territory is not built-up. The mountainous environment particularly limits new development on the right bank of the Kura River; at the same time, the built-up area on the left bank of the Kura stretches for 40 km.

Tbilisi’s present spatial structure is a product of a long historical process and expansion (Fig. 2). However, the city’s territorial expansion mostly occurred during the Soviet era: between 1921 and 1991 Tbilisi expanded six times in terms of population (Fig. 3) and ten times in terms of incorporated territory. Tbilisi’s Master Plan (Fig. 22) illustrates the city’s resultant layout, including built-up areas squeezed between mountainous areas. The city expansion has recently accelerated even further, aggravating the problems of the integrity and connectivity of the city.

The administrative expansions of Tbilisi

Fig. 2. The administrative expansions of Tbilisi. Source: Van Assche & Salukvadze, 2013.

The population of Tbilisi, 1922–2011

Fig. 3. The population of Tbilisi, 1922–2011. Source: General Population Censuses; * Estimates.

After gaining the independence, Tbilisi experienced a dramatic 15% population reduction. This was due to a mass outflow of population, mostly to Russia, coupled with a very low natural growth to compensate the out-migration (Meladze, 2013; Salukvadze & Meladze, 2014). However, the population growth reversed to positive in the 2000s, fuelled by migrants from rural Georgia. The city has consequently undergone ‘Georgianization’ — the acceleration of even a longer-term trend of the replacement of its once multinational composition by ethnic Georgians, due to a disproportional outmigration of Russians and Armenians (Fig. 4). Recent demographic trends have also included: aging population; a smaller family size; decreased levels of marriages and increased divorces. Coupled with lifestyle change, these factors have amplified demands for housing and developable land.

Historic change in the ethnic composition of Tbilisi

Fig. 4. Historic change in the ethnic composition of Tbilisi. Source: UN HABITAT, 2013:208.

3. From a medieval capital to an imperial powerhouse

Tbilisi was founded in the 5th century AD, although archeological findings reveal even earlier settlements. Emerged as a stronghold in the Kura valley, in the vicinity of the ancient Eastern Georgian capital and a religious center of the Orthodox Christianity — Mtskheta, Tbilisi eventually became a strategic settlement for controlling the lowlands between the Greater and Minor Caucasus ranges and major trade routes. In the 6th century AD, Tbilisi was made the capital of the Eastern Georgian kingdom Iberia. Since then it has maintained its status of the chief city of either Eastern Georgia or a united Georgian Kingdom.

The strategic location of Tbilisi between Europe and Asia made it vulnerable in the context of the rivalries between the main powers in the region, including Persia, Byzantium, Arabia, Mongols, and Ottomans (Lang, 1966). At the dusk of the Middle Ages, Georgia, the only Christian enclave retaining its statehood in the otherwise Muslim region found itself squeezed between hostile powers — Persian and Ottoman Empires, and North Caucasian tribes. Due to constant wars, Tbilisi shrank in population and economically. This required seeking protection from the growing Russian Empire in the north, sharing the Christian Orthodox religion, with whom Irakli II signed a treaty in 1783. This did not avert, however, a devastating Persian invasion in 1795. The Russian Army eventually liberated the Kingdom, but this cost the abolishment of the Georgian independent kingdom altogether in 1801. At the time of the incorporation in the Russian Empire, Tbilisi had only 15,000 survivors (Lang, 1957).

The consequent rebuilding of the city under the Russian rule marked the start of a post-medieval era in Tbilisi’s development. Known as Tiflis in the Russian Empire (like even today in some languages), the city retained its primacy and started serving as an important administrative center of the empire; from 1844 Tbilisi became a seat of the Emperor’s representative (Governor) in the Caucasus (Namestnik Imperatora na Kavkaze). The political importance of the city also boosted as the authorities regarded the city as a strategic military stronghold for protecting the south-western borders of the empire, as well as for monitoring and controlling political processes in the Ottoman and Persian Empires. Tbilisi had retained the status of the largest trade center and the most populous city of the region until the oil boom made Baku a larger city in the second half of the 20th century.

Tbilisi, hitherto a compact settlement with a medieval social organization and an irregular oriental-style layout, started a transformation towards ‘European-style’ patterns. Through an active city-building process, it gained the feature characteristic for a colonial ‘dual city’ with oriental-type, irregular, topographically diverse and culturally mixed Old Town, and newly-built European-style areas, established in accordance with a regular plan on relatively plain terrains (e.g. Sololaki). This changed the main axis of territorial development from the Kura River to the new wide avenues, which were named after the Governors Golovin and the Grand Duke Michael Romanov (today named after, respectively, Rustaveli and David Agmashenebeli) — one stretching westwards from the Old Town and the other located on the left bank of the river. The new districts were socially more homogeneous, residing the emerging strata of bureaucrats, affluent entrepreneurs, and Georgian aristocracy.

The appearance of the city and its internal structure and centrality changed dramatically (Fig. 5). The old town, rebuilt from ruins, with its labyrinthine of courtyards and balconies, contrasted with the new districts of neo-classical architecture (Fig. 6) (Suny, 1994; Rhinelander, 1972). The involvement of European architects brought in Western influences: neo-renaissance, neo-baroque, Italian Gothic and Art Nouveau (Ziegler, 2006; Baulig, Mania, Mildenberger, & Ziegler, 2004). Among newly introduced components were administrative buildings (e.g. the City Hall, currently the City Council) and palaces (e.g. the Governor’s palace, currently the Youth Palace), usually located in commanding heights and conspicuous locations, as well as squares connected by boulevards (e.g. on modern day’s Rustaveli Avenue), and parks (e.g. the Alexander Park, currently the 9th of April Park). A botanic garden, an opera, theaters, museums and schools also emerged in the city over 19th and the early 20th century.

A plan of Tbilisi in 1809 (compiled by Banov)

Fig. 5. A plan of Tbilisi in 1809 (compiled by Banov).

The old town (left) and a new district of Tbilisi in the early 20th century

Fig. 6. The old town (left) and a new district of Tbilisi in the early 20th century. Source: http://church.ucoz.com/photo/

Tbilisi of that era became a visiting venue or a place of residence for many prominent people. Writers, intellectuals, and artists who then visited or lived in Tbilisi, included, among others, Russians Alexander Griboyedov, Alexander Pushkin, Lev Tolstoy, Mikhail Lermontov, Piotr Tchaikovsky, Feodor Chaliapin, French Alexandre Dumas the father, Norwegian Knut Hamsun, German Arthur Leist and Friedrich Martin von Bodenstedt, British diplomat Sir Oliver Wardrop, German businessmen the Siemens brothers, Armenian oil magnate and financier Alexander Mantashev, German architect Otto Simonson.

By the late 19th century, Tbilisi had grown as a major trade, culture and manufacturing center of the Russian Empire. The railroad (built in 1872) and new roads were built to connect Tbilisi with other major cities of Russia’s Transcaucasia – Batumi, Poti, Baku – and other parts of the empire. The abolition of serfdom in Russia and the growth of capitalist manufacturing and trade attracted many rural residents, mostly of Georgian origin, to Tbilisi. Some informal settlements emerged accommodating the growing in-migrant population turned in the proletariat on the slopes adjacent to the newly built railway (e.g. Nakhalovka).

The social composition of the population also diversified across ethnicities and confessions (Suny, 2009). Several neighborhoods (e.g. Avlabari on the left bank) had a strong Armenian flavor; some others were Muslim (mostly Azeri, but also Kurdish, Persian — e.g. Abanoebisurani: ‘a neighborhood of baths’), Jewish (e.g. Bread Square in the Old Town) and even German (e.g. Alexanderdorf or ‘German Colony’ built from the 1840s). This composition made the city’s life cosmopolitan and multicultural: Tbilisi developed a distinct urban culture that transcended ethnic origins (Gachechiladze, 1990).

The transformation of the city also touched upon the way of life of Tbilissians. For example, the traditional meeting places such as bazaars, baths (especially the sulfur baths in the Old Town), and feasting places (e.g. Ortachala gardens) were succeeded by new gathering places, such as the opera, literary salons, and even the Georgian national drama theater (opened in 1850, then closed in 1855 and reopened in 1879).

The Georgian national theater and Georgian newspapers played a significant role in raising a national liberation spirit and consolidation of national identities. Additionally, the new education system – schools, gymnasiums and seminaries – brought in not only literacy but also anti-Tsarist attitudes, which eventually lead to spreading socialist, nationalist and liberal ideologies, the formation of political parties and their struggle for workers’ rights, on the one hand, and anti-imperialist values, on the other hand. Notably, Joseph Stalin (born in the neighboring town of Gori with the birth surname Jughashvili) was converted Marxist while studying at the Tiflis Seminary at the turn of the century; Tbilisi effectively became the site of early revolutionary activities for the later most powerful Soviet leader.

4. Soviet Tbilisi: urban growth and industrialization

In the period preceding and following the 1917 Russian Revolution, Tbilisi was in the center of political struggles over the future of the nation. After the February Revolution of 1917 in St. Petersburg, the Russian Provisional Government installed the Special Transcaucasian Committee (Osobyy Zakavkazskiy Komitet) to govern Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan. Tbilisi took the function of the de-facto seat of the Committee. Following the Bolshevik Revolution of October 1917, on 24 February 1918, the Transcaucasian Commissariat proclaimed the establishment of the Transcaucasian Democratic Federative Republic with the capital in Tbilisi. The new political entity was short-lived as its members showed divergent geopolitical preferences — Georgians’ orientation was perceived to be pro-German, Armenians’ — pro-British, whiles Azeris’ — pro-Ottoman. As a consequence, the federation fell apart, following the proclamation of an independent Georgian Democratic Republic on 26 May 1918 and the declarations of independence in the other two republics within two days.

During a brief period of independence of 1918–1921, Tbilisi became a seat of important nation-building projects, including Tbilisi State University, the first university in the Caucasus.

In 1921, the Bolsheviks finally gained control over Georgia and the republic was integrated into the Soviet Union. Remarkably, Tbilisi took the function of the regional capital once again. In 1922, the three South Caucasus republics were organized into yet another confederation, the Transcaucasian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic (TSFSR). It was disbanded in 1936, after which Tbilisi became the capital of a separate Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic.

Under the Soviets, Tbilisi was transformed from a medium-sized and relatively compact settlement into a large industrial metropolis. It was an important political, social, and cultural center of the USSR — even if remaining behind the ‘first-tier cities’ of Moscow, Kiev, and Leningrad with regard to its economic status. While the main driving force in the 1930s through the 1950s was the expansion of industrial activity (during WWII also fueled by the evacuation of manufacturing from the European part of the USSR), since the 1960s, industrial growth slowed down, and mass housing became the main driver of the city’s territorial growth.

Tbilisi developed according to the master plans (Genplans) of 1934, 1953 and 1969 (Van Assche et al., 2009). The growth of Tbilisi was in line with the Soviet policy of stimulating hyper-urbanization of the capitals of the Soviet republics to ensure ‘agglomeration effects’, i.e. economic gains from the concentration ‘of decision-making, diversified employment opportunities and better infrastructure in the capital city and its neighborhood’ (Gachechiladze, 1995: 157). The growing city enjoyed diversified public transport services with different transportation modes — busses, trolleybuses, trams, cable roads. In 1965, Tbilisi became the fourth Soviet city, following Moscow, Leningrad and Kiev, to gain an underground metro system. The Tbilisi Metro has proven to play a pivotal role in the city mobility, not least by providing accessibility to remote and otherwise isolated districts.

Architectural approaches evolved over the Soviet era (Bater, 1980). The Stalinist monumentalism with neo-classical and national elements, as well as the Soviet constructivism is notable in the Rustaveli Avenue (Fig. 7) and other main streets (e.g. buildings of the Zarya VostokaEasts Dawnnewspaper, and the IMELI Institute of Marx, Engels and Lenin). However, from the late 1950s, with the shift in policy to mass housing, the preference was given to mass-produced cost-efficient and uniform built environment (Fig. 8). Of the late Soviet era, internationally renowned were still, for example, the Road Department (Fig. 9), the Palace of Celebrations (currently a private residence of the family of late tycoon Patarkatsishvili), the Sport Palace, and the Dynamo Stadium. Many engineering mega-projects were completed — such as the embankment and retaining walls for the Kura River, a large water reservoir (18 km2) inside the city administrative boundaries (known as the Tbilisi Sea), the metro. All of these remain essential for the city’s functioning.

The ‘Stalinist’ architecture: the Georgian National Academy of Sciences building

Fig. 7. The ‘Stalinist’ architecture: the Georgian National Academy of Sciences building. Photo by Oleg Golubchikov.

Late Soviet neighborhoods suffering a lack of maintenance

Fig. 8. Late Soviet neighborhoods suffering a lack of maintenance. Photo by Oleg Golubchikov.

The 1975 Road Department building (since 2007 Bank of Georgia Headquarters)

Fig. 9. The 1975 Road Department building (since 2007 Bank of Georgia Headquarters). Photo by Oleg Golubchikov.

In 1978, with a growing attention to heritage protection, a large-scale reconstruction of the old town was launched. Old Tbilisi had remained largely untouched in the Soviet period (apart from some destructions occurring for new roads and embankments) and therefore preserved its historic unity and ambience. Although the reconstruction was criticized for its ‘facadism’ (Khimshiashvili, 2001), it had a positive effect on the pre-Russian sections of the city and boosted tourism. The project also enhanced the urban environment of Old Tbilisi and prolonged the lifespan of many buildings.

Soviet Tbilisi was not only an important economic and administrative center of the Soviet Union; it was also a center of political struggles of various factions, including those breeding the Georgian identity (Suny, 1994). As a rare scene of mass protest for that era, Tbilisi witnessed ethnic-based riots in 1956 in protest against the de-Stalinization policies of the new Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev; these were violently suppressed by the Soviet Army. New mass demonstrations took place in Tbilisi in April 1978 in response to an attempt by government to change the constitutional status of the Georgian language from being the sole state language in the republic to giving an equally official status to the Russian language. Moscow conceded to the popular demand to allow the status quo to continue, thus boosting the morale of Georgian nationalism. However, this also stirred up discontent in Abkhazia, an autonomous republic within Georgia, some fractions of which began seeking to split from Georgia. The radicalization of the anti-Soviet opposition and protests in the late 1980s also culminated in the so-called Tbilisi Massacre of 9 April 1989, when the army violently dispersed an anti-Soviet demonstration, resulting in several deaths. In both the popular and political culture, this event still demarcates Georgian struggles for independence.

5. Post-Soviet transition

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Tbilisi, like other ex-Soviet cities, stepped on the post-socialist transition treadmill. Following the laissez faire political ethos and conditioned by the expediencies of capitalism-in-the-making, the city turned away from planned development in favor of spontaneous real estate markets. This was, however, against the backdrop of a civil war and political and institutional disorganization and instability in Georgia under Gamsakhurdia Government (1991–1992) and the early years of Shevarnadze Government (1992–2003). Violent conflicts erupted over Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which declared independence, but also in other parts of Georgia and even in Tbilisi itself, which witnessed a militarized outbreak of violence in winter 1991/1992 over state power, which eventually ousted Gamsakhurdia. As a cumulative effect, the Georgian economy was one of the most hit among the former Soviet republics. By 1994, its real GDP collapsed to less than a quarter of its value five years before.

That was a shock to Tbilisi; as documented by Gachechiladze (1995:164),

Factories stopped; so did most urban transport; electricity failed; central heating radiators became useless decoration in the apartments… The city emerged as unprepared for the new situation, unable to purchase raw materials, fuel or machinery at market prices and in the quantities required for an urban settlement of such a size.

In just a few years, trolleybuses and trams disappeared from the streets of Tbilisi and public busses significantly limited their operations. Private mini-busses (marshrutkas) alongside the metro became the only street public transport routes for many years.

These problems coupled with the increased levels of crime and interethnic tensions promoted the out-migration of many Tbilisians to Russia and other countries — starting with ethnical Russians and Armenians but followed by Georgians themselves (Gachechiladze & Bradshow, 1994). The majority of these were educated white-collar workers. The population loss was offset by in-migration from provincial towns and rural areas and less educated and poorer groups. Rural in-migrants often struggle to adapt to the urban way of life, especially as employment was curtailed due to the crisis. The omnipresence of the newcomers was perceived by the native Tbilisians as the ‘provincialization’ of the capital (Gachechiladze & Salukvadze, 2003:20). Tbilisi also witnessed an influx of so-called internally displaced persons (IDPs), fleeing, particularly, from the breakaway provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The Soviet-era image of Tbilisi as a well-off and educated city, albeit somewhat exaggerated, in a short period transformed into its opposite.

Tbilisi’s IDP population is still estimated at up to 10% of the city population. Many of IDPs have struggled with the integration into the mainstream society. The unemployment rate exceeds 50%; most of them live in the so-called Collective Centers. These are state-owned buildings converted from other functions such as hotels, schools, kindergartens. The IDPs adaptation strategies have involved changing these buildings to accommodate their everyday needs, building extensions, and illegal occupation of surrounding spaces (Salukvadze, Sichinava, & Gogishvili, 2013). Until recently, IDPs occupied almost all Soviet-era hotels, including those in the city center, giving these areas a slum-like impression. The attempts of the Government of the President Saakashvili (in power between 2004 and 2013) to clear up such areas by removing IDPs to other parts of the city (e.g. providing moderate funds to buy apartments in remote districts) and to rebuild those deteriorated structures has improved the appearances of many areas (Fig. 10). However, a lack of a coherent strategy towards the resolution of the problems of IDPs, along with a virtually non-existent social/public housing sector, ensures that these problems will be haunting the city.

The Iveria hotel used as an IDPs collective centre (left) and rebuilt as the…

Fig. 10. The Iveria hotel used as an IDPs collective centre (left) and rebuilt as the Radisson Blue.

6. The establishment of the housing and real estate markets

A cornerstone of the market reforms in post-Soviet Tbilisi was destatization and the privatization of land and real estate. As early as in 1990, the mass privatization of housing already started, followed by leasing out of urban plots and sale of non-residential buildings. Although the Soviet system maintained a considerable portion of public and cooperative housing – which made the entire stock of the apartment bock buildings – by the late 1990s, more than 90% of the housing stock in Tbilisi was privatized. In 1999, the privatization of urban land began. The land and real estate market, however, emerged under the conditions of incomplete and weak institutions, poor governance and murky practices. A poorly regulated land market was locally described as a ‘wild market’, emphasizing its violence-based nature (Salukvadze, 2009).

In the 1990s, almost no investment went into important development projects. Emerged institutionalized developers focused on businesses that did not require large investments but could generate fast returns: petrol stations, car repair shops and washes, restaurants and bars, open markets, guesthouses. The most desirable places were those located between residential neighborhoods, in proximity to major street and highway junctions or easily accessible from metro stations.

Large housebuilding activities disappeared; rather the episodic construction of villas and otherwise cheap homes took place, often ignoring formal permission systems. A more widespread phenomenon was a ‘do-it-yourself’ extension of homes and apartments. That process was actually triggered by the late Soviet decrees of the Georgian Republic, particularly the 1989 resolution “On attaching of loggias, verandas, balconies and other auxiliary spaces to the state and cooperative houses at the cost of the dwellers/tenants”. Following that, apartment building extensions (ABE) mushroomed across Tbilisi. Initially, the construction was carried out by state companies following prescribed procedures; however, after the disappearance of the public construction sector as such and especially following the housing privatization, this process went out of control. Tens of thousands of ABE were completed — in various forms and materials, and violating the norms of security, safety and esthetics (Fig. 11) (see Bouzarovski, Salukvadze, & Gentile, 2011).

Apartment building extensions in Tbilisi

Fig. 11. Apartment building extensions in Tbilisi. Photos by Joseph Salukvadze.

Despite the possibility to marginally increase living spaces through ABE, housing conditions of the population generally deteriorated. The new homeowners showed institutional and financial inability in managing multi-family apartment blocks (UNECE, 2007). There were no effective obligations on apartment owners’ to maintain common spaces in privatized houses. Problems rapidly grew with leaking roofs, broken elevators, lack of thermal insulation, and other structural problems. All these have become problematic and, in some cases, have rendered buildings unsafe. In order to improve the situation, from the early 2000s several municipal programs for housing maintenance were initiated, centered on the establishment of homeowners’ associations (HOA). In 2004, the city of Tbilisi established Tbilisi Corps, a municipal unit for supporting the development of HOAs. Buildings managed by HOAs are eligible for municipal co-financing for repair of common spaces (roofs, staircases) and public spaces (courtyards). Between 50% and 90% of the cost is covered by the municipalities. Currently there are more than 6000 HOAs in Tbilisi; almost all multi-apartment buildings are managed by them.

The period from the early 2000s witnessed improved macroeconomic conditions, including resumed economic growth in neighboring Russia and increased volumes of FDIs (including by Georgians living abroad) and remittances. As elsewhere in post-Soviet space, the economic recovery was uneven, favoring larger cities and their proximity (Golubchikov, 2006). This bolstered economic growth in Tbilisi and changed the demand of the population and the business sector towards housing and the built environment. The development of the real property registration and cadastral systems assured better property security and facilitated the establishment of the credit market and the involvement of banks and other stakeholders in property transactions.

7. Urban policies and transformations in the built environment

The spatial development of Tbilisi has been lacking plans and planning laws for a long time (Ziegler, 2009; Salukvadze, 2009; Van Assche & Salukvadze, 2011). Rather, the building and planning activities were guided by the old Soviet legislation unless they were substituted by new rules. Such a regime was supported by the 1995 Constitution and a decree of the Minister of Urbanization and Construction of Georgia from 5 February 2002 on the Prolongation of the Terms and Validity of Construction Norms and Rules and Other Normative Acts (UNECE, 2007:8). However, in eyes of many, the old Soviet legislation was already outdated, if not lost legitimacy, and was not obligatory to follow. At the same time, when the new rules were introduced, they were increasingly relaxed, following the new worldview rejecting the Soviet planning practices as ‘unreasonable restrictions’ (Golubchikov, 2004).

The arrival of the liberal president Saakashvili, who came to power in 2004 via the so-called Rose Revolution, only further legitimized a liberal urban development policy regime. On the one hand, such policies significantly reduced corruption in planning, architectural and land administration systems; the acquisition of land plots and getting permissions for construction became relatively easy. For example, according to the Doing Business survey Georgia is ranked 3rd worldwide for the ease of issuing building permits and 1st for registering ownership rights (The World Bank, 2014). On the other hand, the same neoliberal approach has failed to attune to public needs. Hence, it is capital/investors that have determined the urban development process through the past decades, with one result being that the development is focused on the more lucrative central areas of Tbilisi, producing many infill constructions, over-densification and urban congestion.

Several key dimensions further characterize urban transformations more recently. Housing construction has skyrocketed after a near-stoppage in the 1990s, and reached the volumes of the 1960–70s (Fig. 12). The peak was in 2007–2008 when almost 2 million m2 a year was completed. The global financial crisis and especially the brief 2008 Russo-Georgian war over South Ossetia resulted in a rapid drop in construction activities, with many suspended projects (Fig. 13). However, Tbilisi municipality moved to inject confidence into the market by guaranteeing to purchase all finished developments at the cost recovery price of US$400/m2. This guaranteed at least a cost-basis return on investment and while no significant amount of such transactions was actually pursued, it lowered the perception of risk, unlocked banks’ willingness to offer credits, and encouraged developers to unfreeze projects (Gentile, Salukvadze & Gogishvili, 2015).

Distribution of the housing stock in Tbilisi by the period of construction

Fig. 12. Distribution of the housing stock in Tbilisi by the period of construction.

Source: JLL, 2012.

A suspended construction of a luxurious estate in Tbilisi in 2010

Fig. 13. A suspended construction of a luxurious estate in Tbilisi in 2010. Photo by Oleg Golubchikov.

The new housing projects, even if customary delivered as ‘core-and-shell’ (i.e. without any internal decorations or installations), exceed the quality of the previous-era constructions. However, the majority of the population cannot afford buying homes in organized housing developments. New projects rather cater for those with high disposable incomes, so that the proportion of so-called luxury apartments in new construction has been 40–50% (Fig. 14).

Sold residential spaces by price segments (left scale) and the number of sold…

Fig. 14. Sold residential spaces by price segments (left scale) and the number of sold dwellings in Tbilisi in 2006–2012. Source: JLL, 2012.

Again, some projects, seeking high profit, fail to comply with the preservation regimes and damage the historical and cultural identity of many areas. This is encouraged by widespread neglecting (even relaxed) building norms and rules, as well as by allowing developers to purchase ‘additional height limits’ over those specified in zoning regimes. This has had a negative impact on the quality of urban space, architectural composition, traffic, car parking and public spaces. In many neighborhoods, old structures are torn down to give place for new high-rises (e.g. Barnovi Street, Paliashvili Street, Piqris Gora, Sairmis Gora).

Old Tbilisi has been particularly vulnerable. The retreat of the state from the housing sphere had damaging effects on the older housing stock in Old Tbilisi, which due to its age is prone to deterioration (Fig. 15). This was aggravated by the retrenchment of conservation protection; according to Khimshiashvili (2001), Georgia’s monument protection authorities had the budget in 1999 which was less than 1% of their 1990 budget. The local population, often living at the edge of survival, could neither afford investing in the maintenance of their estates. Many buildings in Old Tbilisi have become unsafe for habitation and a few fell apart (Khimshiashvili, 2001) — the situation was further aggravated by an earthquake in 2002. Some areas now appear slum-like with collapsed homes amid a deteriorating built environment. However, the potential land value in such central locations is high. Even so, the unwillingness of the local residents to move to distant parts of the city, coupled with still extant heritage restrictions in these areas, for many years curtailed commercial redevelopment projects (Van Assche & Salukvadze, 2011). In the 1990s and early 2000s, few rebuilding projects were accomplished here – mostly as hotels, restaurants or small estates – often lubricated by corruption and enforced through violent means such as a deliberate damage to the existing structures to force the residents to move out. Despite this, the process of gentrification, like in in many other ex-socialist cities in the 1990s, was more piecemeal than systematic.

Dilapidating historic buildings in Old Tbilisi

Fig. 15. Dilapidating historic buildings in Old Tbilisi. Photo by Oleg Golubchikov.

However, more recently, the gentrification of Old Tbilisi has become rather policy-led (cf. Badyina & Golubchikov, 2005), as the government began providing investor-oriented funds and programs for the reconstruction of the old town, such as the New Life for Old Tbilisi. The scheme was described in the following terms:

The government provides working capital that allows developers to finish residential blocks. Slum dwellers, if they agree, then move in to the new housing, vacating land in Old Tbilisi. The government puts the land out to tender for property developers to develop, sell off and use the profits to repay their original debts to the banks (Economist, 2010).

This approach targets particular neighborhoods and has helped to improve some areas both in the old town (Fig. 16) and in the 19th century part on the left bank along the David Agmashenebeli Avenue (part of former Alexanderdorf) (Fig. 17). Hundreds of families have been given a chance to acquired better homes through this scheme. At the same time, the process mediates gentrification, changing the social composition and cultural diversity of the historic areas. It also causes the criticism of heritage professionals, because buildings are normally not repaired but demolished and ‘rebuild’ creating replicas of traditional houses, but destroying the original authenticity of the neighborhoods (Fig. 18).

Part of Old Tbilisi after reconstruction

Fig. 16. Part of Old Tbilisi after reconstruction. Photo by Oleg Golubchikov.

David Agmashenebeli Avenue after reconstruction

Fig. 17. David Agmashenebeli Avenue after reconstruction. Photo by Oleg Golubchikov.

Rebuilding Old Tbilisi (the same street photographed in 2012 and 2014)

Fig. 18. Rebuilding Old Tbilisi (the same street photographed in 2012 and 2014). Photos by Oleg Golubchikov.

Policy-driven gentrification of the old town appeared, however, only part of the urban ambitions of president Saakashvili. His policies were particularly aggressive in promoting the construction of ‘shiny’ glass-and-steel structures. Investments especially focused on the historic center. As a result, Tbilisi began changing its spatial structure even more rapidly — which at least until the late 2000s was happening in the absence of any urban strategy framework. Investing in flagship projects is a common feature of neoliberal urban entrepreneurialism, including in ex-socialist space (Golubchikov, 2010; Kinossian, 2012). Similarly, Saakashvili regarded extravagant post-modernist structures designed by world-renown architects as a quick fix in achieving a modernized and globalized image for the capital and, by implication, in linking the whole nation to the ‘European civilization’. Dozens of such ‘geopolitical’ projects were inserted in the fabric of the old town or its vicinity, at a considerable public cost. While the projects such as the Bridge of Peace (designed by Michele de Lucchi), Public Service Hall and Rike Park Theater (both by Massimiliano Fuksas) are certainly nothing short of masterpiece, many find them distorting the scale and flavor of historic Tbilisi (Fig. 19). Among other new-built dominants are also the Presidential Palace, the Trinity Cathedral (Fig. 20), as well as some hotels and commercial buildings (Fig. 21).

The new signature projects dominating historic Tbilisi's panoramas

Fig. 19. The new signature projects dominating historic Tbilisi’s panoramas. Photo by Oleg Golubchikov.

The Trinity Cathedral (built in 2004)

Fig. 20. The Trinity Cathedral (built in 2004). Photo by Oleg Golubchikov.

The Pixel 34 mixed-use building in central Tbilisi (built in 2008)

Fig. 21. The Pixel 34 mixed-use building in central Tbilisi (built in 2008). Photo by Oleg Golubchikov.

The public opinion has been divided over such major infills. One could argue that some of these projects are better tolerated than the others. For instance, out of the signature projects the glassy Bridge of Peace and mushroom-looking building of the Public Service Hall are better accepted than the ‘the tubes’ of the new musical theater or the Shangrila Casino buildings, which are almost universally considered as inappropriate for the Old Town fabric.

Even so, these projects have created a new powerful landscape that has significantly modified the perception of the city, and project the city in a new light onto the international scale.

A common feature of ex-socialist cities has been a rapid suburbanization (Stanilov & Sykora, 2014). While the booming housebuilding sector in Tbilisi has aggravated the pressures on suburban land and made the city further sprawl, some authors note that the suburbanization trends in Tbilisi do not qualify as ‘strong’ (Sulukhia, 2009). This is because suburbanization is not necessarily taking the conspicuous form of detached homes or gated communities as in many ex-socialist cities (Hirt, 2012), but rather continues the Soviet patterns of (sub)urbanization through the expansion and absorbing of existing satellite settlements or high-rise developments on the metropolitan periphery (Golubchikov & Phelps, 2011). Gated institutionalized developments do exist around Tbilisi but so far not on a scale of a phenomenon that creates its own dominant urban patterns (e.g. in Digomi, along the E-60 highway, and Tsavkisi: see Sulukhia, 2009).

8. Urban planning and future developments

In the context of rather chaotic and ad hoc development process, the establishment of a new planning system for Tbilisi has been long advocated by concerned professional societies (Van Assche & Salukvadze, 2011). The adoption of a new general/master plan for Tbilisi in 2009 might be seen as a substantial step towards finding a balance between planning and the market. The plan envisages a number of strategic changes in Tbilisi (Fig. 22). Inspired above all by the US zoning system (Van Assche & Salukvadze, 2011), it divides the city into different functional zones, separates commercial, residential and industrial areas, identifies heritage protection areas, and introduces the layouts of land-uses and general regulations for building and development for each functional zone.

The Master Plan of Tbilisi of 2009

Fig. 22. The Master Plan of Tbilisi of 2009. Source: Tbilisi City Council.

It is important to note, however, that the production and implementation of the city plan has not been without its own controversies. Firstly, many urbanists, architects, and planners complain that the plan was drafted and adopted without participation of professional and public circles. Secondly, the plan fails to incorporate sufficiently detailed schemes for transport and infrastructure development, thus raising questions over its usefulness for spatial development. Thirdly, it is rather a declarative document, as it lacks a solid view of what kind of city with what priorities will be developed. Furthermore, the emerged tradition of ad hoc development has not ceased after the adoption of the new city plan. The provisions of the plan can be changed by the Building Development Council of the Tbilisi City Council; for example, from December 2009 to February 2014, more than 1500 changes were applied to the functional zones, such as changing recreational and landscape protection areas into a residential, commercial or transport use. Besides, the government officially allows developers to buy ‘excesses’ deviating from designated building parameters in certain zones, thus actually allowing them constructing much larger and taller buildings.

The city plan still envisages several larger-scale projects. One of those is moving the railway line – rerouting it along the east side of the Tbilisi Sea to bypass the central districts of Tbilisi – thus releasing the city from transit traffic. This is envisaged to free up more than 150 ha of centrally located land for redevelopment and to better integrate otherwise isolated parts of the city. The space under the current railway infrastructure will accommodate a new public-business center with offices, retail, convention facilities, recreation and luxurious housing. Among other large-scale projects, the priority is given to the (re)construction and installation of high capacity motorways that should relieve the congested traffic regime in many parts of the sprawled city.

With the arrival of a new government in 2012 (the Georgian Dream coalition), the city authorities started a revision and partially stopped some projects approved by the Saakashvili government. For instance, the already initiated project of the bypassing railroad was halted for several months, although resumed with some changes in 2015. Some dimensions of the 2009 Master Plan have been reconsidered and it is likely that Tbilisi City Council will be requested to revisit the plan. As a step in that direction, the city government has prepared a City Development Strategy. It proposes a vision for Tbilisi in 2030 to become ‘a hub for global supply chains — creating a bridge between different civilizations in the competition for talent, technology and market’ (Tbilisi 2030, 2013: 5).

For its part, the new national government has also begun promoting new strategic projects in Tbilisi, continuing the practice of ad hoc interventions. For instance, a new flagship megaproject is envisaged to be the Panorama Tbilisi, which is to embrace formerly protected landscape areas of the Old Town. It is advertised as “the largest ever real estate development in Georgia’s history,” consisting of a multi-functional development of hotels, serviced apartments, offices, exhibition centers, conference halls and swimming pools linked by a series of cable cars. Financed by the Georgian Co-Investment Fund (GCF), driven by the tycoon, ex-Prime Minister and informal leader of the Georgian Dream coalition, Bidzina Ivanishvili, it envisages a total funding of USD 500 million, supported by a number of foreign funds (Anderson, 2014). However, numerous opponents – urbanists, architects, planners, cultural heritage protectors – argue that its implementation will finally kill the authenticity of Old Tbilisi (as well as ruining the hopes of including it on the UNESCO World Heritage list) and will aggravate the traffic conditions and environmental problems. Yet, after an initial refusal in March 2014, Tbilisi City Council, following a pressure from the national government, has hinted that it will approve the project.

Although so far the powerful stakeholders manage to overplay other voices, protests increasingly disturb the former. Urban activism fuelled by younger groups begins to make a strong presence in Tbilisi and often manages to halt some projects (e.g. in Gudiashvili Square). The activists efficiently use social media to consolidate the public opinion. This tendency of a growing public interest and involvement of social groups in the urban development process gives the hope that a more balanced and participatory processes will finally gain momentum.

9. Conclusions: evolving urban governance

The modern-day Tbilisi reveals a peculiar juxtaposition of the layers of urbanization shaped around the successive historical and geopolitical rounds of empire building, industrialization, independence, marketization, and associated struggles. The present post-Soviet era in the development of Tbilisi has yet been the one that lays bare the contradictions of transition and globalization. Basing on our analysis, the period can be conceptualized as consisting of three loose phases, following the evolving configuration of the most prominent actors in urban governance:

In the 1990s, during the period of political instability, economic hardship, and weak state institutions, it was population’s small-scale initiatives that dominated the development process — though in a limited way, due to a lack of capital. Their development practices were limited to ‘self-help’ small projects and fixes. That phase could be seen as a ‘Do-It-Yourself Urbanism’.

From the late 1990s, the improvement of economic situation and strengthening business and banking sectors allowed development companies to benefit from weak planning institutions. Developers found that it was possible to enter formerly restricted yet attractive public spaces. As a result of that opportunistic ‘Investor urbanism’ phase, infills mushroomed and filled up vacant public spaces in central areas of Tbilisi, over-densifying spaces and often ruining urban landscapes.

The consolidation of the state power from the mid-2000s put national government as a major player in urban development. The ‘Rose Government’ initiated many development projects, most of which took place in the central city, dramatically changing it. The adoption of the new General Plan for Tbilisi in 2009 brought some regulatory frames, but the government still commonly violates them. This ‘Politically-determined urbanism’ phase has not finished with the arrival of ‘The Georgian Dream’ coalition in power.

Overall, the entire post-Soviet period has witnessed an imbalanced urban process. Tbilisi, the city that had been developed under the Soviet planning system for 70 years, has been largely rejected planning as a tool for urban regulation and consensus building. This situation is not unfamiliar in the South Caucasus more widely (Valiyev, 2014) or indeed in the ex-socialist space (Stanilov, 2007). Even during the Soviet era, Tbilisi was not a good example of a well-planned city and existing plans were not followed too strictly (Van Assche & Salukvadze, 2011). Nevertheless, the new practices of non-planning have been of quite a different scale.

While the early transition process was the one of institutional disorganization, which may be argued to be responsible for the initial neglect of urban planning processes, the more recent lack of progress in that direction, under the arguably neoliberal yet authoritarian government of Saakashvili, rather hinted at a more deliberate ideological choice, where geopolitical aspirations for integration with the European and Transatlantic institutions were sold to the population in conjunction with laissez-faire deregulations and a further neoliberal package of reforms. However, weak urban planning also meant fewer obstacles for arbitrary interventions, including from the government itself and other powerful circles, and by no means a non-interventionist approach. Indeed, a modus operandi that emerged during the Saakashvili rule was that the central government began acting as a de-facto principal ‘driver’ of urban change, even if in a peculiar, urban entrepreneurial format. Most notably, in the name of the renovation and modernization of Tbilisi, the government initiated and sometimes co-financed fancy post-modernist signature projects designed by famous architects from abroad. In combination with the historic areas’ rebuilding, these have considerably changed the city’s outlook.

From a certain perspective, these post-socialist unregulated and ad hoc urban processes are innovative, affording varied participants the opportunity to contribute in the creation of new spaces: liberated from planning regulations, they have transformed the city from the uniformity tendencies of the previous era towards a post-modern eclectic and irregularity. However, professionals and the public are seriously concerned about the impacts of this state of affairs on urban integrity, functioning and heritage. A sporadic character of such constructions, violations of building norms and rules, the occupation of public spaces by buildings of oft-questionable quality and esthetics, and the dramatic change of the historic cityscape all attract criticism of both professional community and the civil sector. More and more frequently, one could hear that Tbilisi deserves a more careful approach in order to protect its uniqueness and traditional features. Irregular infills by modern high-rises and other commercial projects in inner city are no longer easily tolerated by citizens. Both the city and national governments have recognized the need in a comprehensive urban plan for Tbilisi and have started working in that direction, as evidenced by the adoption of the new General Plan for Tbilisi in 2009. Overall, this suggests that the citizenry becomes more sensitive regarding city development. The population is increasingly recognizant of the importance of more ordered spatial processes. This also gives the hope that a more inclusive urbanism, which would balance different interests with a strategic vision as well as functionality, will eventually manifest itself more vividly.

Acknowledgments

The study was supported by the Academic Swiss Caucasus Net (ASCN) operated by the Interfaculty Institute for Central and Eastern Europe at the University of Fribourg, Switzerland (grant “Social Contents of Changing Housing Landscapes of the Capital Metropolises of Armenia and Georgia: Institutions, Stakeholders, Policies”). The authors are also grateful to the Urban reconfigurations in Post-Soviet space research network (IRA-URBAN) for offering further opportunities to refine this research. Views expressed in this paper are exclusively those of the authors.

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1

The South Caucasus region refers to Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan. It has also been historically referred to as Transcaucasia, from the Russian Zakavkazye, “the far side of the Caucasus”, reflecting the Russo-centric geopolitics of the previous eras.

2

This was a 3.4% increase in comparisons with the 2002 census, although this growth was mainly due to the expansion of the city’s administrative territory.

A Mehelle Film About Urban Change in Baku

The documentary below is brought to you by Ajam’s Mehelle project, an initiative dedicated to preserving the sights, sounds, and memories of rapidly-changing neighborhoods in Central Asia, Iran, and the Caucasus. Facade is a product of two years of filming in the Sovetski neighborhood of Baku, which has been the target of a state-led urbanization campaign since 2014. A follow-up film will be released in Spring of 2018.

Produced and Directed: Ajam Media Collective’s Mehelle Project
Production Help: Javid Abdullayev and Ahmed Muktar
Music: Shebnem Abdullazade and Vusal Taghi-zadeh

“The neighborhood was one large family… Sovetski was always strong, and that’s why they want to break us.”

In the center of Azerbaijan’s capital city lies Sovetski, a historic neighborhood that was once home to Baku’s oil workers and their families. Over the course of the 19th and 20th century, Sovetski developed its own distinct identity. Self-proclaimed as the “old” Bakuvians, the residents of the neighborhood have had their ups and downs; they have witnessed political upheavals, the rise and fall of various “-isms,” and economic stagnation, but they always had a close-knit community to fall back on.

Now however, the residents of Sovetski face an uncertain future. Fueled by oil rents and foreign investment since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Baku municipal authorities and the Aliyev administration have initiated many urban beautification projects to dramatically rebrand the former Soviet industrial entrepot as a center for global capital and tourism. Over the last three decades, the municipality has renovated the Old City and the adjacent Torgova district (2008), in addition to building the iconic Flame Towers (2007) and transmuting the historical industrial Black City area into a wealthy suburb known as the “White City” (2014).

The authorities have not excluded Sovetski from their vision of a ideal cityscape. In 2014, the Baku municipality ordered “renewal” of the historic Sovetski neighborhood– their labyrinthine alleys, homes, shops, and places of worship will be replaced with a public park and major boulevard. Over the course of the last three years the people of the neighborhood have resisted through protests and demonstrations, but the bulldozers have been relentless. As of Autumn of 2017, the heart of the neighborhood has already been demolished, and new sections have been marked for demolition for the coming years. Facade is a documentary about this process.

As part of Ajam’s Mehelle project, Facade is the result of a collaboration with a number of Azerbaijani filmmakers, journalists, urban activists, and neighborhood residents. If you are interested in the lived experiences of the people of Sovetski, check out the digital map below featuring 360 video, music, and other forms of media.

Informal Governance in Urban Spaces

Abel Polese, Lela Rekhviashvili, Jeremy Morris

 

Abstract

Drawing on evidence from the competition for public spaces between street vendors and the authorities in Georgia our contribution through this article is two-fold. First, we provide empirical evidence showing the diverse role of informality in a series of settings, and its capacity to influence decision and policy making. Second, we explore the relationship between informality and power (and in particular the policy-making process) to go beyond a legality-illegality binary. Our goal is to show the influence that informality has on governance at the local but also national level. In particular, by mapping the various sources and expressions of power, informality is shown and conceptualized as a space where formal institutions and citizens (or informal institutions) compete for power, where certain aspects and mechanisms that regulate public life in a given area are played out. The importance of such a space of informal negotiation is shown to be vital in contexts where none of the two ideal types of social responses to policy problems – exit or voice options- are available.

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Baku’s Sovetski Celebrates a Final Novruz

This photo essay features video footage from the Mehelle project, as well as photographs from Chinara Majidova, a Baku-based photographer. The accompanying text was written by Ajam Editor Rustin Zarkar. For more articles from Mehelle, click here.    


Novruz bonfires rage in what remains of the Sovetski neighborhood in Baku, Azerbaijan.

Every year on March 20th, communities from the Balkans to Western China celebrate Novruz (Nowruz, Newroz, and other spelling variations all reference the same holiday). Over the centuries numerous forms of commemoration have developed throughout this geographic space–ranging from table settings to divination, children’s games and bonfires, and even throwing hats and tightrope walking–as people have blended local traditions with the celebration of the vernal equinox. Despite the diversity of practices, a common theme runs through all Nowruz festivities: renewal and rebirth.

In the case of the Sovetski neighborhood in Azerbaijan’s capital city, Baku, the last two Novruz celebrations have been bittersweet. Sovetski residents continue to ring in the new year with fanfare and jubilation (which usually includes lighting large bonfires), but the continued demolition of their neighborhood looms over them. While many have already moved from the neighborhood, the last holdouts in Sovetski believe that this will be their last Novruz in their homes.

As we have outlined in earlier coverage, in 2014 the Baku municipality ordered the destruction of the historic Sovetski neighborhood (and home to 60,000 residents) in order to make way for the extension of Winter Boulevard and the accompanying pedestrian park. While many residents have taken the government’s financial compensation package and moved to the outskirts of the city, some still reside in the emptying neighborhood.

With most of the demolition taking place last summer, Novruz 2016 was attended by many. The streets were crowded with cars, music blared from speakers and people gathered around bonfires that dotted the neighborhood’s alleyways and growing empty spaces. Our Mehelle correspondents were able to capture Novruz celebrations in the videos below:

A short video of 2016 Novruz celebrations from the Mehelle project

Residents of all ages gather around the fire to ring in the New Year.

Family members also start bonfires in back-alleys for a more intimate setting.

360 degree video of Novruz celebrations along Murtaza Muxtarov Street.

One year later, however, the crowds have noticeably dwindled. The municipality has blocked off all major roads leading into the neighborhood, forcing people to travel by foot in order to come and go. The fires continued to rage, albeit this time fueled by construction materials, windowpanes and molding, as well as paper scraps that litter the area. Bulldozers hovered around the gathering like moths to a flame as the inhabitants listened to music, laughed, and added to the fire. Despite the constant reminder of the demolition all around them, the people of Sovetski were able to welcome the New Year the way they have done so many years before.


As dusk falls, a few groups of residents begin to make their own fires.

Young men watch the fire from the steet.


Tending the fire.


Remnants from once-inhabited homes are used as firewood.

The roaring flames attract more residents.

Bulldozers ominously watch over the festivities.

While Novruz is a time for new beginnings, it is also worth reflecting on what has been lost. In Sovetski, as well as other neighborhoods across the Caucasus and Central Asia, state and private interests are dramatically refashioning urban areas. This coming new year, Ajam will introduce two new locations to the Mehelle project: Tbilisi (spring) and Dushanbe (summer). Not only do we wish to document the changes to the built environment and the social relations embedded within them, but we hope to show that communities continue to find reasons to live and celebrate despite the struggles and the hardships they face.

Locked-in post-socialism: rolling path dependencies in Liberec’s district heating system

 

This paper uses the experience of post-socialist district heating reforms to tell a broader story about the continued and shared challenges that central and eastern European cities face as they grapple with the legacies of the recent and more distant past. We argue that the restructuring of this infrastructural domain has been contingent upon geographically embedded trajectories stemming from previous historical periods, while leading to the creation of new socio-technical lock-ins. The paper thus develops the notion of “rolling path-dependencies” in order to explore how post-socialist developments both overcome and supplant previous trajectories of transformation. It focuses on the northern Czech town of Liberec – a place that is known for having some of the highest heating prices in the country – to elucidate how a socially, economically, and environmentally detrimental lock-in has come into existence as a result of ill-conceived policies of marketization, municipalization, and privatization. Using evidence from official documents and interviews with policy-makers, we demonstrate how the infrastructural legacies of post-socialism both persist and are being reproduced at the urban scale even within “advanced” reforming states like Czechia.

Introduction

Liberec is a medium-sized city and regional administrative center nested amidst the mountains that line Czechia’s northern borders with Poland and Germany. It has generally remained outside the attention of mainstream academic research on economic and political change within and beyond the region. Yet this city with a population of just over 100,000 people recently entered the national limelight as a result of news reports that local citizens were paying astronomically high prices for their district heating (DH) supply (Pšeničková 2015Pšeničková, Jana2015Liberec Chce Dotlačit Teplárnu, Aby Snížila Ceny. Odpustí Jí Nájemné [Liberec pressures district heating plant to reduce prices – rent will be forgiven]. Accessed May 2, 2016.http://liberec.idnes.cz/liberec-se-snazi-snizit-cenu-tepla-d5e-/liberec-zpravy.aspx?c=A151030_154454_liberec-zpravy_tm [Google Scholar]). Not only did heating tariffs rise well beyond affordable levels, but households were locked into a system that prevented them from switching to a different source of energy supply. In addition, there was evidence to suggest that the local authority was indirectly supporting the privately owned DH company via a complex web of ownership interests and policy measures.

As it turns out, the Liberec case is not isolated in the context of the post-socialist countries of Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) and the Former Soviet Union (FSU). In fact, a number of cities and countries in the region have struggled with the legacies of centralized heating supply systems – commonly known as district heating systems (Poputoaia and Bouzarovski 2010Poputoaia, Diana, and StefanBouzarovski2010. “Regulating District Heating in Romania: Legislative Challenges and Energy Efficiency Barriers.” Energy Policy 38: 38203829.10.1016/j.enpol.2010.03.002[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]) – inherited from their respective centrally planned economies. This large-scale form of energy provision was emblematic of the political ideologies and urban development policies that underpinned state socialism. The system entailed the delivery of hot steam or water to households and companies via large and centralized networks of pipes and pumping stations. The water itself was heated in fossil-fuel burning plants (primarily coal, heavy fuel oil, and sometimes gas) that also often produced electricity. Under the unfolding crisis of the socialist system, the plants and networks themselves became poorly maintained, with much energy being lost between the sites of production and consumption (Bouzarovski 2009Bouzarovski, Stefan2009. “East-central Europe’s Changing Energy Landscapes: A Place for Geography.” Area 41: 452463.10.1111/area.2009.41.issue-4[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]; Rezessy et al. 2006Rezessy, S.K.DimitrovD. Urge-Vorsatz, and S.Baruch2006. “Municipalities and Energy Efficiency in Countries in Transition. Review of Factors That Determine Municipal Involvement in the Markets for Energy Services and Energy Efficient Equipment, or How to Augment the Role of Municipalities as Market Players.” Energy Policy 34: 223237.10.1016/j.enpol.2004.08.030[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]).

DH systems were intimately tied to economic, social, and spatial planning practices and policies under socialism. These networks accompanied mass production and supported daily life and mass consumption of heat in standardized housing. They were also dependent on the promotion and maintenance of particular types of urban forms. The upkeep of such sizeable networks became costly and complex under the market conditions that evolved after the fall of communism. With increasing numbers of consumers switching to other energy carriers – leading to falling revenues and a subsequent need for additional price increases – utilities resorted to punitive measures to prevent further disconnection. Evidence of consumers being “trapped in the heat” has emerged in several CEE countries (Poputoaia and Bouzarovski 2010Poputoaia, Diana, and StefanBouzarovski2010. “Regulating District Heating in Romania: Legislative Challenges and Energy Efficiency Barriers.” Energy Policy 38: 38203829.10.1016/j.enpol.2010.03.002[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]; Tirado Herrero and Ürge-Vorsatz 2012Tirado Herrero, S., and D. Ürge-Vorsatz2012. “Trapped in the Heat: A Post-communist Type of Fuel Poverty.” Energy Policy 49: 6068.10.1016/j.enpol.2011.08.067[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]).

In this paper, we use the case of DH and the experience of Liberec more specifically as a starting point for making a broader argument about the continued importance of integrated perspectives on past and present urban transitions and transformations in CEE and the FSU. Drawing upon the multiple transformations model by Sýkora and Bouzarovski (2012Sýkora, Luděk, and Stefan Bouzarovski2012. “Multiple Transformations: Conceptualising the Post-communist Urban Transition.” Urban Studies 49: 4360.10.1177/0042098010397402[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]), we argue that the need for a holistic view on post-socialist systemic change still holds relevance for developments in the region and beyond, because micro- and meso-scale transformations in the domains of social practice, organizational change, and the evolution of urban and regional landscapes are ongoing. These claims are developed with reference to the specific infrastructural character of DH, which embodies the institutional and socio-technical inertia of past systems, being nested in past and present urban formations and challenged by recent impacts of free market conditions. Thus, DH can tell us a broader story about the continued and shared challenges that CEE and the FSU face as they continue to grapple with the legacies of communist central planning – even in the case of countries like Czechia that are now well integrated into the sphere of Western capitalism.

In advancing these claims, we do not wish to negate or diminish growing calls for the inclusion of the post-socialist heuristic into a global sensibility of urban change, potentially entering into a dialog with post-colonial frameworks (Chari and Verdery 2009Chari, Sharad, and Katherine Verdery2009. “Thinking between the Posts: Postcolonialism, Postsocialism, and Ethnography after the Cold War.” Comparative Studies in Society and History 51: 634.10.1017/S0010417509000024[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]). Nor do we intend to retreat to the presumably safer space of area studies, which, as some have argued, holds the risk of driving the study of CEE and FSU cities into a corner that underplays and trivializes the wider political–economic relations that underpin changes in this part of the world (Sjöberg 2014Sjöberg, Örjan2014. “Cases onto Themselves? Theory and Research on Ex-socialist Urban Environments.” Geografie 4: 299319. [Google Scholar]). Rather, the contribution that follows highlights the need for focusing on the systemic nature of socio-spatial processes that have been unfolding in this part of the world over the past 25 years. There is an emphasis on understanding how the period of post-socialist restructuring has been contingent upon geographically embedded path-dependencies stemming from previous historical periods, while leading to the creation of new socio-material lock-ins. We develop the notion of “rolling path-dependencies,” which signifies that new paths arise during periods of systemic change by both overcoming and supplanting previous trajectories of transformation (Horak 2007Horak, M. 2007Governing the Post-communist City: Institutions and Democratic Development in PragueTorontoUniversity of Toronto Press.10.3138/9781442684386[Crossref][Google Scholar]; Sýkora 2008Sýkora, Luděk. 2008. “Revolutionary Change, Evolutionary Adaptation and New Path Dependencies: Socialism, Capitalism and Transformations in Urban Spatial Organization.” In City and Region. Papers in Honour of Jiří Musil, edited by W. Strubeltand G. Gorzelak283295LeverkusenBudrich UniPress. [Google Scholar]). While challenging mainstream neoliberal understandings of transition (Åslund 1992Åslund, Anders1992Post-communist Economic Revolutions: How Big a Bang?Washington, DCCenter for Strategic and International Studies. [Google Scholar]), this perspective also holds relevance for the understanding of similar deep-seated processes of socio-spatial restructuring in other parts of the world.

Theorizing systemic change: legacies and path dependencies in post-socialism and beyond

The last 15 years have seen the publication of a significant body of academic and policy contributions aimed at unraveling the relationship between urban transformations in the post-socialist space, on the one hand, and wider political and economic developments in CEE and FSU, on the other. In contrast with the relatively prescriptive one-dimensional understanding of transition that was advanced by neoliberal economists in the early 1990s (Åslund 1992Åslund, Anders1992Post-communist Economic Revolutions: How Big a Bang?Washington, DCCenter for Strategic and International Studies. [Google Scholar]; Sachs 1990Sachs, J. 1990. “Eastern Europe’s Economies: What Is to Be Done?” The Economist, January 3. Accessed October 14, 2016.http://www.economist.com/node/13002085 [Google Scholar]), it has come to be acknowledged that the movement to a market-based economy requires complex and lengthy reconfigurations in a multiplicity of spheres. What is more, the political and institutional application of normative reform frameworks has been preceded, supplemented, and followed by a wider range of more subtle and less visible shifts in the governance and conduct of everyday life. These involve the establishment of new regulatory principles and informal practices that are simultaneously shaped by and shape broader neoliberal agendas (Stenning et al. 2010Stenning, A.A. SmithAlena Rochovská, and D. Świątek2010Domesticating Neo-liberalism: Spaces of Economic Practice and Social Reproduction in Post-socialist CitiesMalden, MAWiley-Blackwell.10.1002/9781444325409[Crossref][Google Scholar]). Thus, post-socialist change can be seen as the emergence of a specific array of interconnected social dynamics with indeterminate outcomes. It is enacted via “multiple transformations,” whose expressions and articulations can be found in the urban landscapes of CEE and FSU (Sýkora and Bouzarovski 2012Sýkora, Luděk, and Stefan Bouzarovski2012. “Multiple Transformations: Conceptualising the Post-communist Urban Transition.” Urban Studies 49: 4360.10.1177/0042098010397402[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]).

Post-socialist transition dynamics are geographically delimited: they take place in countries that have experienced a large-scale movement away from the centrally planned economy and one-party system (Smith and Swain 2010Smith, Adrian, and Adam Swain2010. “The Global Economic Crisis, Eastern Europe, and the Former Soviet Union: Models of Development and the Contradictions of Internationalization.” Eurasian Geography and Economics 51: 134.[Taylor & Francis Online][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]). This suggests that a level of commonality exists across the entire CEE and FSU space, and in relation to similar state socialist economies in Asia, Africa, and the Americas. Understanding the intrinsic nature of these shared features has often required focusing onto the geographical specificities of “post-socialist difference” (Sjöberg 2014Sjöberg, Örjan2014. “Cases onto Themselves? Theory and Research on Ex-socialist Urban Environments.” Geografie 4: 299319. [Google Scholar]). However, it has been argued that a spatial emphasis on the defining characteristics of transforming CEE and FSU cities limits the ability of post-socialist urban studies to engage with wider theoretical paradigms while relegating analyses and conceptualizations of systemic change in the region to the domain of area studies (Ferenčuhová 2016Ferenčuhová, Slavomíra2016. “Accounts from behind the Curtain: History and Geography in the Critical Analysis of Urban Theory.” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 40 (Mar.): 113131. doi:10.1111/1468-2427.12332.[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]; Moore 2001Moore, David Chioni2001. “Is the Post- in Postcolonial the Post- in Post-Soviet? Toward a Global Postcolonial Critique.” PMLA 116: 111128. [Google Scholar]; Tuvikene 2016Tuvikene, Tauri2016. “Strategies for Comparative Urbanism: Post-socialism as a De-territorialized Concept.” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 40: 132146.10.1111/1468-2427.12333[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]). While constraints on space do not allow for a wider engagement with such debates within the confines of this contribution, we would emphasize that they have often neglected the temporal dimension of political and material reconfigurations associated with post-socialist urban reconfigurations. The CEE and FSU transformation process can be seen as an amalgamation of critical junctures stemming from the collective and individual decisions taken by institutional and household actors reflecting both socialist legacies and challenges of capitalism. Systemic knowledge that is applicable well beyond the post-socialist context can emerge from a conceptualization of the socio-material nature of reform choices, their relationships with wider political dynamics, and their implications for urban transformations writ large.

The significant body of literature on path-dependencies and “hysteresis effects” in CEE and the FSU (Hausner, Jessop, and Nielsen 1995Hausner, J.B. Jessop, and K. Nielsen1995. “Institutional Change in Post-socialism.” In Strategic Choice and Path-dependency in Post-socialism, edited by J. HausnerB.Jessop, and K.Nielsen345AldershotEdward Elgar. [Google Scholar]; Sýkora 2008Sýkora, Luděk. 2008. “Revolutionary Change, Evolutionary Adaptation and New Path Dependencies: Socialism, Capitalism and Transformations in Urban Spatial Organization.” In City and Region. Papers in Honour of Jiří Musil, edited by W. Strubeltand G. Gorzelak283295LeverkusenBudrich UniPress. [Google Scholar]; Yavlinsky and Braguinsky 1994Yavlinsky, G., and S.Braguinsky1994. “The Inefficiency of Laissez-faire in Russia: Hysteresis Effects and the Need for Policy-led Transformation.” Journal of Comparative Economics 19: 88116.10.1006/jcec.1994.1064[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]) made numerous inroads into the relationship between surviving vestiges of the state-socialist system – be they social, economic, or spatial – on the one hand, and reform trajectories followed by countries in the region, on the other (Golubchikov, Badyina, and Makhrova 2014Golubchikov, OlegAnna Badyina, and Alla Makhrova2014. “The Hybrid Spatialities of Transition: Capitalism, Legacy and Uneven Urban Economic Restructuring.” Urban Studies 51: 617633.10.1177/0042098013493022[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]). This work has primarily seen path-dependencies in the context of past developments, in addition to highlighting their economic sub-optimality from the perspective of neoliberal approaches. There has been a strong focus on the manner in which historically formed forces create economic and material rigidities that limit the number of options available to agents. Such arguments have often been developed with reference to the more widely observed “tendency for the geographical structure of the economy to exhibit historical ‘quasi-fixity’” (Martin and Sunley 2006Martin, Ron, and Peter Sunley2006. “Path Dependence and Regional Economic Evolution.” Journal of Economic Geography 6: 395437.10.1093/jeg/lbl012[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar], 414), thus shedding light on the processes whereby “an economic landscape has come to be what it is.” Indeed, the wider body of scholarship on the subject has often argued that path dependency is a fundamental feature of territorial evolution (Boschma 2015Boschma, Ron2015. “Towards an Evolutionary Perspective on Regional Resilience.” Regional Studies 49: 733751.10.1080/00343404.2014.959481[Taylor & Francis Online][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]). This is because path-dependencies are often predicated upon lock-ins, whose inflexibility can bring about stable conditions and benefits in some contexts, while preventing the emergence of new forms of internal development and flexible adaptation in others (Underthun et al. 2014Underthun, AndersJarle Moss HildrumHelge SvareHenrik Dons Finsrud, and Knut Vareide2014. “The Restructuring of the Old Industrial Region of Grenland in Norway: Between Lock-in, Adjustment, and Renewal.” Norsk Geografisk Tidsskrift – Norwegian Journal of Geography 68: 121132.10.1080/00291951.2014.894566[Taylor & Francis Online][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]). According to Setterfield (1996Setterfield, Mark1996Rapid Growth and Relative Decline: Modelling Macroeconomic Dynamics with HysteresisLondonMacmillan. [Google Scholar]), lock-ins arise when sequential patterns of activity form a “groove” that render the system “over-committed” to particular technologies, industries, or institutional regimes.

A distinct strand of research on path-dependencies has explored the process of “path-creation,” where the emphasis is on “the time that events occurred even if one were looking at data gathered in the past” (Garud, Kumaraswamy, and Karnøe 2010Garud, RaghuArunKumaraswamy, and Peter Karnøe2010. “Path Dependence or Path Creation?” Journal of Management Studies47: 760774.10.1111/j.1467-6486.2009.00914.x[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar], 770). Authors working in this vein have underlined the complex agencies involved in the establishment of new development paths, even if some of the traditional components – initial conditions, contingencies, self-reinforcing mechanisms, and lock-in – still exist in their conceptual vocabulary (2010Garud, RaghuArunKumaraswamy, and Peter Karnøe2010. “Path Dependence or Path Creation?” Journal of Management Studies47: 760774.10.1111/j.1467-6486.2009.00914.x[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]). But a large part of path creation thinking has to date remained highly normative, being interested primarily in the measures and strategies that need to be implemented in a given geographical or social context in order to achieve a previously defined outcome (Simmie 2012Simmie, James2012. “Path Dependence and New Path Creation in Renewable Energy Technologies.” European Planning Studies 20: 729731.10.1080/09654313.2012.667922[Taylor & Francis Online][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]). The literature on the subject has paid little attention to the spontaneous emergence of new path-dependencies in periods of change. Such lacunae also extend to the CEE and FSU space, where the recognition that post-socialist transformations are not only path-dependent but also path-shaping (Pickles and Smith 1998Pickles, John, and Adrian Smith1998Theorising Transition: The Political Economy of Post-communist TransformationsLondonRoutledge. [Google Scholar]) has yet to be translated into comprehensive theorizations that would apply to the rise of new paths after 1990 (but see Horak 2007Horak, M. 2007Governing the Post-communist City: Institutions and Democratic Development in PragueTorontoUniversity of Toronto Press.10.3138/9781442684386[Crossref][Google Scholar]; Sýkora 2008Sýkora, Luděk. 2008. “Revolutionary Change, Evolutionary Adaptation and New Path Dependencies: Socialism, Capitalism and Transformations in Urban Spatial Organization.” In City and Region. Papers in Honour of Jiří Musil, edited by W. Strubeltand G. Gorzelak283295LeverkusenBudrich UniPress. [Google Scholar]). But some scholars have suggested that the sequencing of restructuring decisions and practices in post-socialism plays a key role in determining policy trajectories. This line of thinking is epitomized in Dahrendorf’s (1990Dahrendorf, R. 1990Reflections on the Revolution in EuropeLondonChatto & Windus. [Google Scholar]) “clocks” metaphor, which recognizes that diverse transformations of institutions, politics, everyday routines, and spatial formations unfold at a different pace, with some processes requiring changes in others before they can commence (Sýkora and Bouzarovski 2012Sýkora, Luděk, and Stefan Bouzarovski2012. “Multiple Transformations: Conceptualising the Post-communist Urban Transition.” Urban Studies 49: 4360.10.1177/0042098010397402[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]). It follows that new path dependencies can emerge at critical junctures during such multiple transformations, when actors make contingent choices that define and consolidate a specific trajectory of development (Sýkora 2008Sýkora, Luděk. 2008. “Revolutionary Change, Evolutionary Adaptation and New Path Dependencies: Socialism, Capitalism and Transformations in Urban Spatial Organization.” In City and Region. Papers in Honour of Jiří Musil, edited by W. Strubeltand G. Gorzelak283295LeverkusenBudrich UniPress. [Google Scholar]).

Nevertheless, new development trajectories are not formed in a vacuum. Gentile, Tammaru, and van Kempen (2012Gentile, MichaelTiitTammaru, and Ronald van Kempen2012. “Heteropolitanization: Social and Spatial Change in Central and East European Cities.” Cities 29: 291299.10.1016/j.cities.2012.05.005[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]) argue that understanding socialist legacies is essential to grasp the nature of the relationship between social and spatial change. Golubchikov, Badyina, and Makhrova (2014Golubchikov, OlegAnna Badyina, and Alla Makhrova2014. “The Hybrid Spatialities of Transition: Capitalism, Legacy and Uneven Urban Economic Restructuring.” Urban Studies 51: 617633.10.1177/0042098013493022[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]) point to the mutual embeddedness of socialist legacies and neoliberal practices, which “subsume legacy, recode its meaning, and recast the formerly egalitarian spaces as an uneven spatial order” (2014Golubchikov, OlegAnna Badyina, and Alla Makhrova2014. “The Hybrid Spatialities of Transition: Capitalism, Legacy and Uneven Urban Economic Restructuring.” Urban Studies 51: 617633.10.1177/0042098013493022[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar], 617). Hence, post-socialist transition entails not only transformations aimed at the dismantling of established legacies and the formation of new paths, but also a more complex situation of living with the aftermath of socialism under an emergent capitalist regime. This is especially true in the case of large-scale materially based infrastructures embedded in urban landscapes, including public transport systems and mass-produced housing (Chelcea and Pulay 2015Chelcea, Liviu, and Gergő Pulay2015. “Networked Infrastructures and the ‘Local’: Flows and Connectivity in a Postsocialist City.” City19 (2–3): 344355.10.1080/13604813.2015.1019231[Taylor & Francis Online][Google Scholar]; Ürge-Vorsatz, Miladinova, and Paizs 2006Ürge-Vorsatz, DianaGergana Miladinova, and Laszlo Paizs2006. “Energy in Transition: From the Iron Curtain to the European Union.” Energy Policy 34: 22792297.10.1016/j.enpol.2005.03.007[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]). Even if they were originally constructed to achieve a higher quality of living and a more egalitarian society, these socio-technical systems have become alienated from their original purpose. The logic of neoliberal capitalism has driven their utilization for profit-making purposes, bringing forth new socio-spatial inequalities (Chester 2013Chester, Lynne2013. “The Failure of Market Fundamentalism: How Electricity Sector Restructuring is Threatening the Economic and Social Fabric.” Review of Radical Political Economics 45: 315322.10.1177/0486613413487163[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]; Guogis, Šilinskytė, and Bileišis 2014Guogis, ArvydasAušra Šilinskytė, and Mantas Bileišis2014. “Government-community Conflict: The Lithuanian Public Governance Challenge.” Public Policy and Administration 13: 2235. [Google Scholar]; Pye et al. 2015Pye, SteveAudreyDobbinsClaireBaffertJuricaBrajkovićIvanaGrgurevRocco DeMiglio, and PaulDeane2015Energy Poverty and Vulnerable Consumers in the Energy Sector across the EU: Analysis of Policies and Measures. Policy Report 2. Insight_E, Energy Think Tank of European CommissionMaiaccesat în data de 3. [Google Scholar]).

Methods and paper structure

The decision to focus our study on the case of Liberec was made on the basis of prior knowledge, as well as the city’s prominence in Czech public discourses regarding DH restructuring. However, this exploration was embedded in a wider documentary review of relevant strategic papers and policies at the national and regional scales. We thus juxtaposed evidence from multiple sources. The legal, regulatory, and policy background was studied by surveying the secondary literature on energy supply and heating, as well as on more general urban, housing, and planning developments. Official information about the performance of the town’s heating network was acquired from the annual reports of the Liberec DH joint-stock company (“Liberecká teplárenská”) between 2001 and 2015, as well as the Termizo waste incineration joint-stock company for 2003–2015. Information about day-to-day policy practices, relations, positions, and interpretations was obtained from interviews with eight local and national decision-makers, public policy advocates, and company representatives that took place in 2015 and were supplemented by further two inquiries at Liberecká teplárenská in 2016. The interviews lasted between one and two hours, were undertaken in Czech, and took place in the participants’ own professional premises or other public spaces. They were transcribed, translated, and analyzed interpretively, in line with the conceptual apparatus provided by lock-in and path-dependency frameworks. Interview questions focused on how relevant policy-makers understood and interpreted the socioeconomic and institutional contexts of energy, housing, and urban transformations in their everyday practice, as well as their interactions with other bodies of the state administration in addition to citizens, private companies, experts, and non-governmental organizations.

In the sections that follow, we first develop a framework for a conceptual understanding of how new lock-in situations emerge by discussing the nature of DH networks, their embeddedness in the socialist regime, and the role of the newly established capitalist system in driving them. We then turn to privatization dynamics and the overall marketization of society in the context of DH reforms. Moving to the case of Liberec, the paper subsequently recounts the story of local government responses to the structural conditions that became apparent at moments when decisions had to be taken about future developments in the heat sector. Specifically, we focus on the relationship between systemic factors such as the Liberec DH company’s rapidly declining customer base and the overall decrease in urban heat consumption, on the one hand, and increasing operating costs, on the other. This vicious circle of mutually reinforcing effects, we argue, has undermined the viability of DH systems in Liberec while trapping parts of the population and some urban neighborhoods into high costs without an exit strategy. We subsequently identify the existence of multiple and mutually related lock-in situations concerning (1) the role of historical legacies emerging at the juxtaposition of radically differing societal regimes; (2) the technical and economic underpinnings of DH operation and capacity under changing external conditions; (3) the policy challenges faced by local government amidst an organizationally complex and politically contentious decision-making landscape; and (4) the socio-spatial injustices encountered by people who live in the neighborhoods served by DH.

The legacy of district heating in Czechia

As was noted above, DH systems physically consist of fossil fuel-powered co-generation plants – or in some cases, heat-only boiler stations – connected to distribution systems involving the transport of hot water or steam via insulated pipes (Rezaie and Rosen 2012Rezaie, Behnaz, and Marc A. Rosen2012. “District Heating and Cooling: Review of Technology and Potential Enhancements.” Applied Energy, (1) Green Energy; (2) Special Section from papers presented at the 2nd International Energy 2030 Conference 93 (May): 210. [Google Scholar]). There are also local pumping stations and internal heating networks within buildings. Czechia’s first centralized supply systems of the kind were established in the 1930s and 1940s to serve the country’s then-booming industrial sector, as well as working-class housing in cities. Using modern technologies and coal for the production of both electricity and steam heating, they symbolized the modern “technological sublime” (Nye 1996Nye, David E. 1996American Technological SublimeCambridge, MAThe MIT Press. [Google Scholar]) of energy and heating delivery in urban agglomerations, concentrating energy generators and end-consumers in close-knit infrastructural reticulations (Kaufmann 2007Kaufmann, Pavel2007. “Vývoj Teplárenství V České Republice.” [The Development of District Heating in the Czech Republic.] Pro-Energy 2007: 1821. [Google Scholar]).

DH systems rapidly expanded during the first decades of communist rule, driven by a rise in energy demand generated by the expansion of heavy industry, as well as newly built residential estates in urban areas. Their built-in collectivism combined with the centrally planned economy’s focus on the construction of large plants and systems to lead to the establishment of expansive systems for the centralized provision of heat. Under socialism, DH provided the only means of providing hot water and heating for large parts of the population: the systems were literally and figuratively tied to large-scale electric power plants built at the urban fringe, from where hot water was transported to both industrial zones and residential neighborhoods. In the 1970s and 1980s, the construction of new housing estates was accompanied by the development of locally based heat networks that used less polluting sources of energy, principally heavy fuel oil and gas. However, the technologies that were applied in this context were progressively at odds with global energy efficiency and cost savings trends, principally due to a series of economic recessions and the increasing shortage of investment finance. DH currently supplies almost 1.6 million dwellings (38% of the housing stock) in Czechia, principally in larger cities (CSO 2011CSO (Czech Statistical Office). 2011Population and Housing Census 2011PragueCzech Statistical Office. [Google Scholar]).

One of the reasons for the expansion of DH in Czechia lies in the close alignment between the infrastructural characteristics of the system – massive, shared, top-down, centralized, egalitarian – and the political ideologies of the socialist state. In addition to large housing estates and industrial plants, key DH consumers included older inner city tenement-style buildings and single-family houses, as well as administrative and service buildings; schools, hospitals, sports halls, entertainment facilities, restaurants, and commerce. The systems were relatively easy to build and maintain throughout due to their alignment with the centrally planned construction of new housing, services, and industries, as well as the spatially concentrated nature of urban development during socialism. Environmental concerns also justified investment in DH, because the networks replaced coal-burning stoves in inner-city areas with a relatively less-polluting and more remote source of energy.

However, the structural weaknesses of DH systems became apparent after the introduction of a market system and decentralized decision-making. The low technical efficiency of plants and distribution networks was incompatible with new environmental criteria, especially in the case of systems based on oil- or gas-burning heat-only boilers. Poor construction standards and the lack of maintenance increased operation costs while leading to high-energy losses in the distribution networks. The system’s blanket coverage of socialist consumers under soft budget constraints (Kornai 1986Kornai, Janos1986. “The Soft Budget Constraint.” Kyklos 39: 330.10.1111/kykl.1986.39.issue-1[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]) – including both subsidized energy prices and the tolerance of poor financial management within companies – was challenged by the economic conditions that characterized liberalized markets, as well as the installation of individual meters. Also, the customer base of DH plants began to shrink due to the emergence of more affordable and convenient heat supply options. This trend was reinforced by the economic collapse of many industrial consumers. Thus, networks built under the centrally planned and organized system of energy production and consumption exhibited “suboptimal” path-dependent features after the political and economic changes in 1989.

Private heat: energy sector reforms at the national scale

Urban heating systems are a highly specific segment of the energy sector in technical and policy terms alike (Bouzarovski 2010Bouzarovski, Stefan2010. “Post-socialist Energy Reforms in Critical Perspective: Entangled Boundaries, Scales and Trajectories of Change.” European Urban and Regional Studies 17: 167182.10.1177/0969776409356159[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]; Persson and Werner 2011Persson, Urban, and Sven Werner2011. “Heat Distribution and the Future Competitiveness of District Heating.” Applied Energy 88: 568576.10.1016/j.apenergy.2010.09.020[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]). While the production and distribution of electricity and gas are regulated at the national scale, DH systems are a secondary and local source of energy – they use externally supplied fuels whose chemical energy is converted into heat, and their outputs are circulated in a geographically restricted area. These characteristics influenced the Czech government’s approach towards the post-socialist regulation of DH.

After the collapse of communism, vertically and horizontally integrated socialist state monopolies in the energy sector – electricity, gas, and heating – were legally and financially unbundled, creating discrete organizational units that could be sold or handed over to private actors. Due to being seen as key strategic assets, electricity and gas networks were not part of the first wave of privatization. Coal mining and gas distribution companies became subject to the process only in the late 1990s and early 2000s. The electricity market was left in the hands of the Czech Power Utility (ČEZ) – a company with dominant state ownership and no plans for privatization. However, most heating plants and distribution networks were privatized already in the first half of the 1990s. Some systems became joint stock companies with shares that were later sold to private investors. Others were transferred to municipalities, which either sold them off or began operating them via a variety of legal arrangements. In a number of cases, local authorities have established joint ventures with strategic private partners.

The privatization and municipalization of urban heating systems shifted the state’s responsibilities onto private actors and local administrations. This process coincided with the wider movement of property rights and regulatory power towards the municipal level (how this happened in the housing sector is documented in Sýkora 2003Sýkora, Luděk2003. “Between the State and the Market: Local Government and Housing in the Czech Republic.” In Housing Policy: An End or a New Beginning?, edited by M. Lux51116BudapestOpen Society Institute. [Google Scholar]), even if many local authorities lacked the strategic, organizational, and technical capacity to manage such complex infrastructural systems. The transfer of ownership to municipalities resulted in different local approaches to the management of newly obtained assets. The entry of private capital provided a quick fix to address this set of emergent, unknown, and unpredictable socioeconomic conditions. Privatization was also supported by neoliberal discourses about the inefficiency of publicly owned operations, as well as the need to repair and reconstruct obsolete infrastructures, while covering high operational costs. Widespread opposition to long-term planning combined with uncritical support for the “free market” to support ad hoc decisions aimed at reaping quick political benefits (Horak 2007Horak, M. 2007Governing the Post-communist City: Institutions and Democratic Development in PragueTorontoUniversity of Toronto Press.10.3138/9781442684386[Crossref][Google Scholar]) rather than considering deleterious future consequences.

Nevertheless, neoliberal market conditions made it difficult to renovate the technically unwieldy assemblies of power stations, heating plants, and distribution infrastructures. Price liberalization and energy cost increases meant that people and firms alike were affected by increasing utility bills (Buzar 2007Buzar, Stefan2007. “The ‘Hidden’ Geographies of Energy Poverty in Post-socialism: Between Institutions and Households.” Geoforum 38: 224240.10.1016/j.geoforum.2006.02.007[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]). The low-energy efficiency of heating and distribution infrastructures inherited from socialism also led to high final prices. At the same time, the costs of further upgrades and energy efficiency improvements had to be borne by end-use consumers (Bouzarovski 2015Bouzarovski, Stefan2015Retrofitting the City: Residential Flexibility, Resilience and the Built EnvironmentLondonIB Tauris. [Google Scholar]; Bouzarovski and Tirado Herrero 2016Bouzarovski, Stefan, and Sergio Tirado Herrero2016. “Geographies of Injustice: The Socio-spatial Determinants of Energy Poverty in Poland, Czechia and Hungary.” Post Communist Economies. doi:10.1080/14631377.2016.1242257.[Taylor & Francis Online][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]). All of this happened during a period when new energy providers with alternative offers were entering the market. Disconnections from the DH system led to price increases for the customers who remained part of the network. The vicious circle of disconnections and price increases could only be prevented by the will and resources of municipal or private heat providers.

DH regulation and policy in Liberec

Liberec’s centralized network of heating supply was constructed in the 1970s in order to address industrial and population growth at the time. It unified a set of disparate systems that served housing estates built during the 1960s. A key factor in this regard was provided by the availability of cheap heavy fuel oil from the Soviet Union and the desire to shift away from coal. Even though the system started to provide heat in 1977, it only became functional during the 1980s – thus supplying housing estates, schools, public service and administration buildings, and industry. Its two boilers eliminated the use of local heating sources in the city – including over 200 burners in industrial plants – thus substantially contributing to decreased air pollution in a city located between mountain ranges. Rising heat demand subsequently led to the construction of a third boiler, as well as the addition of reused industrial boilers. After the fall of communism, the system was incorporated in the North Bohemian Heating Plants holding company, aimed at providing a vehicle for privatization. Soon thereafter, the Liberec network was sold to United Energy, with the local authority maintaining a 30% stake. In 2007, the United Energy portion was sold to MVV Energie CZ, while the municipality kept its share.

Changes in ownership, national regulation, and patterns of local political representation brought about significant shifts in the management and development of the DH system, as well as the socio-technical provision of heat to inhabitants, institutions, and firms. In the 1990s the combination of tightened environmental legislation and growing oil prices led to the retrofitting of the DH plant so as to enable the combined use of gas and heavy heating oil. More importantly, the city government forged a partnership with neighboring municipal administrations (in the form of the “Termizo” company), aimed at constructing and operating a new waste incinerator. In addition to burning refuse for the entire region, it would provide heat for the DH network in Liberec. Even though the incinerator was built between 1996 and 2000 with the aid of government subsidies and a bank loan (see Figure 1), further changes in environmental legislation necessitated the addition of costly new technologies. Local government officials were unwilling to finance such outlays and thus increase their indebtedness. Instead, they preferred to use the public budget to fund other large-scale projects, such as a multi-purpose arena. It was thus decided that the new incinerator would be sold to a private investor – the PPF Group. The deal also involved the distribution network, whose ownership was evenly split between the investor and municipality. MVV Energie CZ – the same company that owned the heating plant – bought the incinerator in 2011, with the municipality maintaining minority representation on the governing board of the company. It currently burns about 100,000 tons of waste each year.

Figure 1. The district heating plant (left) and incinerator (right) occupy a prominent location in the city center of Liberec. Source: Photo by Stefan Bouzarovski.

Liberec’s municipal authorities are otherwise known for having taken one of the most aggressive approaches in the neoliberal reform process, having privatized much of their housing, land, and other capital assets (Demel and Potuzáková 2012Demel, Jaroslav, and Zuzana Potuzáková2012. “FDI and the Liberec Region: The Case of the Labour Market.” E+ M Ekonomie a Management, 1: 418. [Google Scholar]; Langr 2014Langr, Ivan2014. “Systémová Korupce Jako Empiricky Vyzkum: Prípad Mesta Liberec.” [Systemic Corruption as Empicial Research: The Case of Liberec.] Stredoevropske Politicke Studie 16: 128. [Google Scholar]). While a number of improvements were made to the DH plant in order to increase its efficiency and decrease air pollution emissions, the city-owned distribution network was not targeted at all. Investment in the new incinerator was expected to bring financial profits to its new private owners. With national heat prices being deregulated in 2005, DH tariffs in Liberec increased to levels more than double than those of other Czech cities and towns (ERU 2014ERU. 2014Výsledné Ceny Tepelné Energie V ČR – 2014 [Final Heat Energy Prices in the Czech Republic – 2014]. PragueEnergy Regulatory Office. [Google Scholar]). The private investor’s ability to secure profits from the system was strengthened by its monopolistic position on the local DH market. At the same time, city authorities faced a conflict of interest between the economic aim to generate revenues for the municipal budget, on the one hand, and the political accountability to local citizens affected by price increases, on the other. Local politicians interviewed for the purposes of our study displayed a heightened sensitivity to the need to respond to public concerns:

The two city representatives work very actively on the [DH company’s] board to make decisions more transparent. Because they represent the interests of the local people, they form an opposition bloc on the board. (personal communication, Liberec public official, March 24, 2015)

The construction of a small CHP plant in a remote housing estate – principally aimed at reducing losses in the distribution network – has been the only attempt to decrease operational costs and make DH prices more affordable in the long run.

Unraveling DH price increases in Liberec

In line with circumstances observed elsewhere (Poputoaia and Bouzarovski 2010Poputoaia, Diana, and StefanBouzarovski2010. “Regulating District Heating in Romania: Legislative Challenges and Energy Efficiency Barriers.” Energy Policy 38: 38203829.10.1016/j.enpol.2010.03.002[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]), the low-energy efficiency of Liberec’s DH distribution network has been central to the price problems faced by final consumers. Not only has the municipality failed to invest in the improvement of the distribution system to date, but plans to undertake future steps in this regard currently do not exist:

It is really costly, but because we don’t know what we will do in the future, we cannot undertake the investment. Thus, we are just postponing it year after year. (personal communication, Liberec decision-maker, March 24, 2015)

Geographic factors have also played a role in driving price rises. Mountainous topography has hemmed the city into several valleys, thus lengthening the network and increasing technical losses. As stated by an administrative official:

The system is oversized, with large losses. They are due to the inefficient system of distribution, and low heat demand … We need a spatial plan to regulate district heating, like the one that was devised for Jablonec. That will give us an overview of the network. (personal communication, Liberec urban planner, March 24, 2015)

Another key factor in this regard has been the company’s shrinking customer base. As was noted above, this decrease can be attributed to wider socioeconomic trends and local transformations alike. First, the downsizing or termination of the network’s industrial consumers was accompanied by the imperative of achieving cost savings in the newly established market environment. Industrial, commercial, and public sector consumers sought to reduce their heat consumption in different ways, including using alternative fuels. Second, housing privatization meant that consumer decisions about heat supply and consumption became fragmented and individualized. Each building became represented by a homeowners’ association – a far more complex arrangement than the one that existed during socialism, when the DH company only had to deal with government or industry officials as well as a small number of large housing co-operatives. After 1989 householders responded to increasing heating costs by improving the energy efficiency of their homes via facade insulation as well as the installation of new windows and infrastructures within the buildings. This was supplemented by fuel switching towards more efficient and affordable sources.

As a consequence of such trends, total heat use halved from 1943 TJ11. A terajoule equals one trillion joules (1012).View all notes in 1997 (of which 53% were consumed by households) to 881 TJ in 2013 (at which point the share of the residential sector rose to 56%). At present, the DH system in Liberec generates only about 45% of its initial capacity, serving 16,417 households, 129 organizations (principally public administration and service buildings), and 13 industrial zones. The Termizo incinerator produces up to 1000 TJ of heat annually, approximately 70% of which are sold into the Liberec DH system. Because this supply covers nearly all of the city’s heat demand, the production capacity of the DH plant remains unused. Even though Termizo has recorded significant profits since 2004, its declining customer base directly contradicts original plans. The original DH network was intended to serve vast urban populations while creating economies of scale and scope in the provision of heat to urban agglomerations. At the same time, the system has fixed costs that have to be covered regardless of the actual volume of produced heat. Shrinking demand means that these costs are borne by ever-decreasing number of customers, signaling the demise of the city’s original plans to achieve cheaper heat with the aid of the new waste incinerator.

Barriers to fuel switching and DH development

While the inefficiencies of the central heating system are included in the final price, the DH company’s customer base has been further undermined by the emergence of alternative supply options. There is a clear economic impetus behind this: our interviewees pointed out that the price of heat obtained from the Liberec plant is approximately 800 CZK per GJ22. A gigajoule equals one billion joules (109).View all notes, while individually installed gas boilers in flats and homes require 400 CZK per GJ (personal communication, Liberec city councilor, March 24, 2015). In response to the shrinking consumer base, local authorities have actively discouraged companies and housing blocks from disconnecting. Even if disconnection cannot be openly prohibited, the municipal administration has employed various practices, strategies, decisions, and planning policies to prohibit consumers from switching to more affordable or efficient technologies. According to a decision of the municipal board made in 2008 (No. 591/08), the city’s planning office shall not endorse requests for the disconnection of buildings from the DH system. It is also instructed to disagree with the construction of new infrastructure for alternative heating in districts where DH systems are present.

In addition to planning regulation, our interviewees pointed to examples where home owners wishing to install gas boilers – DH’s main competitor – have been prevented from doing so by the local authority on land ownership grounds, with the city prohibiting piped gas connections that would cross publicly owned territory.

Liberec has a gas network with sufficient capacity, although there are parts of the city that are remote from it. Still, even if you need to lay 30 meters of pipes on public land you need permission from the municipality, and they will not give it to you. Our organization has such court cases all the time … in the past we lost many of them, because the court decided that the city has the right not to allow its land to be used for purposes that are not in its interest. (personal communication, chairman of housing co-operative in Liberec, March 24, 2015)

While such restrictive measures may help prevent deeper cost inefficiencies and increasing price levels, they have rendered the existing network politically and technically precarious. The declining customer base means that DH now serves only a part of the overall heating landscape in the city. Any investment in its improvement – now desperately needed – would have to be funded by the taxpayer. As DH is primarily a private business, how and where profits are distributed becomes a politically sensitive issue, as does the cleavage between private and public interests:

For example, politicians who are on the [DH plant’s] advisory board get big salaries for just sitting on it. These are not activities that politicians should do, and they are not protecting the interests of the city there. (personal communication, Liberec city councillor, March 24, 2015)

An additional challenge is posed by the spatial distribution of the DH system in Liberec, which itself was not originally built to provide heating to all consumers. The network does not include residential areas with low-rise family housing, older inner-city neighborhoods, villages in the urban hinterland, and recently built suburbs. DH provision has been primarily targeted towards high-rise and spatially concentrated housing estates from the socialist era. Disconnections from the system are most difficult to implement in such districts, some of which are facing wider problems of social decline and outmigration. Their specific and geographically bounded population is being trapped in the vicious circle of technical inefficiencies, shrinking consumer numbers, profit imperatives, and increasing end-use prices. Paradoxically, a system that was originally meant to provide greater levels of economic efficiency, social equity, and environmental sustainability now serves an increasingly impoverished population with the most expensive form of energy.

A complex lock-in through rolling path dependencies

The multiple drivers of price increases and barriers to DH development indicate the presence of a complex lock-in with at least four aspects. First, there is an infrastructural dimension embedded in historical legacies. DH systems – which were planned and constructed under socialism in order to meet the needs of growing populations and industrial production – are now faced with a shrinking inner city and suburban sprawl (in line with wider trends in Eastern and Central Europe, see Großmann et al. 2013Großmann, KatrinMarco BontjeAnnegret Haase, and Vlad Mykhnenko2013. “Shrinking Cities: Notes for the Further Research Agenda.” Cities 35: 221225.[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]; Petrova et al. 2013Petrova, SaskaDarina PosováAdamHouse, and LuděkSýkora2013. “Discursive Framings of Low Carbon Urban Transitions: The Contested Geographies of ‘Satellite Settlements’ in the Czech Republic.” Urban Studies 50: 14391455.10.1177/0042098013480964[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]; Stanilov and Sýkora 2014Stanilov, Kiril, and Ludĕk Sýkora2014Confronting Suburbanization: Urban Decentralization in Postsocialist Central and Eastern EuropeChichesterWiley.10.1002/9781118295861[Crossref][Google Scholar]), which is technically and economically unsuitable for the delivery of centralized heat supply. A network designed under the former socioeconomic system thus not only functions sub-optimally under current market conditions, but its sub-optimality is being further deepened by external and internal systemic pressures:

[D]uring the last two decades it has been known that the capacity of the distribution networks … [will remain unused] … because of the exclusion of industrial capacities that do not exist anymore, or decided to disconnect. For almost two decades it has been known that the system is inefficient because the capacity is very high, the pipes are very wide and it would be good to transform it into a system of hot water instead of steam, and make it into something smaller. Unfortunately there has been no investment into this direction during the last decade. (personal communication, Liberec city councillor, March 24, 2015)

Second, the DH system is technically and economically locked-in by cost inefficiencies and subsequent high prices for heat attributed to the technical conditions inherited from socialism. The need to undertake new investment to overcome this heritage is undermined by the downward spiral of shrinking customer numbers leading to further heat cost increases. Third, the lock-in is also political and institutional. Challenged by the privatization of key parts of the system, as well as the broader marketization of heat supply in the country, local decision-makers have attempted to resolve the DH crisis using restrictive measures that limit the choices available to citizens and firms. An alternative to these measures would be the commitment of public funds towards system upgrades, serving only some citizens while adding to the private company’s profits. For the local authority, this leads to conflicts of interest and accountability towards DH customers, on the one hand, and the diverse range of urban actors who are not linked to DH system, on the other:

The other problem is that the waste burner produces the same amount of energy as the heat plant, and during the summer they do not know what to do with that energy … So, now we have a counter-argument to the one that was presented to the public a few years ago … [they are telling us that] if the district heating system collapses Termizo will have problems and you will pay much more for the waste collection … So we would have exorbitant prices for waste collection, in addition to the charges levied by Termizo … The heat lobby is very strong – regardless of any consumer rights that are demanded, they always manage to destroy any attempts to change the regulation. (personal communication, chairman of housing co-operative in Liberec, March 24, 2015)

Fourth, the lock-in has a clear socio-spatial aspect. The geographic concentration of DH in housing estates built during socialism supplants the technical and political barriers towards fuel switching, forcing the population to purchase heat from a single private provider. The inability to move away from DH is thus concentrated in geographically distinct areas, whose precarious position is heightened by high heat costs. Municipal authorities presently have no plans to address this situation:

The law does not permit the company to establish special prices for specific social groups. The prices depend on the energy source – whether it is heat or steam – and the distance and size of the customer. (personal communication, urban planner, March 24, 2015)

Neoliberal marketization, deregulation, and decentralization have created a paradox wherein a heating supply system that can potentially be economically efficient, socially inclusive, and environmentally friendly (Rezaie and Rosen 2012Rezaie, Behnaz, and Marc A. Rosen2012. “District Heating and Cooling: Review of Technology and Potential Enhancements.” Applied Energy, (1) Green Energy; (2) Special Section from papers presented at the 2nd International Energy 2030 Conference 93 (May): 210. [Google Scholar]) has evolved into a costly economic burden that deepens inequality and exclusion. While sustainability, cohesion, and energy efficiency have now become key goals of public policy, they were downplayed in the initial days of the post-communist transformation. But the sequence of decisions made during the past 25 years has created a rigid socio-technical matrix that is resistant to change. This lock-in has developed through a rolling path dependency that involves socialist legacies, national economic reforms, and local neoliberal practices. The path dependency is associated with socially and economically detrimental effects while preventing the development of more sustainable systems of energy provision. It demonstrates that the combination of socialist legacies and chains of decisions taken during the post-socialist period may result in situations and trajectories that themselves will be difficult to address for the years to come: living in and with capitalism is an ongoing project.

Conclusion

This contribution argues in favor of the persistent relevance of post-socialist urban studies by highlighting how socio-technically and politically conditioned lock-ins arise, are articulated, and become embedded within urban areas via rolling path-dependent processes that have emerged after 1989 while stemming from past legacies. Inspired by a growing conceptual interest in processes of path dependence and path creation across a wide range of disciplines, we focused on the choices made by institutional actors after the demise of state socialism and the impact of past legacies and market conditions on decisions made at critical junctures. We proposed and used an interpretative rather than normative model of lock-in formation, by elucidating the sequences of decisions involved in the consolidation of a particular path-dependent trajectory.

At the same time, the notion of rolling path dependencies has allowed us to trace the roots of the current lock-in within Liberec’s heating system to a combination among the legacies of DH infrastructures inherited from socialism, national policies towards energy restructuring, and the reform of DH systems after 1989, as well as the approaches adopted by local governments with regard to the management of such networks. The continued role of path-dependent trajectories – present in the form of inherited technical infrastructures that have been re-used by capitalist market actors for profit-making purposes – underlines the need for a temporally and spatially sensitive perspective on the understanding of urban transformations in CEE and the FSU.

Thus, and to summarize, what can a theoretical perspective attuned to the systemic relationships that the multiple transitions in CEE and the FSU offer to the wider world of “posts?” For one, it brings attention to the need for understanding post-socialist change through a lens that is both temporal and spatial, by acknowledging that infrastructural development trajectories are closely integrated with inherited, existing, and evolving urban landscapes. Second, it calls for making connections between the urban implications of infrastructural transformations in the post-socialist world, on the one hand, and analogous dynamics of socio-technical change in other spatial contexts, on the other: not only because of the ubiquitous background presence of neoliberal pressures, but also due to the significant opportunities for knowledge transfer about the establishment of unintended material and institutional rigidities. Of particular relevance is the ongoing global effort to move toward a low-carbon future, predicated upon deep reforms in the manner in which energy is produced and consumed. Applying the experience of post-socialist countries to this thematic context may allow for path creation to be seen beyond the tropes of technological innovation and economic development that presently dominate much of the literature. It can also highlight the deeply political nature of the creation of new lock-ins, as well as the challenges of dealing with new path-dependent situations.

Disclosure statement

No potential conflict of interest was reported by the authors.

Funding

This work was supported by the European Research Council under the European Union’s Seventh Framework Programme (FP7/2007-2013)/ERC grant agreement number 313478; Luděk Sýkora’s contribution was supported by the Grant Agency of the Czech Republic [grant number P404-12-0648], “New Socio-Spatial Formations: Segregation in the Context of Post-Communist Transformations and Globalization.”

Acknowledgments

Stefan Bouzarovski is an External Professor at the Institute of Geography, University of Gdańsk, and a Visiting Professor at the Department of Geography, University of Bergen. The authors are indebted to Saska Petrova for her assistance in the field interviews, as well as the development of the conceptual framework of the paper.

 

Notes

1. A terajoule equals one trillion joules (1012).

2. A gigajoule equals one billion joules (109).

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The urbanization of transition: ideology and the urban experience

Pages 607-623 | Received 09 Oct 2016, Accepted 11 Oct 2016, Published online: 02 Nov 2016

This paper debates the relationships between transition and urbanization by problematizing the operation of transition on three inter-related levels. Firstly, at the level of ideology, it is important to rehearse the understanding of transition from that of merely area-based reforms and rather understand it as a totalizing project of planetary reach, which completes the subjugation of the whole world to capitalism and crowns neoliberalism as the only global order. Secondly, at the level of practice, it is important to properly account for the spatializing effects of that ideology – which is not simply “domesticated” by local practices, but itself mediates the subsumption of pre-existing practices by capital, thus alienating them from their history. Thirdly, at the level of the urban: while urban change is usually portrayed merely as a projection of societal relations, the urban is actually the central stage where ideology mixes with the everyday, through which the societal change is mediated; new meanings, social relations, and class divisions are construed; and through which ideological transition achieves its practical completeness. What combines these three levels is the notion of urbanization of transition, which articulates the centrality of the urban in the spectacular post-socialist experience.

Introduction

Although scholars of post-socialist urbanism at times indulge themselves in reflexive melancholy over their moderate impact on the wider urban scholarship, there is actually a fast-growing and already rather sophisticated body of internationally excellent literature that addresses significant challenges and provides diverse accounts on many aspects of post-socialist urbanization, both empirically and theoretically (for some reviews, see Borén and Gentile 2007Borén, Thomas, and Michael Gentile2007. “Metropolitan Processes in Post-communist States: An Introduction.” Geografiska Annaler: Series B, Human Geography 89: 95110.10.1111/geob.2007.89.issue-2[Taylor & Francis Online][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]; Sykora and Bouzarovski 2012Sykora, Ludek, and Stefan Bouzarovski2012. “Multiple Transformations: Conceptualising the Post-communist Urban Transition.” Urban Studies 49: 4360.10.1177/0042098010397402[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]; Kubeš 2013Kubeš, Jan2013. “European Post-socialist Cities and Their near Hinterland in Intra-urban Geography Literature.” Bulletin of Geography. Socio-Economic Series 19: 1943.[Crossref][Google Scholar]; Sjöberg 2014Sjöberg, Örjan2014. “Cases onto Themselves? Theory and Research on Ex-socialist Urban Environments.” Geografie 119: 299319.[Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]). However, I will argue in this paper that the relationships between the two key staples feeding this literature – transition and urbanization – are still under-conceptualized, taken at face value, or fail to attract their due problematization. In this article, I discuss that point and outline possible avenues as to how to problematize those relationships through the lens of a spatial political economy.

To begin with, while urban change in post-socialist scholarship is usually portrayed as a projection of larger societal changes onto local practices, the urban is actually an important scale through which new ideologies, meanings, and social relationships are legitimized – there is a dialectical co-production between the urban and the social (Lefebvre [1970] 2003Lefebvre, Henri[1970] 2003The Urban RevolutionMinneapolisUniversity of Minnesota Press. [Google Scholar][1974] 1991Lefebvre, Henri[1974] 1991The Production of SpaceOxfordBlackwell Publishing. [Google Scholar]). The urban is also where the wider project of neoliberal transition is “domesticated” into concrete “transformations” (e.g. Stenning et al. 2010Stenning, AlisonAdrian SmithAlenaRochovska, and Dariusz Swiatek2010Domesticating Neo-liberalism: Spaces of Economic Practice and Social Reproduction in Post-socialist CitiesOxfordWiley-Blackwell.10.1002/9781444325409[Crossref][Google Scholar]); however, the latter observation should not blind us from seeing the totality of transition in the first place. The discourse in post-socialist scholarship that disavows the vocabulary of “transition” in favor of more particularized “transformations” (Pickles and Smith 1998Pickles, John, and Adrian Smith, eds. 1998Theorising Transition: The Political Economy of Post-communist TransformationLondonRoutledge. [Google Scholar]; Herrschel 2007Herrschel, Tassilo2007. “Between Difference and Adjustment – The Re-/presentation and Implementation of Post-socialist (Communist) Transformation.” Geoforum 38: 439444.10.1016/j.geoforum.2006.11.007[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]), while rightly challenging the reductionist assumptions of the teleological projections of the Washington Consensus, has become too seductive itself. It has moved research from the understanding of the ideology of transition at large to studying smaller and particular processes, which per se become somehow sufficient to explain post-socialist experiences, while the wider meta-change is at best read perfunctorily under the now all-explanatory narrative of “neoliberalism.”

In this paper, I rehearse transition as an ideological, totalizing – indeed, totalitarian – project and discuss the role of the urban in making it such and rendering transition its social constitution. The dialectics of the total and the particular leads me to outline the contours of what I call “the urbanization of transition,” the appropriation of urban space by capitalism, simultaneously leading to the materialization, crystallization, and consequent reproduction of the new hegemony. I support my argument with some classical writings in political economy; the work of Henri Lefebvre in particular offers a useful grammar to knit the urban thread through the ideology and practice of transition.

I organize my argument as follows. I start with discussing why transition should not be easily equated with contextual transformations, arguing that to do otherwise is a debilitating position that obscures the global significance of post-socialism. I continue with discussing the totalizing nature of transition, which functions to close the civilizational dialog over alternative human futures. I then turn to outlining the spatialization of transition – as a contingent but ordered process of the subsumption of post-socialist legacy under the exigencies of capital. Against these fundamentals, I then discuss post-socialist urbanization and how it is central to these epochal and spectacular politico-economic restructurings.

Transformations or transition?

The collapse of the state-socialist project, climaxed in the well-documented geopolitical events of 1989/1991, brought about a surge of radical societal change. Unlike regime change and retrofits in other places and times, the post-socialist momentum has rebuilt the very existential foundations of the affected societies – whose professed goal was no longer building “the bright future” of communism, with its aspirations for a classless society, good life and equity for all, but rather embracing the individualistic, entrepreneurial, and competition ethos of capitalism, framed politically as a “market economy.” The change has been underpinned by so-called “transition,” as a metaphorical and practical framework for the existence of post-socialist societies. Ex-communist societies were then all seen as societies in transition, at the core of which was a technocratic package of reforms for the economic and political domains.

Since the very start, the teleological notion of transition has been challenged. While transition has been both a prescriptive and descriptive idea, many have critiqued it for being reductionist and thus failing to account for the complexity and multiplicity of pathways engaged by actually existing transition, which is shaped by local preconditions, culture, and contingencies. It has been suggested that “transformation(s)” is a more nuanced vocabulary to analyze the processes of post-socialism (e.g. Pickles and Smith 1998Pickles, John, and Adrian Smith, eds. 1998Theorising Transition: The Political Economy of Post-communist TransformationLondonRoutledge. [Google Scholar]).

While this is an accurate critique, the downside has been that – coupled with descriptive, often empiricist and positivist tendencies in much of the emerging post-socialist academic geography – this new tradition has resulted in the topic being dominated by the narrative of the idiosyncrasies of post-socialism, including the diversity of contextually specific trajectories emerging from the juxtaposition of politics, culture, history, and other legacies and exigencies. The “transformation” thesis has just gone too well with the empiricist tradition of “area studies,” while the very teleology of transition has not been scrutinized on its own terms – as an ideology – it was rather reduced to the presumed Washington Consensus’s technocracies. The most interesting accounts here had to consequently come from outside the discipline of post-socialism itself, such as Naomi Klein’s Shock Doctrine (2007Klein, Naomi2007The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster CapitalismLondonAllen Lane. [Google Scholar]).

Many scholars now express their discontent that the literature on post-socialism is inadequately appreciated by the wider academic world; it is either little engaged with in terms of the broader understanding of global urban change or just imports ideas already well-rehearsed elsewhere without feeding back to inform the broader debates (Sjöberg 2014Sjöberg, Örjan2014. “Cases onto Themselves? Theory and Research on Ex-socialist Urban Environments.” Geografie 119: 299319.[Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]; Ferenčuhová 2016Ferenčuhová, Slavomíra2016. “Accounts from behind the Curtain: History and Geography in the Critical Analysis of Urban Theory.” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 40: 113131.10.1111/1468-2427.12332[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]). Some searches for the relevance of the post-socialist experience in the wider world have, for example, flirted with post-colonialism, thus also subjecting transition to the ideas radiating from the world’s other corners – even if with inconclusive results as to whether post-colonialism and post-socialist are indeed good bedfellows (Hörschelmann and Stenning 2008Hörschelmann, Kathrin, and Alison C.Stenning2008. “Ethnographies of Postsocialist Change.” Progress in Human Geography 32: 339361.10.1177/0309132508089094[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]; Hladík 2011Hladík, Radim2011. “A Theory’s Travelogue: Post-colonial Theory in Post-socialist Space.” TEORIE VĚDY XXXIII: 561590. [Google Scholar]; Moore 2001Moore, David Chioni2001. “Is the Post- in Postcolonial the Post- in Post-Soviet? Toward a Global Postcolonial Critique.” PMLA 116: 111128. [Google Scholar]).

I believe there is a much stronger potential in the “post-socialism” subject to influence wider scholarship given its phenomenal experiences of radical societal change. However, in order to achieve this we must revert the tendencies of rejecting imagining transition as a holistic teleology or ideology. There is a need to step back from ascribing everything to the idiosyncrasies of change and to see the forest through the trees to fully appreciate the emergent co-constitution of parts and the whole; that is, to more explicitly critique transition as a totality, as an ideological hegemony, however particularized it may be at varied scales of concrete material experiences and co-constituted by these experiences and their agency (cf. Giddens 1984Giddens, Anthony1984The Constitution of Society: Outline of the Theory of StructurationCambridgePolity Press. [Google Scholar]).

I will discuss this more in the next section, but first a word of caution: this should not be read as simply another guise of neoliberalism, especially if the latter is taken as an all- and self-explanatory narrative. While transition has been part and parcel of neoliberalization, it nevertheless has a specific context at play – the communist ideology alternative to capitalism – and hence transition has been by far more far-reaching and dogmatic than the operations of neoliberalism elsewhere. It is even naïve to assume that the neoclassical thought and pro-growth competitive agenda underpinning the execution of neoliberalism elsewhere were the only benchmark for designing and implementing the project of transition. Gowan (1995Gowan, Peter1995. “Neo-liberal Theory and Practice for Eastern Europe.” New Left Review 213: 360. [Google Scholar]) argued that transition was not so much an economic mission as a chance to reorganize the geopolitical balance of power in favor of the hegemony of Western capital. According to Burawoy and Verdery (1999Burawoy, Michael, and KatherineVerdery1999. “Introduction.” In Uncertain Transition: Ethnographies of Change in the Postsocial World, edited by M. Burawoyand K. Verdery118OxfordRowman & Littlefield.[Crossref][Google Scholar]), neoclassical economics only happened to exhibit the right excuse of this morality by insisting that markets could spontaneously create a good world once the old one was first destroyed.

Contrary to the previous adjustment and liberalization reforms in the Global South or pro-market development-oriented “transition” in China, transition in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) has specifically targeted the social constitution of the affected nations. This point is exemplified by Wedel (1998Wedel, Janine R. 1998Collision and Collusion: The Strange Case of Western Aid to Eastern Europe 1989–1998New YorkSt. Martin’s Press. [Google Scholar], 21) who, reflecting on the differences in the Western approach toward reforms in the Second and Third Worlds, indicates that the reform project in CEE has been not so much about exercising economic development as about exorcizing the heresy of communism:

The Second World had been “misdeveloped,” not “underdeveloped” as the Third World, pundits said. Aid to India, as an example, tended to be couched mainly in terms of economic growth, not institutional and social change. But exorcising the legacies of communism in the Second World often required changing the very nature of recipient institutions, including those of banking, industry, international trade, social security, and health care.

Transition has been a more dogmatic and, one can say, geo-ideological version of applied neoliberalism – in other words, quite a different beast, which as such requires more than the universalizing prose of neoliberalization. The geo-ideology of transition is, however, bigger than the “Second World” – transition has been a project of planetary significance, transforming, for example, the internal political economy of the West itself, as much as that of the Rest. This wider relevance of transition, beyond the geographies of ex-socialist states, is important for the understanding of the recent global transformations more widely. I will now turn to outline this function of transition.

The totalizing nature of transition

A starting point is to understand transition not simply as a technocratic project envisaged by the neoliberal teleology, which in fact collapses into various transformational exigencies, but rather appreciate transition as, above all, both ideological and totalizing. It is ideological because it is based on particular assumptions and worldviews, particular philosophies of economic and political development. It is totalizing because whatever your ideological predispositions you cannot escape it – it is all-encompassing. Indeed, transition has been one inescapable compulsion that has fundamentally transformed the life and circumstances of all people and places in postsocialist societies – irrespective of their existing situations, aspirations, or individual or collective choice.

The totalizing reach of “transition” does not mean that everything can be reduced solely to the level of totality; it rather needs be understood through the Lefebvrian conceptualization of totality as synchronically copresent levels of social practice in which “one level mediates the other” and can dominate the other (Goonewardena 2008Goonewardena, Kanishka2008. “Marxism and Everyday Life: On Henri Lefebvre, Guy Debord, and Some Others.” In Space, Difference, Everyday Life: Reading Henri Lefebvre, edited by K.GoonewardenaS.KipferR. Milgrom, and C. Schmid117133AbingdonRoutledge. [Google Scholar], 127). Lefebvre ([1970] 2003Lefebvre, Henri[1970] 2003The Urban RevolutionMinneapolisUniversity of Minnesota Press. [Google Scholar]) discusses three such levels: the macro-level, the mixed/urban level, and the micro/private level of social reality. To Lefebvre, these are not so much scalar levels in traditional hierarchical imaginaries, but rather tools with different granularity to jointly understand forces construing modern society, so that each of these “levels” can be traced, for example, at the scale of the city.

The macro-level of social practice involves “the most general, and therefore the most abstract, although essential, relations, such as capital market and the politics of space” (Lefebvre [1970] 2003Lefebvre, Henri[1970] 2003The Urban RevolutionMinneapolisUniversity of Minnesota Press. [Google Scholar]). It is the level of “society, the state, global power and knowledge, institutions, and ideologies” ([1970] 2003Lefebvre, Henri[1970] 2003The Urban RevolutionMinneapolisUniversity of Minnesota Press. [Google Scholar], 89); it is the level of political power that “makes use of instruments (ideological and scientific)” to modify “the distribution of resources, income, and the ‘value’ created by productive labor (surplus value)” (Lefebvre [1970] 2003Lefebvre, Henri[1970] 2003The Urban RevolutionMinneapolisUniversity of Minnesota Press. [Google Scholar], 78). The micro-level involves the practice of everyday life, such as housing and habiting, typically seen as “somewhat more modest, even unimportant” ([1970] 2003Lefebvre, Henri[1970] 2003The Urban RevolutionMinneapolisUniversity of Minnesota Press. [Google Scholar], 80) but in fact representing the very orientation of ideology, if not the whole purpose of society. The mixed/urban level is then defined as a critical level of social practice that mediates between the distant and immediate/everyday order of social reality and ensures the mobilization of the urban as a productive force in capitalist society. This understanding of the mediating, mixing role of the urban is central to my notion of urbanization of transition to which I shall return later; but for the moment, I want to focus on the totalizing aspect of transition.

One can argue that the totalizing tendencies of transition make the whole world more totalitarian, advanced democracies included. To many thinkers in political economy (e.g. Herbert Marcuse, Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer, Georg Lukács), “democratic” societies were already more totalitarian than those societies explicitly branded as totalitarian, for the totalitarian means and methods in the former are typically less explicitly political and are therefore more easily concealed. According to Marcuse (1964Marcuse, Herbert1964One-dimensional Man: Studies in the Ideology of Advanced Industrial Society LondonRoutledge. [Google Scholar], 3):

By virtue of the way it has organized its technological base, contemporary industrial society tends to be totalitarian. For “totalitarian” is not only a terroristic political coordination of society, but also a non-terroristic economic-technical coordination which operates through the manipulation of needs by vested interests. It thus precludes the emergence of an effective opposition against the whole. Not only a specific form of government or party rule makes for totalitarianism, but also a specific system of production and distribution which may well be compatible with a “pluralism” of parties, newspapers, “countervailing powers,” etc.

Transition effectively serves as the closure of global pluralism by neutralizing “actually existing socialism” as an alternative point of reference, thus extolling capitalism as the only viable universal system – as most vividly expressed by Fukuyama’s (1992Fukuyama, Francis1992The End of History and the Last ManNew YorkFree Press. [Google Scholar]) “end of history.”Since transition is based historically on a particular form of capitalist ideology – neoliberalism – it has just pushed the world further into the triumph of neoliberalism. The closure of socialism as an alternative can explain why the expectations of many about the end of neoliberalism and the installation of a system modeled after Keynesianism following the crisis of neoliberalism of 2007–2008 turned out to be premature, if not entirely naïve (for some discussions, Smith 2008Smith, Neil2008. “Neoliberalism is Dead, Dominant, Defeatable – Then What?” Human Geography 1: 13. [Google Scholar]; Birch and Mykhnenko 2010Birch, Kean, and VladMykhnenko, eds. 2010The Rise and Fall of Neoliberalism: The Collapse of an Economic Order?LondonZed Books. [Google Scholar]; Brenner, Peck, and Theodore 2010Brenner, NeilJamiePeck, and NikTheodore2010. “Variegated Neoliberalization: Geographies, Modalities, Pathways.” Global Networks 10: 182222.10.1111/glob.2010.10.issue-2[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]; Stiglitz 2011Stiglitz, Joseph E.2011. “The Ideological Crisis of Western Capitalism.” Project Syndicate.http://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/stiglitz140/English. [Google Scholar]; Aalbers 2013Aalbers, Manuel B.2013. “Neoliberalism is Dead … Long Live Neoliberalism!” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 37: 10831090.10.1111/1468-2427.12065[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]). In this light, “the strange non-death of neo-liberalism” (Crouch 2011Crouch, Colin2011The Strange Non-death of Neo-liberalismCambridgePolity. [Google Scholar]) is not that strange at all: there is simply no longer an alternative vision in sight with which to imagine an alternative future – or, indeed, a future as such, distinctive from the endless spiral of the present at this end (or side) of history.

Is it not rather disturbing to see how well the words of Marcuse above resonate with those below by Doreen Massey half a century later (2015Massey, Doreen2015. “Vocabularies of the Economy.” In After Neoliberalism? The Kilburn Manifesto, edited by S. HallD.Massey, and M.Rustin2436LondonLawrence and Wishart. [Google Scholar], 35, 36)?

It is one of the ghastly ironies of the present neoliberal age that we are told … that much of our power and our pleasure, and our very self-identification, lies in our ability to choose (and we are indeed bombarded every day by “choices,” many of them meaningless, others we wish we didn’t have to make), while at the level that really matters – what kind of society we’d like to live in, what kind of future we’d like to build – we are told, implacably, that, give or take a few minor variations, there is no alternative – no choice at all.

Neil Smith (2009Smith, Neil2009. “The Revolutionary Imperative.” Antipode41: 5065.[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar], 51) argued that:

One of the greatest violences of the neoliberal era was the closure of the political imagination. Even on the left, perhaps especially so, the sense became pervasive that there was no alternative to capitalism.

Smith attributes this loss of political imagination to three factors: (a) the collapse of state socialism; (b) defeat of anti-colonial movements; and (c) defeat of the revolts of the 1960s. One can further argue that out of these three, the first is most significant, as it is state socialism that was very much a key factor underpinning the other two, including anti-colonial movements and inspiring in different ways the revolts of the 1960s.

The end of communism has consequently prompted many to talk about a post-democratic world. As Žižek (1994Žižek, Slavoj, ed. 1994Mapping IdeologyLondonVerso. [Google Scholar], 1) argues, before the collapse of socialism,

[E]verybody was busy imagining different forms of the social organization of production and commerce … today as Fredric Jameson [2003Jameson, Fredric2003. “Future City.” New Left Review 21: 6579. [Google Scholar]] perspicaciously remarked, nobody seriously considers possible alternatives to capitalism any longer … it seems easier to imagine the “end of the world” than a far more modest change in the mode of production.

This closure of the alternative economic and ideological imagination by transition uncovers the full extent of its totalitarian nature. There is no longer an intellectual point of reference from where to (out)source an alternative imagination – transition has discredited state socialism into a “post-political” consensus. Hardt and Negri (2000Hardt, Michael, and Antonio Negri2000EmpireHarvardHarvard University Press. [Google Scholar], 245) in their Empire quote US President Truman saying in 1947 the following: “At the present moment in world history nearly every nation must choose between alternative ways of life.” Now even authors such as Swyngedouw (2010Swyngedouw, Erik2010. “The Communist Hypothesis and Revolutionary Capitalisms: Exploring the Idea of Communist Geographies for the Twenty-first Century.” Antipode 41: 298319.10.1111/anti.2010.41.issue-s1[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]), when speculating about how the idea of communism can be a social alternative, are derogative of the experiences of the “actually existing socialism,” thus further disempowering its history from the future and subscribing themselves to the very post-political, post-democratic consensus they critique. It seems more convenient for them to imagine a disconsensus over climate change than over recent human history.

As many post-socialist scholars demonstrate, things got worse under transition as it has been experienced – the economic collapse and marginalization, the rise of poverty and inequality, class division, the loss of prospects and hope for better life for many, uneven development, environmentally and ethically destructive consumerism, inter-ethnic conflicts and intolerance, the loss of social cohesion – to mention just a few. If things have gone worse, does it mean they were better under state socialism? This only logical extension to the explicit reflections about the elements of superiority in the social organization under state socialism is, however, more or less a political taboo – exactly because of the totalizing, collective schizophrenia of transition. I recall here my conversation with one of the high-profile ideologues of the Russian reforms, still a prominent mastermind behind economic policy-making in Russia, who, when I asked him about his opinion of the large human cost of shock therapy in Russia in the 1990s, replied pompously: “to me everything is justified as long as there are no longer communists in power.” It seems that this fundamentalism is more than corrupt ethics – it is the currency of transition.

Davidow (1976Davidow, Mike1976Cities without CrisisNew YorkInternational Publishers. [Google Scholar], 238), an American journalist writing about the Soviet city, complained from within the cold war: “A half-century of unremitting anti-Soviet, anti-Communist propaganda has created an atmosphere in which there is one unforgivable sin – to portray Soviet life and communism favorably” (italic in original). As Hardt and Negri (2000Hardt, Michael, and Antonio Negri2000EmpireHarvardHarvard University Press. [Google Scholar], 278) further recognize,

In the capitalist world, the massive cold war propaganda and the extraordinary ideological machine of falsification and misinformation prevented us from seeing the real developments in Soviet society and the political dialectics that unfolded there. Cold war ideology called that society totalitarian, but in fact it was a society criss-crossed by extremely strong instances of creativity and freedom, just as strong as the rhythms of economic development and cultural modernization.

This is not to suggest that academic work shies away from problematizing the new hegemony; revisionist accounts that reengage with the history of state socialism and challenge the Western-centric imaginaries over socialist “pastness” are not that uncommon, even in the West (for a recent interesting example to that point see, Imre 2016Imre, Anikó2016TV SocialismDurhamDuke University Press.10.1215/9780822374466[Crossref][Google Scholar]). But on a general level, it is safe to generalize that transition has rendered the “sin” that Davidow (1976Davidow, Mike1976Cities without CrisisNew YorkInternational Publishers. [Google Scholar]) refers to – perhaps “ideological mist” is a better wording – an unquestionable truism, even without the repressive apparatus of the cold war state.The heydays of Keynesianism still provide inspirations – for some of its remarkable social achievements, although, of course, Keynesianism itself was created with reference to the competition with the “actually existing socialism.” But through the ideological mist that transition has made, even for critical intellectuals the (hi)story of actually existing socialism is now closed. This is despite that for many of those who experienced state socialism – the quick history of which in most countries will be soon surpassed by the length of “transition” – those experiences remain an important point of reference: not the totalitarian totality of socialism, but the dimensions of social justice and freedom it offered – freedom from needs, from inequality, from consumerism, from exploitation, from uncertainties, from becoming an outcast, from violence, and so on and so forth – above all, freedom to have a dream about freedom. However, as Žižek (2002Žižek, Slavoj2002Welcome to the Desert of the Real!: Five Essays on September 11 and Related DatesLondonVerso. [Google Scholar], 2) claims, now “we ‘feel free’ because we lack the very language to articulate our unfreedom.” As Boyer (2006Boyer, Dominic2006. “Ostalgie and the Politics of the Future in Eastern Germany.” Public Culture 18: 361381.10.1215/08992363-2006-008[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]) vividly shows in his analysis of the East/West divide in the united Germany, the Western epistemic communities systematically derogate any memory about state-socialism’s superiority as the inferiority of backward “Ostalgie”; by marginalizing it, the West is able to keep sole control over the country’s future. How cannot this remind us of Orwell’s famous: “He who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past” (Nineteen EightyFour). But these are exactly the geo-ideological terms of transition on which the East is incorporated into the Occident.

The spatialization of transition and subsumption of legacy

The totalizing nature of transition does not eliminate the importance of seeing how it is contextualized and mediated on the ground, including the micro/private level of social reality in Lefebvrian conceptualization. Indeed, it is by generalized contextualization that the totalitarian status of transition as ideology is achieved in practice, is materialized, as it penetrates all spheres and displaces alternatives. Transition is not simply radiating from some commanding heights and spreading across different cultures; it is also articulated and contextualized from within the societies themselves on which it is imposed.

Stenning et al. (2010Stenning, AlisonAdrian SmithAlenaRochovska, and Dariusz Swiatek2010Domesticating Neo-liberalism: Spaces of Economic Practice and Social Reproduction in Post-socialist CitiesOxfordWiley-Blackwell.10.1002/9781444325409[Crossref][Google Scholar], 3, 4) rightly argue that neoliberalism is “domesticated” through engagement in everyday life’s economic practices:

[A] focus on the mundane practices of economic life enables a detailed understanding of how neo-liberalism is understood, negotiated, contested and made tolerable in homes, communities and workplaces; how neo-liberalism is lived in articulation with a host of economic, political and social others; and how those practices are themselves involved in the remaking of neo-liberalism.

It is here, in the realm of practiced transition, that we can talk about the conversion of the totalizing ideology into particularized transformations. However, this is essentially an ordered, hierarchical process – the ideology of neoliberalism-cum-transition is inescapable, as it subjugates and modifies pre-existing terms of social order, the meanings and dynamics of social and economic relations, changing not simply institutions, regulations and property rights, but the state of mind, consciousness, and the way of life. Domesticating neoliberalism is simultaneously the neoliberalization of the everyday, the appropriation of the everyday by capitalism and using it as the raw material, conduit, or agency of its expansion. Transition is not simply domesticated by local practices, it subsumes them in the first place.This can be conceptualized as “the spatialization of transition” – its materialization in specific contexts and workings over pre-existing practices. Transition is spatialized, like other hegemonic ideologies. Here, one can again invoke the Lefebvrian argument that “every society … produces a space, its own space” (Lefebvre [1974] 1991Lefebvre, Henri[1974] 1991The Production of SpaceOxfordBlackwell Publishing. [Google Scholar], 31). As Harvey (2006Harvey, David2006Spaces of Global Capitalism: Towards a Theory of Uneven Geographical DevelopmentLondonVerso. [Google Scholar], 78) notes:

Capitalist activity is always grounded somewhere. Diverse material processes (physical, ecological as well as social) must be appropriated, used, bent and re-shaped to the purposes and paths of capital accumulation. Conversely, capital accumulation has to adapt to and in some instances be transformed by the material conditions it encounters.

Through the process of spatialization, transition allows the new regime to alienate pre-existing legacies from their ideological history. As we argued elsewhere, capitalist practice feeds on the legacies of state socialism, making them the infrastructure, and often the agency, for its own expansion (Golubchikov, Badyina, and Makhrova 2014Golubchikov, OlegAnna Badyina, and Alla Makhrova2014. “The Hybrid Spatialities of Transition: Capitalism, Legacy and Uneven Urban Economic Restructuring.” Urban Studies 51: 617633.10.1177/0042098013493022[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]). As a result, transition may reveal variegated forms. At face value, those forms may be similar in appearances to the previous (socialist) forms – and may even be confused as “socialist” in function; indeed, scholars of post-socialist geographies even identify a specter of urban forms – from “pure socialist” (still little affected by transition) to “pure capitalist” (totally transformed or created by transition). But this is wrong.It is hard to find any concept that is more widely used and yet so frequently abused in the post-socialist scholarship as “legacy” (and “path dependence” as its extension). At first glance, post-socialism is all about legacy – at the end of the day it is the history of socialism that makes post-socialist spaces so unique. Socialist spaces are “remembered” for their distinctive “appearances” such as, for example, the uniform residential high-rises, large collective public spaces, or monumentality in urban design. But even where not unique in form and function, “socialist geographies,” such as socialist-era industrial landscapes and built environments, are categorized as “slow-to-change socialist legacies.” Continuities here tend to be over-emphasized to the fetishism of legacy and neglect the fluid nature of legacies themselves. The historicity of post-socialist geography is then mystified by these “legacies” so that the very process of post-socialist transition is imagined along the binaries of “legacies vs. change” – the less legacy that remains, the further transition (into capitalism) goes. Even the rapidly escalating patterns of uneven spatial development and social inequalities are also ascribed to this “path-dependent” process, so that, for example, the degree of embeddedness in socialist era conditions which places are more or less successful in the market economy.

However, legacy is never fixed in the past, it is rather interpreted, co-produced by the present. The understanding of transition as totalizing helps to better see that. Once (neoliberal) capitalism is imposed by transition on the formerly socialist geographies (including their productive assets, infrastructure, housing, but also everyday life more generally), it assigns a particular meaning to “legacy,” which would have been different should the very same legacy have been embraced by a different regime. Rather than being an independent constant, socialist legacy is subsumed by capitalism and is alienated from its own history to become conducive to the capitalist processes themselves. Legacy is an important factor of change, but it is mediated by, more than it mediates, transition.

We have previously conceptualized this mutual but hierarchical embeddedness of capitalism and socialist legacy as “the hybrid spatialities of transition” (as opposed to path-dependent transition), which, according to Golubchikov, Badyina, and Makhrova (2014Golubchikov, OlegAnna Badyina, and Alla Makhrova2014. “The Hybrid Spatialities of Transition: Capitalism, Legacy and Uneven Urban Economic Restructuring.” Urban Studies 51: 617633.10.1177/0042098013493022[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]), represent “strange geographies” that function according to the tune of capital but often conceal their capitalist nature with “legacies,” even though the latter have quintessentially been alienated from their ideological, institutional, and economic history. Hybrid spatialities represent the mutual containment and reconciliation of otherwise highly contradictory tensions between the spatial ideologies of state-socialism inscribed into the previously egalitarian landscape of economic geography and those of neoliberalism with its anti-egalitarian and exploitative effects.

In other words, the social and physical conditions of cities and their fortunes may seem to depend on their geography and legacy, but the root causes of their crises or otherwise are in the existing socio-political system – which twists, distorts, or recreates the meanings of the inherited landscape in its own image. This is why when under state-socialism the geographical differences served the egalitarian project of equalizing development, under capitalism, as Harvey (2010Harvey, David2010A Companion to Marx’s CapitalLondonVerso. [Google Scholar], 290) contends, even minor inequalities “get magnified and compounded over time into huge inequalities of influence, wealth and power.”

Urbanization of transition

Through the process of spatialization, transition allows capitalism to penetrate all pores of social life and transform it. But this is importantly mediated by urbanization (broadly understood). Usually the focus of post-socialist urban scholarship is only on how cities are changing in response to their exposure to capitalism and to associated social and politico-economic changes, leading to particular forms of post-socialist urban transformation. However, it is very much urban experiences themselves through which transition has taken its practical contours and disciplining power and by which it produces new social structures and relationships.

As a starting point, let us consider Brenner and Theodore’s argument (2002, 28Brenner, Neil, and NikTheodore2002. “Cities and the Geographies of ‘Actually Existing Neoliberalism’.” In Spaces of Neoliberalism: Urban Restructuring in North America and Western Europe, edited by N.Brenner and N.Theodore232OxfordBlackwell.10.1002/9781444397499[Crossref][Google Scholar]):

[C]ities are not merely localized arenas in which broader global or national projects of neoliberal restructuring unfold … [C]ities have become increasingly central to the reproduction, mutation, and continual reconstitution of neoliberalism itself … [C]ities have become strategic targets for an increasingly broad range of neoliberal policy experiments, institutional innovations, and politico-ideological projects. Under these conditions, cities have become the incubators for many of the major political and ideological strategies through which the dominance of neoliberalism is being maintained …

This understanding echoes Lefebvre ([1970] 2003Lefebvre, Henri[1970] 2003The Urban RevolutionMinneapolisUniversity of Minnesota Press. [Google Scholar]), to whom, as I noted before, the urban plays a key role in mixing, mediating between the macro-dimensions of the social order and the micro-reality of everyday life. The production of urban space thus contributes to hegemony by fusing the immediate realm of lived space with the larger social order. Here, the production of space is not limited to the projection of regimes and ideologies onto the urban, but it is part of the production of social relationships:

The urban phenomenon and urban space are not only a projection of social relationships but also a terrain on which various strategies clash. They are in no sense goals or objectives, but means and instruments of actions. (Lefebvre [1970] 2003Lefebvre, Henri[1970] 2003The Urban RevolutionMinneapolisUniversity of Minnesota Press. [Google Scholar], 87)

Lefebvre ([1970] 2003Lefebvre, Henri[1970] 2003The Urban RevolutionMinneapolisUniversity of Minnesota Press. [Google Scholar]) argues that the latest stages of capitalism are characterized by a transition from industrialization to urbanization as the totalizing social “episteme.” As Prigge (2008Prigge, Walter2008. “Reading the Urban Revolution: Space and Representation.” In Space, Difference, Everyday Life: Reading Henri Lefebvre, edited by K. GoonewardenaS. KipferR. Milgrom, and C. Schmid4661LondonRoutledge. [Google Scholar], 49) explains this:

It is no longer the industrial and its disciplines focusing on capital and labor, classes and reproduction that constitute the episteme (the possibility of knowing the social formation), but the urban and its forms focused on everydayness and consumption, planning and spectacle, that expose the tendencies of social development … Compared to homogeneous industrial space, urban space is differentially constituted. This heterogeneous structure predestines urban space to clarify contemporary social forms.

This understanding can also be traced in the analysis of demand-side urbanization in much of David Harvey’s work on the urbanization of capital and urbanization of consciousness (Harvey 1985a, 1985b, 1989Harvey, David1985aConsciousness and the Urban Experience: Studies in the History and Theory of Capitalist UrbanizationBaltimore, MDJohn Hopkins University Press.
Harvey, David1985bThe Urbanization of Capital: Studies in the History and Theory of Capitalist UrbanizationBaltimore, MDJohn Hopkins University Press.
Harvey, David1989The Urban ExperienceBaltimore, MDJohns Hopkins University Press. 
). In Consciousness and the Urban Experience, Harvey (1985aHarvey, David1985aConsciousness and the Urban Experience: Studies in the History and Theory of Capitalist UrbanizationBaltimore, MDJohn Hopkins University Press. [Google Scholar], 262) notes:

Individuals draw their sense of identity and shape their consciousness out of the material bases given by the individualism of money, the class relations of capital, the limited coherence of community, the contested legitimacy of the state, and the protected but vulnerable domain of family life. But they also do so in the context of how these material bases intersect within a produced urban milieu that institutionalizes and reifies the social and physical pattering of all such human relations in space and time. The urbanization of capital – so vital to capitalism’s survival as a dominant mode of production and consumption – entails a particular configuration of these different loci of consciousness formation.

Post-socialist transition too is aligned with the epistemic transition from industrialization to urbanization as the locus of consciousness formation. While the logic of social development under socialism was much bound to industrialization (social and spatial regulations were contingent on the industrial), post-socialism makes a transition to consumption and urbanization (social and spatial regulations are contingent on the urban). As Russian political philosopher Sergey Kara-Murza (2005Kara-Murza, Sergey2005Poteryannyy Razum [Lost Reason]. MoscowAlgoritm. [Google Scholar]) suggests, the rapid processes of privatization, focused on the socialist-era industrial sector, were succeeded by more far-reaching processes of the consolidation of capital over, and colonization of, the domain of the everyday, of the domain of the urban. Indeed, under the conditions of de-industrialization (also underpinned by the break-up of former supply chains), the urban domain offered new, wider, and more sustained opportunities for accumulation strategies. The processes of the subsumption of the pre-existing materialities and practices have become more focused on everyday life and urban space rather than on productive assets.Although the focus of socialist development was on the real sector of production, the city of socialism (at least where socialism took its advanced forms, such as in Soviet Russia) played the very important role as a social(ist) contract – providing quality of life to working people in exchange for their labor in the production process. This philosophy has been antagonistic to the capitalist logic of private profit maximizing (as opposed to collective value maximizing). To all the discussion whether cities of communism and cities of capitalism were different or not too much (Andrusz, Harloe, and Szelenyi 1996Andrusz, GregoryMichael Harloe, and Ivan Szelenyi, eds. 1996Cities after Socialism: Urban and Regional Change and Conflict in Post-socialist SocietiesOxfordBlackwell.[Crossref][Google Scholar]; Hirt 2013Hirt, Sonia2013. “Whatever Happened to the (Post)Socialist City?” Cities 32 (Supplement 1): S29S38.[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]), the former were tightly bound to very different philosophies.

Making the urban dance to the tune of capitalism and alienating the inherited social and urban forms from socialist ideology (that had either generated them or previously appropriated them from the pre-socialist regimes) creates serious ruptures with the previous philosophy of the city.

Under socialism, value extracted from more productive agents was re-invested in less productive sectors and also financed vast (often unproductive in capitalist sense) public expenditure, so that the return on re-invested capital was often partial, but the potential was being accumulated for the long-term development of social and economic capital. In contrast to that system, the new regime is indeed based on the ideology of maximization of profits, reduced public budget, and shortened investment horizons.

Through the commodification, financialization, and revalorization of housing, real estate, and other urban assets – strategies sought by both markets and regulations – urban space is very much reduced to the operation of capital. Social inequalities, injustices, and uneven development are naturalized by their mystification as the “natural conditions” of the circulation of money and commodity and people’s divergent skills and luck in acquiring personal wealth to accommodate themselves at different levels of consumption. Denouncing and de-legitimizing the practices of state socialism as an “unnatural” experiment, national and urban regimes of post-socialist transition can only legitimize their push of neoliberalization and austerity politics even further than the collective memory of the welfare state allows governments in Western Europe.

At the scale of the city, new urban consumption-based semiotics lubricates class transformation. While socialist societies were relatively egalitarian and structured mostly according to merit and profession, the new society demands new class consciousness – new etiquettes, ethics, and esthetics, new semiotics for distinguishing social position and status. High levels of income inequality are registered everywhere under post-socialism; however, income per se is not a sufficient factor of class division and true social inequality. More significant is how income translates into life chances, consumption “freedom,” and social privilege. Here, it is the consumption of urban space and segregation (including through gentrification and suburbanization) that complete this translation. For example, informed by the symbolic meanings of what locations and types of housing are “prestigious” or not, housing markets differentiate income groups, who are now in search of defining and securing their own class status (Badyina and Golubchikov 2005Badyina, Anna, and Oleg Golubchikov2005. “Gentrification in Central Moscow – A Market Process or a Deliberate Policy? Money, Power and People in Housing Regeneration in Ostozhenka.” Geografiska Annaler B87: 113129.10.1111/geob.2005.87.issue-2[Taylor & Francis Online][Google Scholar]; Golubchikov and Badyina 2006Golubchikov, Oleg, and Anna Badyina2006. “Conquering the Inner-city: Urban Redevelopment and Gentrification in Moscow.” In The Urban Mosaic of Post-socialist Europe: Space, Institutions and Policy, edited by S. Tsenkovaand Z. Nedovic-Budic195212HeidelbergSpringer.10.1007/3-7908-1727-9[Crossref][Google Scholar]). Spatial formations thus work as a medium to transform income inequalities into social status – consuming space is what sustains social reproduction and iterates classes today, more than, for example, industrial-era production-based class struggle. This is a mechanism of the establishment and reproduction of dominance in the urban society of consumers, more aligned with Weber’s vision, rather than a product of more explicit class struggle under industrial capitalism, as in Marx’s teaching.

All this, of course, changes the raison d’être of the city. Rather than being a vehicle for spatial equalization and redistribution, for a purposeful evolution of social consciousness towards “a fair and egalitarian society,” the post-socialist city has become a dividing and divided experience – with increasing social and economic disparity and polarization at both inter-urban and intra-urban scales. It is not only that the principle of the egalitarian re-distribution of wealth was replaced with the neoliberal principle of self-reliance, but the new regime has also created preconditions for the extraction of wealth from the large majority of people and places and its re-concentration in the hands of the select few (people and places).

Conclusions

While studies of post-socialist cities demonstrate much appetite and aptitude in investigating various aspects of urbanization under the profound and radical politico-economic changes experienced under transition, there is still much room to reveal how post-socialist urban space has been an intensive and oft-cruel battlefield – over ideas, powers, social, economic, and political practices, identities, symbolism, understandings, and meanings. There is still much room to reveal the appropriation of urban space through various mechanisms – privatization and commodification, investment and disinvestment, violence and conformity, resistance and resilience, negation, interrogation and negotiation, location, relocation and displacement, exclusion and segregation, new representations of space, and new spaces of representation. There is still much room to reveal different agencies in these rapid and complex processes – state, markets, and people – in their different embodiment, organization and identification.

What is particularly missing from the current urban debates is a meta-narrative that would match the significance and extent of the meta-change in question. Extant studies focus on forms and appearances of urban processes rather than on the new ontologies of the urban, which may be understood not simply as a reflection or projection of new institutional and social order but as a key mediating instrument that “mixes” the ideological and the everyday and thus renders the new totalizing ideology its concrete practical contours and control over the production and reproduction of social relationships.

My intention in this paper has been to start problematizing the relationships between transition and the urban. To this end, I debated the importance of revisiting transition on three key levels, which in their cumulative co-construction offer a better understanding of the centrality of the urban in the spectacular post-socialist dynamics. Firstly, at the level of ideology, it is important to understand transition as a totalizing doctrine, which completes the subjugation of the whole world to capitalism and firmly crowns neoliberalism as the only global order. Like the rise of state socialism in the twentieth century, transition is a process of planetary reach and significance that has already radically changed the destinies of peoples, irrespective of whether living within or outside the spaces of (post)socialism. Secondly, at the level of practice, it is important to properly account for the spatializing effects of that ideology – which is not simply “domesticated,” but subsumes pre-existing practices altogether, alienates them from their own ideological history, and recasts them under the exigencies of capital(ism). Thirdly, at the level of the urban, while urban change is usually portrayed merely as a projection of larger societal changes, the urban needs to be seen the central stage through which the societal change is mediated; new meanings, social relations, and class divisions are construed; and through which transition achieves its practical, corporeal completeness.

Cities are actually an important social framework and material locale for the production and reproduction of the new relationships of (neoliberal) capitalism, including class (trans)formation and the production of uneven development. The urbanization of transition is thus a fulcrum of social and spatial regulation. In other words, urbanization is a major institutional dimension of transition, not simply its playground.

Disclosure statement

No potential conflict of interest was reported by the author.

Acknowledgements

Thanks to Anna Badyina for providing me with useful suggestions. Some ideas feeding into this article were previously presented at the Friction Spaces Lecture Series at Leuven (thanks to invitation from Manuel Aalbers and Mirjam Büdenbender) and at the Sixth International Urban Geographies of Post-Communist States (Cities after Transition) Conference. Usual disclaimers apply.

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Zombie socialism and the rise of neoliberalism in post-socialist Central and Eastern Europe

 

Many scholars have asked themselves if and for how long they should use the concept of “post-socialism.” We review some ways in which post-socialism is no longer used productively and suggest that one way to analyze the enduring effects of socialism (a useful role for the concept of post-socialism) is by paying attention to how economic and political elites in Central and Eastern Europe continue to use the ghost of state-socialism as the ultimate boogeyman, disciplinary device, and “ideological antioxidant.” We call this blend of post-1989 anti-communism and neoliberal hegemony “zombie socialism,” and we argue that it is a key component of contemporary capitalism in Central and Eastern Europe. We illustrate briefly some cases of zombie socialism, using data such as EU 28 statistics on labor, wages, work–life (im)balance, income tax, housing, and housing policies to show the effects of this hegemonic discourse. The presence of zombie socialism for almost three decades in Central and Eastern Europe made some of these countries “more” capitalist than countries with longer capitalist traditions in Europe. We join others who have suggested that there is nothing to transition any longer, as the “transition” is long over.

For a quarter of a century we have condemned communism increasingly stronger. Five years from now we will probably fight it as Ceausescu [in the 1980s] was fighting the Fascism [of the 1930s] … At a more profound level, condemning real-existing communism has been perverted in condemning any social claim: Do you want a salary raise? You are communist. Do you want public services? Do you want to tax the rich and ease the burden on small producers and wage earners? You are a communist and you killed my grandparents. Do you want public transportation instead of highways? You are mega-communist and a retarded hipster. (Rogozanu 2014Rogozanu, Costi2014. “Condamnarea ritualică a comunismului și de unde începe reformarea stângii[The Ritualic Condemnation of Communism and from Where Does the Reformation of the Left Begin].” Accessed July 15, 2016.http://voxpublica.realitatea.net/politica-societate/condamnarea-ritualica-a-comunismului-si-reformarea-reala-a-stingii-110586.html [Google Scholar])

Introduction: socialism from post- to ghost

The quote above expresses in a nutshell a political and cultural process spreading in many Central and Eastern European (CEE) societies. A hybridization of ritualistic anti-communist incantations and a neoliberal doxa has shaped economic, political, and cultural dynamics of ex-socialist countries. In such instances, state-socialism resurfaces not as institutional, spatial, or mental “legacies” and “leftovers” of socialism, but as a “ghost,” kept alive by the winners of the (now extinct) post-socialist period. In this article we ask: Who benefits from invoking state-socialism, in what contexts do such inflections occur, and with what effects? On a more general level, what role does the ghost of socialism play in the political economies and class dynamics of CEE countries? To understand the switch from “legacy” to ideological ingredient of neoliberalism in CEE, we introduce (and elaborate on below) the metaphor of “zombie socialism” to capture how keeping the socialist past alive in public discourse – almost three decades after its end – buttresses neoliberal politics and new configurations of inequalities.

During the last two decades, one key question that has underlined scholarship on ex-socialist countries across several disciplines has been to what extent post-socialism is still a relevant analytical category. After ascending as a denominator of all things post-1989 in Central and Eastern Europe, several scholars in geography, anthropology, and sociology have pointed out that the concept of post-socialism has become less relevant (Boyer and Yurchak 2008Boyer, Dominic, and Alexei Yurchak2008. “Postsocialist Studies, Cultures of Parody and American Stiob.” Anthropology News 49: 910.10.1111/anne.2008.49.issue-8[Crossref][Google Scholar]; Cervinkova 2012Cervinkova, Hana2012. “Postcolonialism, Postsocialism and the Anthropology of East-Central Europe.” Journal of Postcolonial Writing 48: 155163.10.1080/17449855.2012.658246[Taylor & Francis Online][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]; Chari and Verdery 2009Chari, Sharad, and Katherine Verdery2009. “Thinking between the Posts: Postcolonialism, Postsocialism, and Ethnography after the Cold War.” Comparative Studies in Society and History 51: 634.10.1017/S0010417509000024[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]; Dunn and Verdery 2015Dunn, Elizabeth C., and KatherineVerdery2015. “Postsocialism.” In Emerging Trends in the Social and Behavioral Sciences: An Interdisciplinary, Searchable, and Linkable Resource, edited by Robert A.Scott and Stephen M.Kosslyn19New YorkWiley.10.1002/9781118900772.etrds0261[Crossref][Google Scholar]; Ferenčuhová 2016Ferenčuhová, Slavomíra2016. “Accounts from Behind the Curtain: History and Geography in the Critical Analysis of Urban Theory.” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 40 (1): 113131.[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]; Hirt 2013Hirt, Sonia2013. “Whatever Happened to the (Post) Socialist City?” Cities 32: S29S38.10.1016/j.cities.2013.04.010[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]; Horvat and Štiks 2012Horvat, Srećko, and Igor Štiks2012. “Welcome to the Desert of Transition! Post-socialism, the European Union and a New Left in the Balkans.” Monthly Review 63: 3848.10.14452/MR-063-10-2012-03[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]; Humphrey 2001Humphrey, Caroline2001. “Does the Category ‘Postsocialist’ Still Make Sense.” In Postsocialism: Ideals, Ideologies Practices in Eurasia, edited by Chris Hann1214LondonRoutledge. [Google Scholar]; Pickles 2010Pickles, John2010. “The Spirit of Post-socialism: Common Spaces and the Production of Diversity.” European Urban and Regional Studies 17: 127140.10.1177/0969776409356492[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]; Rogers 2010Rogers, Doug2010. “Postsocialisms Unbound.” Slavic Review 69: 115.[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]; Stenning and Hörschelmann 2008Stenning, Alison, and KathrinHörschelmann2008. “History, Geography and Difference in the Post-socialist World: Or, Do We Still Need Post-socialism?” Antipode 40: 312335.10.1111/j.1467-8330.2008.00593.x[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]; Tuvikene 2016Tuvikene, Tauri2016. “Strategies for Comparative Urbanism: Post-socialism as a De-territorialized Concept.” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 40 (1): 132146.[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]; Wiest 2012Wiest, Karin2012. “Comparative Debates in Post-socialist Urban Studies.” Urban Geography 33: 829849.10.2747/0272-3638.33.6.829[Taylor & Francis Online][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]). Against this backdrop, we indicate one location where one may find continued relevance of socialism (and its “post”). Socialism – as a zombie and ghost – is important in the production of neoliberal monoglossia and guilt by association for those who challenge the dominant wisdom of trickle-down economics, thus supporting the worldview and, ultimately, the interests of the winners of post-1990 transition.

To evidence the works of zombie socialism, we start with a section where we review the main critiques of the concept of post-socialism. In the same section, we present case studies of zombie socialist political discourses from Hungary and Romania, as an entry into elaborating on this metaphor. We then discuss the effects of zombie socialism in several social policy domains and the actual conditions of life of post-socialist societies. We use national-level macroeconomic indicators; wages to GDP ratio, the share of minimum wages to all jobs, work–life imbalance, social spending and taxation, and housing statistics. We develop our discussion of housing markets and policies in greater detail to drive the point that zombie socialism can inspire policies that effectively jettison an entire area of social policy, ignoring growing problems experienced by different social groups such as the poor, the young, and the elderly, and contributing to social dumping. The data do not systematically focus on city/metropolitan regions, but rather provide a broad overview of socioeconomic and ideological factors that underpin local developments.

Three caveats are necessary. First, we are aware that in constructing a master narrative for the entire region we erase important national and especially sub-national dynamics, but there are enough arguments to support the idea that the processes that we outline in this article are present at different scales for much of the post-1990 historical cycle. Second, our argument is most likely limited to Central and Eastern Europe, rather than being applicable to the former Soviet Union (FSU). Socialism still carries – increasingly – positive connotations in parts of the FSU, where the zombie may come alive in some new form, as is the case, for example, in the “Donetsk People’s Republic.” As countries in the region follow different paths, both in terms of policy orientations and economic developments, the role that socialism plays in the collective imaginaries of these post-socialist societies may diverge as well. Third, we cannot substantiate the conscious character of the decision of politicians to invoke state-socialism when promoting neoliberal measures, and increased social dumping. We can indicate, however, instances where the two go together, a situation indicative of how “zombie socialism” is a form of symbolic domination of the hegemonic groups in CEE societies (Burawoy 2012Burawoy, Michael2012. “The Roots of Domination: Beyond Bourdieu and Gramsci.” Sociology46: 187206.10.1177/0038038511422725[Crossref][Google Scholar]). Zombie socialism may be employed in different ways for different aims. It may work as a means of gaining support for certain policies and budgetary allocations, as a justification for pragmatic decisions, but also as a way of framing policy priorities and ignoring certain claims in favor of others.

Zombie socialism: ghostly state-socialism after the end of “transition”

In order to spell out what zombie socialism is and how it works, we begin this section by situating our arguments in the sizeable literature on post-socialism and focusing our attention on some renewed analytic strategies for approaching socialism and post-socialism. We then offer several examples of zombie socialism, most notably focusing on two particularly relevant vignettes, one from the early 2000s (Hungary) and another one from 2014 (Romania).

Some scholars have emphasized that “post-socialism” is no longer a spatial container. Ex-socialist countries have experienced diverging economic trajectories. The conventional geographic knowledge used for locating the socialist countries has undergone transformations (Bunce 1999Bunce, Valerie1999. “The Political Economy of Postsocialism.” Slavic Review 58: 756793.10.2307/2697198[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]; Humphrey 2001Humphrey, Caroline2001. “Does the Category ‘Postsocialist’ Still Make Sense.” In Postsocialism: Ideals, Ideologies Practices in Eurasia, edited by Chris Hann1214LondonRoutledge. [Google Scholar]; Pickles 2010Pickles, John2010. “The Spirit of Post-socialism: Common Spaces and the Production of Diversity.” European Urban and Regional Studies 17: 127140.10.1177/0969776409356492[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar], 134; Rogers 2010Rogers, Doug2010. “Postsocialisms Unbound.” Slavic Review 69: 115.[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]). Before the 2008–2009 global financial crisis (GFC) literature classified countries according to “varieties of capitalism” (champions, slackers, corporatist, neoliberal, etc.) and distributed them across elastic symbolic geographies (i.e. Central/Eastern/former Soviet/Baltic/Southern; see Bohle and Greskovits 2007Bohle, Dorothee, and Bela Greskovits2007. “Neoliberalism, Embedded Neoliberalism and Neocorporatism: Towards Transnational Capitalism in Central-Eastern Europe.” West European Politics 30: 443466.10.1080/01402380701276287[Taylor & Francis Online][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]; Pickles 2010Pickles, John2010. “The Spirit of Post-socialism: Common Spaces and the Production of Diversity.” European Urban and Regional Studies 17: 127140.10.1177/0969776409356492[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar], 134; Swain 2011Swain, Nigel2011. “A Post-socialist Capitalism.” Europe-Asia Studies 63: 16711695.10.1080/09668136.2011.611653[Taylor & Francis Online][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]). Diverging economic evolutions during the GFC made internal heterogeneity an even more salient issue. To give just one example, housing markets across the region, and indeed across Europe, have become more heterogeneous (Pittini et al. 2016Pittini, AliceLaurentGhekièreJulien Dijol, and Igor Kiss2016. “The State of Housing in the EU. Brussels: Housing Europe.” Accessed March 7, 2016.http://www.housingeurope.eu/resource-468/the-state-of-housing-in-the-eu-2015 [Google Scholar]). Though in all post-socialist countries nominal housing price indices have decreased compared to the pre-crisis period, in countries such as Slovenia and the Czech Republic, decreases have been relatively small, while in Estonia, Romania, and Bulgaria housing price indices nearly halved in the 2009–2014 period (EMF 2015European Mortgage Federation (EMF). 2015. “A Review of Europe’s Mortgage and Housing Markets.” Accessed March 13, 2016.http://www.hypo.org/Content/Default.asp?PageID=524 [Google Scholar]), mirroring different responses to the crisis (Bohle 2014Bohle, Dorothee2014. “Post-socialist Housing Meets Transnational Finance: Foreign Banks, Mortgage Lending, and the Privatization of Welfare in Hungary and Estonia.” Review of International Political Economy 21: 913948.10.1080/09692290.2013.801022[Taylor & Francis Online][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]). At an urban scale, Hirt (2013Hirt, Sonia2013. “Whatever Happened to the (Post) Socialist City?” Cities 32: S29S38.10.1016/j.cities.2013.04.010[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]) has argued that one may not conceptualize the existence of a “post-socialist city” the way urban scholars spoke of the “socialist city.” Major features of the socialist city – such as high urban core density and an absence of low-density rings, state ownership of urban land, prominent presence of heavy industry, and reduced variety of design – are no longer there.

Aside from becoming a weaker spatial container, post-socialism has also ceased to be a temporal container or recognizable condition (Boyer and Yurchak 2008Boyer, Dominic, and Alexei Yurchak2008. “Postsocialist Studies, Cultures of Parody and American Stiob.” Anthropology News 49: 910.10.1111/anne.2008.49.issue-8[Crossref][Google Scholar]; Dunn and Verdery 2015Dunn, Elizabeth C., and KatherineVerdery2015. “Postsocialism.” In Emerging Trends in the Social and Behavioral Sciences: An Interdisciplinary, Searchable, and Linkable Resource, edited by Robert A.Scott and Stephen M.Kosslyn19New YorkWiley.10.1002/9781118900772.etrds0261[Crossref][Google Scholar]; Ferenčuhová 2016Ferenčuhová, Slavomíra2016. “Accounts from Behind the Curtain: History and Geography in the Critical Analysis of Urban Theory.” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 40 (1): 113131.[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]; Horvat and Štiks 2012Horvat, Srećko, and Igor Štiks2012. “Welcome to the Desert of Transition! Post-socialism, the European Union and a New Left in the Balkans.” Monthly Review 63: 3848.10.14452/MR-063-10-2012-03[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]; Humphrey 2001Humphrey, Caroline2001. “Does the Category ‘Postsocialist’ Still Make Sense.” In Postsocialism: Ideals, Ideologies Practices in Eurasia, edited by Chris Hann1214LondonRoutledge. [Google Scholar]; Rogers 2010Rogers, Doug2010. “Postsocialisms Unbound.” Slavic Review 69: 115.[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]; Tuvikene 2016Tuvikene, Tauri2016. “Strategies for Comparative Urbanism: Post-socialism as a De-territorialized Concept.” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 40 (1): 132146.[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]). Elizabeth Cullen Dunn and Katherine Verdery – two scholars closely associated with the ascent of the concept of post-socialism – observed recently that “after all, no one now refers to western Europe as ‘post-feudal’” (Dunn and Verdery 2015Dunn, Elizabeth C., and KatherineVerdery2015. “Postsocialism.” In Emerging Trends in the Social and Behavioral Sciences: An Interdisciplinary, Searchable, and Linkable Resource, edited by Robert A.Scott and Stephen M.Kosslyn19New YorkWiley.10.1002/9781118900772.etrds0261[Crossref][Google Scholar], 1). Most countries have institutionally reached what Francis Fukuyama (1992Fukuyama, Francis1992The End of History and the Last ManNew YorkFree Press. [Google Scholar], xii) saw at the beginning of post-socialism as the end of history; that is, “a form of society that satisfied its deepest and most fundamental longings.” The great expectations of the early 1990s elites in post-socialist countries have been fulfilled: they are recognized by the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the European Union (EU), and the United States as liberal democracies and “functional” market economies. Most countries have become EU and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) members. Despite perpetual calls for reform and “the rhetoric of incompleteness,” the region is fully capitalist, providing a pool of cheap and educated labor close to the core of the EU (Horvat and Štiks 2012Horvat, Srećko, and Igor Štiks2012. “Welcome to the Desert of Transition! Post-socialism, the European Union and a New Left in the Balkans.” Monthly Review 63: 3848.10.14452/MR-063-10-2012-03[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar], 39). As Horvat and Štiks (2012Horvat, Srećko, and Igor Štiks2012. “Welcome to the Desert of Transition! Post-socialism, the European Union and a New Left in the Balkans.” Monthly Review 63: 3848.10.14452/MR-063-10-2012-03[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]) put it, “in this respect, the Transition as such is long over. There is nothing to ‘transit’ to anymore.” Additionally, as Caroline Humphrey (2001Humphrey, Caroline2001. “Does the Category ‘Postsocialist’ Still Make Sense.” In Postsocialism: Ideals, Ideologies Practices in Eurasia, edited by Chris Hann1214LondonRoutledge. [Google Scholar], 13) noticed, the generations brought up under socialist regimes have disappeared, or are at best, retired from the political and economic scene (see also, Stenning and Hörschelmann 2008Stenning, Alison, and KathrinHörschelmann2008. “History, Geography and Difference in the Post-socialist World: Or, Do We Still Need Post-socialism?” Antipode 40: 312335.10.1111/j.1467-8330.2008.00593.x[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar], 329). People who were still relatively young at the time of the 1989 transformations are now, themselves, fast approaching retirement age.

In addition to being a weaker spatial and temporal container, scholars have indicated additional issues. They include the lack of comparison and the overemphasis on processes coming to the CEE region, rather than moving out of the region (Rogers 2010Rogers, Doug2010. “Postsocialisms Unbound.” Slavic Review 69: 115.[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]; Stenning and Hörschelmann 2008Stenning, Alison, and KathrinHörschelmann2008. “History, Geography and Difference in the Post-socialist World: Or, Do We Still Need Post-socialism?” Antipode 40: 312335.10.1111/j.1467-8330.2008.00593.x[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar], 313; Wiest 2012Wiest, Karin2012. “Comparative Debates in Post-socialist Urban Studies.” Urban Geography 33: 829849.10.2747/0272-3638.33.6.829[Taylor & Francis Online][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]). Rogers (2010Rogers, Doug2010. “Postsocialisms Unbound.” Slavic Review 69: 115.[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar], 3) has pointed that it is not enough to understand how “various post-socialist contexts serve as sites for debate about how transnational or global processes (from democratization to neoliberalization to religious conversion) have come to the former Soviet bloc.” Rogers goes on to suggest that “just as significant … are other sites, more complex circulations, and understudied vectors of transnational movement that are not bound by the world regions bequeathed to us by Cold War configurations of knowledge and power.” Similarly, echoing insights from comparative urbanism (Robinson 2010Robinson, Jennifer2010. “Cities in a World of Cities: The Comparative Gesture.” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 35: 123.[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]; Wiest 2012Wiest, Karin2012. “Comparative Debates in Post-socialist Urban Studies.” Urban Geography 33: 829849.10.2747/0272-3638.33.6.829[Taylor & Francis Online][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]), Rogers warned against obsessive and implicit comparisons with Western experiences, encouraging scholars to bring to the fore the global interconnectedness (and subordination) of post-socialist cities.

Against this backdrop, some studies have offered renewed ways for rethinking time and space in relation to socialism and post-socialism. Seeking to “liberate the Cold War from the ghetto of Soviet area studies” and to enter into a dialog with postcolonial scholarship, Katherine Verdery (2001Verdery, Katherine2001. “Whither Postsocialism?” In Postsocialism: Ideals, Ideologies Practices in Eurasia, edited by Chris Hann1528LondonRoutledge. [Google Scholar], 20) urged scholars to identify the enduring effects of cold war tectonics, proposing the analytics of “post-Cold War studies.” According to Verdery, this would allow a different perspective on the twentieth century by situating socialism and post-socialism, like post-colonialism, globally, as “the effects of the Cold War were not confined to any single world area[,] but … wholly pervasive throughout most of the twentieth century” (21; see also, Chari and Verdery 2009Chari, Sharad, and Katherine Verdery2009. “Thinking between the Posts: Postcolonialism, Postsocialism, and Ethnography after the Cold War.” Comparative Studies in Society and History 51: 634.10.1017/S0010417509000024[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]; Dunn and Verdery 2015Dunn, Elizabeth C., and KatherineVerdery2015. “Postsocialism.” In Emerging Trends in the Social and Behavioral Sciences: An Interdisciplinary, Searchable, and Linkable Resource, edited by Robert A.Scott and Stephen M.Kosslyn19New YorkWiley.10.1002/9781118900772.etrds0261[Crossref][Google Scholar]; Pitcher and Askew 2006Pitcher, Anne, and Kelly Askew2006. “African Socialisms and Postsocialisms.” Africa 76: 114.10.3366/afr.2006.0001[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]; Rogers 2010Rogers, Doug2010. “Postsocialisms Unbound.” Slavic Review 69: 115.[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]). Interesting empirical research, ethnographic and historical, has emerged recently, such as the German Democratic Republic’s housing construction in Vinh City, Vietnam, as part of “international solidarity” between socialist countries (Schwenkel 2015Schwenkel, Christina2015. “Spectacular Infrastructure and its Breakdown in Socialist Vietnam.” American Ethnologist42: 520534.10.1111/amet.12145[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]) and the schooling of students from African countries in Romanian universities (Gheorghiu and Netedu 2015Gheorghiu, Mihai Dinu, and AdrianNetedu2015. “African Students and the Transformation Process of Romanian Education. From the Political Issue of Internationalism to the Romanian Educational Offer between 1970 and 1990.” Scientific Annals of the ‘Alexandru Ioan Cuza’ University. New Series Sociology and Social Work Section 8: 131143. [Google Scholar]).

Finally, some other studies have enriched our understanding of post-socialism by gazing above and below ground, to the vertical and material dimensions of post-socialism, enlarging the understanding of transition by incorporating the sociotechnical dimensions of cities. Above ground, Gentile (2015Gentile, Michael2015. “The Post-Soviet Urban Poor and Where They Live: Khrushchev-Era Blocks, ‘Bad’ Areas, and the Vertical Dimension in Luhansk, Ukraine.” Annals of the Association of American Geographers105: 583603.10.1080/00045608.2015.1018783[Taylor & Francis Online][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar], 583) documented the importance and neglect of vertical segregation of socialist-era housing, calling for “increased sensitivity towards the third dimension of space in contemporary urbanism.” Beneath-ground, Rogers (2014Rogers, Doug2014. “Energopolitical Russia: Corporation, State and the Rise of Social, and Political Projects.” Anthropological Quarterly 87: 431451.10.1353/anq.2014.0017[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]) outlined the “energopolitics” dimension of transition, while Bouzarovski, Bradshaw, and Wochnik (2015Bouzarovski, StefanMichael Bradshaw, and AlexanderWochnik2015. “Making Territory through Infrastructure: The Governance of Natural Gas Transit in Europe.” Geoforum64: 217228.10.1016/j.geoforum.2015.06.022[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]) discussed how different from the conventional symbolic geographies Europe looks beneath ground, from the point of view of pipes and gas flows.

In this contribution, we point to a different analytic venue, centered on the strategic essentialization of socialism, not by the subalterns of post-socialist societies, but by the winners of transition. Although the socialist and post-socialist institutional heritage has become, after almost 30 years, extinct, and although the actually existing socialism fades quickly into the deep history of the present, the vivid resurrection of the socialist past is part of the hegemony that furthers neoliberalism and disciplines the population of such countries. Thus, instead of imagining capitalism as being built “on and with the ruins of communist system” (Smith and Pickles 1998Smith, Adrian, and John Pickles1998. “Introduction.” In Theorizing Transition: The Political Economy of Transition in Post-communist Countries, edited by John Picklesand Adrian Smith124LondonRoutledge. [Google Scholar], 2), one may argue that post-socialist capitalism has been built by the winners of transition using the “ghost” of communism in order to discipline the workforce into giving up social justice claims (Poenaru 2013Poenaru, Florin2013. “History and Intellectual Class Struggle in Post-communist Romania.” PhD diss., Department of Sociology and Social Anthropology, Central European University. [Google Scholar]; Simonica 2012Simonica, Anca2012Critical Engagements with and within Capitalism: Romania’s Middle Managers after SocialismBudapestDepartment of Sociology and Social Anthropology, Central European University. [Google Scholar]). Simonica (2012Simonica, Anca2012Critical Engagements with and within Capitalism: Romania’s Middle Managers after SocialismBudapestDepartment of Sociology and Social Anthropology, Central European University. [Google Scholar], iii) argues that in Central and Eastern Europe “capitalism is not only built with the ruins [of socialism], but also by keeping its ghost alive.” As a zombie, the actual and imagined socialist past functions as an “ideological antioxidant” (Žižek 2001Žižek, Slavoj2001Did Somebody Say Totalitarianism? Five Interventions in the (Mis)use of a NotionLondonVerso. [Google Scholar]). For Slavoj Žižek, ideological antioxidants are arguments, usually coming from pro-business corners, holding that “any radical emancipatory political project necessarily ends up in some version of totalitarian domination and control” (5). In much of the post-1989 historical cycle, the specter of the communist period acts as the “ultimate bogey” for pre-empting social claims. Any attempt to challenge post-socialist neoliberalism is, as in other cases, “denounced as ethically dangerous and unacceptable, resuscitating the ghost of ‘totalitarianism’” (4).

We do not use the metaphor of the zombie to suggest that socialism lingers and creeps in to take over the region once more or indeed the capitalist world, as some market fundamentalists suggest (see, for instance, Marsland 2004Marsland, David2004. “Caliban or Taliban.” Society41:4851.10.1007/BF02690204[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]). Indeed, zombie metaphors are sometimes used to suggest that an outdated idea returns to haunt the present and seize the future (hence “zombie neoliberalism,” “zombie politics,” “zombie economics,” “zombie capitalism”; see Giroux 2011Giroux, Henry2011Zombie Politics and Culture in the Age of Casino CapitalismNew YorkPeter Lang.[Crossref][Google Scholar]; Quiggin 2010Quiggin, John2010Zombie Economics: How Dead Ideas Still Walk among UsPrincetonPrinceton University Press. [Google Scholar]; Peck 2010Peck, Jamie2010. “Zombie Neoliberalism and the Ambidextrous State.” Theoretical Criminology 14: 104110.10.1177/1362480609352784[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]). Nor do we use it to suggest the rise in CEE of occult economies, although there is an abundance of conspiracy theories and fascination with occult explanations of political developments (Comaroff and Comaroff 1999Comaroff, Jean, and John Comaroff1999. “Occult Economies and the Violence of Abstraction: Notes from the South African Colony.” American Ethnologist26: 279303.[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]). Similarly, we do not use the idea of the zombie along the lines of the work of mourning for the millions of victims who perished during the Stalinist regimes as outlined by Etkind (2009Etkind, Alexander2009. “Post-Soviet Hauntology: Cultural Memory of the Soviet Terror.” Constellations16: 182200.10.1111/cons.2009.16.issue-1[Crossref][Google Scholar]). Rather we seek to explore why the winners of transition still need socialism, instead of letting it go. Like the bokor (zombie master) in the classic movie White Zombie (1932, director Victor Halperin), such winners seek to produce docile subjects by dismissing social claims voiced by the “losers” of transition as being communist, outdated, anti-democratic, anti-meritocratic, unsustainable, regressive, covertly totalitarian, or at best, naive. Zombie socialism has had since the early 1990s – with different intensities in different historical moments in each country – constitutive capacities for the allocation of wealth, social dumping, and the reduction of support for redistributive policies. Despite its temporal and geographic variation, it tended to occupy a central place in the entire post-socialist period and it has represented the local flavor of post-socialist neoliberalism.

We thus focus less on the rescaling and analytic portability of the concept of post-socialism, but rather revisit some major themes of class and inequalities in post-socialist societies (Dunn 2004Dunn, Elizabeth C.2004Privatizing Poland: Baby Food, Big Business, the Remaking of LaborIthaca, NYCornell University Press. [Google Scholar]; Dunn and Verdery 2015Dunn, Elizabeth C., and KatherineVerdery2015. “Postsocialism.” In Emerging Trends in the Social and Behavioral Sciences: An Interdisciplinary, Searchable, and Linkable Resource, edited by Robert A.Scott and Stephen M.Kosslyn19New YorkWiley.10.1002/9781118900772.etrds0261[Crossref][Google Scholar]; Eyal, Szelényi, and Townsley 1998Eyal, GilIvánSzelényi, and Eleanor R. Townsley1998Making Capitalism without Capitalism: Making Elite Struggles in Post-communist Central EuropeLondonVerso. [Google Scholar]). In so doing, we reinforce Rogers (2010Rogers, Doug2010. “Postsocialisms Unbound.” Slavic Review 69: 115.[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar], 15) methodological point that in ex-socialist countries the study of contemporary capitalism should proceed “through the study of post-socialisms, rather than abandoning it for a generalized neoliberalism” (see also, Stenning and Hörschelmann 2008Stenning, Alison, and KathrinHörschelmann2008. “History, Geography and Difference in the Post-socialist World: Or, Do We Still Need Post-socialism?” Antipode 40: 312335.10.1111/j.1467-8330.2008.00593.x[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]), as well as Brenner and Theodore’s (2002Brenner, Neil, and NikTheodore2002. “Cities and the Geographies of ‘Actually Existing Neoliberalism’.” Antipode 34: 349379.10.1111/anti.2002.34.issue-3[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar], 349) suggestion that “an adequate understanding of actually existing neoliberalism must therefore explore path-dependent, contextually specific interactions between regulatory landscapes and emergent neoliberalism.”

Let us present some examples of zombie socialism. One illustrative vignette of zombie socialism is the first term in power of the FIDESZ political party in the late 1990s and early 2000s Hungary (Gergo Pulay, personal communication).11. FIDESZ is the main conservative party in Hungary and has dominated Hungarian politics since its landslide victory in 2010. Prime Minister Victor Orban is its main spokes person. Magyar Hírlapis one of the main outlets for conservative and traditional values in Hungary. http://hun.politika.narkive.com/6JEFhroi/lumpenproli-panelproli.View all notes FIDESZ ideologues pushed for the reimagining of the Hungarian polity on the opposition between a republic of bourgeois citizens and the panelproli – “proletarians from the Communist apartment buildings”; that is, the inhabitants of concrete, prefabricated socialist-era high-rise apartment buildings. Zsolt Bayer – an opinion leader and publicist of Magyar Hírlap, co-founder of FIDESZ, and friend of current Prime Minister Victor Orban – emphatically stated in 2002 that “Hungary is not going to allow the lumpenproletariats of the waterheaded [i.e. overcentralized] Budapest, and within that Pest, to decide what should happen to this country.” Replacing the socialist-era term worker (munkás), “panelproli” came to denote “middle class” constituencies, the former socialist working class and its remnants. Its usage was often intermixed with the equally depreciative term “lumpen”; that is, the mass of the uneducated and uninformed in the Hungarian context of the early 2000s (Halmai 2011Halmai, Gábor2011. “(Dis)possessed by the Spectre of Socialism: Nationalist Mobilization in ‘Transitional’ Hungary.” In Working-class Populism and the Return of the Repressed in Neoliberal Europe, edited by Don Kalband Gábor Halmai113141New YorkBerghahn. [Google Scholar], 129). The reference to Pest as opposed to Buda also connotes the working class or at best “petty-bourgeoisie,” opposed to the “middle class” or “historically noble” zone in Buda. These were strictly symbolic class geographies, since the actual social map of Budapest is significantly more complex. The link between the “panelproli” and Pest (and not Buda) is due to the historically developed working-class quarters of Pest such as Csepel or Angyalföld, even if these were not strictly communist-built industrial quarters (existing since the late nineteenth century onward). This example is particularly telling since even if Hungary has been a “champion” of a transition to capitalism in the first decade of the 1990s, its political and economic elites reinserted socialism as part of the foundation of that type of political scene.

A second case study example of zombie socialism is in the housing vision of the ex-Romanian President Traian Basescu.22. Traian Basescu’s housing practices were the opposite of his philosophy. He is currently charged with money laundering through real estate transfers and the illegal self-allocation of state housing, while he was a mayor of Bucharest in the early 2000s.View all notes Toward the end of his second mandate (2010–2014), marked by austerity programs, political turmoil, anti-trade union legislation, and labor flexibility policies, he declared at a meeting,

Watch American movies and notice the way they pack up three suitcases and leave home because they have not found a well paid job … I would not like to see you educated in the spirit of “I want to own a home”, but rather “I want a job and a salary first.” … I do not want to suggest that one does not need a home. One does, but you should be pragmatic, not sentimental. We are left with this home [ownership] thing from the communists.33. Super-homeownership is actually not a communist-era process, but strictly a post-1991 phenomena, the year the state housing privatization legislation passed.View all notes To own a house. But back then, the job was offered where you had the house. But life in a free economy, a free society means competition and competition pushes people to be mobile. (Mediafax 2014Mediafax. 2014. “Băsescu: Aș vrea să nu vă educați în spiritul‚ Vreau casa’, prima dată, ci loc de muncă și salariu[Băsescu: I Would Like You to Get Educated Not in the Spirit I Want a House First, but a Job and a Salary].” Accessed on July 15, 2016.http://www.mediafax.ro/social/basescu-as-vrea-sa-nu-va-educati-in-spiritul-vreau-casa-prima-data-ci-loc-de-munca-si-salariu-13263843 [Google Scholar])

He reinforced this moral and economic negative view of homeownership in another statement saying that “the lack of mobility is first and foremost generated by the way we were raised to own homes and when you lose your job you sit in your house and you consume your poverty.” The only chance to see increased mobility, according to him, was to see the minimum wage increase, rather than see wages increase above minimum wage (InCont.ro 2014InCont.ro. 2014. “Băsescu îndeamnă investitorii străini să-și caute singuri angajații: Mergeți după forța de muncă, nu așteptați ca în SUA că nu va veni[Băsescu Advises Foreign Investors to Go Searching for Employees: Go After the Workforce, Don’t Wait Like in the US, It Won’t Come].” Accessed July 15, 2016.http://incont.stirileprotv.ro/joburi-romania/basescu-indeamna-investitorii-straini-sa-si-caute-singuri-angajati-ldquo-mergeti-dupa-forta-de-munca-nu.html [Google Scholar]).

This statement is particularly meaningful because it crystallizes several layers of violence. First, it casts the only significant form of wealth that Romanians have – and indeed other people living in super-homeownership societies – as idle and non-productive. Second, it disregards that for people across Europe “a significant preference for homeownership is reported, and renting suffers from an image as an inferior, temporary form of tenure” (Pittini et al. 2016Pittini, AliceLaurentGhekièreJulien Dijol, and Igor Kiss2016. “The State of Housing in the EU. Brussels: Housing Europe.” Accessed March 7, 2016.http://www.housingeurope.eu/resource-468/the-state-of-housing-in-the-eu-2015 [Google Scholar], 26). Approximately 70% of Europeans are currently homeowners, and about 40% own without a mortgage. Third, the ex-president’s take on housing represents the viewpoint of employers, many low wage-paying industrial producers coming from Western Europe, and human resource companies, who cast super-homeownership as a bad “housing fix.” Employers in Romania complain that people are immobile because they own housing, ignoring the fact that about one-third of wages are minimum wages, thus making it impossible to pay market rent if people move out of their homes. Pro-business and fiscal conservative voices have often rehearsed this theme. Theodor Stolojan, a former prime minister and architect of neoliberal policies explained at a libertarian think-tank meeting that “We [have] a rigid housing market … which does not help at all … labor market flexibility.”44.http://www.cadi.ro/index.php/vizualizare/articol/multimedia/382View all notes A labor legislation specialist explained the lack of labor mobility by the fact that geographic mobility inside a company “resembles in some respects the mandatory jobs assignments at the end of college practiced during the Communist period,” in addition to the problem of homeownership (BusinessMagazin 2007BusinessMagazin. 2007. “Salariul de relocare [The Relocation Salary].” Accessed April 20, 2016.http://www.businessmagazin.ro/cover-story/salariu-de-relocare-1054845 [Google Scholar]). A human resources consultant explained that Western Europe has much fewer homeowners than Romania and that there people are used to living their entire life renting, thus moving much more easily (2007). These last arguments disregard the fact that there is no link between homeownership and economic growth. China’s homeownership rate is 90%, while in Singapore, another country with sustained growth and strong neoliberal, developmentalist state, 80% of the housing stock is provided under the public homeownership program (Chua 2000Chua, Ben Huat2000. “Public Housing Residents as Clients of the State.” Housing Studies 15: 4560.[Taylor & Francis Online][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]2011Chua, Ben Huat2011. “Singapore as Model: Planning Innovations, Knowledge Experts.” In Worlding Cities: Asian Experiments and the Art of being Global, edited by A. Roy and A. Ong2954OxfordWiley – Blackwell. [Google Scholar]). Furthermore, one key difference between homeownership-oriented housing systems in CEE and more rental-oriented systems in Germany, Austria, or France is the strict enforcement of rent capping and rent regulations on the private renting sector, which enables renters to have security of tenure (staying longer in their rented homes, as opposed to moving more easily).

There is no shortage of zombie socialism arguments. Another example of putting zombie socialism to work is the link business elites draw between a communist-era lack of work ethic and reduced productivity with the lack of justification – indeed, the impossibility – of wage increases. On the grounds of “productivity,” a public high school teacher in East Berlin is paid 85% of what the same teacher is paid in West Berlin for the same amount work.55. We thank Matthias Bernt for pointing out this situation.View all notes The cause of Melania Trump’s plagiarism of Michelle Obama’s speech at the 2016 Republican National Convention, according to a political scientist born in Poland and currently teaching in the U.S., is “the culture of cheating in Eastern European schools inherited from state-socialism” (Nalepa 2016Nalepa, Monika2016. “Melania Trump and the Culture of Cheating in Eastern European Schools.” The Washington Post. Accessed July 15, 2016.https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2016/07/20/melania-trump-and-the-culture-of-cheating-in-eastern-european-schools/ [Google Scholar]).66. Melania Trump has been in the U.S. almost half of her life (since 1996, according to https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2016/feb/26/donald-trump-melania-trump-first-lady).View all notes Forms of moral consumption and liberal politics are often treated as communist-era impositions on freedom of choice. In Poland, women’s rights (abortion, in vitro fertilization, civil unions, teaching of sex education) are an apocalyptic threat for the Catholic Church – an institution feared by Polish politicians – prompting a bishop to state that the “ideology of gender presents a threat worse than Nazism and Communism combined.” (Sierakowski 2014Sierakowski, Slawomir2014. “The Polish Church’s Gender Problem.” New York Times, January 27.http://www.nytimes.com/2014/01/27/opinion/sierakowski-the-polish-churchs-gender-problem.html?_r=1. [Google Scholar]) Attempts to practice non-racist language are treated as “political correctness,” which, along with multiculturalism, represent no less than “American Communism” for one influent self-proclaimed cultural and fiscal conservative in Romania. For the same public figure, even the disregard of speed limits in traffic is due to the communist-era double-speak and culture of informality (Patapievici 2014Patapievici, Horia Roman2014. “Oamenii trăiesc într-o societate în care nu este fericirea pe stradă, dar măcar poți trăi fără a fi urmărit zilnic [People Live in a Society in Which It’s Not Happiness on the Streets but at Least You Can Live Without Being Followed Everyday].” Gândul interview. Accessed July. 15, 2016.http://www.gandul.info/interviurile-gandul/h-r-patapievici-la-25-de-ani-de-la-revolutie-oamenii-traiesc-intr-o-societate-in-care-nu-este-fericirea-pe-strada-dar-macar-poti-trai-fara-sa-fii-urmarit-zilnic-13729329 [Google Scholar]).

Zombie socialism, class dynamics, and neoliberal social policies in Central and Eastern Europe

Taking into account such forced associations between the extinct socialist period and social justice agendas that might slow down or alleviate the fate of the losers of transition, it should come as little surprise that, as Ger Duijzings (2010Duijzings, Ger2010. “From Bongo Bongo to Boston via the Balkans.” In Urbanisierung und Stadtentwicklung in Südoesteuropa vom 19. Bis zum 21. Jahrhundert[Urbanization and City Development in Southern and Eastern Europe from the 19th to the 21st Century], edited by BohnThomas and Marie Janine Calic93132MünchenOtto Sagner. [Google Scholar], 109) put it, “some of the features of neoliberalism have taken their purest form in Eastern Europe” (see also, Smith and Rachovská 2007Smith, Adrian, and Alena Rachovská2007. “Domesticating Neo-liberalism: Everyday Lives and the Geographies of Post-socialist Transformation.” Geoforum 38: 11631178.10.1016/j.geoforum.2007.03.003[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar], 1163). The post-socialist neoliberalism has been particularly good at exploiting labor and passing on the cost of reproduction of labor (housing, social expenditures) from capital to labor. In this section, we describe some of the effects of zombie socialism in three areas: the glorification of the “middle classes”; labor and taxation policies; and especially, housing. We look at housing in greater detail, because the privatization of housing under post-socialism can be seen as the most comprehensive retreat from a domain of public policy engaged in by governments in the CEE region. The continuous discounting of housing as an area of government intervention and as a vector for the delivery of social services makes housing policy a telling example of zombie socialist social dumping.

Glorification of the “middle classes”

Many cases of zombie socialism, including some that we outlined above, share Janus-faced tropes: the glorification of the middle class as a rupture with the communist past and the attack on the welfare system and the poor as a vestige of the same socialist past and arrested development. One political process present in many countries across the region is that the winners of the transition from socialism advocate the concentration of public spending on the middle class (i.e. themselves), while simultaneously trying to disconnect the rest of society from public budget spending. As Ost (2015Ost, David2015. “Stuck in the Past and in the Future: Class Analysis in Postcommunist Poland.” East European Politics and Societies and Cultures29: 610624.10.1177/0888325415602058[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar], 614) put it, the “middle class”77. As Ost (2015Ost, David2015. “Stuck in the Past and in the Future: Class Analysis in Postcommunist Poland.” East European Politics and Societies and Cultures29: 610624.10.1177/0888325415602058[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar], 614) nicely noticed, “the only group unproblematically labeled a class” in these countries.View all notes as a concept is “breathtakingly vague,” but the media and politicians in the CEE region generally refer to it as the employees of multinational companies, the creative class, the educated urbanites, established businessmen, and aspiring “entrepreneurs,” but also top public employees. In Russia for instance, there is an “excessive fascination with the middle class … as the dominant class of the future, one that would be the carrier of the new values of democracy and a market society” (Crowley 2015Crowley, Stephen2015. “Russia: The Reemergence of Class in the Wake of the First ‘Classless’ Society.” East European Politics and Societies and Cultures29: 698710.10.1177/0888325415599202[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar], 701). Poland saw significant discussions of who the not-yet-existing middle classes ought to be after the fall of communism (the nomenklatura? the diaspora? the skilled service sector?), rather than what happens to the non-“middle-classes” (Ost 2015Ost, David2015. “Stuck in the Past and in the Future: Class Analysis in Postcommunist Poland.” East European Politics and Societies and Cultures29: 610624.10.1177/0888325415602058[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar], 610–614; see also, Boyadjieva and Kabakchieva 2015Boyadjieva, Pepka, and PetyaKabakchieva2015. “Inequality in Poverty: Bulgarian Sociologists on Class and Stratification.” East European Politics and Societies and Cultures29: 625639.10.1177/0888325415599572[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar], 629 for Bulgaria; Makovicky 2014Makovicky, Nicolette2014Neoliberalism, Personhood, and Postsocialism: Entreprising Selves in Changing EconomiesNew YorkRoutledge. [Google Scholar]).

The implicit and often explicit message of such glorifications is that the state should cater to those successful in the market, rather than those at the margins of society. According to this meta-narrative which seems to be shared across the region, the state should reform, discipline, and especially put to work the lower classes. The lower classes are market failures because – so the narrative goes – of the survival of socialism in their minds, in public institutions, and policies. Thus, they need to be purged of non-market behaviors such as dependence on government assistance (Eyal, Szelényi, and Townsley 1998Eyal, GilIvánSzelényi, and Eleanor R. Townsley1998Making Capitalism without Capitalism: Making Elite Struggles in Post-communist Central EuropeLondonVerso. [Google Scholar], 12). Often times the cult of the middle class accompanies derogatory remarks to lower classes, amounting to “postsocialist Eastern Europe’s own variant of Orientalism,” as Elizabeth Dunn (2004Dunn, Elizabeth C.2004Privatizing Poland: Baby Food, Big Business, the Remaking of LaborIthaca, NYCornell University Press. [Google Scholar], 92) put it. Such working class bashing is frequent in the current Romanian discourse that contrasts young people who work in the skilled service sector to the uncultured and “uncivilized” working class, but also to elderly political constituencies, constantly accused of “bolshevik” temptations. Similarly, in Poland, the “middle class” – supposedly belittled by socialism – is now threatened by the poor. The imagined middle class, composed of “emerging property owners, professionals, and ‘knowledge workers’ distinguished by their interest in high culture, knowledge of foreign languages, a broad way of thinking, and positive work ethos (‘not just doing one’s job and going home’)” – has the ability to save Poland from “civilization incompetence” and from the inability of the lower classes who are accused that they “drink, fight, rely on public assistance and spend their lives watching TV” (Ost 2015Ost, David2015. “Stuck in the Past and in the Future: Class Analysis in Postcommunist Poland.” East European Politics and Societies and Cultures29: 610624.10.1177/0888325415602058[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar], 615; see also, Fleming 2012Fleming, Michael2012. “The Regime of Violence in Socialist and Postsocialist Poland.” Annals of the Association of American Geographers. 102: 482498.10.1080/00045608.2011.620512[Taylor & Francis Online][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]).

Zombie socialism in labor and taxation policies

As of 2013, the share of wages to GDP was lower than the EU 28 average in all post-socialist countries excepting Slovenia, which was the highest in the EU (Figure 1). Whereas, the EU 28 average of the percentage of GDP that goes to labor is 56%, post-socialist countries vary between 43.9% in Slovakia, 44.6% in Lithuania, 45.8% in Romania, 47.8% in Poland, 48.6% in the Czech Republic, and 54.0% in Bulgaria (see Figure 1). This is indicative of a situation of a weaker negotiation power of the labor force relative to capital.

Figure 1. Share of wages to GDP in EU countries in 2013 (adjusted wage share to total economy as percentage). Source: European Commission (https://knoema.com/ECAMECODB2016/annual-macro-economic-database-2016).

The winners of transition have been particularly efficient at forcing down the price paid for labor and appropriate higher shares of the surplus for capital. In all former socialist countries (except the Czech Republic), the percentage of people earning less than two-thirds of the national median gross hourly earnings is above the EU average, which is 18%. Save for Cyprus, Ireland, and the United Kingdom, all of the 12 countries where 20% or more of the labor force is paid the minimum wage are post-socialist. In Lithuania, low-wage earners amount to no less than 39% (Figure 2).

Figure 2. The share of people earning less than two-thirds of the national median gross hourly earnings in EU countries in 2010. Source: Eurostat (http://ec.europa.eu/eurostat/web/gdp-and-beyond/quality-of-life/low-wage-earners3).

With the exception of three countries, all post-socialist EU member countries spend significantly less on social protection (as a percentage of GDP) than Western European countries. Expenditure on social protection in post-socialist countries is substantially lower than in the countries with a longer and deeper capitalist history. The EU28 average spending on social protection is 19.5% of GDP. Save for Slovakia (20%), countries like Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia, and Romania spend as little as 11.4% (Romania) and 13.4% (Bulgaria). Hungary, Poland, and Slovenia spend slightly more (15.6–18%), but still below the European average (Eurostat 2016Eurostat. 2016. Press Release “General Government Expenditure in the EU in 2014.” Accessed March 7, 2016.http://ec.europa.eu/eurostat/documents/2995521/7214399/2-22032016-BP-EN.pdf/596b9daa-b9d6-415d-b85a-b41174488728 [Google Scholar]).

Under such circumstances it should also come as little surprise that the imposition of the cost for the reproduction of labor on households creates particular tensions in the work–life balance. Many post-socialist countries are quite similar in their location relative to the rest of the European Union. There is clear evidence in European statistics that post-socialist employees work longer hours than the rest of Europeans (Chelcea 2015Chelcea, Liviu2015. “Post-socialist Acceleration: Fantasy Time in a Multinational Bank.” Time and Society 24: 348366.10.1177/0961463X14563018[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar], 348–350). This is visible in the number of people who work more than 40 h/week, during weekends, and 48 + hours/week: 12 of the 16 countries where people work more than the EU average are post-socialist (348–350). Accordingly, a significant percentage of the population of post-socialist countries experience issues of work-life imbalance. One report found that the “disruption of work-life balance at both home and work is especially a problem in some central and east European countries.” (Eurofound 2012Eurofound. 2012. “Third European Quality of Life Survey – Quality of Life in Europe: Impacts of the Crisis.” Publications Office of the European Union, Luxembourg. Accessed March 13, 2016.http://www.eurofound.europa.eu/sites/default/files/ef_publication/field_ef_document/ef1264en_0.pdf [Google Scholar], 63). Whereas, “only” 40–50% of the population experiences conflicts at work and/or home in the Netherlands, Italy, or Denmark, the figures vary between 63 and 73% for Latvia, Bulgaria, Estonia, Poland, Romania, the Czech Republic, and Hungary (2012, 65). Only Slovenia, Slovakia, and Lithuania are beneath the EU28 average (57%).

Other tangible effects are the evacuation of the social justice agenda from the social democratic parties in the region and the emergence of a neoliberal consensus, punctuated occasionally by ecologist movements, geopolitical disruptions, or nationalist overtones, as is the case in Hungary and recently, Poland (Vesalon and Cretan 2015Vesalon, Lucian, and Remus Cretan2015. “‘We Are Not the Wild West’: Anti-fracking Protests in Romania.” Environmental Politics24: 288307.10.1080/09644016.2014.1000639[Taylor & Francis Online][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]). Most social democratic parties that were, in theory, supposed to stand for the losers of transition have adopted Tony Blair’s “Third Way.” As one scholar put it,

the weakness of left parties in Central and Eastern Europe is less visible in their electoral support than it is in their intellectual support. After decades of intellectual hegemony, left ideas literally vanished in the region, leaving neoliberalism to rule as the only game in town. (Dragoman 2015Dragoman, Dragos2015. “Where Have All the Marxists Gone? The Intellectual Left, Ideological Debate and Public Space in Post-communist Romania.” Studia Politica 15: 229247. [Google Scholar], 229)

Some social democratic leaders became fervent pro-business champions in order to disassociate themselves from the communist past. The 2012–2015 Romanian social democrat prime minister, Victor Ponta, described himself as “the most pro-business Prime Minister in Europe,” while simultaneously spending substantial efforts to avoid any association with leftist politics and over-performing the rejection of communism.88. For instance, he declared that he has voted for the anti-communist presidential candidates, thus against the candidates of his Social Democratic Party, which gathered, in the 1990s and 2000s, many second- and third-tier nomenklatura and socialist-era technical intelligentia.View all notes The reformed communists of the Social Democratic Party in Croatia “became the party most associated with neoliberalism and closing the integration into EU” (Grdešić 2015Grdešić, Marko2015. “Class Discourse in Croatia: Where did it go? Is it coming back?” East European Politics and Societies and Cultures 29: 663671.[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar], 665).Finally, another tangible effect of zombie socialism is the adoption across the entire region of flat income tax regimes in the 2000s (1994 in Estonia). Except for the Czech Republic and Slovakia, which repealed their flat-tax legislation in 2012, all countries currently tax according to this libertarian creed. As one commentator put it, the “many countries [in the region] trumpeted their flat-tax regimes as a symbol of their transition to a market economy and their openness to investment” (Bloomberg 2013Bloomberg. 2013. “Flat-tax Wave Ebbs in Eastern Europe.” Accessed April 20, 2016.http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2013-05-15/flat-tax-wave-ebbs-in-eastern-europe [Google Scholar]), with Macedonia lowering it to 10% for both corporate and income tax purposes (KPMG 2015KPMG. 2015. “Investment in Macedonia.” Country Report. Accessed July 15, 2016.https://www.kpmg.com/MK/en/IssuesAndInsights/ArticlesPublications/Documents/2015-Investment-in-Macedonia-web.pdf [Google Scholar]). Neoconservative circles in the West, such as the Cato Institute in the U.S., acclaimed it enthusiastically (Bloomberg 2013Bloomberg. 2013. “Flat-tax Wave Ebbs in Eastern Europe.” Accessed April 20, 2016.http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2013-05-15/flat-tax-wave-ebbs-in-eastern-europe [Google Scholar]). Worthy of an illustration of Foucault’s idea of the “boomerang effect”99. The boomerang effect, according to Foucault ([1975–1976] 2003Foucault, Michel. (1975–1976) 2003Society Must be Defended: Lectures at the Collège de France 1975–1976LondonPenguin. [Google Scholar]), occurs in situations when military, administrative, and political technologies that European colonial states transported to the colonies were later used on these European populations themselves. A good illustration is the slippage between Baghdad and Hurricane Katrina’s New Orleans in the way militarization and containment of “suspicious” groups proceeded (see Graham 2009Graham, Stephen2009. “The Urban ‘Battlespace’.” Theory, Culture and Society 26: 278288.10.1177/0263276409349280[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar], 285). Similarly, drones – initially used in wars overseas – are increasingly used to control crime in cities in the U.S. (see http://www.pbs.org/newshour/rundown/how-are-drones-used-in-us/).View all notes ([1975–1976] 2003Foucault, Michel. (1975–1976) 2003Society Must be Defended: Lectures at the Collège de France 1975–1976LondonPenguin. [Google Scholar]), one laudatory study by two U.S. professors of economics explained that,

[The flat tax in ex-socialist countries] goes beyond the current definition of what the standard package of feasible economic reform policy ideas is supposed to contain. It is not an attempt to “catch-up” with the richer Western economies, but actually a means to “get ahead” using cutting-edge free-market ideas. It is the former communist countries that seem to be leading the way in liberal, free-market economic reforms. We see Western academics travelling to Eastern Europe not to teach, but to learn. (Aligicǎ and Evans 2009Aligicǎ, Dragos, and Anthony J. Evans2009The Neoliberal Revolution in Eastern Europe. Economic Ideas in the Transition from CommunismCheltenhamEdward Edgar.10.4337/9781848445949[Crossref][Google Scholar], 184)

As one may notice from the data above, social claims for redistribution have been expelled or, at the very least, marginalized in most policies regarding labor, work–life balance, social protection, and taxation in CEE countries. We turn next to housing in greater detail, because the privatization of housing under post-socialism can be seen as the most comprehensive retreat by governments in the region from a domain of public policy.

Zombie socialism and housing policies

The one measure that defined the transition from socialism and had the longest lasting effects on urban built environments has been the privatization of state-owned housing and the creation of (super) homeownership societies in Central and Eastern Europe. Two and one-half decades after this political measure, collective ideologies that might guide housing policies are still largely absent in CEE countries (Stephens, Lux, and Sunega 2015Stephens, MarkMartin Lux, and PetrSunega2015. “Post-socialist Housing Systems in Europe: Housing Welfare Regimes by Default.” Housing Studies. Advance online publication.[Taylor & Francis Online][Google Scholar]). When policy measures are implemented they usually reflect knee-jerk reactions to outside pressures, such as the requirements of EU accession or the pressure of the GFC. Tenure structures still distinguish former socialist countries from Northern and Western European ones, but also from Southern European ones. The clearest distinction is the very high rate of outright ownership of housing – tending toward 80%, and (with the exception of Hungary) very low rates of mortgage uptake – as low as 2 or 3% in Romania and Bulgaria (EQLS 2012EQLS. 2012European Quality of Life Survey. Accessed July 15.http://www.eurofound.europa.eu/surveys/european-quality-of-life-surveys/european-quality-of-life-survey-2012. [Google Scholar]). After the devolution of housing responsibilities to local governments and the rapid privatization in the early 1990s, a historical cycle of disinvestment and moral abandonment of housing by governments began. At least, during the 1990s, the governments in the region equated homeownership with the absence of housing problems. Although many governments in Europe have promoted homeownership since the 1980s as the overarching goal of housing policy, in the case of CEE the reason might have been more related to a virtual “policy collapse” (Pichler-Milanovich 2010Pichler-Milanovich, Natasha2010. “Urban Housing Markets in Central and Eastern Europe: Convergence, Divergence or Policy ‘Collapse’.” International Journal of Housing Policy 1: 145187.[Taylor & Francis Online][Google Scholar]) in which the role of the state was much reduced.

Following the 2000s, governments in the CEE region began to recognize housing as a structural problem affecting particularly the younger cohorts that had not benefitted from giveaway privatization and were finding it increasingly difficult to launch housing careers outside parental homes (Roberts 2003Roberts, Kevin2003. “Change and Continuity in Youth Transitions in Eastern Europe: Lessons for Western Sociology.” The Sociological Review51: 484505.10.1111/j.1467-954X.2003.00432.x[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]). In countries like Romania, for example, this realization prompted the organization of a national housing agency that would build much-needed social housing aimed directly at young households (Amann, Bejan, and Mundt 2012Amann, WolfgangIoan Bejan, and AlexisMundt2012. “The National Housing Agency – A Key Stakeholder in Housing Policy.” In Social Housing in Transition Countries, edited by J. HegedusN. Teller, and M. Lux210223LondonRoutledge. [Google Scholar]). These were not necessarily poor households, but households that were considered capable of shouldering the rents. The GFC, however, put an end even to these meager efforts, and instead, measures reinforcing the homeownership-biased system were put in place, this time with a neoliberal financialized twist. The “First Home” mortgage guarantee program in Romania depends on the government essentially subsidizing banks to give affordable mortgages to people who want to buy homes. Similar measures, intended to reinforce neoliberal capitalism, were put in place in other countries in the region, but not all, following the GFC (see Bohle 2014Bohle, Dorothee2014. “Post-socialist Housing Meets Transnational Finance: Foreign Banks, Mortgage Lending, and the Privatization of Welfare in Hungary and Estonia.” Review of International Political Economy 21: 913948.10.1080/09692290.2013.801022[Taylor & Francis Online][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar] for a discussion of post-GFC policies in Estonia and Hungary).

This lack of awareness of the importance of housing went hand in hand with a dismissal of claims to housing rights particularly coming from disadvantaged groups. Housing became a merit good in political discourses instead of a right, one that would have to be earned following a career. Meanwhile, housing adequacy, affordability, and accessibility problems have become ever more pressing. In what follows we will highlight some of these problems as evidenced by cross-national statistical data, and we will discuss the work of zombie socialism in furthering social dumping.

The privatization process that affected housing units themselves was followed by the devolution and, in some cases, privatization of state utility companies that serviced residential buildings. The elimination of central government subsidies for utilities and the liberalization of fuel prices resulted in skyrocketing utility costs that crippled the ability of newly minted homeowners to sustain their status (Buzar 2007Buzar, Stefan2007. “When Homes Become Prisons: The Relational Spaces of Postsocialist Energy Poverty.” Environment and Planning A 39: 19081925.10.1068/a38298[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]; Fearn 2004Fearn, James2004. “Preface.” In Too Poor to Stay, Too Poor to Move, edited by JamesFearn912BudapestOpen Society Institute.[Crossref][Google Scholar]). Despite widespread homeownership, which could in principle be associated with increased asset security, rising utility costs severely impeded the ability of outright homeowners to maintain themselves as owners, let alone benefit from the quality of life usually associated with homeownership (Mandic 2010Mandic, Srna2010. “The Changing Role of Housing Assets in Post-socialist Countries.” Journal of Housing and the Built Environment 25: 213226.10.1007/s10901-010-9186-5[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]). In 2011, more than 20% of the populations of Bulgaria, Croatia, Hungary, Romania, Poland, and Latvia reported arrears on utility bills, far above the EU average of 15% (13% in the EU 15) (EQLS 2012EQLS. 2012European Quality of Life Survey. Accessed July 15.http://www.eurofound.europa.eu/surveys/european-quality-of-life-surveys/european-quality-of-life-survey-2012. [Google Scholar]). The effects of these measures fell disproportionately on poor jurisdictions, since the more affluent areas were capable of continuing to partially subsidize utilities, while poorer ones shifted responsibility directly onto consumers (Table 1).

Table 1 Housing conditions in Central and Eastern European countries (percent).

A direct result of rising utility costs in the region has been the increase in energy poverty, particularly among poor households. According to data from Eurostat (2014Eurostat. 2014Statistical Tables: Income and Living Conditions, Quality of Life. Accessed March 3, 2016.http://ec.europa.eu/eurostat/data/database [Google Scholar]), nearly 47% of households in Bulgaria, 34% of those in Lithuania, 20% of those in Latvia, and about 15% of households in Hungary, Romania, and Poland are not able to keep their homes adequately warm. As opposed to Western European countries, where energy poverty is a combination of low-income and low-energy efficiency of buildings, in Central and Eastern Europe this has combined with the increase in fuel prices prompted by unfettered price liberalization after the fall of state socialism (Bouzarovski 2013Bouzarovski, Stefan2013. “Energy Poverty in the European Union: Landscapes of Vulnerability.” WENE3: 276289.[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]). The lack of an adequate social safety net that could shelter income-poor households from energy price increases is yet another symptom in the systematic trend of shifting responsibilities away from the welfare state and onto individuals and households, while at the same time dismissing social claims from poor and disadvantaged groups.

Giveaway privatization and the creation of a class of poor homeowners (Fearn 2004Fearn, James2004. “Preface.” In Too Poor to Stay, Too Poor to Move, edited by JamesFearn912BudapestOpen Society Institute.[Crossref][Google Scholar]) in the region have not fundamentally altered the relationship between the state – as the institution mainly responsible for capital investments in the built environment – and homeowners. The absence of coherent housing policies and, one may argue, the absence of housing policies at all, has impeded both the delivery of social services through housing and structural investments in housing stocks. This has resulted in the continuous deterioration of socialist-era housing and a rise in housing deprivation, especially among income-poor households, those who acquired the poorest quality housing in the privatization process. Meanwhile, a lack of building standards to control speculative building in cities and over reliance on self-help building in rural and suburban areas has led to the proliferation of substandard housing among newly built units as well (Soaita 2012, 2013Soaita, Adriana2012. “Strategies for in situHome Improvement in Romanian Large Housing Estates.” Housing Studies 27: 10081030.10.1080/02673037.2012.725833
Soaita, Adriana2013. “Romanian Suburban Housing: Home Improvement through Owner-building.” Urban Studies 50: 20842101.10.1177/0042098012471980 
). Severe housing deprivation in the region far exceeds European averages, particularly for households with incomes below 60% of the median (Pittini et al. 2016Pittini, AliceLaurentGhekièreJulien Dijol, and Igor Kiss2016. “The State of Housing in the EU. Brussels: Housing Europe.” Accessed March 7, 2016.http://www.housingeurope.eu/resource-468/the-state-of-housing-in-the-eu-2015 [Google Scholar]).

Access to owner occupation is severely restricted due to the underdeveloped, and at times outright predatory, mortgage practices that remained unregulated by governments, particularly in countries in Southeastern Europe. The mortgage sector in Romania, for example, developed in the early 2000s and remained dependent on foreign bank capital until the financial crisis, a situation similar in other CEE countries. The sector has been periodically plagued by scandals, and public wariness of getting into mortgage debt pushes people to opt for informal channels to finance home purchase (Druţǎ and Ronald, forthcomingDruţǎ, Oana, and Richard RonaldForthcoming. “Young Adults’ Homeownership Pathways and Intergenerational Support in a Post-socialist Housing Market: Homes, Meanings and Practices.” [Google Scholar]). In 2009, representative interest rates on mortgage loans in Romania were 7.16%, higher only in Hungary, 11.55%, Bulgaria, 10.09%, and Poland 7.26% (EMF 2015European Mortgage Federation (EMF). 2015. “A Review of Europe’s Mortgage and Housing Markets.” Accessed March 13, 2016.http://www.hypo.org/Content/Default.asp?PageID=524 [Google Scholar]). Historically low interest rates following the GFC remained higher in these countries compared to Western European counterparts. Interest rates in 2014 were 8.48% in Hungary, 6.66% in Bulgaria, 5.05% in Croatia, 4.68% in Romania, and 4.10% in Poland compared to 2.53% in Germany or 2.73% in France (EMF 2015European Mortgage Federation (EMF). 2015. “A Review of Europe’s Mortgage and Housing Markets.” Accessed March 13, 2016.http://www.hypo.org/Content/Default.asp?PageID=524 [Google Scholar]). Nevertheless, some countries in the region, like the Czech Republic, Slovakia, or Slovenia did converge toward European averages.

Unable to access owner-occupied housing and form autonomous households through their own efforts, young households in post-socialist societies remain highly dependent on the resources that parents have acquired in the post-socialist privatization (Mandic 2008Mandic, Srna2008. “Home-leaving and its Structural Determinants in Western and Eastern Europe: An Exploratory Study.” Housing Studies 23: 615637.10.1080/02673030802112754[Taylor & Francis Online][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]; Roberts 2003Roberts, Kevin2003. “Change and Continuity in Youth Transitions in Eastern Europe: Lessons for Western Sociology.” The Sociological Review51: 484505.10.1111/j.1467-954X.2003.00432.x[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]). Gifting of property or in vivo inheritance, financial transfers covering a substantial amount of the value of a property, bank guarantees, and mortgage installment payments are common forms by which older generations support their adult children, especially among the middle classes (Druţǎ and Ronald, forthcomingDruţǎ, Oana, and Richard RonaldForthcoming. “Young Adults’ Homeownership Pathways and Intergenerational Support in a Post-socialist Housing Market: Homes, Meanings and Practices.” [Google Scholar]). For those parents who were not able to secure sufficient assets, however, multigenerational living in overcrowded apartments is the only way to provide for their offspring. Data from Eurostat (2014Eurostat. 2014Statistical Tables: Income and Living Conditions, Quality of Life. Accessed March 3, 2016.http://ec.europa.eu/eurostat/data/database [Google Scholar]) suggest that among urban dwellers, 54% of Romanians, 50% of Bulgarians, over 40% of Croatians and Poles, and over 35% of Latvians, Hungarians, and Slovakians live in overcrowded households.1010. Eurostat measures overcrowding in the following manner: A person is considered living in overcrowded conditions if the household does not have at its disposal a minimum number of rooms equal to one room for the household; one room per couple in the household; one room for each single person aged 18 or more; one room per pair of single people of the same gender between 12 and 17 years of age; one room for each single person between 12 and 17 years of age and not included in the previous category; one room per pair of children under 12 years of age.View all notes

Meanwhile, among young people aged 25–34, 58% in Croatia, 57% in Slovakia, 50% in Bulgaria, and over 40% in Romania, Hungary, Poland, and Slovenia continue to live in parental homes (Eurostat 2014Eurostat. 2014Statistical Tables: Income and Living Conditions, Quality of Life. Accessed March 3, 2016.http://ec.europa.eu/eurostat/data/database [Google Scholar]). Particularly, in continental Western European countries (e.g. the Netherlands, Germany), more balanced housing systems in which publicly provided or non-profit housing were more readily available, and the private rental sector was more tightly regulated, enabled the early emancipation of young adults. These systems, smoothing intergenerational inequalities through state intervention, have come under increasing stress throughout Europe due to welfare state retrenchment policies (Arundel and Ronald 2016Arundel, Rowan, and Richard Ronald2016. “Parental Co-residence, Shared Living and Emerging Adulthood in Europe: Semi-dependent Housing Across Welfare Regime and Housing System Contexts.” Journal of Youth Studies 19: 885905.10.1080/13676261.2015.1112884[Taylor & Francis Online][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]). The privatization of social housing and gradual change in the mandates of housing associations are reducing the scope of the social housing sector, while increasingly young populations are dependent on private rental (Lennartz, Arundel, and Ronald 2015Lennartz, ChristianRowan Arundel, and Richard Ronald2015. “Younger Adults and Homeownership in Europe through the Global Financial Crisis.” Population, Space and Place 22 (8): 823835.[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]). However, the dismantling of the state housing monopolies and the equation of publicly provided housing with undeserved state handovers have decimated these systems, in particular in Southeastern Europe.

For example, as of 2011 the share of social/state housing in the CEE region remained extremely low: 2% in Croatia and Romania; 3% in Slovakia; 4% in Estonia, Hungary, and Slovenia; 8% in the Czech Republic; 10% in Poland; and 16% in Russia (Lux and Sunega 2014Lux, Martin, and PetrSunega2014. “Public Housing in the Post-socialist States of Central and Eastern Europe: Decline and an Open Future.” Housing Studies 29: 501519.10.1080/02673037.2013.875986[Taylor & Francis Online][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar], 507). In some countries, for instance Romania, the private rented sector in urban areas, continues to function in a gray area, dependent on individual landlords, unscrutinized with regard to quality, with contracts only rarely registered with the designated authorities, and offering very little security of tenure (Bejan, Botonogu, and Armasu 2014Bejan, IoanFlorinBotonogu, and IustinArmasu2014. “TENLAW: Tenancy Law and Housing Policy in Multi-level Europe, Country Report, Romania.” Accessed July 15, 2016.http://www.tenlaw.uni-bremen.de/reports/RomaniaReport_09052014.pdf [Google Scholar]). Some countries in the CEE have fared better than others, and maintain, for example, structures for the provision of cooperative housing (Poland, Czech Republic).

The above litany of housing problems would suggest immediate and sweeping action, from central as well as local governments. However, housing and social policies in many countries in the region usually turn a blind eye to these problems. The financing of new social housing continues to be problematic, particularly in countries in which it is dependent on resources available to local municipalities. Even in countries like Romania or Slovakia where national social housing programs are in place, public budgets for housing construction are constantly facing cuts (Amann et al. 2012Amann, WolfgangJoszef HegedusMartin Lux, and Elizabeth Springler2012. “Financing Social Housing.” In Social Housing in Transition Countries, edited by J. HegedusN. Teller, and M. Lux5064LondonRoutledge. [Google Scholar]). Meanwhile, requests for social housing from vulnerable groups are ignored or refused. There is no social housing to allocate.

Conclusions

In this article, we sought to contribute to the ongoing debate on whether “post-socialism” still makes sense as an analytic category in Central and Eastern Europe. We think that it sometimes does, but sometimes does not. Our discussion indicates that it does make sense to speak of socialism (and its post) as an absence – a negative entity – that still produces effects. We have focused less on the rescaling of comparative strategies or the rescaling of geographic categories. Rather, we emphasized the extent to which the ghost of socialism (and its post-socialist extensions) has managed to function as an enabler of policies maintaining low wages, reduced social spending, and diminished state involvement in domains such as housing. The obsessive references to the socialist past have had constitutive powers, creating a particularly strong version of neoliberalism. Zombie socialism arguments have become a convenient and strategic ideological device for furthering social dumping, increasing inequalities, and reducing support for redistributive policies. In this sense, in its post-1989 negation, socialism continues to be extremely relevant: the usage of spectral and mythological representations of socialism has, for the winners of transition, the capacity to preempt social justice claims and to structure political relations in the allocation of wealth.

The article proposed the idea of zombie socialism as an analytical concept for understanding experiences of actually existing neoliberal capitalisms (Brenner and Theodore 2002Brenner, Neil, and NikTheodore2002. “Cities and the Geographies of ‘Actually Existing Neoliberalism’.” Antipode 34: 349379.10.1111/anti.2002.34.issue-3[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]) in Central and Eastern European countries. As well as defining the concept and its dimensions, the article offered examples of how the rhetoric of zombie socialism is constructed in political discourses in the region and documented, with respect to a number of social policy domains, what the potential effects of zombie socialism may be. The analysis, however, did not point to episodes of usage of zombie socialist discourse in specific policy-making processes. Though arguably these exist, tracing these connections in any direct form is difficult without access to backstage conversations of politicians. What we documented in this article is one particular role of the socialist past – that of boogeyman/spectral figure meant to discipline the population along neoliberal ideological tenets.

Our discussion of the uses of zombie socialism and data analysis has several potential implications. First, scholars sensitive to the local dynamics should be skeptical and eschew language of “transition,” “reform,” and the like. As Horvat and Štiks (2012Horvat, Srećko, and Igor Štiks2012. “Welcome to the Desert of Transition! Post-socialism, the European Union and a New Left in the Balkans.” Monthly Review 63: 3848.10.14452/MR-063-10-2012-03[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]) argue, there is nothing to transit further toward any longer. One may say that some of these countries have so much “transitioned” to capitalist market economies that they embraced market-fundamentalist ideas that may seem extreme in countries with a longer capitalist tradition in Western Europe or the United States (Duijzings 2010Duijzings, Ger2010. “From Bongo Bongo to Boston via the Balkans.” In Urbanisierung und Stadtentwicklung in Südoesteuropa vom 19. Bis zum 21. Jahrhundert[Urbanization and City Development in Southern and Eastern Europe from the 19th to the 21st Century], edited by BohnThomas and Marie Janine Calic93132MünchenOtto Sagner. [Google Scholar], 109; Smith and Rachovská 2007Smith, Adrian, and Alena Rachovská2007. “Domesticating Neo-liberalism: Everyday Lives and the Geographies of Post-socialist Transformation.” Geoforum 38: 11631178.10.1016/j.geoforum.2007.03.003[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar], 1163). Further use of concepts that evoke “incompleteness” and “catching up” are likely to mask additional transfers of economic burden on employees, households, and lower classes. Despite difficulties in positioning these countries in area studies taxonomy (Gilbert et al. 2008Gilbert, AndrewJessica GreenbergElisa Helms, and StefJansen2008. “Reconsidering Postsocialism from the Margins of Europe: Hope, Time and Normalcy in Post-Yugoslav Societies.” Anthropology News 49: 1011.10.1111/anne.2008.49.issue-8[Crossref][Google Scholar]), it might be more emancipatory for the populations of these countries to accept them as “fully transitioned” and thus be in a better position to resist the fallacies of zombie socialism.

Second, one may speculate on the potential of these countries to become Europe’s “other” once more, but this time in a new sense, as the poster children of neoliberalism. The story of the flat tax, to which we alluded, with its potential to travel back to the metropole, is a good example of how the region may send back “on steroids” some of the neoliberal wisdom and the phobia of the (welfare) state that it received. Just as the cold war and the fear of Soviet socialism had constitutive effects on expanding social welfare and increased state intervention in Western European economies during the cold war (Verdery 2001Verdery, Katherine2001. “Whither Postsocialism?” In Postsocialism: Ideals, Ideologies Practices in Eurasia, edited by Chris Hann1528LondonRoutledge. [Google Scholar], 19; see also, Stenning and Hörschelmann 2008Stenning, Alison, and KathrinHörschelmann2008. “History, Geography and Difference in the Post-socialist World: Or, Do We Still Need Post-socialism?” Antipode 40: 312335.10.1111/j.1467-8330.2008.00593.x[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar], 317), the emergence of a neoliberal belt in Central and Eastern Europe might have transformative effects on the constitution of welfare systems in Western societies. Note the rise of pride in the CEE region around the idea of the “New Europe,” the unapologetic embrace of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), and arguments by immigrants from ex-socialist countries that West Europeans work too little compared to them. It may also have an effect on other parts of the world, as the neoliberal technocratic elites originating in CEE seem to have a special pedagogic appetite to share their experience in other countries that enter the neoliberal labyrinth.

Third, we wonder what the chances are that the concept of post-socialism (understood differently than a temporal container that is replaceable with other temporal delineators) will travel to other geographical areas (Tuvikene 2016Tuvikene, Tauri2016. “Strategies for Comparative Urbanism: Post-socialism as a De-territorialized Concept.” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 40 (1): 132146.[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]). Although we, like others, are sympathetic to this possibility, there is little evidence of that happening (Pitcher and Askew 2006Pitcher, Anne, and Kelly Askew2006. “African Socialisms and Postsocialisms.” Africa 76: 114.10.3366/afr.2006.0001[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar], 2, 3). If, for three decades post-socialism has not traveled outside of CEE and the FSU, we do not see it being applied elsewhere productively and substantively in the future. There is little evidence that scholars of and from Cuba, Vietnam, Zambia, and Tanzania use research on post-socialist Central and Eastern Europe in order to understand their post-cold war conditions. Such countries belonged to the periphery of socialism then and they will belong, if at all, to the conceptual periphery of post-socialism (see Pitcher and Askew [2006Pitcher, Anne, and Kelly Askew2006. “African Socialisms and Postsocialisms.” Africa 76: 114.10.3366/afr.2006.0001[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar], 2] on this point). As unappealing as it may be, when it comes to post-socialism, area studies themes seem to predominate over innovative cross-fertilization of different geographic regions. It is increasingly acknowledged that some concepts and theories in urbanism that have been developed around Western experiences have the capacity to pass as universal, rendering the rest “local” (Stenning and Hörschelmann 2008Stenning, Alison, and KathrinHörschelmann2008. “History, Geography and Difference in the Post-socialist World: Or, Do We Still Need Post-socialism?” Antipode 40: 312335.10.1111/j.1467-8330.2008.00593.x[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar], 315). So too, as post-socialism has been developed in relation to Central and Eastern Europe, it is hard to believe that it will have the power to pass for a universal concept rendering European or African experiences as local. Instead, its role is important for documenting how the circulation of power, people, capital, ideas, and commodities in, out and through Central and Eastern Europe, reshapes the rest of world.

Disclosure statement

No potential conflict of interest was reported by the authors.

Funding

This work has been supported by the European Research Council Starter’s Grant awarded to Prof. Richard Ronald for the project HOUWEL [grant number 283881].

Acknowledgements

The authors would like to thank Gergö Pulay, Adrian Deoancă, Matthias Bernt, Richard Ronald, Lucian Vesalon, Michael Gentile and Slavomíra Ferenčuhová for their help and suggestions.

 

Notes

1. FIDESZ is the main conservative party in Hungary and has dominated Hungarian politics since its landslide victory in 2010. Prime Minister Victor Orban is its main spokes person. Magyar Hírlap is one of the main outlets for conservative and traditional values in Hungary. http://hun.politika.narkive.com/6JEFhroi/lumpenproli-panelproli.

2. Traian Basescu’s housing practices were the opposite of his philosophy. He is currently charged with money laundering through real estate transfers and the illegal self-allocation of state housing, while he was a mayor of Bucharest in the early 2000s.

3. Super-homeownership is actually not a communist-era process, but strictly a post-1991 phenomena, the year the state housing privatization legislation passed.

4. http://www.cadi.ro/index.php/vizualizare/articol/multimedia/382

5. We thank Matthias Bernt for pointing out this situation.

6. Melania Trump has been in the U.S. almost half of her life (since 1996, according to https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2016/feb/26/donald-trump-melania-trump-first-lady).

7. As Ost (2015Ost, David2015. “Stuck in the Past and in the Future: Class Analysis in Postcommunist Poland.” East European Politics and Societies and Cultures29: 610624.10.1177/0888325415602058[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar], 614) nicely noticed, “the only group unproblematically labeled a class” in these countries.

8. For instance, he declared that he has voted for the anti-communist presidential candidates, thus against the candidates of his Social Democratic Party, which gathered, in the 1990s and 2000s, many second- and third-tier nomenklatura and socialist-era technical intelligentia.

9. The boomerang effect, according to Foucault ([1975–1976] 2003Foucault, Michel. (1975–1976) 2003Society Must be Defended: Lectures at the Collège de France 1975–1976LondonPenguin. [Google Scholar]), occurs in situations when military, administrative, and political technologies that European colonial states transported to the colonies were later used on these European populations themselves. A good illustration is the slippage between Baghdad and Hurricane Katrina’s New Orleans in the way militarization and containment of “suspicious” groups proceeded (see Graham 2009Graham, Stephen2009. “The Urban ‘Battlespace’.” Theory, Culture and Society 26: 278288.10.1177/0263276409349280[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar], 285). Similarly, drones – initially used in wars overseas – are increasingly used to control crime in cities in the U.S. (see http://www.pbs.org/newshour/rundown/how-are-drones-used-in-us/).

10. Eurostat measures overcrowding in the following manner: A person is considered living in overcrowded conditions if the household does not have at its disposal a minimum number of rooms equal to one room for the household; one room per couple in the household; one room for each single person aged 18 or more; one room per pair of single people of the same gender between 12 and 17 years of age; one room for each single person between 12 and 17 years of age and not included in the previous category; one room per pair of children under 12 years of age.

References

Post-Socialist Cities and Urban Theory

 Keywords: Urban theorypost-socialist citypost-socialism

Introduction

The main stimulus for this theme issue came from the perception shared by several scholars that “post-socialist” (or “post-communist cities”)11. “Post-socialist,” “post-communist,” and sometimes even “post-Soviet” are concepts that are used almost interchangeably in the literature, despite their slight differences in meaning. In this publication, as theme issue editors, we opt for “post-socialist,” not least because past debates concerned the “socialist” rather than the “communist” city. Even so, this does not amount to an endorsement of the “post-socialist city” concept per se. Because the post-socialist city is a widely used and understood concept, we will continue using it in the rest of this introduction, dropping the initial quotation marks which are intended to emphasize the somewhat contentious nature of the concept and of the associations that it carries. Our main focus is on post-socialist cities in Central and Eastern Europe, but many of the insights contained in this volume are relevant elsewhere, too.View all notes cities are poorly visible in the urban studies literature, and that when they are, they fail to have an enduring influence on broader debates. Yet the post-socialist city, like any other place on earth, offers a unique source of, and potential for, new ideas, deserving more attention and more active engagement not only by scholars with a stated interested in the region, but also by the academic community at large.

Framing this problem as a matter of conceptual and theoretical imports and exports, Sjöberg (2014Sjöberg, Örjan2014. “Cases on to Themselves? Theory and Research on Ex-socialist Urban Environments.” Geografie 119: 299319.[Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]; see also Grubbauer 2012Grubbauer, Monika2012. “Toward a More Comprehensive Notion of Urban Change: Linking Post-socialist Urbanism and Urban Theory.” In Chasing Warsaw – Socio-Material Dynamics of Urban Change since 1990, edited by M.Grubbauer and J.Kusiak3560FrankfurtCampus Verlag. [Google Scholar]) recently concluded that imports of mainly Western-developed ideas into Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) have occurred extensively, while little, if anything, has been produced or refined for export from the region to the global market of ideas. Sjöberg’s (2014Sjöberg, Örjan2014. “Cases on to Themselves? Theory and Research on Ex-socialist Urban Environments.” Geografie 119: 299319.[Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]) concerns add on to the increasingly frequent calls for more globally inclusive urban studies, calls that are particularly voiced by scholars working in the postcolonial tradition (e.g. Robinson 2005, 2011a, 2011b, 2013Robinson, Jennifer2005. “Urban Geography: World Cities, or a World of Cities.” Progress in Human Geography 29: 757765.10.1191/0309132505ph582pr
Robinson, Jennifer2011a. “Cities in a World of Cities: The Comparative Gesture.” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 35: 123.10.1111/ijur.2011.35.issue-1
Robinson, Jennifer2011b. “Comparisons: Colonial or Cosmopolitan?” Singapore Journal of Tropical Geography32: 125140.10.1111/sjtg.2011.32.issue-2
Robinson, Jennifer2013. “The Urban Now: Theorising Cities beyond the New.” European Journal of Cultural Studies 16: 659677.10.1177/1367549413497696 
; Roy 2009Roy, Ananya2009. “The 21st Century Metropolis: New Geographies of Theory.” Regional Studies 43: 819830.10.1080/00343400701809665[Taylor & Francis Online][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]; Jacobs 2012Jacobs, Jane2012. “Commentary – Comparing Comparative Urbanisms.” Urban Geography 33: 904914.10.2747/0272-3638.33.6.904[Taylor & Francis Online][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]; McFarlane and Robinson 2012McFarlane, Colin, and Jennifer Robinson2012. “Introduction – Experiments in Comparative Urbanism.” Urban Geography 33: 765773.10.2747/0272-3638.33.6.765[Taylor & Francis Online][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]), but that have in fact gained resonance within wider circles. What these scholars have in common is that they question the global reach of urban theory, and particularly of the unidirectional and parochial nature of the flow of urban knowledge from the West toward the “rest.” While they do acknowledge the value of, for example, the significant body of literature on the articulations of neoliberalism in cities across the world, these writers nevertheless criticize such work on the basis of it being rooted in the experience of a mere handful of cities that key urban thinkers have as their backyards – often islands of exceptionality scattered across (the northwestern quadrant of) a world of ordinary cities. Earlier versions of this critique had emerged already in the 1990s, when the dominance of Chicago and Los Angeles – the city “where it all comes together” (Soja 1989Soja, Edward1989Postmodern GeographiesLondonVerso. [Google Scholar]) – in urban theory supposedly silenced the voices of the sub-iconic and ordinary elsewhere (see Amin and Graham 1997Amin, Ash, and Stephen Graham1997. “The Ordinary City.” Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 22: 411429.10.1111/tran.1997.22.issue-4[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]).

The causes are certainly multiple, but four main explanations can be singled out. First, a resilient assumption permeating much research on post-socialist cities is that these cities are anomalous, subject to gradual correction with the return of “normal” economic relations rooted in a capitalist system, and as such, that they are ill-placed to inform broader urban theory. Such an assumption implies that there is, or should be, a final product (a post-correction city) liberated from all meaningful socialist legacies, its landscape “cleansed” (Czepczyński 2008Czepczyński, Mariusz2008Cultural Landscapes of Post-socialist CitiesAldershotAshgate. [Google Scholar]) of any socialist-era urban impurities. This way, the value of globally circulating urban knowledge may be expected to increase in parallel with the evaporation of the socialist past’s anomalous vestiges. Meanwhile, the concomitant transition process needs to be theorized, but it is a theorization that is conscribed in space and time to countries undergoing this process, and is thus hard to re-export. A prominent and useful example of such theorization is Sýkora and Bouzarovski’s (2012Sýkora, Luděk, and Stefan Bouzarovski2012. “Multiple Transformations: Conceptualising the Post-communist Urban Transition.” Urban Studies 49: 4360.10.1177/0042098010397402[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]) multiple transformations conceptualization of urban transition, which allows for manifold and tortuous routes along a single broad trajectory from central planning and totalitarianism toward democracy and the market, providing the fresh canvas upon which (presumably slower) sociocultural and urban spatial transitions are subsequently drawn. In this perspective, having completed this three-stage transition, cities enter (or return to) the realm of ordinary theory. However, while the approach echoes the literature on double transition processes in Latin America during the 1980s, it overlooks, or at least downplays, the important “third” (Offe [1991Offe, Claus1991[2004]. “Capitalism by Democratic Design? Democratic Theory Facing the Triple Transition in East Central Europe.” Social Research 71: 501529. [Google Scholar]] 2004) and “fourth” (Kuzio 2001Kuzio, Taras2001. “Transition in Post-communist States: Triple or Quadruple?” Politics 21: 168177.10.1111/1467-9256.00148[Crossref][Google Scholar]) transitions – toward state and nation-building.

Similarly, second, such conceptualizations sustain discourses that frame post-socialist cities as lagging behind (cf. Robinson 2004Robinson, Jennifer2004. “In the Tracks of Comparative Urbanism: Difference, Urban Modernity and the Primitive.” Urban Geography 25: 709723.10.2747/0272-3638.25.8.709[Taylor & Francis Online][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]). They are in other words not just anomalous, but also non-modern, which effectively doubles their relative “difference” when seen through the lens of the principal First-World distilleries of urban thought. Accordingly, the need to “catch up” – against a backdrop of existing theory on First-World forerunner cities (Hirt 2012Hirt, Sonia. 2012Iron CurtainsMaldenJohn Wiley and Sons.10.1002/9781118295922[Crossref][Google Scholar]) – was a relatively unproblematic assumption during the 1990s – an assumption that became increasingly criticized later on (Hörschelmann and Stenning 2008Hörschelmann, Kathrin, and AlisonStenning2008. “Ethnographies of Postsocialist Change.” Progress in Human Geography 32: 339361.10.1177/0309132508089094[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]; Stenning and Hörschelmann 2008Stenning, Alison, and KathrinHörschelmann2008. “History, Geography and Difference in the Post-socialist World: Or, Do We Still Need Post-socialism?” Antipode 40: 312335.10.1111/j.1467-8330.2008.00593.x[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]; Ferenčuhová 2012Ferenčuhová, Slavomíra2012. “Urban Theory beyond the ‘East/West Divide’? Cities and Urban Research in Postsocialist Europe.” In Urban Theory beyond the West: A World of Cities, edited by T. Edensor and M.Jayne6574LondonRoutledge. [Google Scholar]; Hirt 2012Hirt, Sonia. 2012Iron CurtainsMaldenJohn Wiley and Sons.10.1002/9781118295922[Crossref][Google Scholar]).

Third, as both Robinson (2004Robinson, Jennifer2004. “In the Tracks of Comparative Urbanism: Difference, Urban Modernity and the Primitive.” Urban Geography 25: 709723.10.2747/0272-3638.25.8.709[Taylor & Francis Online][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]) and Roy (2009Roy, Ananya2009. “The 21st Century Metropolis: New Geographies of Theory.” Regional Studies 43: 819830.10.1080/00343400701809665[Taylor & Francis Online][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]) note, theory generated outside of this exclusive club, in general, tends to be viewed as a particularistic contribution to the description and understanding of what is past and elsewhere (see Peck [2015Peck, Jamie2015. “Cities beyond Compare?” Regional Studies 49: 160182.10.1080/00343404.2014.980801[Taylor & Francis Online][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]] and Scott and Storper [2015Scott, Allen J., and Michael Storper2015. “The Nature of Cities: The Scope and Limits of Urban Theory.” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 39: 115.10.1111/ijur.v39.1[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]] for examples of similar critique toward the “new comparative urbanism” literature), and thus of little importance to other contexts. Post-socialist cities have a defining relation to the (socialist) past (see Hirt 2016Hirt, Sonia2016. “Once the Socialist City.” In Conceptual Forum: The ‘Post-socialist’ City, SoniaHirtSlavomíraFerenčuhová, and Tauri TuvikeneEurasian Geography and Economics 57: 497520. [Google Scholar]), representing a project of catching up, of reducing the imagined distance in both time and space with the West. Thus, they are a particularly interesting example of cities that are “elsewhere,” yet not so far, and that are “past,” but not quite,22. Reading Homi Bhabha’s Of Mimicry and Man: The Ambivalence of Colonial Discourse(1984Bhabha, Homi1984. “Of Mimicry and Man: The Ambivalence of Colonial Discourse.” Discipleship: A Special Issue on Psychoanalysis 28: 125133. [Google Scholar]) is particularly inspiring in rethinking the ambivalent meaning of post-socialist identity.View all notes and as such, they are hardly considered as sources of general theoretical input. Yet, “ordinary theory” (Peck 2015Peck, Jamie2015. “Cities beyond Compare?” Regional Studies 49: 160182.10.1080/00343404.2014.980801[Taylor & Francis Online][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]) is fraught with much the same problem, and Robinson (2011aRobinson, Jennifer2011a. “Cities in a World of Cities: The Comparative Gesture.” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 35: 123.10.1111/ijur.2011.35.issue-1[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar], 10) suggests that “most urban research is fairly parochial, with often quite locally derived conclusions circulating as universal knowledge.” Leitner and Sheppard (2016Leitner, Helga, and Eric Sheppard2016. “Provincializing Critical Urban Theory: Extending the Ecosystem of Possibilities.” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 40: 228235.10.1111/1468-2427.12277[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar], 230) add on to this critique (based on the example of the Burgess concentric ring model) by noting that “certain local epistemologies may gain hegemonic status for reasons that have little to do with their universal validity” (230).

Finally, fourth, still relatively few scholars working in post-socialist countries have managed to reach out with their results, for various reasons, including language barriers, resource constraints, lack of library access to the international literature, and thus detachment of their work from current theoretical debates. Certainly, the overall situation has improved during recent years, but the improvements have not taken place in a geographically uniform way, leading to increased differences between and within particularly country contexts (see Timár 2004Timár, Judit2004. “More than ‘Anglo-American’, It is ‘Western’: Hegemony in Geography from a Hungarian Perspective.” Geoforum 35: 533538.10.1016/j.geoforum.2004.01.010[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]; Stenning and Hörschelmann 2008Stenning, Alison, and KathrinHörschelmann2008. “History, Geography and Difference in the Post-socialist World: Or, Do We Still Need Post-socialism?” Antipode 40: 312335.10.1111/j.1467-8330.2008.00593.x[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]; Ferenčuhová 2016aFerenčuhová, Slavomíra2016a. “Accounts from behind the Curtain: History and Geography in the Critical Analysis of Urban Theory.” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 40: 131146.[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]).

From the above, it is clear that post-socialist cities may suffer from a kind of exclusion that is broadly similar to the situation that has been lamented by postcolonial scholars during the past 10–15 years in regard to cities in the Global South. Yet, as Tuvikene (2016aTuvikene, Tauri2016a. “Strategies for Comparative Urbanism: Post-socialism as a De-territorialized Concept.” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 40: 132146.10.1111/1468-2427.12333[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]) cautions, these cities run the risk of double exclusion – from mainstream theory and from the postcolonial critique. Calls have been made “to rethink the list of “great” cities” (Roy 2009Roy, Ananya2009. “The 21st Century Metropolis: New Geographies of Theory.” Regional Studies 43: 819830.10.1080/00343400701809665[Taylor & Francis Online][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar], 820), to “provincialize” urban theory (Leitner and Sheppard 2016Leitner, Helga, and Eric Sheppard2016. “Provincializing Critical Urban Theory: Extending the Ecosystem of Possibilities.” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 40: 228235.10.1111/1468-2427.12277[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]), to “de-provincialize” it (Mbembe and Nuttall 2004Mbembe, A., and Sarah Nuttall2004. “Writing the World from an African Metropolis.” Public Culture 16: 347372.10.1215/08992363-16-3-347[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]),33. In this case, “provincializing” and “de-provincializing” are not to be seen as each other’s opposites. Mbembe and Nuttall (2004Mbembe, A., and Sarah Nuttall2004. “Writing the World from an African Metropolis.” Public Culture 16: 347372.10.1215/08992363-16-3-347[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]) and Leitner and Sheppard (2016Leitner, Helga, and Eric Sheppard2016. “Provincializing Critical Urban Theory: Extending the Ecosystem of Possibilities.” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 40: 228235.10.1111/1468-2427.12277[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]) use the term “provincializing” in somewhat different ways.View all notes and most importantly, to engage with cities on their own terms and in their entireties (Robinson 2005Robinson, Jennifer2005. “Urban Geography: World Cities, or a World of Cities.” Progress in Human Geography 29: 757765.10.1191/0309132505ph582pr[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]), which requires “light and revisable” theory (Robinson 2016aRobinson, Jennifer2016a. “Comparative Urbanism: New Geographies and Cultures of Theorizing the Urban.” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 40: 187199.10.1111/1468-2427.12273[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]) – and perhaps also realizing that theories are subject to geographical and temporal limitations and that the days of all-encompassing theory are gone (Leitner and Sheppard 2016Leitner, Helga, and Eric Sheppard2016. “Provincializing Critical Urban Theory: Extending the Ecosystem of Possibilities.” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 40: 228235.10.1111/1468-2427.12277[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]).

Thus far, few have responded to these calls departing from the experience of cities located to the east of Berlin and to the north of the 40th parallel. Perhaps this region includes few – or none – of the new great cities that Roy (2009Roy, Ananya2009. “The 21st Century Metropolis: New Geographies of Theory.” Regional Studies 43: 819830.10.1080/00343400701809665[Taylor & Francis Online][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]) talks about, but it was and still is a land of great cities, as Chauncy Harris (1945Harris, Chauncy D.1945. “The Cities of the Soviet Union.” Geographical Review35: 107121.10.2307/210935[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]) observed more than 70 years ago in relation to the Soviet Union. Instead, what we may observe is a dramatic increase in studies rooted in Chinese and, to a lesser extent, Indian cities. Within this journal, which started off as in 1960 as Soviet Geography, followed by PostSoviet Geography (1992–1995), and PostSoviet Geography and Economics (1996–2002), the Chinese city research trend is particularly evident among the articles that might fall under a broad definition of urban geography, including its historical branch: since 2005, out of 26 such articles,44. This figure excludes articles that provide statistical overviews of general urbanization trends, and other works of similar character.View all notes 12 focus on Chinese cities and 7 on cities in Russia, of which 5 are based on the case of Saint Petersburg. Of the remaining seven articles, two are on Indian cities, one is on Kiev, one on Vilnius, one on Vietnamese cities, and two cover broadly the post-Soviet region and “world cities,” respectively. Clearly, part of the explanation lies in China’s (and India’s) demographics – each of these two countries carry far greater weight than the whole CEE region taken together in this respect – but, as McFarlane and Robinson (2012McFarlane, Colin, and Jennifer Robinson2012. “Introduction – Experiments in Comparative Urbanism.” Urban Geography 33: 765773.10.2747/0272-3638.33.6.765[Taylor & Francis Online][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar], 767) note, changes in the global balance of power certainly play their part too. And funding, of course.

This incipient recalibration of the geography of urban knowledge production comes with the risk of (re)producing dominant islands of theory on the one hand, and typological thinking about the rest of the planetary archipelago of cities on the other (see Nijman 2007Nijman, Jan2007. “Introduction – Comparative Urbanism.” Urban Geography 28: 16.[Taylor & Francis Online][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]; Robinson 2013Robinson, Jennifer2013. “The Urban Now: Theorising Cities beyond the New.” European Journal of Cultural Studies 16: 659677.10.1177/1367549413497696[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]). However, this risk can be forestalled by sharpening our comparative vision and by thinking in a de-territorialized manner (Tuvikene 2016aTuvikene, Tauri2016a. “Strategies for Comparative Urbanism: Post-socialism as a De-territorialized Concept.” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 40: 132146.10.1111/1468-2427.12333[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]; see also Tuvikene, Alves, and Hilbrandt 2016Tuvikene, TauriSusana Neves Alves, and Hanna Hilbrandt2016. “Strategies for Relating Diverse Cities: A Multi-sited Individualising Comparison of Informality in Bafatá, Berlin and Tallinn.” Current Sociology. doi:10.1177/0011392116657298.[Crossref][PubMed][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]), by thinking relationally (Ward 2008Ward, Kevin2008. “Editorial – Toward a Comparative (Re)Turn in Urban Studies? Some Reflections.” Urban Geography 29: 405410.10.2747/0272-3638.29.5.405[Taylor & Francis Online][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]), and by paying attention to particular aspects of cities (Robinson 2016bRobinson, Jennifer2016b. “Thinking Cities through Elsewhere: Comparative Tactics for a More Global Urban Studies.” Progress in Human Geography 40: 329.10.1177/0309132515598025[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]). Perhaps this strategy will allow the post-socialist city to be released from its partly imposed, partly self-induced, exile. The works included in this theme issue take assertive steps in this direction, and their authors formulate ambitions to theorize post-socialist urbanity, proposing several strategies to (re-)connect post-socialist cities to urban theory.

Thus, this theme issue brings together contributions that connect critical reviews of the research, empirical studies, and theoretical discussions in the field, with traditional and contemporary debates in urban theory. Three main challenges emerge: (1) the content and relevance of central concepts, (2) the role of the socialist past in shaping the present and future, and (3) the contribution of the post-socialist world in theorizing the nexus between social change and urban space.

The three challenges

The first – conceptual – challenge is approached from two angles in this issue. First, three short contributions collected in the “conceptual forum” (Ferenčuhová 2016bFerenčuhová, Slavomíra2016b. “The ‘Socialist City’ Pitfalls.” In Conceptual Forum: The ‘Post-socialist’ City, Sonia HirtSlavomíraFerenčuhová, and Tauri Tuvikene.Eurasian Geography and Economics 57: 497520. [Google Scholar]; Hirt 2016Hirt, Sonia2016. “Once the Socialist City.” In Conceptual Forum: The ‘Post-socialist’ City, SoniaHirtSlavomíraFerenčuhová, and Tauri TuvikeneEurasian Geography and Economics 57: 497520. [Google Scholar]; Tuvikene 2016bTuvikene, Tauri2016b. “The Conceptualization of Post-socialism.” In Conceptual Forum: The ‘Post-socialist’ City, Sonia HirtSlavomíraFerenčuhová, and Tauri TuvikeneEurasian Geography and Economics 57: 497520. [Google Scholar]) discuss the concept of the post-socialist city. More critical assessments of terms such as post-socialism, transition, and legacy then appear throughout the issue. Second, several articles debate the problem that the academic field of urban studies has faced since its early years, which is that of the transferability of theories and concepts among different cities and contexts. The authors discuss post-socialist cities as places where theories originating (predominantly) in research on Western cities are applied, but also as the context in which new theories or critical views on internationally debated topics may possibly emerge (Bernt 2016Bernt, Matthias2016. “How Post-Socialist is Gentrification? Observations in East Berlin and Saint Petersburg.” Eurasian Geography and Economics 57: 565587.[Taylor & Francis Online][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]; Borén and Young 2016Borén, Thomas, and Craig Young2016. “Conceptual Export and Theory Mobilities: Exploring the Reception and Development of the ‘Creative City Thesis’ in the Post-socialist Urban Realm.” Eurasian Geography and Economics 57: 588606.[Taylor & Francis Online][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]; Ouředníček 2016Ouředníček, Martin2016. “The Relevance of ‘Western’ Theoretical Concepts for the Investigation of the Margins of Post-socialist Cities: The Case of Prague.” Eurasian Geography and Economics 57: 545564.[Taylor & Francis Online][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]).

The second challenge relates to the role of the socialist (and pre-socialist) past, including representations thereof, in defining the present-day conditions in post-socialist cities. Writing on urban development and planning in socialist central Europe, Musil (2001Musil, Jiří2001. “Vývoj a Plánování Měst ve Střední Evropě v Období Komunistických Režimů: Pohled Historické Sociologie.” [Urban Development and Planning in Central Europe under Communist Regimes: The Perspective of Historical Sociology.]Sociologický Časopis/Czech Sociological Review 37: 275296.[Web of Science ®][Google Scholar], 275) suggested that cities are best approached from a Braudelian longue durée perspective, emphasizing their long-term historical development and continuities rather than the sudden changes they may have experienced. The articles included in this volume debate the importance of the inherited urban infrastructures for the present day, but they also analyze the ideological uses of the representations of the socialist past in current political discourses in post-socialist countries. Together, they illustrate that referring to history, and challenging its dominant narratives, supports our understanding of the contemporary situation (Bouzarovski, Sýkora, and Matoušek 2016Bouzarovski, StefanLuděk Sýkora, and Roman Matoušek2016. “Locked-in Post-socialism: Rolling Path Dependencies in Liberec’s District Heating System.” Eurasian Geography and Economics 57: 624642.[Taylor & Francis Online][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]; Chelcea and Druţă 2016Chelcea, Liviu, and Oana Druţă2016. “Zombie Socialism and the Rise of Neoliberalism in Post-socialist Central and Eastern Europe.” Eurasian Geography and Economics 57: 521544.[Taylor & Francis Online][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]; Ouředníček 2016Ouředníček, Martin2016. “The Relevance of ‘Western’ Theoretical Concepts for the Investigation of the Margins of Post-socialist Cities: The Case of Prague.” Eurasian Geography and Economics 57: 545564.[Taylor & Francis Online][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]).

The third challenge refers to the classical problem of research on socialist and post-socialist cities, which is how to make sense of, and to theorize, the relation between social change and urban space (Bouzarovski, Sýkora, and Matoušek 2016Bouzarovski, StefanLuděk Sýkora, and Roman Matoušek2016. “Locked-in Post-socialism: Rolling Path Dependencies in Liberec’s District Heating System.” Eurasian Geography and Economics 57: 624642.[Taylor & Francis Online][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]; Golubchikov 2016Golubchikov, Oleg2016. “The Urbanization of Transition: Ideology and the Urban Experience.” Eurasian Geography and Economics 57: 607623.[Taylor & Francis Online][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]; Ouředníček 2016Ouředníček, Martin2016. “The Relevance of ‘Western’ Theoretical Concepts for the Investigation of the Margins of Post-socialist Cities: The Case of Prague.” Eurasian Geography and Economics 57: 545564.[Taylor & Francis Online][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]). This issue clearly remains important in stimulating new ideas and new conceptual tools in urban studies, reaching well beyond the field of research on post-socialist cities.

The conceptual challenge

This collection starts by opening the first of the three themes in the conceptual forum, which assesses the relevance of the theme issue’s central concept – the post-socialist city. By doing so, it elaborates on a longstanding discussion that has been taking place among urban scholars interested in CEE, which is whether, and to what extent “post-socialist” still makes sense to describe and understand what has been happening in this region’s cities over the past 30 years. While the debate is an old one (see Hann, Humphrey, and Verdery 2002Hann, ChrisCarolineHumphrey, and Katherine Verdery2002. “Introduction: Postsocialism as a Topic of Anthropological Investigation.” In Postsocialism – Ideals, Ideologies and Practices in Eurasia, edited by C. Hann128LondonRoutledge.[Crossref][Google Scholar]; Hörschelmann 2002Hörschelmann, Kathrin2002. “History after the End: Post-socialist Difference in a (Post)Modern World.” Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 27: 5266.10.1111/tran.2002.27.issue-1[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]; Stenning and Hörschelmann 2008Stenning, Alison, and KathrinHörschelmann2008. “History, Geography and Difference in the Post-socialist World: Or, Do We Still Need Post-socialism?” Antipode 40: 312335.10.1111/j.1467-8330.2008.00593.x[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar], to name just a few contributors), and some scholars might roll their eyes at the prospect of re-chewing gum that has already lost its flavor, there are three main reasons for which a continued discussion is warranted.

First of all, far from dissipating into oblivion, “post-socialist” (or post-communist, post-Soviet, etc.) remains widely used as an adjective to describe CEE (and not only) societies and the changes that are still taking place within them. As recently as the last year or so, journal articles have been published on “cycling in the post-socialist city” (Barnfield and Plyushteva 2016Barnfield, Andrew, and Anna Plyushteva2016. “Cycling in the Post-socialist City: On Travelling by Bicycle in Sofia, Bulgaria.” Urban Studies 53: 18221835.10.1177/0042098015586536[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]), “experiencing post-socialism” (while running in Sofia, Barnfield 2016Barnfield, Andrew2016. “Experiencing Post-socialism: Running and Urban Space in Sofia, Bulgaria.” European Urban and Regional Studies. doi:10.1177/0969776416661015.[Crossref][Google Scholar]), and on “regeneration projects in Central and Eastern European post-communist cities” (Hlaváček, Raška, and Balej 2016Hlaváček, PetrPavelRaška, and MartinBalej2016. “Regeneration Projects in Central and Eastern European Post-Communist Cities: Current Trends and Community Needs.” Habitat International56: 3141.10.1016/j.habitatint.2016.04.001[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]), as well as on various post-socialist urban phenomena and on urban phenomena that have taken place during the post-socialist period. Of course, there are also numerous publications that do not make use of the post-socialist qualifier, but the point is that, far from being dead, post-socialism is alive and well in current scholarship.

Second, the discussion on the meaning and value of the concept of post-socialism in urban research has neither been concluded, nor has it been conclusive. To the contrary, if anything, the debate has been re-invigorated during recent years, and several of the contributors to this volume have been at the forefront of this trend within urban studies. One of the trickiest problems that needs to be tackled is how to make sense of the fact that the two main transitions associated with the post-socialist epoch – democratization and marketization – are far from complete. What is more, within the former Soviet Union (minus the Baltic States), one of them (democratization) actually peaked during the late Gorbachëv era; that is, during late socialism. Since then, democracy has retreated in almost all of the former Soviet Union (Hale 2016Hale, Henry E. 2016. “25 Years after the USSR: What’s Gone Wrong?” Journal of Democracy 27: 2435.10.1353/jod.2016.0035[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]), and it is increasingly being eroded in central Europe. This sorry insight destabilizes much of the theoretical work on post-socialist cities because it deprives it of one of its key assumptions. For example, Sýkora and Bouzarovski’s (2012Sýkora, Luděk, and Stefan Bouzarovski2012. “Multiple Transformations: Conceptualising the Post-communist Urban Transition.” Urban Studies 49: 4360.10.1177/0042098010397402[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]) aforementioned multiple transformations model is based on the optimistic assumption that the key political transformations were already in place by the early 1990s and had a clear trajectory, and that this provided the ground for subsequent transformations at other levels, the sociocultural and the urban.

Debating the concept of the post-socialist city very often turns into a problem of general relevance in the social sciences. This is related to the fact that the concepts we use are also used and defined outside of academia, often with particular ideological connotations (see Hann, Humphrey, and Verdery 2002Hann, ChrisCarolineHumphrey, and Katherine Verdery2002. “Introduction: Postsocialism as a Topic of Anthropological Investigation.” In Postsocialism – Ideals, Ideologies and Practices in Eurasia, edited by C. Hann128LondonRoutledge.[Crossref][Google Scholar]; Kuus 2004Kuus, Merje2004. “Europe’s Eastern Expansion and the Reinscription of Otherness in East-central Europe.” Progress in Human Geography 28: 472489.10.1191/0309132504ph498oa[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]; Hörschelmann and Stenning 2008Hörschelmann, Kathrin, and AlisonStenning2008. “Ethnographies of Postsocialist Change.” Progress in Human Geography 32: 339361.10.1177/0309132508089094[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]; Wiest 2012Wiest, Karin2012. “Comparative Debates in Post-socialist Urban Studies.” Urban Geography 33: 829849.10.2747/0272-3638.33.6.829[Taylor & Francis Online][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]). As Castells (1976Castells, Manuel1976. “Theory and Ideology in Urban Sociology.” In Urban Sociology: Critical Essays, edited by Ch GPickvance6084LondonTavistock Publications. [Google Scholar], 60) explained, “[e]very science … consists of a mixture, which sometimes varies according to circumstances, of ideology and theory.” The conceptual and theoretical debates on the post-socialist city raise our awareness of this intermingling, analyzing its influence on the state of the art produced in academia, and several contributions to this volume engage with this complication (Chelcea and Druţă 2016Chelcea, Liviu, and Oana Druţă2016. “Zombie Socialism and the Rise of Neoliberalism in Post-socialist Central and Eastern Europe.” Eurasian Geography and Economics 57: 521544.[Taylor & Francis Online][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]; Ferenčuhová 2016bFerenčuhová, Slavomíra2016b. “The ‘Socialist City’ Pitfalls.” In Conceptual Forum: The ‘Post-socialist’ City, Sonia HirtSlavomíraFerenčuhová, and Tauri Tuvikene.Eurasian Geography and Economics 57: 497520. [Google Scholar]; Golubchikov 2016Golubchikov, Oleg2016. “The Urbanization of Transition: Ideology and the Urban Experience.” Eurasian Geography and Economics 57: 607623.[Taylor & Francis Online][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]).

In addition, the articles collected in this volume illustrate how concepts such as post-socialism, path-dependency, or legacy can be used in new ways, strengthening their analytical value, making them relevant beyond the field of study within which they usually reside, and allowing them to become “exportable” products (Sjöberg 2014Sjöberg, Örjan2014. “Cases on to Themselves? Theory and Research on Ex-socialist Urban Environments.” Geografie 119: 299319.[Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]) within the international market of urban theory (see, for example, Tuvikene 2016bTuvikene, Tauri2016b. “The Conceptualization of Post-socialism.” In Conceptual Forum: The ‘Post-socialist’ City, Sonia HirtSlavomíraFerenčuhová, and Tauri TuvikeneEurasian Geography and Economics 57: 497520. [Google Scholar] or Ouředníček 2016Ouředníček, Martin2016. “The Relevance of ‘Western’ Theoretical Concepts for the Investigation of the Margins of Post-socialist Cities: The Case of Prague.” Eurasian Geography and Economics 57: 545564.[Taylor & Francis Online][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]). Meanwhile, other articles in this issue see the potential for critical contributions to existing theories (such as that of gentrification, see Bernt 2016Bernt, Matthias2016. “How Post-Socialist is Gentrification? Observations in East Berlin and Saint Petersburg.” Eurasian Geography and Economics 57: 565587.[Taylor & Francis Online][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]; or on the “creative city,” see Borén and Young 2016Borén, Thomas, and Craig Young2016. “Conceptual Export and Theory Mobilities: Exploring the Reception and Development of the ‘Creative City Thesis’ in the Post-socialist Urban Realm.” Eurasian Geography and Economics 57: 588606.[Taylor & Francis Online][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]), as a result of their being processed within the relatively uncharted “post-socialist” region.

The socialist past

The second challenge that emerges from research on post-socialist cities, and which figures prominently in this collection, is inextricably linked to the conceptual challenge discussed above: the socialist past and its legacies are now (back?) on the table (see, for example, the contributions in Beissinger and Kotkin’s [2014Beissinger, Mark, and Stephen Kotkin, eds. 2014Historical Legacies of Communism in Russia and Eastern EuropeCambridgeCambridge University Press.[Crossref][Google Scholar]] recent edited book, and legacy arguments abound among the interpretations of the past few years’ authoritarian rebound in CEE). A proper analysis of socialist legacies means two things: (1) that we have a proper and detailed understanding of the actual workings of Soviet-type systems (and not just assumptions about it, see Ferenčuhová 2016aFerenčuhová, Slavomíra2016a. “Accounts from behind the Curtain: History and Geography in the Critical Analysis of Urban Theory.” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 40: 131146.[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]); and (2) that a legacy effect (rather than a mere correlation) can actually be demonstrated (Kotkin and Beissinger 2014Stephen Kotkin, and Beissinger, Mark2014. “The Historical Legacies of Communism: An Empirical Agenda.” In Historical Legacies of Communism in Russia and Eastern Europe, edited by M.Beissinger and S.Kotkin127CambridgeCambridge University Press.10.1017/CBO9781107286191[Crossref][Google Scholar]). Within the urban context, the salience of legacy arguments becomes particularly evident when referring to memory politics, but legacies are now being revisited across a wide range of areas within post-socialist urban studies and far beyond. Demonstrated socialist legacies enhance the value of the concept of post-socialism – for what is post-socialism without socialism? (Hirt 2016Hirt, Sonia2016. “Once the Socialist City.” In Conceptual Forum: The ‘Post-socialist’ City, SoniaHirtSlavomíraFerenčuhová, and Tauri TuvikeneEurasian Geography and Economics 57: 497520. [Google Scholar]) – but they call for a greater exploration of the concept. In this respect, it is useful to distinguish between Russia (and to some extent the other authoritarian countries in the Former Soviet Union) on the one hand, and the remainder of the post-socialist countries. Indeed, Alexander Etkind (2014Etkind, Alexander2014. “Post-soviet Russia: The Land of the Oil Curse, Pussy Riot, and Magical Historicism.” Boundary 2 41 (1): 153170.10.1215/01903659-2409712[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar], 155) suggests that “the unprocessed memory of the catastrophic Soviet past still keeps Russia in its interminable post-Soviet condition,” whereas Chelcea and Druţă (2016Chelcea, Liviu, and Oana Druţă2016. “Zombie Socialism and the Rise of Neoliberalism in Post-socialist Central and Eastern Europe.” Eurasian Geography and Economics 57: 521544.[Taylor & Francis Online][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]) argue that it is the constant processing of socialist memory that keeps Romania on its interminably undisputed neoliberal trajectory. Post-socialism, understood this way, is characterized by the continued presence of elements of socialism itself, rather than by their gradual (or rapid) demise and disavowal – it is past-socialism in the present.

Moreover, the articles collected in this volume suggest that we need to rethink the main historical turning points of the post-1989/1991 period and that these should not be taken for granted. Bouzarovski, Sýkora, and Matoušek (2016Bouzarovski, StefanLuděk Sýkora, and Roman Matoušek2016. “Locked-in Post-socialism: Rolling Path Dependencies in Liberec’s District Heating System.” Eurasian Geography and Economics 57: 624642.[Taylor & Francis Online][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]) stress the need to better reflect both the socialist (and pre-socialist) times’ material legacies (such as urban infrastructures) and the political and economic changes that took place along the 1990s in our understanding of post-socialist cities. Similarly to Bernt (2016Bernt, Matthias2016. “How Post-Socialist is Gentrification? Observations in East Berlin and Saint Petersburg.” Eurasian Geography and Economics 57: 565587.[Taylor & Francis Online][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]), their analysis challenges the representation of the years 1989/1991 and of the subsequent reforms as the single or principal milestones to be considered in explanations of “post-socialist” urban development.

Post-socialism, social change, and urban space

Finally, the third challenge is that of formulating new insights into the relationship between urban space and social change based on the experiences of post-socialist cities, and the authors in this volume represent different perspectives on this account. Using the urban margins of Czech cities as source of inspiration, Ouředníček (