Peer-reviewed articles Prague Post-1989: Boom, decline and renaissance
The predominantly unfavorable and restrictive socio-spatial conditions of squatting in Prague, have been shaped by the socialist past and post-socialist transformation. Temporarily facilitated by the fluid and liberalized nature of the early post-1989 era, the emergence of the first squats in Prague was inspired by the international squatters’ movement, and alienated from the enthusiastic acceptance of capitalism by Czech society.
Published in the printed edition of Baltic Worlds BW 1-2 2016, pp 34-45
Published on balticworlds.com on juni 23, 2016
The predominantly unfavorable and restrictive socio-spatial conditions of squatting in Prague, have been shaped by the socialist past and post-socialist transformation. Temporarily facilitated by the fluid and liberalized nature of the early post-1989 era, the emergence of the first squats in Prague was inspired by the international squatters’ movement, and alienated from the enthusiastic acceptance of capitalism by Czech society. Progressing neoliberalization nevertheless contributed to the gradual decline of the local squatters’ scene, as well as to its consequent renaissance in the aftermath of the global economic crisis, demarked by the end of the 2000s. Gaining new legitimacy for their activities in the context of crisis, the local squatters’ scene started to engage in protest and an open, radical critique of the capitalist system. Societal support was gained for Klinika, a squatted autonomous center, which in turn opened a debate on the future of squatting in the Czech Republic.
KEYWORDS: squatting, postsocialism, transition, subculture, urban studies.
Although inspired by the squatting movement present in Western Europe since the 1970s and 1980s,1 squatting in the Czech Republic did not appear until after the fall of the authoritative, really existing socialism in 1989. In the 1990s, mostly young people inclined towards the autonomous anarchist movement, punk and HC scene, as well as other alternative cultures, visited squats abroad, especially in Berlin and Amsterdam, and brought the praxis of occupying empty buildings to post-socialist Czechoslovakia, later Czech Republic.
Due to the emphasis laid by the post-socialist society on the right to private property, regained after four decades of authoritarian rule of the Communist Party, squatting in the Czech Republic has been predominantly a marginal phenomenon with a negative label, geographically more or less limited to Prague, and a rare expression of radical left politics. Most Czech squats have been short-lived and the number of simultaneously existing active squats has never been higher than two. With the exception of the “Golden Age” of squatting during the liberalized, fluid and unstable era of early post-socialist transformation in the first half of the 1990s, conditions for squatting in the Czech Republic have been rather unfavorable and repressive, confining a large part of local squatters’ agendas to mere “acts of occupation” and negotiations with the authorities, rather than to the actual practice of living in occupied buildings and systematically engaging in a particular political agenda.
In Prague, there have nonetheless been several important exceptions to this rule, represented mainly by the squats Ladronka (1990s) and Milada (2000s), two relatively long-standing squats that predominantly served various subcultural activities, or most recently Klinika, an autonomous center with declaredly wider societal outreach and a structured political agenda. The existence of these squats has been an important manifestation of the presence of the international squatters’ movement in the Czech Republic, constituting a distinctive local scene composed of various people with counterhegemonic ideas and identities. In Prague, squatting is mostly associated with the local autonomous scene, which in the Czech context predominantly consists of people endorsing anarchism. In line with the account of Leach and Haunss on scenes and social movements,2 the boundaries of the scene in Prague have been fluid, encompassing people with different degrees of involvement, and with different levels of engagement in political struggles or subcultural lifestyles. Members and their agenda have been changing in time, defining the local scene and responding to, as well as influencing the context in which the scene has existed. While Ladronka and Milada were rather self-contained projects, relatively exclusive in relation to non-members of the scene, and engaging mostly in organizing cultural events and political activities without reference to a wider social struggle, the collective around Klinika has from the beginning endeavored to create coalitions and alliances with various groups and individuals outside of the scene in order to achieve its goals, i.e. operating a non-commercial autonomous social center. Klinika’s openness, its tendency towards cooperation, and its new agenda, stem from the process of maturing and social learning integral to the local scene, and from the necessity to adapt to an antagonistic environment.
With the exception of a few attempts to study squatting in the Czech Republic3 or selected aspects of it,4 the topic so far has not attracted much attention from Czech academics. This paper attempts to fill this gap by analyzing the development and gradual transformation of squatting in Prague, the core of Czech squatters’ activities. It pays special attention to the context of different phases of post-socialist societal transformation and urban restructuring, and analyzes this context from the perspective of the socio-spatial conditions which, according to Martínez,5 make squatting possible. It maps the way the squatters’ scene in Prague has been changing over the time in terms of strategies towards acquiring and retaining squatted spaces for their activities, and in terms of squatters agendas and relationships with the dominant society. These changes are contextualized by their interrelation with changing political opportunity structures and their potential impact on urban politics. Snow’s6 frame alignment processes are used to analyze and explain the changing nature of Czech squatters’ activities and strategies, paying special attention to mobilizations around Klinika.
Observation and involvement
The methods used in our research mainly consist of qualitative research strategies, especially participative observation and participant observing. Other methods included analysis of the materials issued by squatters, analysis of anarchist and autonomous press material concerning squatting activities (A-Kontra has been published from 1991 to the present with some interruptions; Autonomie was published from 1991 to1996, Autonom from 1997 to 1998, Konfrontace from 1998 to 2000 and Existence has been published from 1998 to the present with some interruptions), informal and semi-structured interviews. A total of 10 interviews focused on personal experience, motivations, opinions and memories were conducted with former and current members of the scene. Respondents were selected on the basis of the authors’ knowledge of the milieu, and with the intention to cover all squatting events of importance in Prague, paying special attention to the most recent events.
Due to the long-term involvement of both co-authors in Prague’s squatting scene, this paper significantly draws on insider research,7 as well as partly on the unpublished data gathered in one of the co-authors’ dissertation.8 The paper admits to limited objectivity. In line with post-normal science,9 its declaredly subjective position is used for mapping and analyzing the evolution of squatting in Prague, introducing it as a topic worthy of discussion. However, as suggested by Hodkinson,10 the researchers balance their insider subjectivity with a reflexive approach and a more distant perspective, as well as by combining the different levels of their involvement in the squatters’ scene and their different fields of academic expertise. As a core member of the autonomous center Klinika, and former member of the Ladronka collective, the sociologist Arnošt Novák is an insider, whose participation precedes observation, and therefore, rather than conducting participant observation, he engages in the so-called participant observing.11 Michaela Pixová, a human geographer, is a less involved insider, and on the boundary between being a participant as observer and an observer as participant.12
Throughout the modern history of Czechoslovakia/the Czech Republic, and its changing regimes, oppositional movements have sought refuge from the control of the dominant groups in what Polleta13 calls “free places”, spatially anchored “autonomous zones” that allow counterhegemonic groups to nurture their alternative lifestyles and ideas, using cultural practices to express, sustain, and strengthen their oppositional identities and solidarities. In capitalist countries, free places established in squatted buildings are central to the existence of the squatters’ movement and its struggle against capitalism and the commodification of the city. Squatted buildings not only provide the squatters’ movement with spatial anchorage, but also with its core agenda. Squats established and used by the squatters’ movement fall into Polleta’s category of free places with a prefigurative structure, i.e. places that are explicitly political and oppositional, typically left-leaning, formed to prefigure the society the movement is seeking to build, and useful in sustaining its members’ commitment to the cause.14 By using buildings acquired by mechanisms that evade the capitalist real estate market, squatters challenge private ownership and a capitalist system of social redistribution, and prefigure a society where the right to housing precedes the commercial interests of the elites, and the use value of property overpowers the value of exchange.
In Czechoslovakia/the Czech Republic, squatting evolved under circumstances different from those in Western Europe. To date, it has been affected by many path-dependencies, most importantly the adoption of § 249a of the Czech Criminal Code in 1961, which has been continuously used to protect property owners’ rights against unauthorized occupations and use, regardless of the purpose and circumstances of the occupation, or the property‘s utilization by its owner. However, throughout different regimes and the country’s transformation from one regime to another, and the aftermath of the economic crisis of 2008, the conditions that make squatting possible (or impossible) have been changing, and so have squatters’ practices in response to changing contexts.
In the following pages, we will analyze the changing socio-spatial conditions of possibility for squatting in Prague during different phases of a period demarked by the first occurrence of the international squatters’ movement in the 1970s to the present. The analysis will be based on conditions defined by Martínez,15 according to whom squatting can be enabled by the following: the presence of empty/abandoned buildings, preferably neither too damaged nor too strongly defended, and ideally, not used for speculative purposes; ongoing urban renewal and restructuring, preferably not too fast, and in the best case scenario with neighbors as allies; a light or permissive legal framework, preferably not too restrictive nor repressive, and even better — where housing rights are defended; connections to other social movements, preferably those with local and global claims, multiple goals, and established alliances and legitimacy; and independent and not too aggressive mass media coverage.
The analysis of the predominantly external socio-spatial conditions outlined above will be further enriched by the analysis of internal factors, such as the development and character of the squatters’ scene, its agenda and strategies, and its relationships with the authorities and the dominant society. For this purpose we use Snow’s concept of “frame alignment processes”,16 noticing how squatters employ especially the processes of “frame amplification”, i.e. “clarification and invigoration of an interpretative frame that bears on a particular issue, problem, or set of events”;17 “frame extension”, i.e. the movement’s attempt to attract new adherents by “portraying its objectives or activities as attending to or being congruent with the values or interests of potential adherents”; 18 as well as “frame bridging”, i.e. linkage with not yet mobilized groups that share common grievances or a common orientation regarding a particular issue,19 which in our case overlaps with the process of frame extension.
On the basis of the analysis we will explain the non-existence of squatting during socialism, its consequent boom and decline during the post-socialist transformation, and its recent renaissance in the current “post-crisis” context.
In the time of authoritarian socialism before 1989, the term “squatting” was unknown. Members of alternative cultures had their own “secret world”,20 but squatting as a practice existed only in what Pruijt calls the deprivation-based form, which involves people “suffering severe housing deprivation”, 21 and was occasionally performed by members of alternative cultures without further reference to the international squatters’ movement. Among conditions listed above, the only thing that might have favored squatting was the abundance of empty and abandoned buildings, especially historic ones in the city center, which the regime neglected as it prioritized building huge housing estates on the periphery.22 Typically not defended by security agents, abandoned buildings were quite accessible. However, most of them were underused due to their state of disrepair, and unsuitable for permanent living. Moreover, the legal framework was not permissive at all. Even though the provision of housing was administered by the state socialist housing system, 23 leading to a constant shortage of housing during the whole period of socialism, unauthorized occupations of empty buildings and alternative housing practices were repressed and seen as a threat to the dominant social order, or as an unwished indicator of the system’s imperfections.24 Ironically, homelessness was not tolerated either.
The Golden Age
The end of the totalitarian regime demarked a short era of early post-socialist transformation, which initially provided conditions perfect for squatting. Amidst the post-revolutionary enthusiasm, civil society and its initiatives seemed to have become a legitimate constituent of liberalized urban life. Ongoing reforms characterized by “a multitude of uncoordinated processes of societal transformation, accompanied by impetuous urban restructuring consisting of property restitutions, privatizations, rent-deregulations, and spontaneous development on unused land”25 provided fluid and unstable circumstances favorable to spontaneous grassroots activities, mainly in terms of many legal loopholes and vacant properties with unclear ownership, potentially representing breeding ground for various new spatial practices and experiments.
The early 1990s are sometimes nicknamed the Golden Age of Czech squatting. Squatters’ initiatives were mushrooming, counting about forty in the whole country, although most squatting took place in Prague. The boom was strongly related to the expansion of the anarchist movement and its accompanying punk and hard-core subculture. Due to the supremacy of private ownership in the young post-socialist society, squatters’ initiatives almost exclusively focused on occupying public property, justifying their occupations by making these properties useful and open to the public. Squats were meant to serve as centers for politics and culture, and as an alternative form of living. Among the first squats we could list Zlatá loď in Prague’s historic center, occupied from 1990 to 1994 by artists, migrants, and families with children for the purpose of alternative housing; the listed colony buildings Buďánka occupied from 1991 to 1992; the Sochorka in Podplukovníka Sochora Street, squatted by anarchists in 1992; and several other squats, which were rather short-lived. Evictions occurred even during the Golden Age, however, initially they tended to be relatively peaceful, stemming partly from the authorities’ inexperience with the new phenomenon.
During this era, squatters’ relationships with the authorities developed further through negotiations concerning Ladronka, a municipally owned farm estate on the western outskirts of the city, which member of the Anarchist Federation turned into an autonomous socio-cultural center in September 1993. Ladronka had its own info-cafe, bar, gallery, concert and theater premises, and accommodations for visitors. It also held an annual festival and operated as a platform for political organizations and preparations for demonstrations. Ladronka was not only a regional center of anarchist activities and alternative DIYculture, but also became an internationally known Central European squat.26
“At that time, Ladronka was one of the most popular of all squats in Europe. As regards the cultural front, it featured the best bands, and they had the best concerts there and kept coming back, and people from all of Europe used to go there, kind of randomly, with the intention to spend fourteen days there and then go somewhere else. I don’t think Ladronka was different in any way. Actually, I know there used to be squats in the Netherlands that were even more political than Ladronka, and there were also squats that were more slick, more structured, kind of more tidy. Ladronka was quite wild.” Standa, squatter from Ladronka
Standa’s description shows that Ladronka was comparable with squats abroad, mainly due to its dense ties with the international squatters’ movement. Its activities were political, but mainly focused on the environment of subcultural and countercultural youth. In the mid 1990s Czech society was still dominated by optimism that transformation would lead to catching up with living standards in Western European countries. Such an atmosphere not propitious to an open and radical anti-capitalist critique of the system. The scene therefore focused on framing squats as “Islands of Freedom.” The same motto also hung on Ladronka’s façade. We conceptualize the display of this motto as being within the process of frame amplification, the scene’s attempt to amplify its values, such as freedom and independence from state authorities and commerce, DIY principles, as well as certain self-containment, an orientation towards youth subculture and counterculture, and noncooperation with the rest of the society. During the given time and societal context, this frame seemed more relevant to the scene’s existence, and suppressed other frames, such as those displayed by the “Housing is a Right” slogan.
Ladronka’s independence was nonetheless relative and a subject of constant contestation. In order to retain its squat, part of the collective had to engage full time for years in negotiations with municipal authorities. Ladronka eventually became the first Czech squat that managed to gain the municipality’s permission to legally use its property.27 This is indicative of the initial permissiveness of early post-socialist transformation, although there have also been cases of attempted evictions, hindered by Ladronka’s extensive supporter group, including the squat’s neighbors. Squatters also enjoyed media coverage that was not overly aggressive and allowed their voices to be heard, which is a factor Martínez28 considers important for squatting’s existence. This might partly explain why the Prague municipality did not evict Ladronka until shortly after the anti-globalization protests against the IMF and World Bank congress held in Prague in September 2000, which created a hitherto non-existent moral panic concerning anarchists among the public.
The so-called Golden Age described above lasted only a short time and with the approaching new millennium, the conditions for squatting started to change for the worse. A gradual decline was already apparent in the functioning of Ladronka in 1998, two years before the squat’s definite end. Political activities were slowly disappearing from the squat, along with many activists from the original collective. The apolitical direction came to full light in 2000 when Ladronka refused to participate more actively in the preparations for the protests against the IMF and WB congress. As former squatters concluded,
“It is simply because they were afraid they would get caught up in the repressive wave, and that Prague would use it as a pretext for eviction.”
Standa, squatter from Ladronka
“The squat became a music club that did not pay rent.” Adam, squatter from Ladronka.
The scene was also weakened by the general decline of radical left and anarchist activities between 2003 and 2009.29 In the 2000s, it was surviving albeit surrounded by an antagonistic society whose disapproval of squatting stemmed from its lack of experience of capitalism’s contradictions, rejection of a socialism delegitimized by the former regime, and inability to critically address the ongoing consolidation of capitalism in its neoliberal form, i.e. adopting a globalized system characterized by deregulation, liberalization, and flexibilization of markets and trade, pervasive privatization, strong private property rights, and the diminishing role of the state, especially its function in various areas of social provision.30 According to Sýkora and Bouzarovski, the application of the neoliberal ideology in the post-socialist Czech Republic has been driven by the government’s perception of the free unregulated market as “the only resource allocation mechanism that can generate a wealthy, economically efficient and socially just society”,31 due to which political arrangements addressing social regulation were underestimated.
In this context, Prague kept undergoing a huge investment influx, and fast urban renewal and restructuring.32 Although there were still many abandoned and underused properties, non-commercial spaces found it increasingly hard to operate in the upgraded parts of the city. Property prices, rents and protection of private ownership went up, while housing rights were becoming ever less important, leading to a rising rate of homelessness. Squatting became a marginal phenomenon in the media discourse. Eventually, these unfavorable circumstances affected even a non-anarchist squat project of the so-called Medáci, who pursued activities with indisputably positive societal and cultural value in three abandoned working-class residential buildings in the Střešovice neighborhood, Prague 6. They were evicted in 2002 despite extensive support and acknowledgement from various civil sector organizations, neighbors, and numerous people who benefited from the group’s projects. Interestingly, according to Mertová,33 the activities of Medáci were so popular that people tended to perceive them as outside the framework of squatting.
As a result, in the 2000s, the scene was no longer able to secure new squatted spaces. The only squat that remained was Vila Milada, a dilapidated house in the vicinity of the university dormitory Koleje 17. listopadu in a secluded part of the Trója neighborhood, Prague 8. Vila Milada was occupied in May 1998, and, resisting several eviction attempts, lasted until June 2009, mainly thanks to its official non-existence in the real estate cadaster, from which it had been removed due to its planned demolition. Vila Milada never gained the popularity of Ladronka, but had an important symbolic value for the scene due to the fact that it was the last squat in Prague. Unfortunately, after it was abandoned by the collective who initiated it, the squat gradually started to epitomize the decline of the whole scene, and never fully used the potential inherent in having the longest uninterrupted life-span in the history of Czech squatting.
In my opinion, Milada worked somehow in waves. There was always some new group of people who wanted to do interesting stuff, and then they were joined by other people, but those people kind of dragged it down with their behavior. I think that in the end it became evident in that the originally tactful relationship with students from the neighboring dormitory became strained, then their [the squatters’] dogs escaped a few times and attacked other dogs in the neighborhood or animals in the zoo, and that was enough for the opponents of squatting to turn it into a pretext for eviction. Pavel, HC guitarist
In his retrospective evaluation of Vila Milada, Pavel points to a problem that squats often deal with, that of squatters’ differing levels of involvement in political activities and subcultural lifestyle, and internal conflicts regarding the squat’s operation. In the case of Vila Milada, inner conflicts were aggravated by adverse external conditions, resulting in cumulating problems for the scene. Pavel also mentions Vila Milada’s neighbors, students from the neighboring dormitory, who initially acted as the squat’s allies. In October 1998, during the first police attempt to evict the squat, students helped to construct a ropeway leading from the dormitory to the roof of Vila Milada, for the delivery of food, drinks, and sleeping bags to the squatters so their peers could pursue home defense while under a siege that had lasted for several days. This event, however, took place when the scene’s decline was only beginning. In the 2000s, Vila Milada went downhill, increasingly focusing on subcultural events instead of political activism, and in the very end causing problems connected to lack of hygiene, noise, and dogs running loose.34 Students stopped acting as the squatters’ allies and some of them even complained about the squat. The squatted building was eventually re-registered in the real estate cadaster and the squatters were consequently evicted in 2009.
After the events in the squatters’ scene in 2009, circumstances for squatting in Prague started to change. Although there was no longer an autonomous zone in the form of a squatted property, conditions for nurturing the ideals of the squatters’ movement were becoming more favorable due to a changing societal context in the late 2000s and early 2010s. Amidst the ongoing global economic crisis, even the general public increasingly criticized the neoliberal policies of national governments and urban development under the neoliberal rule of the Prague municipality. The post-2010 era was also marked by a certain renaissance of radical left activities in the Czech Republic, as well as by critical voices from part of the right-wing electorate, both triggered by the results of the national and local elections in 2010, in which the discredited right-wing Civic Democratic Party managed to stay in power by creating coalitions with new right-wing and center-right parties, namely with TOP 09, on the municipal level, and with TOP 09 and Věci Veřejné on the national level. The neoliberal policies of the coalition, austerity measures, suspected corruption, and the facilitation of dubious urban development projects — were given a mandate by part of the society, and simultaneously increasingly delegitimized in the eyes of growing masses of dissatisfied voters. In 2010, various new citizens’ initiatives were formed in order to address multiple issues arising from the unfavorable political and economic situation. The most notable of these was the new left-wing initiative ProAlt, which focused on criticism of the right-wing national government, but there were also many smaller initiatives focused on more particular issues, including issues concerning urban development, social inequalities, etc.
“Recently, it has been going in a direction towards bigger activity, it has become more organized, more elaborate… Milada’s eviction was crucial after that, things started to be done differently thanks to Vzpomínky na budoucnost [Memories of the Future initiative], that was kind of crucial, maybe also Albertov before that was the most repressive, with prosecution on top, and I also thought that spreading into other regions was crucial, Vzpomínky na budoucnost in Brno, or Klinika in Olomouc now. The society has changed, the crisis has advanced, as the social system is affecting people, there are more who are critical of the establishment. It is not such a problem to communicate some kind of values any more, the aversion is much smaller compared to back when anything left-wing stunk terribly, and you could count on encountering critique and opposition. The atmosphere in society has changed”.
Renata, squatter from Cibulka
Renata’s evaluation of the current conditions for squatting in Prague clearly points to a gradual renaissance experienced by the squatters’ scene, and to the concurrence of this renaissance with the general atmosphere, of widespread dissatisfaction with the official policies and their consequences. The context of awakening civil society in the Czech Republic, and in Prague in particular, mingled well with the reorientation of the squatters’ scene towards issues of wider social struggle. Aggravated by the loss of the last squat and joined by new people, the scene started to mobilize and connect with other social groups, plotting and employing new strategies. Renata mentions Albertov and Vzpomínky na budoucnost, examples of protest events which squatters performed in response to their situation and which influenced the scene’s further development. Determined to find a new squatted center, the scene was now focused on making its claims public through demonstrations, rallies, and demonstrative house occupations, which centered on the theme of loud criticism of private ownership and property speculations, and frequently resulted in the criminal prosecutions of squatters, lawsuits, and elevated media attention, mostly negative or biased.
The first protest event in this new context, commonly known as Albertov, took place in September 2009 in response to the eviction of Vila Milada, and consisted of a march concluded by a demonstrative occupation of a former historic steam spa near Albertov in Prague 2. Amplifying the motto “Housing is a Right”, the event embodied the scene’s first significant attempt to legitimize its agenda by expanding the frameworks of its activities. The scene now started to focus on drawing the public’s attention to the high number of empty and derelict buildings in Prague, including historic landmarks, and to the fact that housing was becoming increasingly unaffordable, thus attempting to give societal relevance and legitimacy to a hitherto subcultural and self-contained practice of squatting. The rally in front of the building was violently dispersed by the anti-riot police, more than 70 people were detained and subsequently released, and people who stayed inside the building overnight were evicted and charged with trespassing. The ensuing proceedings took one and a half years, with trials accompanied by small protest events. The city court finally decided that the squatters had not committed a criminal act, considering the neglect of the building by its owner.
Albertov was an important point of reference for the scene to embark on its new focus. However, it took more than two years to acquire a new squat, and no other significant protest events took place until 2013, more than two years after Albertov. In the meantime, squatters were spatially anchored in a variety of spaces, and under diverse circumstances, which further contributed to the scene’s formation.
In the summer of 2009, in consequence of an unexpected intervention by the Minister of Human Rights, squatters evicted from Vila Milada were invited to a temporary refuge in a semi-vacant, privately owned residential building in the city center, supposedly due to the owner’s hidden intention to banish the remaining tenants from his building and make way for commercial redevelopment. Squatters therefore united with the tenants, assisting them in their struggle against the landlord. Their embarking on such unprecedented tactics, involving an alliance with people from outside of the scene, displays signs of a frame bridging process. The squatters’ temporary refuge became known as Truhla and hosted many cultural and social events and activities until June 2010. Part of the scene then moved to a commercially rented warehouse in the old freight station Nákladové nádraží Žižkov, and established the, so called, DIS Centrum. The obligation to earn revenue in order to pay rent, mostly by organizing concerts, limited the collective’s engagement in social and political activities. Increasingly frustrated by financial limitations, the collective eventually left the warehouse, and some of its members established a trailer park in an abandoned factory in Zličín, on Prague’s south-western periphery, where they were unofficially tolerated by the agent of Central Group, the factory’s owner. After three months, the squatters were evicted when they organized a big free techno party.
In April 2012, squatters joined up with Oživte si barák (Enliven your house) — a citizens’ initiative aimed at raising public awareness around the issue of housing speculation and decaying historic buildings — and occupied Cibulka, a listed baroque mansion in a large park in the Košíře neighborhood, Prague 5, which had already been squatted several times in the past. Cibulka’s dilapidated state was criticized by neighbors and the National Heritage Institute, which kept penalizing its owner, Oldřich Vaníček, a man with disreputable political ties who had purchased Cibulka under dubious circumstances in 1990. Vaníček therefore agreed to provide the mansion to the squatters and the initiative for cultural purposes in exchange for basic maintenance. For three years, Cibulka hosted various cultural and community events, and enjoyed its neighbors’ support. However, as detailed below , after three years the relationship with the owner went sour, and squatters were evicted.
Addressing the public
From 2013, part of the scene became determined to engage in further developing of the squatters’ movement in the Czech Republic. From the perspective of frame alignment processes, the scene employed tactics over the following years that displayed characteristics of frame bridging and frame extension, such as cooperation with other social groups, manifesting ideas behind squatting that non-members of the scene with similar grievances could identify with, and eventually portraying squatting as a legitimate citizens’ initiative that deserves public support and sympathy.
In January 2013, several scene members engaged in defending poor people, mostly Romani, facing eviction from a dormitory in Krásné Březno, a neighborhood in the Ústí nad Labem city. They organized a demonstration in front of the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs, and occupied the Ministry’s offices. After an unsuccessful attempt to prevent the eviction, they found substitute housing for evicted families, and attempted to draw the public’s attention to these families’ problems by amplifying the issue of social exclusion, racism, and poverty business. Later that year, the initiative “Vzpomínky na budoucnost“ (Memories of the Future) took place on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of the opening of Ladronka, with the occupation of several empty houses in one day, including a listed palace in Pohořelec near Prague Castle, which at the time served as an official address for fictitious companies. The occupation of the palace was welcomed by neighboring residents, upset by the lack of residential life in the neighborhood. All the occupations were ended by quick evictions.
In September 2013, squatters were invited to an almost empty residential house in Neklanova Street, Prague 2, by Mr. Kubelík, the last tenant with a valid lease. Upon his request, several squatters moved into the house to protect it from the dubious and unlawful attempts of Italian speculative owners to banish Mr. Kubelík from his apartment, and for half a year operated a quiet residential squat. In February 2014, squatters were evicted, with a few facing arrest and criminal charges.
In the meantime, the initiative Obsaď a žij (Squat and Live) took place in October 2013, strategically occupying a vacant building owned by the Ministry of Justice, one day prior to the national elections. Around 150 people instantly started to operate a social center.
“By occupying the house and opening a social center the evening before parliamentary elections we want to warn of the dangerous illusion that real democracy lies in the polls, and that it is an act performed individually behind a screen, once every four years … That is why we are opening an autonomous social center in this underused house, which could provide space for daily cultural, social, and political activities, and for participation. We do not rely on polls, we vote 365 days a year, we occupy and live”.
Statement of the Obsaď a žij initiative
Within three hours the squatters were evicted with the help of riot police and a helicopter, and more than thirty people were arrested. The tactic, which took advantage of the elections and amplified new topics, such as citizen participation, direct democracy as everyday politics, open critique of urban space commodification, and claims framed by the “right to the city” motto, can be interpreted as an extension of the way squatters frame their agenda. It also constituted the scene’s continuing shift from a previously exclusively subcultural and countercultural format towards bigger inclusivity and social relevance, aimed at reaching out to a wider group of sympathizers and supporters.
Change of tactics
Conditions for squatting changed yet again after the parliamentary elections of 2013, which were won by the Social Democrats, who created a coalition with the Christian Democrats and a new populist movement, ANO (“yes” in Czech), led by the entrepreneur and businessman Andrej Babiš, the Czech Republic’s second richest man. The coalition attempted to regain the public’s trust by relaxing austerity measures and through other populist policies. Moreover, in the local elections in autumn 2014, ANO won the mayoral seat of Prague, and formed a coalition which also included a few members of the Green party. On the Prague borough level, the Green party gained unprecedented mandates and were joined by some of the newly formed citizen initiatives.
In terms of official politics, the political opportunity structure changed considerably. Evictions and police attempts to criminalize squatters nonetheless continued, and the scene, exhausted by constant failures, decided on a different tactic. It chose to squat an abandoned building of a former clinic owned by the state, perceived as a high risk location by the locals due to its function as a transit arena for drug-users, located in the Žižkov neighborhood, Prague 3, a municipal district with relatively active citizenry and a strong, albeit oppositional Green Party presence in the local government. Squatters elaborated a project of an autonomous center called Klinika and presented their intentions to the owner and to the Prague 3 municipality one day prior to the occupation. The project document was signed by five project initiators, who appealed to the credibility of their qualifications (university teacher, artist, social worker) in order to portray the project as a legitimate civic activity in a persuasive way. Approximately fifteen squatters dressed in orange working vests then occupied the house, and started to clean it. Police patrol that arrived at night was presented with officially stamped documents proving squatters’ preceding negotiations with the owner. As part of their tactic, the collective identified themselves as a citizens’ initiative, not as squatters, and framed their activity as of community/neighborhood work. They continued in doing so when communicating with the media. Confused by this tactic, the police patrol announced that the case would be forwarded to the owner. Due to the occupation starting on a Saturday morning, the squatters gained several days. The representatives of the state institution that owns the building, the Office of Government Representation in Property Affairs (UZSVM), gave the squatters two days to leave the building. The time was used to continue clearing the building and spreading information about Klinika. New people joined the initiative, and up to seventy people attended its daily meetings. A neighborhood festival was held in Klinika on the day of the planned eviction. In the meantime, squatters contacted Matěj Stropnický, the Green deputy mayor of Prague and former deputy mayor of Prague 3, well known for his support of alternative culture and squatting. Stropnický arranged negotiations between squatters and UZSVM. Despite the failure to reach a consensus, the squatters gained eight days in which to hold a regular program, attended by a wide variety of people, including residents of the neighborhood. The squatters also managed to gain positive coverage in mainstream media, which initially avoided referring to them as squatters. The information about the Autonomous Social Center Klinika quickly went viral, benefiting from the establishment of a Facebook page and from the support expressed by publicly known figures, artists, academics, and other citizens’ initiatives, as well as the local Green Party and several unions.
Despite growing popularity, the riot police evacuated Klinika on December 9 and arrested three squatters. More than one hundred people gathered in front of Klinika and spontaneously marched to the borough hall during the council assembly. The Green Party managed to set the matter on the agenda and a few squatters and local residents held speeches at the assembly. Klinika won the council’s official support, which had a symbolic significance for further negotiations with the authorities. Five days later, almost one thousand people joined a demonstration in support of Klinika, and marched to the evacuated building. Several people symbolically re-occupied it. After the end of the demonstration, riot police arrived and attacked and arrested the squatters’ spokesman, attracting more media attention and further raising public support for Klinika.
During the first fourteen days of the Klinika initiative, squatters aspired to move beyond the previously narrow frame of exclusively subcultural squatting, and portrayed their current agenda as a beneficial practice, that is not exclusively accessible only to the members of the scene.
“I have always understood squatting as a subcultural matter that has little to contribute to the radical left, but Klinika has shown me how huge the potential of squatting is. In its own way, to me Klinika is like a laboratory where ideals can be tested in practice”.
Karel, a student and left-wing activist, joined the Klinika collective after the occupation of the building
In the meantime, the squatters led a campaign under the motto Každé město potřebuje svojí kliniku [Every city needs its own Klinika]. The campaign to reclaim Klinika attempted to address a wider spectrum of people, i.e. non-members of the scene who sympathize with the scene’s values and critique of capitalist society and urban space commodification. An event, called Den pro Kliniku [Klinika Day] was organized, consisting of a demonstration attended by six hundred, and evening solidarity events with a cultural program in more than fifteen places throughout Prague, as well as other Czech and even Slovak cities. The campaign’s motto operated as a frame that exported the relevance of the topic outside of Prague, this time succeeding in getting positive reactions throughout much of Czech society, although not leading to much success in terms of starting similar autonomous centers in other cities.
In February 2015, the squatters accomplished political negotiations regarding the building. UZSVM was commanded by the Ministry of Finance, led by the populist ANO leader Andrej Babiš, to temporarily provide its building to the initiative. Babiš’s tendency to manage state affairs in an entrepreneurial way conditioned the main argument for letting the Klinika collective utilize the building, by referencing high security costs for an empty building. In addition, Babiš decided to use the case to stage a populist manifestation of his sympathies for the youth. In March, the Klinika collective signed a contract for a one-year rent-free lease. However, rights to the building were also demanded by the general inspection of security forces (GIBS), and UZSVM attempted to transfer the building to GIBS only one month after signing the contract with Klinika, giving the initiative only one week to leave the building. After a quickly organized demonstration and negotiations with the Ministry of Finance, the squatters averted their displacement by negotiating a contract amendment that guarantees the one-year lease.
Simultaneously with these events around Klinika, difficulties started to affect Prague’s second squat, Cibulka. As the third anniversary of its initial occupation approached the squatters’ relation with Cibulka’s owner were going downhill. Towards the end of 2014, the owner started to complain about trailers parked in the yard and required their removal. In December 2014, he announced the termination of the contract with squatters effective at the end of March 2015, complaining that the squatters were impeding Cibulka’s reconstruction, despite the fact that no plan for reconstruction had been approved. The squatters, whose profile was much more subcultural than that of the Klinika collective, also attempted to gain wider public support, which resonated among the surrounding residents. Lukáš Budín, the Green deputy mayor of Prague 5, asked the police to notify him in case of a potential intervention at Cibulka, arguing that Cibulka was a listed building. Despite the owner’s disapproval, the squatters remained in Cibulka another month, expecting harassment. On May 5, Vaníček filed a complaint against the squatters, and on the following day dozens of riot police, evacuated the squat. Twelve persons were arrested, three injured. One squatter was charged with a suspended sentence for two months in an accelerated proceeding. On the day of the proceeding, a solidarity demonstration was held in front of the court building, and a protest demonstration took place in front of the Prague police headquarters in the evening, with photographs of the eviction screened on the wall of the building. The eviction of Cibulka conducted by a massive police operation raised a certain public critique, possibly having constituted an abuse of power according to some lawyers. The Minister of the Interior of the Czech Republic announced plans to commission an investigation of the intervention and especially of its financial cost. The squatters also considered filing a lawsuit for wrongful action by the police.
In the meantime, activities in Klinika continued. In 2015, squatting became a widely discussed topic, attracting media and public attention, and motivating other people to act. Klinika has become a functional, living, autonomous social center. Despite its legal status, it retains its antagonistic relationship to the state, and successfully cultivates local relationships. Its social potential came into full light in relation to the “migration crisis”, during which Klinika became an important center of material support for migrants. In the context of the state’s failure to deal with the crisis, Klinika operated as an important center linking citizens, groups, and organizations sharing common grievances concerning migrants, and became a symbol of solidarity and humanitarian help in the Czech Republic. In our view, this agenda embodies the process of frame bridging, which further contributed to the growth of Klinika’s legitimacy.
In the Czech context, squatting represents a marginal phenomenon predominantly concentrated in Prague, and surrounded by a constantly changing local scene with links to the Czech anarchist-autonomous scene. Its most active members have never counted more than a few dozen people surrounded around a handful of “leaders,” but in times of tension the scene has demonstrated ability to mobilize bigger numbers of supporters and sympathizers. Activities of the small scene in Prague have played a central role in the formation of a Czech discourse on squatting, and in the perception of squatting in the dominant society.
During their twenty-five year existence, squatting and the squatters’ scene in Prague have evolved in the context of constantly changing conditions. The analysis of socio-spatial conditions, which according to Martínez make squatting possible, has shown, that post-socialist Prague has always disposed of a sufficient amount of vacant properties, including those suitable for residential purposes, and even in a later era of ongoing urban restructuring. However, with the exception of the early post-socialist transformation, spontaneous use of vacant property by grassroots groups has been limited by non-permissive legislation, society’s perception of the free market and private ownership as the cornerstones of people’s freedom,35 as well as by pervasive real-estate speculations, an almost impermeable defense of abandoned houses against unauthorized occupations, and crumbling housing rights. Amidst these antagonistic conditions, other socio-spatial conditions, such as media coverage and support from neighbors, played a significant role only in the few cases of longer-lasting squats. While almost all squats enjoyed a certain degree of support from their neighbors, with the exception of Milada during its decline, their portrayal in the mass media has undergone considerable changes, from neutral and unbiased media coverage in the 1990s, to predominantly aggressive coverage of squatters’ activities after 2009, and finally the current positive coverage of Klinika, which is slightly misrepresented due to the squatters initial tactic of portraying their initiative under another label than squatting.
Until after the eviction of Vila Milada, squatters in Prague scarcely cooperated with people from outside of the scene. Meanwhile, alliances created around Klinika have been to a large extent responsible for the initiative’s success. By using Snow’s36 concept of frame alignment processes, we identified a considerable shift of the frameworks that Prague squatters have employed in regard to their own conception of squatting, and in regard to the way they have communicated their activities to the public. In the 1990s, squats were mainly subcultural and countercultural centers detached from mainstream society, predominantly catering to young people alienated from society’s enthusiastic acceptance of capitalism as a symbol of freedom. The scene initially amplified its own ideas of freedom, expressed as independence, but which also resulted in a certain self-containment and isolation from the rest of society. With the progressing, neoliberalization of the country, and without links to the rest of society, the scene went through a period of decline from 1998 to 2009, focusing on subcultural events and fragmented political activities. This tendency was slackened by the onset of the global economic crisis, since the ensuing pervasive atmosphere of a crisis of capitalism created an environment more favorable for the dissemination of radical-left ideas and open critique of the capitalist system. The new people who joined the scene were considerably more educated and sophisticated in pursuing their goals than their predecessors of the 1990s. In the context of capitalist crisis the scene, lacking a squatted center and unable to secure one due to harsh police repression and quick evictions, started to employ house occupations as a confrontational tactic to facilitate the dissemination of their critique of capitalism and make their claims heard. In order to address a wider public with similar concerns, the scene extended the frameworks of its activities by placing them into wider societal context. This was done by amplifying the critique of crumbling housing rights, historic heritage destruction, pervasive real-estate speculations, excessive protection of private property, and the general commodification of urban space and urban life, as well as by promoting direct democracy as part of everyday life. Squatters’ engagement in new activities and their creation of new coalitions and alliances, i.e. defending people threatened by homelessness, supporting groups subjected to discrimination, such as the Roma, or cooking for people in need, embodied both the process of frame extension and the process of frame bridging. In the dominant discourse, the prevailing conception of squatting as an antisocial illegitimate subcultural practice was partly shattered by amplifying social aspects of the squatting practice, and associated positive non-capitalist values, such as sharing, cooperation, and solidarity. The above mentioned frame alignment processes were further elaborated during the last struggles for the autonomous center Klinika, leading in turn, to attracting new allies and supporters, as well as initiation of new cooperation and mutual help. By expanding the previously narrow frameworks of squatting, squatters managed to gain time to present to society a viable citizens’ initiative that uses an abandoned public building for legitimate and highly needed societal purposes, and to establish a hitherto non-existing center of solidarity in Prague.
Even though Klinika does not feature the characteristics of political squatting as described by Pruijt, i.e. open confrontation with the system and a refusal to negotiate its own legal status,37 the tactics employed by squatters in Prague must be understood in the context of the weak and vulnerable position of squatting in Czech society, which has always driven squatters to attempt to negotiate legalization, or semi-legality. Since the main incentive of these tactics has been a desire among squatters to enrich Prague’s urban environment with autonomous geographies,38 that extricate themselves from the capitalist logic and enable further political mobilizations, squatters in Prague have successfully avoided co-optation by the system and thus play an essential role in nurturing radical left ideas in the Czech public space. Thanks to the tactics of the Klinika initiative, squatting and radical left politics are now enjoying unprecedented attention in Czech society, and the idea of reusing empty buildings has finally become a legitimate topic of social relevance.
A last note: The situation of Klinika has changed since the article was submitted. Today the future of Klinika remains open and uncertain. ≈
Acknowledgements: This research was supported by the Grant Agency of the Czech Republic as part of the project “Contested Czech Cities: Citizen Participation in Post-Socialist Urban Restructuring” (grant n. 14-24977P) and by the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sports – Institutional Support for Longterm Development of Research Organizations – Charles University, Faculty of Humanities (2012).
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18 Ibid. 472.
19 Ibid. 467.
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34 Piotrowski, “Squatting in the East”.
35 Ladislav Holy, The Little Czech and Great Czech Nation. National Identity and Post-Communist Societal Transformation. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996).
36 Snow et al., “Frame Alignment“.
37 Pruijt, “The Logic”.
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