Peer-reviewed articles Vilnius Giving meaning to abandoned buildings

This paper explores the scope, causes, flourishing, and decline of squatting in Lithuanian society during the period of 1990-2002. Drawing on 16 in-depth interviews conducted with squatters in Vilnius, newspaper articles and legal documents, this paper shows that squatters made contributions to the city with their cultural capital, creating local subcultures and making the urban space more attractive.

Published in the printed edition of Baltic Worlds BW 1-2 2016, pp 68-79
Published on on June 23, 2016

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This paper explores the scope, causes, flourishing, and decline of squatting in Lithuanian society during the period of 1990-2002. Drawing on 16 in-depth interviews conducted with squatters in Vilnius, newspaper articles and legal documents, this paper shows that squatters made contributions to the city with their cultural capital, creating local subcultures and making the urban space more attractive. Squatters promoted an alternative way of life, contributed to the preservation of the city and fostered counter-cultural activities. They offered spaces for performances, exhibits, and concerts. These activities are still present up to this day in the Užupis neighborhood that hosted the most long-lived squat, which in turn was transformed into Art Incubator.

Key words: urban squatting, squatter settlements, Vilnius, housing policy, post-socialist, privatization, urban regime.

Squatting, which is outlined as living in or using a house without the permission of the owner, is a unique form of protest that challenges private property — a core convention of capitalist society.1 In Lithuanian society, squatting had a symbolic value in the sense that the transition from collectively owned property towards private property had started as early as 1990, when the first squatter settlements had begun to mushroom right in the heart of the Old Town of Vilnius. Squatting as a social phenomenon in Lithuania appeared as soon as the country’s independence from the former Soviet Union was declared and the socialist planned economy was drastically replaced by a free market economy. The chaos that followed — unclear rules and regulations for municipal property, frequent changes in legislation, financial mismanagement — also facilitated the emergence of squatting.

Squatting in the Central and East European (CEE) region has been little researched to date. It emerged in the mid-1990s as a response to abandoned and decaying vacant properties due to unclear ownership and an increasing need for housing or for space for countercultural activity.2 Studies3 show that the squatting movement has been a marginal phenomenon in many post-socialist countries, although surprisingly successful in Poland, where squatters have formed alliances with tenants’ associations and become major players in the urban environment. In contrast, recent literature on urban mobilizations in Lithuania provides evidence that squatting plays no role in that country’s contemporary urban protests and mobilizations.4

Squatting has received surprisingly little or no attention in academic literature in Lithuania, despite the fact that there were squatters’ settlements in various Lithuanian cities during the period 1990—2002. This may be explained by several factors. One of them is the invisibility of squatters in the public sphere: there were no massive protests organized by them, nor sufficient media coverage of their life and activities. Squatters promoted an alternative way of life, contributed to the preservation of the city, and fostered countercultural activities (performances, concerts, exhibits). Although the occupancy of empty buildings is characterized by some authors5 as a political act in itself (since it involves civil and social disobedience), squatters in Vilnius never claimed the right to the city’s space in such a way as to openly and deliberately challenge capitalist inequalities resulting from the unequal distribution of property and power; nor sought to dispute private property. Instead, they presented themselves as “good people” who were merely using the abandoned, decaying buildings for “good purposes”. This is not surprising, given the political and societal conditions in Lithuania during the first ten years of independence. Private property and the market economy were praised as the only possible way to organize society, and everything that was associated with the socialist past was rejected and labelled as “inferior”. Studies6 show that even today, the dominant discourse in Lithuania is neoliberal and is deeply rooted among the Lithuanian political and economic elite. The neoliberal discourse has been especially strong in housing and urban policy, resulting in massive housing privatization and state withdrawal from urban policy, leaving the main responsibility to private investors.

Thus a squatting movement, in the sense of strong opposition to neoliberal policies and capitalist inequalities, as it is commonly configured in the West, has never been formed in Lithuania. As Pruijt states,7 the appearance of squatting does not necessary mean that there is a squatters’ movement. There can be squatters’ settlements created for isolated self-help purposes or for the purpose of obtaining space for cultural activities. Nevertheless, the legacy of the squatters in Vilnius is a unique phenomenon which has been undeservingly neglected by social scientists. The Lithuanian situation was unique in the following ways:

  • Squats lasted for a relatively long time, about ten to twelve years (1990—2002).
  • Squats occurred during a dramatic socioeconomic and political transition in Lithuania: the reestablishment of the country’s independence from the Soviet Union, the implementation of market economy and democracy, a wide opening to the influence of globalization, and the Europeanization of Lithuanian society. The transformation that followed was accompanied by many problems, including a lack of transparency in privatization, unstable institutions, and a drop in the standard of living of large parts of the population.
  • Squats suddenly became “extinct”. That is, existing squats were shut down before 2002 and never reopened again on a large scale in any way comparable to previous examples.

This paper is a first attempt to uncover the dynamics (the extent, causes, flourishing, and decline) of squatting in Lithuanian society, focusing on the case of Vilnius. The capital of Lithuania, with a population of half a million, is not a haphazard choice: Vilnius hosted the largest and the most known squats in Lithuania.

The paper seeks answers to several questions: why is it that such a decommodified space as squatter settlements has existed in the city of Vilnius for a relatively long period? What was the social profile of squatters, and what was the reaction of the state? Which factors contributed to the “extinction” of squatters?

The paper employs a qualitative approach to study squatter settlements in Vilnius. It relies on 16 in-depth interviews conducted with the squatters. The interviews were carried out in 2014; they provide rich material for understanding the conditions, the extent, and the causes of squatting. The thematic questions of the interviews were designed to elicit the reasons for squatting, experiences of living and living conditions in a squat, squatting activities; communication with the neighbors and the local authorities, internal rules of the squat, and the squatters’ communication with each other. The informants were recruited using a snowball or chain referral sampling, which is a method that has been widely used in qualitative sociological research. In this method, a researcher generates a study sample by relying on recommendations made by people who share or know of others who have characteristics that are of research concern. The method, as described by Biernacki and Waldorf,8 is particularly applicable when the focus is on a group which has low social visibility. It is, for instance, easy to find nurses as a sample group, but to locate and contact exdrug addicts would be difficult without insider knowledge. “The researcher, however, must actively and deliberately develop and control the sample’s initiation, progress, and termination”.9 The snowball technique was especially rewarding as the majority of the squatters had or have poor social visibility as a target group in Vilnius. For the purpose of this study, the most active and/or long-term members of the squatters’ community in Vilnius were identified and interviewed. The paper also draws on newspaper articles and other available online sources, including conferences on squatters in Vilnius conducted by the Lithuanian Free University (LUNI), an online Facebook group page which connects former squatters, and a movie produced by Deivis Nutautas about squatters in Užupis.

In the introduction, I will offer some theoretical background on squatting. This will be followed by a short review of the housing and urban regime in Lithuania and Vilnius. Next, I will present and analyze the four major squats of Vilnius, which were active during the period of 1990—2002. Finally, I will provide some discussion and concluding remarks. The major argument is that squatting in Vilnius was a unique phenomenon that was triggered by the dramatic changes in the political, economic, and societal settings of Lithuanian society. These changes were especially pronounced in the cities, resulting in an unregulated, transitional urban regime, which was favorable to squatting. A unique aspect of squatting in Lithuania involves squatters distancing themselves from political participation and presenting themselves as “apolitical people”, not interested in any political activity. The squatters’ movement in Vilnius, although “apolitical” in the sense that it never played an influential role in urban protests nor actively defended rights to vacant buildings, has made a significant contribution through its countercultural activities towards the revitalization, improvement, and “cautious” gentrification of the Užupis neighbourhood of Vilnius.

Theoretical background

Urban social movements cannot be understood in isolation. Their characteristics and dynamics must be viewed against a broader background of social change in which they operate.10 According to Martinez,11 squatting has developed in Europe as an autonomous urban movement. However, some important sociospatial conditions need to be present for squatting to occur and develop. These conditions include: sufficient vacant and abandoned properties; a slow pace of urban restructuring and renewal; legislation creating “windows” for squatting to emerge; connections with other social movements; and mass media coverage that is not too critical.

Thus, for squatting to emerge and develop in a city, a package of favorable conditions should be in place. If many of these conditions are encouraging, then a strong squatters’ movement can emerge. If we briefly look at the example of Christiania in Denmark, or the Dutch case of Amsterdam, we see in both cases that the positive political conditions (social-democratic government), emphasis on welfare rights (including housing) and redistribution, and positive media coverage made a flexible institutionalization of squatting possible.12 Flexible institutionalization, according to Pruijt,13 entails legalization in which squatters nonetheless maintain their identity and continue to defend buildings and to play a major role in urban protests. Conversely, a strong legal protection of private property and negative media coverage have led to the criminalization of squatting in England,14 and its disappearance and cooptation (transformation into service providers) by local authorities in New York.15

Broader political and legal conditions are key matters in eliciting the emergence of urban movements. Nevertheless, in regard to the squatters’ movement, Holm and Kuhn16 have observed that “first and foremost the broader urban political context […] determined if and how squatter movements arose.” Indeed, Holm and Kuhn have provided evidence that the squatters’ movement dynamics in Berlin were closely associated with the changing strategies of urban renewal policies. The squatters in West Berlin at the beginning of the 1980s contributed decisively to the implementation of a policy called “cautious urban renewal”, which rested on public transfers. It meant a slower pace for the “areal redevelopment” policy, which focused on the widespread demolition of housing stock in need of renewal and on new, modern housing developments. The “areal redevelopment” policy was criticized and opposed by local residents who were frightened by redevelopment. The government therefore took a more cautious approach towards redevelopment planning policy in “cautious urban renewal”, comprising the widespread involvement and participation of residents in renewal activities. Squats became objects and partners in the new “cautious” model of urban renewal. The large-scale squatting of the 1990s, however, constituted an alien element to neoliberal redevelopment policy in East Berlin, which rested on privatization, restitution, and private investments by property developers.17

The case study of Berlin by Holm and Kuhn thus provides evidence on how changes in the urban regime within one country over time result in different opportunities for squatting. Comparative studies, meanwhile, demonstrate how variance in urban regimes affects squatting opportunities in different countries. For instance, a careful comparison of the opportunities for squatting in Amsterdam and New York, conducted by Pruijt,18 shows that a market-oriented regime with an emphasis on regulative commitment to low-income housing offers much fewer opportunities for squatting than a regime that is based on redistribution and planning. Amsterdam and New York represent different types of urban regimes, which are embedded into different types of welfare state regimes delineated by Esping-Andersen.19 The Dutch welfare state regime, which is close to the ideal type of the social democratic welfare state, promotes equal access to high standards through redistribution. In Amsterdam, the state continues to use physical planning and social welfare expenditures to maintain equality, while in New York, the state has virtually abandoned physical planning and cut welfare expenditure.20 New York is entrenched in the liberal welfare state regime of the US, which is characterized by the dominant position of the market and low decommodification. These conditions have created different opportunities for squatting. In Amsterdam, squatting has been thriving as a means and an end, while in New York it has been abandoned.21

To sum up, the theoretical discussion points to several explanations that may be useful in studying squatting settlements in Vilnius. Urban squatting does not exist in a vacuum; it is shaped by a variety of forces. Squatting should be studied as if embedded in the wider historical, political and social conditions of a given society. Media coverage can reinforce the movement’s success or contribute to its decline. Nevertheless, the urban regime or urban politics offer the most fruitful explanation to understand the rise and fall of squatting in European cities.

The housing and urban regime in Lithuania and Vilnius

After the Second World War, Lithuania was incorporated into the Soviet Union and was subject to the same socialist housing and urban planning regulations as the rest of the USSR. The socialist housing system was characterized by large-scale construction implemented by the state and state-sponsored housing in high-rise buildings at low cost, heavily state-subsidized and uniform prices of dwellings, and a chronic housing shortage resulting in long waiting lists.22 In Lithuania, housing shortage was a common feature and resulted in fast but poor quality housing construction in an effort to meet increasing housing demand.23 One of the most important features of socialist housing and urban policies was rapid urbanization, which was accompanied by rapid industrialization and the transfer of labor force from rural to urban areas.24 The intensity of Soviet urbanization is illustrated by the fact that, even today, more than two-thirds of all housing (71.5%) in Lithuania was built from 1946 to 1990, while only 13.4% of homes were built before 1945. From 1991 to 2000, 7% of the current housing stock was built. Dwellings built from 2001 to 2011 make up 6.2% of present-day housing.25 Thus, even today, the construction of new housing estates lags behind the large-scale constructions of the Soviet era. The housing shortage, especially the shortage of affordable public housing, is still pronounced in Vilnius.26

In the socialist city model, the influence of market forces on urban development and housing was formally abolished. The land and property markets were nationalized. The central urban planning, based on the communist ideology which sought to equalize the differences between territorial units and classes, and which was followed by rapid industrialization, has left its mark on the urban structure of the postsocialist cities, most visibly in a neglected historic district and the formation of suburban zones with low-quality block housing, which never underwent any major rehabilitation. Vilnius had and still has to deal with all the problems of a postsocialist city. The negative features were particularly visible in the central part of the historic district, since many buildings were left to decay. The historic part of the city has been gradually rebuilt and revitalized since the 1990s. In the late 1990s, some parts of the Old Town of Vilnius have started to experience gentrification.27

In Lithuania, urban squatting experienced its “golden age” from 1990 to 2002. This period was marked by significant changes in housing and urban policy. It was the Soviet state’s policy to resettle people living in old houses built in 1940 or earlier. The old and decaying buildings (built before 1945) were concentrated in the city center (the Old Town) of Vilnius; many of them had no bathrooms and toilets inside the dwellings; some had no running water. Before 1989, many of the inhabitants of these old houses were resettled; they were moved to newly built apartment blocks in the suburban zones of Vilnius. The state expected to reconstruct the old houses. However, the collapse of the Soviet regime had disrupted the plans. Yet the return to the market economy brought with it the implementation of large-scale housing privatization. In Lithuania, and more specifically in Vilnius, the mass privatization of housing was launched in 1991. Consequently, the proportion of publicly-owned dwellings on the housing market dropped from 82% to 1.4% between 1991 and 2001.28 At present, 97.2% of dwellings in Lithuania are occupied by their owners, while only 2.8% are public or municipal property.29 The proportion of owner-occupied dwellings in Lithuania is among the highest in the EU, alongside Romania and Hungary.30

Overall, the housing and urban regime in Lithuania and Vilnius since 1990 has undergone a dramatic transition. It moved away from the socialist model based on state control and long-term planning towards the market model based on private ownership and limited state control over the land, property, and housing markets.31 At present, it incorporates many features of the liberal regime, which marginalizes social housing and allows market forces to dominate housing production, allocation, and price determination.32 These conditions, according to Pruijt,33 do not facilitate the emergence of organized squatting and offer the most powerful explanation as to why urban squatting has become “weak”, prone to cooptation and organizational  difficulties.

Nevertheless, the period from 1990 to 2002 can be called transitional for the housing and urban regime in Lithuania. It was a period of massive privatization and severe housing shortage. But at the same time, due to financial constraints and unclear rules regarding municipal property; many buildings were left vacant, waiting for their former owners or the municipality to take responsibility for them. Thus it was a perfect time for squatters’ settlements to emerge.

Urban squatting in Vilnius

There were four major squats in Vilnius, which deserve special attention. All of them started during the same period (around 1990—1992) and were located in the city’s Old Town (see map on page 70).

One of them was located in Pilies Str. 26, where the House of Signatories currently stands. This is a historic building where the Act of Independence of the state of Lithuania was signed on February 16, 1918. At present it is a museum.34 In 1991, half of the apartments in the historic building stood vacant and decaying; the other half were occupied by the sitting tenants. The City Council of Vilnius adopted a resolution in 1992 to establish the House of Signatories of Lithuanian Independence in this building. However, due to a lack of funding, the rebuilding started only in 1997.35 The reconstruction has been funded from three sources: municipal and national funds and donations.36 In 1998, the building was assigned to the Ministry of Culture, and in 2003 it became a branch of the National Museum of Lithuania.37 The squatters, who were mainly young people with artistic backgrounds and other students (historians, philologists, philosophers) of Vilnius University, occupied the empty flats, cleaned them, and repaired broken doors and windows. The quote below provides a typical story of the young person squatting a house:

My first squat was “Pilies”, it was a historic building, currently it is the House of Signatories, but stood deserted and empty … of course, there were a few people still living there … so it was semi-abandoned … interesting that one staircase of the building was populated, but the other one, with the entrance through the courtyard, was empty…. I had just finished secondary school and was looking for a job. I lived 15 kilometers away from Vilnius, all my activities were in Vilnius: studies, courses … My aim was to enter the Academy of Arts, so I was preparing myself for entrance to the Academy. I needed a space for a workshop, where I could paint… I found like-minded people who were already living in a squat, that is, one of my girlfriends invited me to live so that together it would be more fun and not so scary… It was a perfect place, Pilies Street, the heart of Vilnius, you know … We came, we found an empty space, it was full of garbage and broken bottles, but no owners. So what we have done, we cleaned up the place and installed our own lock.…   Squatter of Pilies

The squat was called “Pilies” and lasted from 1991 until 1997. Then the city received funding to renovate the building and to establish the museum there. Upon the request of the municipality to leave the building, the squatters abandoned it peacefully, some of them moving to other squats. There were about ten people squatting the building. This squat was “silent” in a way, as it did not host exhibitions, concerts or other cultural events, and was used mainly for housing purposes.

The other squat was located in No. 1 Skapas Street. This squat was larger and lasted longer than Pilies.  During Soviet times, the building had belonged to the city. From 1991 on, the house was transferred to the Vilnius Archbishops’ Curia, as it had been the property of the Curia before the Second World War. Currently the building is owned by Vilnius University, and the Faculty of Philosophy is located there. Living conditions, i.e. the quality of the dwellings, were worse than in the other major squats. The building was much neglected, with broken windows; some flats were full of garbage. The first settlers therefore had to bear the responsibility for a lot of cleaning and repair. The former squatters are proud of what they have done to preserve the house:

The house was severely neglected; one staircase in the house had almost been made into a dump; there was so much garbage that it was impossible to open the door. Can you imagine how hard people had to work to clean up everything? They worked hard to remove the rubbish, transport it to another place … Squatters’ culture, traditions, have done a lot of good … Can you imagine if it had caught fire? Fires were common in such abandoned and garbage-filled houses. But young people came, cleaned up the house, settled in it and preserved it …      Squatter of Skapas

Electricity and cold water were accessible, and that made the building habitable. The squat was called Skapas or Skapainės; it started in 1992 and ended in 2001. In that time, with rotation, it was occupied by about 30 people in all. The Curia knew about the occupiers and sometimes came to check up on them. There were also suggestions from the Curia to resettle the squatters to remote suburban areas of Vilnius. However, no one agreed to go. Electricity bills were sent to the squat, but no one reacted. The squat was much “louder” than the Pilies squat, and appeared on television once. The popular program My Style had filmed the squatters’ flats and presented them in such a way as to show how nicely the young people had furnished their homes without much money or investment. The squat had its own flag, and promoted a communal style of life in which everyone respected each other’s privacy, but at the same time held everything in common. The squatters who occupied the building knew each other well; they were either students at the Academy of Arts or young people of other backgrounds, but with similar interests in arts, history, conservation, and music. It is the only former squat that shows pictures from past events on its Facebook page. Squatters organized parties and music evenings. One party with fireworks ended with squatters being escorted to the police station. However, they were soon released. That event also garnered short-lived media attention. Note that the media did not present them as squatters, but simply as young people who got in trouble. The squat was evicted by the city, and the entrance to the staircase where the squat was located was bricked up. The squatters who did not manage to remove their effects from the squat in time simply found them outside the building. The eviction was peaceful; no one protested.

The third squat was located in No. 6 Barboros Radvilaitės Street and was called Barboros. The old building belonged to the city of Vilnius, but stood empty and neglected. Signs of vandalism were also visible. Someone had stolen a parquet floor, windows, and closets. A young student of the Academy of Arts who was looking for a suitable place for a studio spotted the vacant house and moved in in 1990; soon it was filled with other students — friends of friends — looking for housing and/or studio space. In this case, the squat did not start without the city’s permission. The two pioneers went to the municipality and asked for permission to move in, arguing that the building had been vandalized and needed occupants to be preserved and protected. The municipality gave their informal permission. Unlike the other squats, this one hosted only students of the Academy of Arts. It was almost an unofficial dormitory of the Academy.

The Barboros squat was inhabited only by students of the Academy of Arts. Painters, potters, and architects lived there. I myself lived there for seven years, five years during my studies and two years after graduation from the Academy. We had to quarrel with the city from time to time because there was a private investor who wanted to occupy the second floor of the house on which we were located … he wanted to throw us out and do it legally … it’s funny.… But the Rector of the Academy at that time was my teacher, a professor, so I asked him for help … it’s funny, but we managed to get a fictitious letter from the Rector that confirmed that the house was a dorm branch of the Academy — to help us to defend ourselves from unwanted intruders or in case the police or the municipal officials came.         Squatter of Barboros

The quotation shows that squatters were informally supported by individuals in public institutions, either in the municipality or in the Academy of Arts. That is why the squat lasted for almost ten years, until 2001, and housed at least 30 people, with rotation. Conditions in Barbora were luxurious compared to other squats. Electricity, cold and hot water in toilets and bathrooms, and central heating were in place. The most interesting aspect was that the squatters were willing to pay for the communal facilities. The city, however, refused to receive payments. If the squatters had paid, then their status would have changed from squatters to tenants and eviction would have been legally impossible. The squat was evicted on short notice on order of the municipality. As in the case of the Skapas and Pilies squats, no one protested; the residents vacated peacefully. The city sold the building to a private investor. However, it was never repaired, and has deteriorated dramatically since the squatters were forced to leave it. At present, it stands as a haunted house with broken windows and shabby walls.

The fourth and best-known squat was located in the old part of the city called Užupis, currently the “Republic of Užupis”. During Soviet times, the neighborhood was one of the most deprived places in Vilnius, although located right in the center. It is separated from the rest of the Old Town by the river Vilnia, which gives the place a special charm. The squat hosted offenders and other social outcasts. But a few artists, musicians, film directors, sculptors, painters — people who preferred a bohemian lifestyle and freedom — had already lived there before squatters moved into the neighborhood. The neighborhood’s bad reputation from Soviet times persisted during the first years of Lithuanian independence. It was not included with the rest of the Old Town in the UNESCO World Heritage program; the city did not allocate any funding for renovation or revitalization of the neighborhood. It stood alone with its problems and was left to decay. As soon as squatters moved into the neighbourhood, it began to experience a rebirth and revitalization. In 1993, a young musician and his friend (who had squatted in Barboros Street) went looking for a studio, spotted an empty house at No. 2 Užupis Street, and moved in. They cleaned and fixed the abandoned house.

We were looking for a studio in which to play with a friend, he played bass, I played the guitar. We wanted to find a place where you could play jazz. I had already lived in the Barboros squat, but I wanted a place where I could be more alone. We just walked around the old town and randomly got into this yard … there was a woman, an old woman doing laundry, she was the only neighbor who lived in the abandoned house as she had refused to be resettled by the Soviet authorities. We told her honestly what we were looking for. She pointed towards the windows of the house in which I would be living for 16 years: “No one lives here, open the boarded up windows, put in new locks and live here … all sorts of alcoholics are coming here, you look like nice men.” The same day we opened the boarded up windows and settled in, inside there was a terrible mess, bottle shards were everywhere … We cleaned up everything, put in new locks, brought some furniture, utensils, and began to live…. Squatter of Užupis

Since then, life in Užupis has never been the same. Students of the Academy of Arts, the Musical Academy and the University of Vilnius who lived there have turned the neighborhood into a live art performance center. Various artistic performances took place spontaneously, using unconventional places. For instance, just on the way to a local supermarket the squatters might play a guitar and sing and engage the surrounding neighbors. Squatters hosted free concerts, assembliles, and art exhibitions; they built sculptures outside the squat; they organized fashion shows; they also organized festivals and celebrations to commemorate the major events of one year in the neighborhood.

Soon these events, especially the fashion shows that were organized among the ruins, attracted the attention of the media. Journalists covered some events and happenings in Užupis, but squatting as a phenomenon and the Užupis squat received no attention. This fact may be partly explained by the attitudes of the squatters, who did not want publicity:

Well, it was clear that the quieter we could be, the longer we could keep the squat. Squatter of Užupis

The squatters shaped their identity around being “apolitical”, not interested in any politics. On the one hand, they did not question or dispute private property, and viewed their act of squatting as a temporary and illegitimate act. On the other hand, they saw the abandoned and neglected property as an immoral and irresponsible act on part of the owner — in this case the city — and believed that, by taking abandoned buildings and preserving them, they served a “common good” of society. The squatters called themselves “birds”:

We lived in the squatted buildings like birds, having a bird’s rights. If the owner had come and told us fly away, we would have flown away.  Squatter of Užupis

Since the squatters kept a low profile, attention was directed towards happenings in the neighborhood, and the activists used this opportunity to advertise the neigborhood and make it known for its artistic spirit. The movement “Republic of Užupis” (Užupio Respublika) started with the bohemian idea of creating an identity, a sense of community belonging, and in this way improving the neighborhood’s well-being. The aim was also to stop gentrification and to preserve the bohemian charm of Užupis. Even if it was a decaying neighborhood, its location attracted investors. The neighborhood was in danger of losing its bohemian charm and changing forever.38 On April 1, 1998, a group of artists proclaimed Užupis a separate republic with its own anthem, constitution, map, and flag. Even symbolic passports were issued.39 Since then, each year on April 1, the Republic of Užupis celebrates its independence day. The celebrations are usually accompanied by extraordinary artistic performances (such as acrobatic performances on a tightrope stretched across the river) which last the whole night. The neighborhood’s sense of belonging and identity was centered on the construction of the sculpture of an Angel, which was placed in the most visible part of the neighborhood. Today, Užupis is a unique place and a tourist attraction, often compared to Christiania in Copenhagen.

The identity of the Užupis Republic was built around artistic events happening in the neighborhood, and the center of it was the creative activities of the squatters. Local politicians have also used the opportunity to promote themselves, asking to give public speeches during the events. Thus the Mayor of Vilnius as well as some other politicians began appearing during the fashion shows and other events organized in the Užupis neighborhood. It was clear that the local authorities and politicians understood the benefit of the cultural capital that creative squatters’ activities produced. At the same time, prices for real estate in Lithuania started to rise and gentrification of the neighborhood began. New people started to move in; old residents were no longer able to afford to live there and had to move out.

Thus squatters drew gentrification to the neighbourhood, while at the same time they contributed to the identity formation of Užupis. As one of the squatters stated:

Our major achievement is not only the events which we organized, but we created the spirit from which the Republic of Užupis was born, the way she is today. Squatter of Užupis

Squatters’ activities have made Užupis known for artistic performances and an alternative way of living. It must be noted that the events and celebrations in Užupis were organized by the united efforts of all squats, that is, squatters from Barbora and Skapas contributed to the happenings and events.

Unlike the other squats, the Užupis squat did not “die”, but was institutionalized in the form of art gallery. In 1996, the squatters established an organization called “Alternative Art Center” and started negotiations with the city for its legalization. The process of negotiation lasted about five years. It coincided with the establishment of the Republic of Užupis, the revitalization and identity formation of the neighborhood, and the beginning of its gentrification process. Squatters used various tactics: they collected signatures, negotiated with the municipality, and appealed to the Mayor of Vilnius. In 2002, the squat was transformed into the Alternative Art Center, which provides a space for artist residencies, arts projects and exhibitions. The building still belongs to the city, but since 2002 the organization Alternative Art Centre has rented it from the municipality (under a signed operation agreement) and can use the building for its purposes, namely, performances, happenings, and exhibitions. Young and older artists can live in the building for a symbolic rent and use the space for art studios.

Social background of squatters

Young people, mainly students of the Academy of Arts aged 18 to 22, squatted the empty, decaying houses. Among them were artists, musicians, philologists, philosophers, photographers, and architects, as well as some construction workers, electricians, and hairdressers. Many of them are currently successful and even renowned artists. Their individual squatting history ranged from three to as much as sixteen years. Some of them started families in the squats and even raised their children there. The majority of these young people wanted to find a place to escape their parents and find housing of their own, or to find a place for a studio and to live close to the city center. The typical story is presented below:

“I have always dreamed of living in an old-town. I really love the old-town and I still live in an old-town. I lived with my parents in Soviet style built apartment block in a neighbourhood called Lazdynai. Every day I was travelling to the old-town where the Academy of Arts is located, every day I passed by a house, which was vandalized, it was tearing my heart apart … So, it was the very beginning of the 1990s, I was a student, there was a great desire to leave my parents’ house, the desire for freedom.…            Squatter of Barboros

Squatting during the period of 1990—2002 cannot be classed as “deprivation-based squatting”.40 Many of the squatters were from middle-class families, none of them were homeless; all of them had other options for housing. Before moving to a squat, some of them rented a room or lived in a dormitory, but the majority lived in their parents’ homes. Squatting in Vilnius during the period 1990—2002 can be classified, according to Pruijt’s41 typology, under “squatting as an alternative housing strategy”. Squatting as an alternative housing strategy is attractive to middle-class people such as “students or downwardly mobile individuals who have chosen to dedicate themselves to activities that bring few financial rewards, e.g. visual artists and musicians”.42 In Vilnius during the period from 1990 until 2002, more than 100 people squatted. Their motives for squatting could be summarized as follows:

  • The need to leave their parents’ house;
  • The attractive location of squatting — the Vilnius city centre (the squats are close to Vilnius University, Vilnius Academy of the Arts, the conservatory, cafés, parks, clubs, pubs, etc.);
  • The need to find a workshop or studio;
  • The eagerness to find like-minded, creative, freedom loving people;
  • The need for countercultural expression.

For some, squatting was an individual housing solution, but for many, especially those who lived in squats for a long time (5 to 10 years or more), squatting became a collective project and an exciting life event. It was a way to trade uncomfortable living conditions for economic autonomy and a space for free countercultural expression.

The reaction of the state

Those who started squatting in Vilnius had their roots in the youth movement called “Gediminaičiai”, which was founded by Stasys Urniežius, a controversial figure, a former member of the Vilnius city council, and the former head of the House of Signatories.43 The name of the movement refers to the dynasty of grand dukes of Lithuania which ruled from the thirteenth century to the end of 1572. The movement or organization cherished Lithuanian folklore, traditions, and history. Nevertheless, one of the aims of the movement was also the preservation of the city of Vilnius. Young people carried out cleaning campaigns in the Old Town, and in this way, they explored the city and got to know which buildings stood vacant. The first pioneers who moved into the Pilies, Skapas, Barboros, and Užupis squats were members of the Gediminaičiai movement.

As Martinez states,44 many squatters are helped by political activists and make use of informal ties that allow them to enter, stay, and oppose threats of eviction. In the case of Vilnius, the squatters had a backup. According to the interviewees, the founder of the organization Gediminaičiai has acted as an unofficial patron to the squatters, informing them about empty municipal buildings which were safe to squat, and encouraging squatters to occupy them. He also helped squatters to negotiate with the city and postpone evictions. This was possible since Urniežius sat on the Vilnius city council from 1991 to 1995.

Nevertheless, squatters were and are quite vulnerable because of the strong protection of private property. Article 23 of the Lithuanian Constitution,45 adopted in 1992, states that “property is inviolable, property rights are protected by law, and property may be taken only in accordance with the law for public needs and fairly compensated”. This means that juridical institutions cannot tolerate an illegal occupation, whether on private property or municipal property, if an owner complains. At the same time, housing is not listed as a social right alongside rights to medical care, social security, education, fair pay for work, and safe and healthy working conditions. Thus squatting can be viewed as unsanctioned activity, and legal norms facilitate its criminalization. However, legality is not the sole issue in regard to squatting: public values and morality are also involved.46 Leaving buildings vacant while a severe shortage of housing persists can be viewed as an immoral and inexcusable act. This attitude might also explain why squatting was tolerated by the local authorities of Vilnius and attracted the sympathy of neighbors and public figures.

The local authorities in Vilnius soon understood the benefits of squatting for abandoned municipal property. The buildings were preserved and protected from decay and vandalism. The squatters collaborated with the municipality; some of them even signed letters stating that they would move as soon as the municipality so desired, as was clearly the case with Barboros and Skapas. The communication between squatters and local authorities could be defined as an “informal institutionalization” until further notice. According to Pruijt,47 “institutionalization means that a movement is channeled into a stable pattern based on formalized rules and laws. Expected behavior becomes clearly defined; sanctions are in place”. The most distinct form of institutionalization is legalization. Squats in Vilnius, however, were not legalized in any way, but tolerated. The rules were very clear: squatters would move out of the dwellings as soon as the city gave them notice. In 2001, a resolution on the rules for the management of municipal property was issued.48 The resolution stated clear rules on the accounting and use of funds received from the sale of city property. As a result, from 2001 on, the municipality was finally able to sell its property. Before, even if the city did not have funds for the renovation of its dwellings, it was unable to sell its property due to unclear rules and regulations. Thus it comes as no surprise that squats were closed around 2001. The heating suppliers and the electrical utilities were also privatized around 2000, making it very difficult, almost impossible, to use their facilities free of charge.

The Užupis squat, however, was transformed into the Art Incubator. In this case, the local authorities presented themselves as receptive problem solvers and cooperation between squatters and the municipality took the form of cooptation, in which the coopting organization welcomes certain ideas from the movement while framing problems in such a way that resolving them does not compromise its own stability.49 The city agreed to rent the building to squatters under certain rules. The special status of the Užupis neighborhood and its favorable location facilitated its cooptation. The Art Incubator and the Galera, run by squatters, contribute to the “cool city” image, which draws investors and tourists.

Discussion and conclusions

This paper has provided a first examination of squatters’ activities in Vilnius during the period of 1990—2002. Squatting in Vilnius was a unique phenomenon that was triggered by the dramatic changes in the political, economic and societal settings of Lithuanian society. The collapse of the Soviet regime in 1990 brought with it significant political changes, namely a return to a democratic, multiparty system and pluralism. The planned economy based on collective property was transformed into a market economy based on private property. Socialist values with an emphasis on collectivism and the common good were exchanged for individualist values based on self-reliance and self-sufficiency. However, all of these transformations did not happen overnight. The period of 1990—2002 marks the major turning point in a remarkable economic, political, and societal transition. These changes were especially pronounced in the cities, resulting in unregulated, transitional urban regime which was favorable to squatting. Four major factors made squatting possible during the period of 1990—2002. First, the abundance of vacant properties due to the Soviet resettlement policy, especially in the city’s Old Town. Second, the unclear rules and legislation regarding the management of municipally owned properties. Third, the slow pace of urban restructuring and renewal due to economic difficulties. Fourth, the squatters’ connection to other social movements, such as Gediminaičiai and the Republic of Užupis, facilitated negotiation with the city and helped to postpone evictions. Overall, squatters were treated rather gently by public institutions and surrounding neighbors. However, the squatting phenomenon remained largely unknown and was almost never publicly discussed. The media occasionally covered the events organized by squatters in Užupis, but never the squatting phenomenon itself.

The deregulated urban regime at the very beginning of the twenty-first century was transformed into a liberal one in which market forces, such as private investors, construction companies, and landlords, have taken full responsibility for housing and urban policy, making housing and urban space highly commodified. Thus the extinction of squatting has been facilitated by the massive housing privatization, which reached its conclusive phase by 2001. The heating, electricity, and water utilities have been also privatized since 2001, making it almost impossible to use their facilities free of charge. The strong legal protection of private property, scares, and irregular media coverage have also contributed to the increased marginalization of squatting.

The findings of this study show that squatting in Lithuania was triggered by similar factors to those in many other European countries. However, in Lithuania squatting was unique in that it was built around an “apolitical” identity. The squatters of 1990—2002 never claimed rights to the city’s space, challenged capitalist inequalities, or disputed private property. This was not surprising as private property was praised as the only alternative way to organize society after the collapse of the Soviet regime. Thus the squatters of 1990—2002 had distanced themselves from political participation and presented themselves as “apolitical people” not interested in any political activity. All the while, these “apolitical” squatters’ countercultural activities nevertheless contributed to the right-to-the-city movement: the “Republic of Užupis” can be defined as just such a movement. It demanded the right to an alternative way of life, the right to the city’s space for countercultural activities. Without directly saying so, the squatters protested against a conventional way of life, against consumerism, economization, and marketization, and created a free, bohemian spirit in the neighborhood. Thus squatting in Vilnius made a significant contribution towards the revitalization, improvement, and “cautious” gentrification of the Užupis neighborhood of Vilnius, if nothing else. Studies50 show that the gentrification of Užupis has been a slow process thus far: the original architecture of low-rise buildings is still preserved; the newcomers to the neighborhood are still intellectuals and artists. ≈

Acknowledgements: This research was supported by a grant (No. 421-2010-1706) from the Swedish Research Council. The author would like to thank the anonymous referees and editors for their useful comments. This paper would never have appeared if not for the support and inspiration from Kerstin Jacobsson. I would like to warmly thank all former “squatters” who generously shared their experiences with me. Special thank goes to Gintarė Pociūtė for her help in producing a map locating major former squats in Vilnius.


1              Margit Mayer, “Preface”, in Squatting in Europe: Radical Spaces, Urban Struggles, ed. Squatting Europe Kollective (Wivenhoe/New York/Port Watson, 2013), 1—11.

2              Kerstin Jacobsson, ed., Urban Grassroots Movements in Central and Eastern Europe (Farnham: Ashgate, 2015); Dominika Polanska and Grzegorz Piotrowski, “The Transformative Power of Cooperation between Social Movements: Squatting and Tenants’ Movements in Poland”, City 19, no. 2—3 (2015): 274—296.

3              Ibid.

4              See e.g. Jolanta Aidukaitė, “Community Mobilizations around Housing and Local Environment: Insights into the Case of Vilnius”, Sociologija: Mintis ir veiksmas 1, no. 32 (2013): 136—151; Jolanta Aidukaite and Kerstin Jacobsson, “Europeanization and Urban Movements: Political Opportunities of Community Organizations in Lithuania”, in Urban Grassroots Movements in Central and Eastern Europe, ed. Kerstin Jacobsson (Farnham: Ashgate, 2015), 247—273.

5              See e.g. Margit Mayer, “Preface”; Miguel A. Martinez, “The Squatters’ Movement: Urban Counter-Culture and Alter-Globalization Dynamics”, South European Society and Politics 12, no. 3 (2007): 379—398.

6              Jolanta Aidukaite, “Housing Policy Regime in Lithuania: Towards Liberalization and Marketization”, GeoJournal 79, no. 4 (2014): 421—432; Jolanta Aidukaite, “Transformation of the Welfare State in Lithuania: Towards Globalization and Europeanization”, Communist and Post-Communist Studies 47, no. 1 (2014): 59—69.

7              Hans Pruijt, “Is the Institutionalization of Urban Movement Inevitable? A Comparison of the Opportunities for Sustained Squatting in New York City and Amsterdam”, International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 27, no. 1 (2003): 133—157.

8              Patrick Biernacki and Dan Waldorf, “Snowball Sampling Problems and Techniques of Chain Referral Sampling”, Sociological Methods & Research 10, no. 2 (1981): 141—163.

9              Ibid, 143.

10           Andrej Holm and Armin Kuhn, “Squatting and Urban Renewal: The Interaction of Squatter Movements and Strategies of Urban Restructuring in Berlin”, International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 35, no. 3 (2010): 644—658; Miguel A. Martinez, “The Squatters’ Movement in Europe: A Durable Struggle for Social Autonomy in Urban Politics”, Antipode 45, no. 4 (2013): 866—887.

11           Miguel A.  Martinez, “The Squatters’ Movement”.

12           Håkan Thörn, Cathrin Wasshede, and Tomas Nilson, “Space for Urban Alternatives? Christiania 1971—2011”, Gothenburg University, 2011, accessed February 15, 2015,; Hans Pruijt, “Is the Institutionalization of Urban Movement Inevitable?”

13           Hans Pruijt, “Is the Institutionalization of Urban Movement Inevitable?”

14           E. T. C. Dee,“Moving Towards Criminalisation and Then What? Examining Dominant Discourses on Squatting in England“, in Squatting in Europe: Radical Spaces, Urban Struggles, ed. Squatting Europe Kollective (Wivenhoe/New York/Port Watson: Minor Compositions, 2013), 247—269.

15           Hans Pruijt, “Is the Institutionalization of Urban Movement Inevitable?”

16           Andrej Holm and Armin Kuhn, “Squatting and Urban Renewal”.

17           Ibid.

18           Hans Pruijt, “Is the Institutionalization of Urban Movement Inevitable?”

19           Gösta Esping-Andersen, The Three Worlds of Welfare Capitalism (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1990).

20           Susan Fainstein, quoted in Hans Pruijt, “Is the Institutionalization of Urban Movement Inevitable?” 138.

21           Hans Pruijt, “Is the Institutionalization of Urban Movement Inevitable?”

22           Paul Balchin, Housing Policy in Europe (London: Routledge, 1996); Sasha Tsenkova, Housing Policy Reforms in Post-Socialist Europe: Lost in Transition (Heidelberg: Physica-Verlag, 2009).

23           Vylius Leonavičius and Apolonijus Žilys, “Welfare State and Urbanization of Modern Lithuania”, Filosofija: Sociologija 20, no. 4 (2009): 318—325.

24           Jonas Jasaitis and Sonata Šurkuvienė,“Neurbanizuotų vietovių šiuolaikinių funkcijų sistemos kūrimas”, Ekonomika ir vadyba: aktualijos ir perspektyvos 2, no. 7 (2006): 85—93.

25           Lietuvos statistikos departamentas, “Būstai ir jų charakteristikos”, Lietuvos Respublikos 2011 metų visuotinio gyventojų ir būstų surašymo rezultatai (population census data). Informacija. Vilnius, 2013 m. birželio 28 d.

26           See Isolde Brade, Günter Herfert, and Karin  Wiest, “Recent Trends and Future Prospects of Socio-spatial Differentiation in Urban Regions of Central and Eastern Europe: A Lull before the Storm”, Cities (2009), accessed March 5, 2015, doi:10.1016/j.cities.2009.05.001; Dovilė Krupickaitė, “Vilnius: Between Persistence and Socio-spatial Change”, Europa Regional 19.2011, no. 3—4 (2014): 21—31.

27           Harald Standl and Dovilė Krupickaite, “Gentrification in Vilnius (Lithuania): The Example of Uzupis”, Europa Regional 12, no. 1 (2004): 42—51.

28           Zoltán Kovacs and Günter Herfert, “Development Pathways of Large Housing Estates in Post-socialist Cities: An International Comparison”, Housing Studies (2012): 1—19, accessed May 2, 2015, DOI:10.1080/02673037.2012.651105.

29           Statistics Lithuania, Statistical Yearbook of Lithuania (Vilnius, 2011).

30           Eurostat, accessed March 15, 2015,

31           Iván Tosics,  “City Development in Central and Eastern Europe since 1990: The Impact of Internal Forces”, in Transformation of Cities in Central and Eastern Europe Towards Globalization, ed. Ian Hamilton et al. (Tokyo: United Nations University Press, 2005), 44—79; Jolanta Aidukaite, ed., Poverty, Urbanity and Social Policy: Central and Eastern Europe Compared (New York: Nova Sciences, 2009).

32           See Jolanta Aidukaite, “Housing Policy Regime in Lithuania”.

33           Hans Pruijt, “Is the Institutionalization of Urban Movement Inevitable?”

34           See National Museum of Lithuania, The House of Signatories Exposition, accessed May 16, 2015,

35           Based on Delfi, “Signatarų namuose sunaikinta vertinga sieninė tapyba”, 2005 m. vasario 24 d. 00:02., accessed May 17, 2015,

36           Based on Danguolė Kavolelytė,  “Skandalas: Nepriklausomybės namai bus parduoti?,” Vakarų ekspersas. 2002-12-11, 12:00, accessed June 23, 2015,

37           See National Museum of Lithuania.

38           Based on the interviews, but also on Karolina Tomkevičiūtė, “15-ąsias nepriklausomybės metines pasitinkančioje Užupio Respublikoje svarbu neturėti daug PRIEŠ”, 15 Minutes, March 31, 2012, accessed June 25, 2014,

39           Based on interviews, but also on Užupis Art Incubator, accessed August 1, 2015,

40           See Hans Pruijt, “Logic of Urban Squatting”, International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 37, no. 1 (2013): 19—45.

41           Ibid.

42           Ibid, 25.

43           See Dainius Sinkevičius, “Kunigaikštis Vildaugas-S.Urniežius teisme: nepyk, kad pamilau tave, teisėja”, Published on July 12, 2011, accessed May 1, 2015.

44           Miguel A.  Martinez, “The Squatters’ Movement in Europe”.

45           The Constitution of Republic of Lithuania, accessed June 16, 2015,

46           E. T. C. Dee,“Moving Towards Criminalisation”.

47           Hans Pruijt, “Is the Institutionalization of Urban Movement Inevitable?” 134.

48           See Lietuvos Respublikos vyriausybė, Nutarimas Dėl Lietuvos Respublikos Vyriausybės 2001 m. rugpjūčio 21 d. nutarimo  NR. 1013.

49           Hans Pruijt, “Is the Institutionalization of Urban Movement Inevitable?”

50           Aistė Mickaitytė, Harald Standl, and Dovilė Krupickaitė, “Užupis: A Case of Gentrification in a Run-Down Neighbourhood”, in Urban Sustainability and Governance: New Challenges in Nordic-Baltic Housing Policies, ed. A. Holt-Jensen, E. Pollock (New York: Nova Science Publishers, 2009), 217—221; Harald  Standl and Dovilė Krupickaite, “Gentrification in Vilnius”.

  • by Jolanta Aidukaite

    Senior research fellow at the Lithuanian Social Research Centre. She holds a doctoral degree from Stockholm University, and has published extensively on the topics of social policy and urban community mobilization.

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