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IMZ: 10 Years of Citizens Assemblies

znetwork | Alexandria Shaner

Interview with IMZ (Iniciativa mestni zbor) in Slovenia about the citizens assemblies movement, vision, & strategy

Citizen assemblies are valued and promoted by a wide spectrum of advocates for increasing grassroots participation, democratization, diversity, solidarity, inclusion, sustainability, public health, community resources, transparency and many other benefits to society. They are a favorite social prescription from prominent activists, academics, and organizers, yet are rarely actualized and sustained.

I spoke with representatives from The Initiative for Citywide Assembly (Iniciativa mestni zbor – IMZ) about the non-partisan, self-organized municipal assemblies in Maribor, Slovenia that have now been active for 10 years. IMZ shares their rich experiences, offering insights into organizing and facilitation, organizational structure and culture, community, diversity, intersectional activism, vision for the future, and more…

Would you introduce us to the citizen assembly movement in Slovenia? How and when did it begin? What was the context in which the project was conceived and launched?

The Initiative for Citywide Assembly (Iniciativa mestni zbor – IMZ) are a group of citizens whose aim it is to promote non-partisan political self-organization at the city district level in the Municipality of Maribor, Slovenia.

The initiative was formed in turbulent times at the end of 2012, when people, deeply unsatisfied with local as well as state governance, took to the streets. Civil unrest, which erupted here in Maribor and spread over Slovenia, resulted in two resignations. The first one to step down was the mayor of Maribor, Franc Kangler, followed by the Prime Minister of Slovenia, Janez Janša.

We were convinced that the civil revolt and various actions of civil disobedience must be followed by new, creative and far-reaching steps towards a kind of development that would empower us to effect change in our streets, districts, local communities, cities, the country and, finally, the world. The People should play the primary role in shaping and influencing development policies in our cities and nationwide, rather than leaving them in the hands of city councilors and parliamentarians. Since politicians obviously understand their role in society quite differently, it falls to us to put them in their place and present to them our positions and demands, and in doing so take over the responsibility for the functioning of our communities, the municipality and the entire country.

Describe the structure and values of IMZ and of the citizen assemblies themselves… Does IMZ draw on certain theory or organizing traditions? Are you rooted in any political or social vision?

Our aim is to regain the co-determination and co-management that was taken away from us at the local, municipal, and national levels. This is achieved by exerting pressure on the ruling structures in various ways – but most effectively through direct democracy.

We believe that the solution lies in self-organizing, debate, sharing information and education, which enables us to critically, directly and creatively respond to the degeneration of our political and social system.

The initiative (IMZ) and citizen assemblies are both structured the same way. They are both horizontally organized, without directly appointed leadership. Participation in both the initiative and/or citizen assemblies is voluntary. Neither IMZ nor local assemblies are a formal organization of any kind.

Members of IMZ must not be holding any leading positions in any political party. Political preferences and ideologies of people attending assemblies are never a point of discussion, since they hold no bearing in the process of building evolved, more equal, solidarity-based community. It is often what sets this process back. The same goes for positions and functions people hold in their professional life – they should be left at work and not be abused to overpower a discussion at assemblies. The power of the argument should always prevail, not the argument of power.

Problems are widely debated to ensure an array of views, opinions and information. Decisions are then formed through consensus rather than voting. We believe it is worth investing more time to reach a decision which is acceptable for all (levels of acceptance may vary, but it’s still acceptance) than take a shortcut and let a majority win over a minority by voting.

We also find the “direct action principle” (which we understand to mean that when someone proposes some action they have to help carry it out) to be an important method in community engagement. This principle prevents situations where people try to get others to solve their problems. Instead, it engages them into solving perceived problems with the help of others.

From the early days of the project through the first 10 years, what was the development like? How many citizens participate? Who participates in the assemblies, and what does that mean for them? What were some notable experiences, challenges, and achievements?

The assemblies started to happen in the times when there was a general feeling (in Europe) that everything was possible. After the economic crisis, municipalist movements came to life and older ideas of different political and economic systems (socialism, communism) became a possibility again. People suddenly realized that representative democracy really doesn’t work and that alternative ways of decision making closer to communities are needed. This new optimistic wave of democracy was extremely strong in Maribor, which meant that a lot of people wanted to be part of the change. This resulted in a really high level of participation at citizens’ assemblies at the beginning. However, it must be said that even then mostly older generations, who still remember how self-management (at the workplace and at the municipal/city districts level) worked in Yugoslavia participated. In the first year, turnout at the assemblies was mostly between 20 and 60 people per assembly, taking place twice a month in 11 out of 17 Maribor city districts. Through the years and the realization that the assemblies fight the long fights that need a lot of stamina, the numbers have reduced to between 5 to 30 participants per assembly in each city district (now there are assemblies in 10 city districts). Still mostly older generations participate and it depends on the assembly, but the number of older men and women are approximately the same. This is probably the result of two things:

-remembering the self- management in Yugoslavia,

-assemblies are also considered a form of socializing outside your circle of friends or family (or maybe you do not have a close family or that many friends anymore and the assemblies are your connection with the outside world).

In 2016 social researchers from University of Ljubljana came to Maribor and did a study of the effects that self-organizing had on participants. They specifically focused on the ones that participated in the struggle that resulted in participatory budgeting being instituted for the first time in Slovenia in 2015. Their research found that the participants developed skills important for acting as part of a community, including active listening, improved argumentation, etc., as well as had some of their values changed in a way that made them respect the needs and opinions of other people more, put stronger faith in community solutions to problems. The research showed that the participants even increased their overall life satisfaction and even on average doubled the number of friends they had.

What the assemblies have managed to achieve and what is quite an important achievement at that, is that Municipality of Maribor has become more responsive to inquiries of the citizens and is even a little bit afraid or annoyed (depends on the municipal department) when they get a letter from an assembly requesting answers (which happens quite a lot). What is also an extremely important achievement of the assemblies is the introduction of participatory budgeting to Slovenia in 2015. Assemblies have also achieved many improvements in their direct living environments and have influenced a lot of municipal politics and strategic documents.

What we did not manage to achieve so far is to include Roma people in the assemblies or other groups of people who really live on the edges of the society. However, the assemblies proved to be a potent political space to defuse some of societal antipathies towards the marginalized groups. One strong example of that was in 2014, when it was announced that the first Roma restaurant in Slovenia was to open its doors in Maribor. The mere announcement triggered racist protests of several hundred people, as well as smaller counter protests. The mayor organized a citizen assembly where the participants were overwhelmingly against allowing the restaurant to open. Two days later the IMZ assembly was carried out and even though a lot of the same people (who fervently opposed the restaurant) attended, it nevertheless after 2 hours of debate reached a unanimous decision to support the opening of the restaurant.

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