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(en) European Social Forum in Greece: a Russian anarchist's impression

Date Sun, 14 May 2006 21:31:12 +0300

Here's a personal account of ESF-2006 from V. D., a
participant from Russia's delegation to the event and a member of the
Sibirskaya Konfederachiya Truda* (SKT | Siberian Confederation of
Labor), who took part in a "black block" demonstration.
There were more Russian representatives at the 4th ESF than at the
previous ones: is this a good thing?
The Russian delegation to the 4th European Social Forum in Athens was
quite impressive. I don't know the exact number (ask that from the
organizers), but it's possible to estimate that they numbered around
150 people. If past forums were attended mostly by representatives of
new labor unions, ecologists, community activists, "non-party"
trotskyists (it's as if the trotskyists were gathered up house-to-house
from all over Russia), communists and anarchists, completely new groups
came along this time. They're the representatives of residents'
associations (representatives of communal housing residents'
organizations struggling for the privatization of their rooms as well
as territorial community self management). The latter's not so bad
since in the past year, with the introduction of the new Housing Law,
these folks've been compelled to assume responsibility for a large
amount of work.

Certainly, in the European housing situation is rather different. For
instance, there's the International Alliance of Inhabitants, whose
activities I follow. The Alliance spends much of its time defending the
rights of homeless people. Housing reforms that resemble the ones that just
occured in Russia took place around 30 years ago in places like England.
Spontaneous residents' organizations formed there in the 1970s and pressed
for non-payment of rent because of high housing prices. The authorities sent
the police to evict entire buildings. Black flags were hung from windows
with enscriptions like: "No more rent!", barricades arose in front of the
lobby doors, boiling water was poured on the police from windows. Basically,
such a situation may arise in Russia in the next few years.

One negative aspects of this trip was the fact that a number of folks
within the Russian delegation were random individuals or tourists, who
were included in the delegation for reasons unknown to me. Another
thing -- all social forums usually don't invite representatives of
political parties in their capacity as party representatives. More
specifically, political party members can attend the social forums only
if they work in some unaffiliated popular movements. Nevertheless, some
of those in Russia's delegation introduced themselves as non other than
"KPRF Member" (Communist Party of the Russian Federation**), "Patriots
of Russia" and even LDPR (Liberal Democratic Party of Russia***). On
the way to Athens they initiated loud intra-Party arguments among
themselves, which the rest of us were forced to listen to while
gritting our teeth. I include political Party representatives in the
Tourist category since the strategic tasks of social forums don't
include conducting Party propaganda or Partisan discussions. In other
words, Partisans were not supposed to represent their Party within the
social forum framework but they got away with this nonetheless. On the
way back from the forum, Greek customs invited those who purchased fur
coats in Greece to stand in a different line from everyone else. KPRF
representatives joined the "fur coats" line.

SEVERAL SPARTAN DAYS AT THE FORUM: Russian vodka rescued us from
catching cold in the frigid weather

We arrived in Athens at 11pm. We took the subway/underground/metro and
streetcar/tram to the event location. To those who've never been to a
social forum, it's worth mentioning that none of these events offer any
sort of fancy accomodations to out-of-town participants. More
accurately, if you've got money you can stay at a hotel but if you want
to be closer to "the people" be prepared for spartan housing
arrangements. More than 50 Russian representatives chose the latter.

The forum took place at the old Athens airport, right on the coast.
While it was rather warm by Russian standards, we had overall bad luck
with the weather due to the cold northern winds coming down from the
mountains which resulted in sharp discomfort. We were invited to stay
in former aircraft hangars which were once used for plane repairs. It
was a concrete floor covered with styrofoam (foam rubber/plastic).
Porta-loo's/Porta-potties were placed outside the hanger, along with
sinks and cold shower stalls. If you had a sleeping bag, then it's
quite bearable, although even then one had to sleep in warm clothing.

Our small group of 3 people from the Siberian Confederation of Labor
(SKT: Sibirskaya Konfederazciya Trooda) took a spot next to some folks
who were already asleep. As I opened my eyes the next morning I saw a
young woman sitting next to me, combing her long light-colored hair. It
turned out that the people sleeping next to us were women from the Czech
section of Critical Mass. Critical Mass is a bycicle riders' group, which
organizes against the dominance of automobiles on our streets by holding
mass bike rides on large roadways, thereby carrying out propaganda for this
eco-friendly type of transportation.

Although the local orange trees were already bearing fruit, the nights
in Athens were still rather chilly. In the evenings, when all forum
participants were back at the hangar, the best way to evade catching a
cold and to have a restful night's sleep was to drink a small portion
of Russian vodka. We shared vodka with our Czech neighbors as well.

ONE LARGE AND 4 ALTERNATIVE FORUMS: representative or direct democracy

All previous European forums stood out because alternative forums were
held in the same city as the official one only in a different place.
Greece has now got one-up on everyone else: Athens played host to four
simultaneous alternative forums.

Now a little about the differences among these forums. The official
forum follows a strict preplanned program and its speakers and panel
participants are determined in advance. At the alternative forums
(attended by smaller numbers of people) each person can initiate a
seminar or discussion. To do so, one can hang up a flyer/announcement
(in English) that outlines the topic and logistical details of your

Three of the Athens forums took place at the Polytechnic university
campus. These were the autonomists' forum, the libertarian/anarchist
forum and the labor union/anarcho-syndicalist forum. Somewhere in
Athens a party-communist forum took place as well (the locals referred
to it as the authoritarian-stalinist forum).

Greece -- the country of origin of the terms used in public discourse.
For instance, democracy - rule of the majority. The crux of ancient
Greek democracy consisted of public meetings or assemblies that were
used for reaching important decisions. These public gatherings elected
something like a government or civil servants known as "archons." At
some stage no archons were elected at these public meetings and this
period came to be known as anarchy, i.e. "an" (without) and "archy"
(rule of the archons - government). Hence, the initial meaning of
anarchy is that it's a method of organization without rulers, carried
out through the instrument of public meetings or assemblies. In other
words anarchy is direct democracy.

THE DEMONSTRATION AND THE "BLACK" BLOCK: a police car was burned down
and the windows of an American bank were smashed up on the streets of

All social forums conclude with an assembly where speakers representng
the forum's various seminars, panels and discussions take the stage.
Street demonstrations and rallies follow this final part of the forum.
In Athens the street actions took place before the closing assembly.

The "black" block held the first street action. Russian specialists
(representatives of the system-based marxist opposition) associate the
"black" block strictly with anarchists, which isn't totally correct.

Actually, the entity normally referred to as the "black" block (such an
organization doesn't even exist) is a synthesis of the most radical
extrasystemic opposition, which includes autonomists (supporters of
self-managed autonomous spaces -- cultural, workplace, educational and
housing projects where the aim is to minimize the influence of
government and the State in general and to live via direct democracy,
one person, one vote), various anarchist currents (philosophical ideas
of freedom), ecologists, non-party leftwing anti-authoritarians and a
number of other movements.

If one's to more clearly identify the entire leftwing movement, we can
divide it into 2 main groups. All leftists talk about people's power
and self management. The first group tries to resolve these issues by
means of siezing State power -- this is the mainstream/system-based
opposition which usually consists of political parties (socialists,
bolsheviks, stalinists, trotskyists, social democrats). The other
group, which includes the "black" block, thinks that self management
can't be achieved by means of passing State decrees -- it must be
achieved by the people themselves.

All anarchist and autonomist projects are usually met with stiff State
opposition with police involvement. As a result, certain tactics
developed within this group to deflect attacks from the police (for
example, when setting up a squat -- the seizure of abandoned
residential buildings). All universities in Greece have become
autonomous zones. The police doesn't have the legal right to come
within 50 meters of institutions of higher learning. Social order
on campuses is maintained by the students and faculty
themselves. The State is forced to make concessions under pressure from
autonomist initiatives which are accompanied by clashes between the
students and the police. Movements such as Reclaim Our Streets appeared
in recent years.

Anyway, we're moving along in the "black" block demonstration. The
street itself is occupied by the demonstrators, while cops, sportin'
gas masks, arm & leg armor, holding rubber battons and plastic shields,
tear gas grenades strapped to their belts, move along the sidewalks. As
soon as we reach a narrow section of a street the demonstrators on the
outer edges of the group form a human chain along the sides of the
crowd to make sure that the cops can't snatch anyone out as they
squeeze in against the protesters. Some slogans are being shouted. I
remember a chant that resembled a german rock band's song: "ein, zcvai,
polizcai! polizcai - fascist, polizcai - SS!" Some protesters are
carrying flags with very thick handles, the actual flag attached only
with push pins. As far as I understand it, these can become weapons in
the event of police attack.

The tense 2 hour demonstration proceeds until the column reaches
university grounds at which point the police stops following since
they're generally not allowed to enter campus grounds.

We're supposed to leave later that night, so we move on to attend a
labor unionists' meeting that takes place at a different university.
Late in the evening we find out that there were serious street clashes,
conducted according to the rules of "partisan warfare", at the biggest
of the day's demonstrations. There were fewer cops there -- after all,
this was supposed to be a system-based/mainstream opposition march.
According to some Russian delegation members a "black" block member
threw a chair at the police from a nearby outdoor cafe. As the cops
chased after him, another group flipped over a police car and tossed a
Molotov cocktail inside it. The squad car lit up. Shortly after, the
windows of a nearby Citibank were smashed up. Naturally, at this point
the police utilized their tear gas grenades. And so, much to their
displeasure, many of the demonstrators from the Russian delegation
obtained first hand experience of the travails of street-based
struggle. Some also didn't like the "black" block because as they
passed by the other contingents they gave them the finger, while
shouting: "Tourists! Tourists!"

FORUMS: a personal perspective

Most likely, the social forums are about to or have already fragmented.
The system-based/mainstream opposition understands that they can't do
much in this social struggle without direct public participation.
Hence, partially, there's a general understanding that even now people
must struggle for self management on the spot, where they live and
work. While the idea of Party politics has less and less meaning for
the general population, the division over the means of
achieving success -- through the siezure of State power or via
initiatives from below -- remains, as it was 100 years ago.

The forums, for the most part, remain a way of organizing non-Party
initiatives, despite the fact that many of the attendees still
whole-heartedly believe in their Party leader. One wants to believe
that in Russia, we'll realize that "noone will grant us emancipation,
not the zcar, not god, not the parliamentarian" (in the words of
Eugene Pottier, author of "The Internationale").

* http://www.skt.org.ru

** http://www.cprf.ru/

*** Editor's note: LDPR is Vladimir Zhirinovsky's party which is neither
"liberal" (not socially, not economically) nor "democratic".
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