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Nadir Kinossian
After the collapse of communist regimes 1989-1991, post-communist countries have
embarked on democratic and market reforms aimed to converge with the Western system.
Since then, some post-communist countries have successfully implemented reforms, while
others have failed to overcome the legacies of communism. Marketization, democratisation,
and nation-building have had a transformative impact on cities, their structure, economy,
and image. At the same time, cities have been sites whereby new political mechanisms,
governing institutions, social and economic relations are introduced and tested, producing
various spatial outcomes and institutional form, and creating a great variety of post-
communist cities.
1. Post-communist transition
Through 1989-1991 communist regimes in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) and the Union
of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) collapsed as a result of growing economic problems and
internal and external political pressures. Subsequently, these post-totalitarian societies
engaged in simultaneous ‘triple transition’ concerning state borders, nation-building, and
establishing new economic orders (Offe, 1996: 35). Initially, it was assumed that the collapse
of communism was part of the universal historical process of modernisation that entails
economic liberalisation and democratisation.
In spite of the expectations, it became clear that the outcomes of transition are uncertain.
While some countries have implemented reforms, and became ‘Western’ (e.g. the Baltic
countries), other countries (e.g. Russia) have failed to consolidate democracy and witnessed
re-emergence of authoritarianism. Russia’s path to liberal democracy is “littered with
impediments” which include both structural and actor-related aspects (McFaul, 2001: 369).
The former includes macroeconomic structures and spatial distribution of production forces
and population (Gaddy and Ickes, 2013); the latter - institutions, modes of behaviour, or
ways of thinking that durably persist across historical divides, finding new purpose beyond
the life of the institutions and policies that gave birth to them (Kotkin and Beissinger, 2014:
Earlier approaches saw transition as a predetermined route from communism to democracy.
They have been criticised for their failure to recognise the diversity of: i) underlying
conditions, such as economic development, political history, institutional legacy (Carothers,
2002: 8), and ii) geographical variations of transition outcomes (Herrschel, 2007).
Contemporary analysis pays more attention to local conditions and the role of pre-existing
institutions and political actors that may obstruct reforms for the sake of their own
economic gain. The variety of pasts, economic and social conditions, transition paths, and
outcomes of the reforms make defining the post-communist city very difficult. Some argue
that generalisation does not help as the differences between countries in transition are
enormous. Other claim that all post-communist states have undergone a period of
communist dictatorship as a common starting point in moving towards democracy and
market, albeit the process has produced diverse outcomes.
2. Transition and cities
Intertwined processes of nation-building, marketization, and democratisation have
transformed old and created new boundaries, economic spaces, urban environments, and
symbolic landscapes (Andrusz et al., 1996). In cities, transition new spatial forms and scales,
shifted functional balance towards private land uses, changed the social balance, and
transformed the aesthetic characters of urban environment (Hirt, 2012: 38).
Building a nation-state involves the search for a new political identity around the ideas of
ethnicity, religion, language, and shared past. This has proved to be a contentious process
often resulting in conflicts and tensions between social, ethnic, and religious groups. New
elites use architecture and monumental art to strengthen new values and win popular
support. Visual strategies include architectural overhauling of major cities, and in some
casessuch as Astana—Kazakhstan’s new capitalbuilding a new capital (Brade and
Neugebauer, 2017). Cities have become public arenas whereby different groups promote
their views of the society, and interpretations of the past and the future. Many countries
have witnessed urban-based conflicts and tensions over monuments and memorials
representing contentious views of the past.
Globalisation has eliminated non-competitive industries that could only survive in a non-
market environment; at the same time it created new markets and opportunities for
investment-driven economic growth. To secure economic development after the reduction
of state subsidies, city authorities had to act in ‘entrepreneurial’ ways, competing just like
their Western counterparts for private investment (Wu, 2003, p. 1334). Market forces have
led to spatial restructuring and opened opportunities commercial development projects and
diversity of functions, architectural styles, and consumption styles. Before market, land had
no monetary value; development sites were allocated through administrative procedures. In
a market economy, land plots can be bought, sold, and developed for profit. In some cases,
privatisation has led to the corrosion of the collective urban realm and construction of
protected private spaces (Hirt, 2012: 49). While most concentrated in large cities, these
processes have been extremely unevenly distributed: prosperous cities have become centres
of Western-style consumption, peripheral regions and smaller towns were often left behind,
overwhelmed by structural problems and population decline (Lang, 2015).
The aim of political reforms was to transfer power to democratically elected and
accountable governments. Although democratic governing institutions have been formally
introduced, government practices vary across countries. Political actors may subscribe to the
principles of democracy and a market economy, but more importantly than any formal rules,
actors’ behaviour is conditioned by legacies of institutional design, organisational cultures,
and interests to protect political and economic power (Kinossian 2012). Politicians and
bureaucrats may embrace the rhetoric of democracy and free market but in distorted
markets and poor institutional conditions they use power to protect own interests.
3. Current debates and critique
Early literature on the post-communist city used a dual model whereby political and
economic changes in the society represent the ‘driving force’ of changes and the form and
function of cities are the ‘recipients’ of change (Tsenkova and Nedovic-Budic, 2006). While
such approach suggests that changes in political and economic life impact upon urban form,
it tends to treat the causality as unidirectional and sequential, implying that the source of
change is in politics and institutions, while urban forms is at the receiving end. Current
debates direct greater attention towards understanding the complexity of socio-spatial
processes and interdependencies between urban form and societal processes.
Post-communist transition is often considered as the ‘eastern branch’ of the global project
of neoliberalisation that entails asserting markets as the prime form of regulating economic
activities and shifting power from the state to markets (Golubchikov, 2016). While the focus
on profit-driven mechanisms of urban developments and associated interests can tell a lot
about the effects of marketization on cities, neoliberalisation may be a poor frame to
analyse processes in post-communist states where transition has failed. In those countries,
the ancient institutional forms were not completely dismantled, nor were the new regimes
properly established, leaving such states without properly functioning land markets, banking
systems, and urban development mechanisms.
The institutionalist approach seeks to produce a more nuanced understanding of urban
change focusing on institutional settings, actors’ motivation and resources, and the
dynamics of policy process. Development of governing institutions has its own dynamics,
characterised by the periods of relative stability and points of change, whereby alternative
institutional designs and policy paths become possible (Horak 2007: 5). The evolution of
institutional and policy paths cannot therefore be analysed exclusively through the frame a
grand vision, such as transition, but has to take into account political actors and their
institutional arenas. In cities, political conjunctures, and interests of actors have a profound
impact on the allocation of state funding, designing planning policies, and shaping formal
and informal governance arrangements.
While the studies of post-communist cities have been preoccupied with exploring the impact
of market reforms on the physical form of cities, they seem to lose touch with other aspects
of transition. Current debates seek to address the limitations of the earlier approaches and
provide a better account for urban dynamic and diversity of political and economic
processes and institutional settings in the post-communist city.
4. Conclusion
Transition has resulted in different outcomes: some countries have been successful, while
other have ‘stuck in transition, experiencing a mix of ancient and new institutions, spatial
settings, and cultural norms. The diversity of political situations and government
arrangements coincides with spatial transformations producing a great variety of spatio-
institutional formats charactering the post-communist city.
‘Sterile’ schemes of transition fail to embrace the complexity of the process. Cities should be
viewed as ‘laboratories’ of change, whereby new governing mechanisms, social relations,
economic activities, and technologies are introduced and tested and later affect the course
of societal transformation. To untangle the complex relationship between the spatial and
the social, researchers need a more holistic view of transition as a triad of democratisation,
marketization and state building, as well as interplay of these factors in explaining urban
dynamics in post-communist cities.
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