Learning from European Pro-Democracy Movements

29 March 2023

Photo credit: Gilad Kavalerchik

By Sivahn Sapirstein, NIF Social Justice Fellow at Shatil

I am writing this newsletter after flying back from Hungary to Israel – a trip many of my friends have jokingly described as a journey “from one dictator to another.” In that joke lies an important truth that many have detailed: Hungary is a blueprint (of sorts) for dissolving liberal democracies by consolidating political power and weakening any platform for opposition. However, just as Benjamin Netanyahu Netanyahu can learn from Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, Israeli protest movements can study how activists in Hungary, and other similar states, have fought democratic decay in recent years. 

This wisdom was precisely what NIF, Shatil, and NIF grantee Zazim were hoping to glean from the conference they organized, called, “Lessons from Civil Resistance in East & Central Europe.” For a few hours in Tel Aviv on March 12th, activists from across East and Central Europe shared their experiences and insights from their fights for democracy in “illiberal” regimes, countries where elections are held but democratic institutions are attacked from the inside. 

The panel included Karolina Skowron-Baka from Poland, Máté Varga from Hungary, Marina Pavlic from Serbia, and Tudor Bradatan from Romania. Each country is in a different political stage—a stage which shapes the opportunities for successful activism, they explained. While Polish activists are focusing on coalition building across a divided civil society and fighting particularly extreme laws, Hungarian activists are devoting their attention to organizing primary elections for all the anti-government parties (to avoid splitting the opposition vote). 

In Serbia, the movement developed a creative ground strategy to fight a proposed lithium mine and the anti-democratic laws designed to speed up the process. Marina Pavlic described how one of her organization’s most successful actions was when they flipped the traditional civil disobedience tactic of blocking roads by letting the people decide where they wanted to go, instead of coordinating one specific meeting point. “We knew the police would just block us if we all showed up at once,” she explained, “so we decided to have small groups go out on major roads all over, meaning the police had no strategy or capacity to reign in every group. After two weeks we got a call from President Vučić asking what it would take for us to stop the blockades.” Protesters were fighting for the environmental safety and health of Serbia, one of Europe’s most polluted countries. 

Despite the different political circumstances, all of the activists agreed that fighting for democracy is a “marathon, not a sprint.” Be ready for the long haul, they insisted, which will include learning how to prevent burnout, maintain transparency, coordinate across a wide coalition, and be prepared to always restrategize. Beyond their movements’ successes, the four activists shared insights into how civil society can protect itself from government threats, what positive international cooperation looks like, the role of religion in the assault on democracy, and much more. 

The learning continued, on a more intimate scale, with a follow-up conversation facilitated by Shatil. Twenty Israeli organizations gathered with the activists to delve into the specifics of organizing a movement under an illiberal government. One particularly important topic was how civil society can respond to laws that heavily tax external funding in order to severely curb their activity – a pressing issue for Israeli organizations given the impending law that would do just that. 

Attendees of the conference overwhelmingly described it as both educational and moving, expressing gratitude to the organizers for the opportunity to be in that space.

“It was really moving to hear how, even after everything they’ve gone through, they still have hope and continue organizing for a better future,” shared Yudith Oppenheimer, the executive director of Ir Amim.

Karolina Skowron-Baka, the activist from Poland, proposed the comparison that Israel today is where Poland was in 2016. It is a turning point, she emphasized, that Israeli activists should pay close attention to, which is why it’s so important that this conference is being held.

The conference is situated within Shatil’s larger strategy of strengthening democratic infrastructure across Israeli society. The Shatil blog has been running an ongoing series showcasing successful movements around the world, coupled with a four part webinar series which dives into the specifics of various lessons – such as developing protest actions in routine life or how to craft an impactful and clear narrative.

“Civil society is the barrier protecting civilians,” reflected Tudor Bradatan from Romania when sharing his overall message for the movement in Israel. “Even when a fight takes 20 years, such as the case with making the Roșia Montană Mining Landscape a UNESCO world heritage site, we did not give up.”

In the past week in Israel it seems like the timeline might be shorter than 20 years. On Sunday evening at 11pm I walked outside my apartment in Jerusalem and witnessed a stream of people marching towards Azza Street, a known gathering spot for anti-government protests close to the prime minister’s official residence and Netanyahu’s private home. The magic of the evening, in addition to the historic numbers of protesters, was that this action wasn’t planned in advance. Many people who went out that night, like myself, went out without a plan to come back until something real shifted. What made the spontaneity possible was the infrastructure which had been building since the first Saturday night protest in January; infrastructure that includes WhatsApp groups and general knowledge around meeting points and chants. As I witnessed the power and cohesion of Sunday night, I couldn’t help but think back to this conference and see in it the spontaneity and will to fight that the activists had emphasized.

As for immediate next steps, anyone interested in learning more about tips for civil resistance should head to the Shatil website where successful movements are covered, and webinar details are shared.