Ten Years of Citizens’ Assemblies in Slovenia

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, second-largest city in Slovenia, that have now been active for ten years. IMZ shares their rich experiences, offering insights into organizing and facilitation, organizational structure and culture, community, diversity, intersectional activism, visions for the future, and more…

Alexandria Shaner (AS): 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?

Iniciativa Mestni Zbor (IMZ): The Initiative for Citywide Assembly (Iniciativa Mestni Zbor – IMZ) is a group of citizens whose aim 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 toward 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.

AS: 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?

IMZ: 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 in solving perceived problems with the help of others.

AS: From the early days of the project through the first ten 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?

IMZ: The assemblies started to happen in the times when there was a general feeling (in Europe) that everything was possible. After the economic crisis, municipal 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 toward 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.

AS: Did IMZ as an organization go through any significant changes or iterations over the years? How have you maintained a resilient and effective organizational culture?

IMZ: Organizing and moderating citizen assemblies is a major part of IMZ’s efforts, but not the only thing. Still, what continues to need most of our availability is assembly moderation and administrative help to assemblies. Administrative help isn’t something people would likely give their free time for, and moderating assemblies can be very tricky for those who can’t exempt themselves from debate. It’s a tough job and it’s understandable that after a while one needs to go do different things. In the past, when we were searching for new volunteers, we didn’t stress enough that moderation of assemblies was just one of our possible activities, that there’s loads of different things that could be done and various experiences to be gained. The truth is, a lot of people left, and not many new ones came. So, the reason that IMZ still exists is probably just our stubbornness and a firm belief that this activity is necessary. It needs to be said though, that most former IMZ activists, even though they left, are still responsive to IMZ’s needs and do help when it’s urgent or contribute in activities they find interesting.

The funny thing is that in the past three years, when assemblies were off and on and off again, we have thrown ourselves into planting trees and bushes in order to help our city deal with the consequences of climate change. Two projects – planting a Miyawaki tiny urban forest and planting a part of a bare streambank raised quite a lot of interest. The project implementation connected us to various people and organizations that now try to copy our actions in other cities, and some of them probably don’t even know that citizen assemblies are our main activity.

AS: How did the COVID-19 pandemic affect the project? How did IMZ and the assembly participants handle this disruption?

IMZ: Essential for citizen assemblies is an open, safe space where people who live in the same community (city district) meet face to face and debate about good and less good aspects of living in that community. The COVID-19 pandemic shut all that down and forced us to move to the internet. Online assemblies were less visited, the level of debate or willingness to debate sank, politicians started showing up on zooms, and we felt that the online assemblies were not fit for our purpose. During the two years of the most severe pandemic period, live assemblies were discontinued, and the online assemblies were carried out less frequently and eventually discontinued. Through all this time we tried to stay connected with people and keep them informed with periodical e-news releases, which provided people with fresh relevant local news, important basic topics (environment, workers’ rights, housing, etc.) and interesting content for relaxation and fun.

Once COVID-19 became manageable, we were quite worried whether the participants would return to the assemblies once they restarted. We feared that a 2-year break in the routine might cool the ardor of some or even all of the participants but we found that the people did not forget and have returned in similar numbers, though the complexity of the activities (topical work groups, multi-assembly cooperation work groups, etc.) has been reduced and most of the built up self-organized structure will need to be reformed. We have noticed however, that more people aged between 25 and 40 have started attending the assemblies.

AS: Are there any organizing lessons or observations on how citizens relate to participatory civic projects that you want to share? Either during COVID or generally?

IMZ: Firstly, we find it is important that assemblies are carried out at the same physical space, always at the same time. Our current assembly dynamic is once a month, at the same day and at the same hour. This opens up a possibility for people to get used to this certain date as the date for community work and they eventually don’t need reminders anymore.

Secondly, a community agreement on how the assembly is going to communicate, reach decisions, and form actions must be the first thing people at assembly create together and agree on. This agreement is their own agreement and not something someone else forced onto them. Therefore, people are more likely to stand behind it and respect it. Community agreement is then revised at the beginning of every assembly and attendees are free to change some of it or all of it, if they agree on it. And that form of agreement is then valid for that session of the assembly. Alongside agreement on tolerant, nondiscriminatory, and productive discussion, there are three points that are a part of every community agreement of every citizens’ assembly in Maribor. We have mentioned all of them before. (1) All participants at assembly are just citizens; no political or professional functions or statuses are mentioned. (2) All decisions are reached via consensus of all present. (3) The principle of direct action is the modus operandi for all actions.

We feel that the three principles are very important in practice. (1) We find that debate is much richer when people do not try to flaunt whatever positions they hold or have held as to bolster their arguments. That gives room for the best arguments to prevail, not the best people making the arguments. (2) We feel that consensus decision-making makes participants much more constructive, respectful, and even polite in the discussion, as they are aware that anyone could block a decision. Surprisingly, over the years and thousands of decisions, we have had very, very few problems trying to reach consensus. (3) We feel the principle of Direct Action, which in our context means that people proposing some action have to help carry it out, is essential. We found that other people’s time is quite worthless when people are judging whether some action should be carried out or not and any silly proposal is good enough when people expect other people to carry it out. But with Direct Action, when the person making the proposal has to help carry out the action, then suddenly people put a lot more thought into formulating a proposal, which raises the quality of discussion, improves the effectiveness of the actions, and fosters a better mood for the assemblies.

We believe community is best described as a circle; therefore, conversation on matters of community is best held sitting in a circle with no barriers between people. It gives everyone an equal position, the same overview; there’s nothing going on behind anyone’s back.

It is also important that assembly moderators do just that – moderate debate, strive toward forming conclusions, and nothing else. They do not impose their own opinions or suggest what is to be done. That’s why it is best if moderators moderate assemblies outside their home districts and participate at “home assembly” like other neighbors. Having said that, moderators are allowed, of course, to inform or share experience and good practices used by other assemblies.

If we ask ourselves what kind of individual is likely to participate in matters of community, we feel that people who understand community space and its content as a crucial part of their quality of being/living are most likely to participate. Those individuals need no extra incentive to get involved and don’t stray from “common” to “individual”. On the other hand, those same “community aware” individuals happen to be the ones who recognize tough individual concerns and offer help even though there’s absolutely nothing in it for them. People like that are sadly not a majority, not surprising in these highly individualistic times, but we can say there is a common characteristic most of them share: they remember how it used to be (in Yugoslavia). The majority of attendees are driven to assemblies by individual problems, to be more exact – something outside their home, in community, is causing them problems. They will participate in solving this particular community problem because it also solves theirs, but they will need more incentive to participate on matters that don’t directly connect to them. Debate can help them make that connection. If they can’t, they probably won’t come back, as won’t those who falsely believe problems will be solved without their own engagement.

AS: I understand that IMZ has just relaunched the assemblies, after two years of on and off lockdown. Where does the project stand today? What is the current and long-term agenda of IMZ?

IMZ: True, since lockdowns are no longer planned, we relaunched assemblies this fall in their original form. All ten citizen assemblies produced audiences larger than usual, due to the fact that we have invited people with posters to come and participate. So, all assemblies started with a number of “standard” participants and people, who joined for the first time. All but one, where sadly there were no newcomers. But the fact that all relaunched assemblies produced participants gives us the motivation to continue to work toward our long term goal concerning local assemblies: (1) to open spaces for citizen assemblies all over the Municipality of Maribor (the urban area we have covered, the city surroundings, not so much); (2) for local assemblies to evolve from “the project” into an accepted standard form of communication and collaboration amongst people living in the same community, participation within community, and cooperation with local authorities – all to the benefit of the community and everyone in it.

AS: Have other tangential projects or initiatives arisen out IMZ and its members? Or likewise from the assemblies themselves?

IMZ: The idea to implement participatory budgeting as a form of direct participation in the matters of municipality came to life from the assemblies. It evolved from a civic action which took way too much time and effort to implement, considering the weight of the problem it was trying to solve. Today around 41 municipalities in Slovenia execute participatory budgeting processes, including Maribor. Some municipalities and schools also use participatory budgeting to establish valid communication around the needs of youth/students.

A few former or occasional moderators joined the struggle for workers’ rights and are quite successfully strengthening up unions of workers in retail and in personal assistance. They’ve helped set up the first ever union of workers in creative professions, mostly independent workers and artists.

Before the last mayoral election (2018), assembly participants suggested people should turn the table and, instead of listening to what candidates are offering people, people should face candidates with their demands. So, we organized a series of workshops. Participants were divided into workgroups, based on content. Content in general was no different from debate at assemblies, so main demands had to do with problems present in all districts. Participants joined whichever debate they wanted, probably where they felt they could contribute the most. Each group had a moderator and expert help for additional information and overview. All groups came up with a list of demands concerning specific problems/content. At the end of each session, all groups met together and reviewed all finished work. At the last workshop, the whole list of demands was reviewed, debated, and finalized. And then delivered to candidates.

As mentioned above, two bigger projects addressing adapting Maribor to climate change have come to life. IMZ members planted a tiny urban forest with approximately 870 trees and bushes in one of Maribor city districts using the method of Akira Miyawaki, a Japanese botanist and an expert in plant ecology who specialized in seeds and natural forests. The forest was planted in November 2020 in the area of an urban heat island. In 2021, we collaborated with the Society for Observation and Study of Birds of Slovenia and the Slovenian Society for the Study and Conservation of Bats and have added nesting boxes and bat houses to the tiny forest. In December 2021, we planted approximately 300 trees on a bare streambank in another city district, again to adapt the city to climate change and to boost biodiversity. As an educational momentum, we have been organizing with the above-mentioned societies, and the Slovenian Odonatological Society guided tours along the stream to emphasize the importance of all the animals living next to or in the stream. Both projects heavily influenced other collectives and NGO’s around Slovenia.

Additionally, some of the assembly participants formed non-party independent political groups to run in local elections and managed to win a number of district council seats.

AS: Citizen assemblies are valued and promoted by a wide political spectrum of advocates for increasing participation, democratization, diversity, solidarity, inclusion, sustainability, public health, community resources, transparency, and many other benefits to society. For readers who are inspired to action by your work thus far in Slovenia, what do you recommend? How can others develop and sustain citizen assemblies in their communities around the world?

IMZ: For us it has always been really important not to take over the assemblies with our own agendas or to try to steer them in the direction of our own political ideology/beliefs. People can otherwise feel used and mistreated, and it also just ruins the idea of self-organizing.

It’s important not to give up and not to become disillusioned for the wrong reasons. There were times and there will be times when no one showed up for the assembly. One could feel discouraged by that. At that time, as an organizer and moderator, you have to remember it is most important that such open spaces exist, that it is all voluntary, and that you are here to give support. But the pace of work, willingness to dig into certain challenges, decisions for action – that is a decision of the people at the assembly.

AS: Does IMZ do any internal activities or practices to help keep motivation and spirits up?

IMZ: Not much really. One practice we instituted years ago was that we start every moderators’ meeting by each person telling one good thing that happened to them the previous week to start off the meetings at a positive note. But mostly we get motivated by the people coming to the assemblies and witnessing them achieve their goals.

AS: Are there further resources and/or contacts you would like to share?

IMZ: Always good to read Edvard Kardelj, the main creator of the Yugoslav system of workers’ self-management. We have learned about moderating a horizontal group from the anarchists. Also, the concept of participatory society connecting economy, polity, kinship, and community developed by Michael Albert and Robin Hahnel is something we believe is reflected in the assemblies. Otherwise, we much admire other municipal/community movements in Europe and around the world who have managed to organize around the housing problem, collectivizing care, etc.

AS: Are there ways that readers can help support and elevate IMZ’s work or otherwise show solidarity?

IMZ: IMZ does not require funding, so support would be welcomed in the form of spreading the word, sharing of experiences, and building new similar structures elsewhere and then connecting with us across cities and across countries. We can be reached at info@imz-maribor.si, and our website is imz-maribor.org. •

More IMZ Links:

This interview first published on the ZNetwork website.

Alexandria Shaner is a sailor, writer, organizer, and teacher. Based in the southern Caribbean, she is a staff member of ZNetwork.org, and active with the Women's Rights and Empowerment NetworkThe Climate Reality Project and RealUtopia.org.