Peace Magazine: The New Geography of Eastern Europe

Peace Magazine

The New Geography of Eastern Europe

By Thorsten Botz-Bornstein • published Jul 01, 2020 • last edit Jun 25, 2020

In December 2019, the mayors of Budapest, Bratislava, Prague, and Warsaw—all of them at odds with their countries’ populist governments—signed a pro-European declaration called the “Pact of Free Cities.” Claiming that their capitals are “free cities,” these four mayors bypass the political programs of their nations’ rulers. They commit to “protecting and promoting [their] common values of freedom, human dignity, democracy, equality, rule of law, social justice, tolerance and cultural diversity.”1

This initiative is provocative because the national governments of Hungary, Slovakia, Poland, and the Czech Republic are critical of the European Union and aggressively oppose its relocation system for immigrants and refugees. Originally, this group of countries, known as the Visegrád Group, was created after the Cold War to promote these four states as candidates for membership of NATO and the European Union. Today, however, the national governments act as an illiberal solidarity group, jointly facing down threats and reprimands from Brussels. The governments of Poland and Hungary have described themselves as “illiberal democracies” that turn away from the liberalism and “open society” that they see represented by Western European nations.2

The Celebration of Freedom

The question I ask is whether it is possible for cities officially to go against the political commitments of their rulers. If Central Europe becomes, as Hungarian president Viktor Orbán has repeatedly demanded, a bastion of traditional and conservative values, can “free capitals” of Central Europe sustain a political counter-ideology?

The four mayors represent a young liberal urban population or perhaps even a bohemian urban elite. The independent mayor of Bratislava Matúš Vallo (age 42) is an architect and leader of the popular rock band Para (Steam), known for its “unrestrained live performances.”3 As a Fulbright scholar Vallo had worked at Columbia University on a project called “City Interventions.” Prague’s mayor, Zdeněk Hřib (age 38), is from the Pirate Party, which was founded in 2009 as a student-driven grassroots movement. Budapest’s Gergely Karácsony (age 44) is a Green politician and a former lecturer of political science. Warsaw’s Rafał Trzaskowski (age 48) is a former simultaneous interpreter and son of the famous jazz pianist Andrzej Trzaskowski.

The idea of the “free city” that the four mayors’ pact announces arises against the backdrop of a gap between urban and rural political cultures. “Free cities” are reminiscent of “freie Städte” thriving mainly in German-speaking regions between roughly 1400 and 1700 but extant until the nineteenth century. Those cities were autonomous communities not submitted to a territorial prince such as a baron, duke, margrave, or count.

Some of these cities became free because dominant families had become extinct. Others became so because rich families used their wealth to win the right to self-government from the barons. However, those cities were not really free but were usually subordinate to the Holy Roman Emperor, to whom they paid taxes directly. They also had to provide men for the Imperial army when required.

Free cities had their own jurisdiction, could wage war, and control their trade. For wars they sometimes employed professional mercenaries. Growing economic power had led to political independence, and “the medieval towns became islands of freedom in a sea of feudal obligation.”4 The tolerant and open medieval city has some foundation in reality. If a serf escaped to a free city and managed to survive there a year and a day, he could become officially a “free man.”

However, the concept of freedom should not be exaggerated. Especially in Eastern Europe, cities owed their growth to immigrant artisans and merchants as well as to immigrant scholars. After the passing of the Tatar and Mongol invasions, urban colonization flourished, but the local populations lacked skills. Foreigners of various nationalities filled the gaps, and immigrants became the source of wealth and culture. Some of those cities also accepted refugees fleeing religious persecution. In this sense, free cities were indeed islands of toleration and openness.5

In another sense, those cities were the opposite of open because they isolated themselves from the surrounding political sphere and functioned like self-enclosed organisms. All aspects of life (politics, business, culture, and religion) were organized by guilds and churches.

In some cities even brothels were under municipal protection and the prostitutes were managed by guilds.6 The closed organic unity of social order was only broken with the advent of the nation state and industrialization. Then, in the words of Lewis Mumford, the city became “a battleground for conflicting cultures.”7

The association of “free” with “open” emerged at a much later age. In the 1950s, Berlin was called a “free city” in the sense of an “international city.” However, it was not free but rather the epicentre of the Cold War. The sovereignty of other international cities is limited by the requirements of international organizations. At one time, the Polish city of Gdansk had a similarly international status because its integration into Poland was difficult. As a result, Gdansk was submitted to the League of Nations.

The Emperor and EU

Absolute freedom is impossible but sometimes one can choose to whom one wants to submit. The free cities of the Middle Ages chose to respond to the Emperor, and free international cities usually also respond to international institutions. At present, the four Central European mayors have chosen to respond to the European Union rather than to their own governments. That the European Union is more progressive, tolerant and liberal is a coincidence; it bears no logical link with the fact that the cities choose to align with them rather than with their national governments.

Mayor Karácsony has asked European city-level subventions to be directly allocated to municipal budgets. If this is accepted, the subventions can no longer be controlled by the Hungarian ruling parties, which is important given that the government has been accused of corruption and politicized disbursals of EU funds. The four mayors also push for direct European funding for fighting the climate emergency. Because climate does not stop at the borders of cities, the mayors become much more than mere administrators of their cities. The self-confidence gained through the recent wins on the city level even has an impact on international relations. While the Visegrád Group’s national governments seek closer ties with Russia and China, Prague mayor Hřib rebuked, in a provocative move, the Chinese ambassador during a meeting with foreign diplomats in 2018 when the latter asked him to expel the representative of Taiwan.8 Hřib also criticized a clause of the sister city agreement between Prague and Beijing, stating that references to the One-China principle have “no place in the sister cities agreement.”9 When Trzaskowski received London mayor Sadiq Khan in Warsaw in September 2019, he announced that, despite Brexit, London would continue to be a part of European city networks. The cities produce their own vision of international politics.

Medieval cities were free because they had created their own economic, political, and cultural microcosm inside thick walls. Today the concept of freedom is closely linked to internationalization. Freedom is equated with openness. Free cities get rid of local constraints and become more open towards the wide world outside. However, they also need to wall themselves into a microcosm and protect themselves from the political and cultural climate most closely surrounding them.

Contradictory alliances

Connections with the outside world become abstract and international. Will the future Europe be a region where independent cities pay taxes directly to the European Union, which will offer them subventions and military protection in return? Of course, national governments will not let this happen. At present, the Orbán government steers legislation through parliament, removing powers from the municipalities. In Hungary, school textbooks and curricula used to be the domain of municipalities, but the government has recently centralized these activities, emphasizing patriotic education.

“Cities against governments” is a current topic in other areas and has been theorized by Henri Lefebvre (1968),10 the anarchist Murray Bookchin (1987),11 and, more recently, by Benjamin Barber (2013).12 In recent years it has most typically been linked to ecology and immigration.

In China, several cities provide tax subsidies for green technology, although the Chinese government seems averse to national projects for energy conservation such as binding caps on emissions.13

Sanctuary cities are another example. Sanctuary cities welcome illegal immigrants and refuse to cooperate with governments when asked to track and expel them. In Germany, 120 mayors signed the alliance named Seebrücke (Sea Bridge) out of solidarity with southern European cities under pressure of immigration. Throughout Europe, many cities have declared themselves ready to receive more immigrants, even though this goes against laws enacted at the national level.

These developments have widened the urban-rural divide in which the decision to live in a certain city becomes a life choice more important than ever before. Sometimes cities provide an identity more distinct than the one provided by the country.

“City patriotism” has attracted interest in academia. Avner de-Shalitt and Daniel Bell, in their book The Spirit of Cities, coined the word “civicism” to express the sentiment of urban pride.14 Cities can express their own distinctive ethos or values distinct from the ethos of the nation. On several points “city patriotism” is different from the patriotism of nations because civicism remains shaped by the (generally assumed) open mentality of city people.

City patriotism is more flexible and often indebted to an ironic attitude through which it attempts to distinguish itself from regular patriotism. Even when civicism appears in stronger doses and can be called “city nationalism,” the love for one’s city lacks the serious and sometimes frightening dynamics which fuel regular nationalism.

What is loved is not so much an anthropologically established national culture with fixed customs and rules that need to be preserved at any cost, but a more fluent ethos present in the form of a spirit or tone of sentiment that is prevalent, though not obligatory. Civicism can afford being more playful because it is not linked to serious subjects like the army or wars (except in some cases concerning medieval city-states).

One can be willing to die for the nation, but the city life tends to unfold in a more playful sub-zone surrounded by a nation. To some extent, city patriotism only parodies national patriotism. This does not mean that preferences are not well-pronounced and clear-cut.

The four mayors’ network is reminiscent of the historical alliances of Free Cities in the late Middle Ages, such as the Hanseatic League. The question is whether these city networks can really empower urban humanity in the long term. It is possible that, while they are celebrating their networks, the rural populations around them may vote to exit the EU, thus cutting all their funding. It may be a little naïve for cities to rely only on international networks.

Improving everyday situations and educating the population are always also a local matter. Still, the mayors’ initiative is positive because it lets those politically suffocating cities breathe easier right now.

Thorsten Botz-Bernstein is Associate Professor of Philosophy, Gulf University for Science and Technology, Kuwait.


1 Shaun Walker. 2019. “Islands in the illiberal storm: central European cities vow to stand together.” The Guardian 16 December

2 Pol Morillas and Kiera Hepford. 2017. “Introduction” to Pol Morillas (ed.) Illiberal Democracies in the EU: The Visegrad Group and the Risk of Disintegration. Barcelona: Barcelona Centre for International Affairs.

3 According to the description of the Pohoda Festival in 2015

4 Henri Pirenne. 1925. Medieval Cities: Their Origins and the Revival of Trade. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

5 Feliks Gross. 1999. Citizenship and Ethnicity: The Growth and Development of a Democratic Multiethnic Institution. Westport: Greenwood, p. 60.

6 In Hamburg, Vienna, and Augsburg. The City in History, p. 281

7 The City in History, p. 280.

8 Stacy Hsu. 2019. “Prague mayor condemns treatment of diplomat.” Taipei Times July 4.

9 Robert Tait. 2019. “Zdeněk Hřib: the Czech mayor who defied China”. The Guardian July 3.

10 Le droit à la ville. Paris: Points.

11 In The Rise of Urbanization and the Decline of Citizenship (University of Chicago Press) Bookchin developed the concept of “libertarian municipalism.”

12 If Mayors Ruled the World. New Haven: Yale University Press.

13 See Daniel A. Bell and Avner de-Shalit. 2011. The Spirit of Cities: Why the Identity of a City Matters in a Global Age. Princeton: Princeton University Press, p. 6.

14 Bell and de-Shalit, p. 4.

Published in Peace Magazine Vol.36, No.3: Jul-Sep 2020
Archival link:
v36n3 issue cover


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