Summer 2004: 3rd European PGA Conference in Belgrade
The third european PGA conference took place in Belgrade, in summer 2004, thanks to the collaboration of DSM (an anti-authoritarian & anti-capitalist coalition based in Serbia) and a number of activists from other countries involved in PGA.
Due to the relative fragility of activist structures in Serbia, the organisation of this conference was quite a challenge, but was led by the desire to get the european PGA network out of its almost exclusively occidental focus.
The context was both difficult and exciting: a country coming out of war & dictatorship; nationalist movements & very active hooligans; an quickly ongoing appropriation of society by market economy, with most companies & industries being privatized, baught by large occidental groups or shut down; a million of unemployed people, out of 7 million inhabitants.
Without idealizing a particularly rough context, it was exciting to discover a number of things beyond consumer society's mirage: forms of conviviality & social relations, resourcefulness, kitchen-gardens & underground economies, remains of past cooperative & self-managed structures, defiance against NGOs, among other odd social caracteristics that are pretty uncommon in western Europe.
In terms of conference organizing, both a theoretical desire and a practical need (little experience from the convenor group) led to further explore participative forms of conference that were already experienced in Leiden. An international preparation group arrived on the spot some 10 days before. Various working groups were created (meeting facilitation, welcoming desk, infopoint, translation, computer networking & open-access space, kitchen, security, communication with locals, media...), with independent meetings, which the 700 conference participants were encouraged to join. An open decision-making & coordination meeting took place each evening, gathering working group delegates, in order to discuss transversal issues and coordinate efforts.
In terms of decision-making related to the PGA network structures, it seemed important not to renew the experience of the 400 people plenary session in Leiden. It had allowed too little space for thought & expression, for those who weren't experienced in the network, and it had been prepared within a small group of "experts". Thus, it was decided to conduct daily working-group meetings on the PGA process, in order to prepare the final assembly. This final assembly consisted in an experiment of a "spokes council", which was considered pretty sucessful by its participants. The 300 attendees gathered in the same location, split in affinity groups of 10 to 20 people. Each series of thematic proposals that were to be decided upon (global process, actions within PGA, network structures, position towards NGOs, unions & social forums, gender studies) were first discussed within affinity groups, then submitted to a round turn exchange, each group's spokesperson sitting in circle, with his/her group behind. This allowed most attendees to express their view, and to go through an effective decisionnal process. All in all, th proved to be way more efficient & subtile than most regular general assemblies, in which spectacle and loudmouth generally reign.
This conference took place in a suburbian middle-class school of Belgrade. It allowed way more intense cohabitation with locals than Leiden did. A number of activities, discussions & partying moments took place in a stimulating mix of curiosity & tension, in spite of pretty explosive situations, when facing homophobia, lesbophobia, and a certain defiance against us "people from the west" from locals. There was also greater outcomes outside the marginal ghetto, notably through a demonstration & action day carried together with unionists struggling against the privatisation of their factories. Let's not forget a memorable & festive encounter between the "Rythms of Resistance" samba band and a Gipsy community orchestra, which brought sharing moments & common projects between activists from the No Border network & migrants.
In terms of contents, there was once again an abundance -- sometimes too chaotic for some -- of workshops, screenings, various discussions. Let's keep in mind that a number of debates & shoutouts since Leiden had brought the creation of a group on gender issues. Though questionning power structures & domination within our own groups & networks always brings its share of reluctance & tensions, a fruitful cooperation between feminist collectives from Serbia and collectives from other european countries allowed a whole day to be dedicated to antipatriarcal struggles & gender issues. It led to the creation of womyn-only, gay, lesbian & transexual space within the conference. Though it still happens to be controversial throughout Europe, there also was a men meeting for discussing sexism & challenging masculinity. This moment began with a presentation of a serbian group opposing male violence against womyn. They organise encounters and speak about a "hot" recent history of propaganda, war & masculinist cultures, in a country whose old patriarcal structures, orthodox church and abrupt switch to neo-liberalism increase marginalisation of womyn; in a country where participants to the last lesbian & gay pride were horribly beaten up by nationalist groups. This was an occasion to discover groups like Azin, who breed projects of collaborative activities between womyn in rural environments, using methods that stand close to self-management and horizontal processes (funded by benefits coming from copyright exploitation of a song from Abba - long live disco! ;-)
On a more general level, this conference allowed encounters in between eastern Europe activists, a better understanding of their context & issues, and the beginning of a PGA dynamic in the Balkans, though western activists remained quite central in a number of key roles for the conference organising process.
In terms of collective actions, a few big unifying actions were discussed outside thematic groups, such as the mobilisation against the G8, as well as a day in solidarity with pachamerican struggles (who work towards radicalising the social movement, notably in Venezuela). New action strategies were also shaped, like "Estafette", which aims at relaying long-term actions in between groups throughout Europe. Unfortunately, one could notice, once again, the gap betwen the energy that emerged during the conference itself, and its follow-up. Involvement has been way lower for maintaining network structure & materialising projects, outside large unifying events.