Blueprint for Revolution: How to Use Rice Pudding, Lego Men, and Other Nonviolent Techniques to Galvanize Communities, Overthrow Dictators, or Simply Change the World

Apr 27, 2015

TV Show


In the late 1990s, using humor, irony, and imagination, Popovic and his friends toppled Serbian dictator Milošević. They went on to found CANVAS, which now advises activists in more than 15 countries. Popovic explains that nonviolent struggle is a teachable skill, and that nonviolence is not only the most ethical, but the most successful path to revolution.


JOANNE MYERS: Good afternoon. I'm Joanne Myers, and on behalf of the Carnegie Council, I would like to thank you all for joining us this afternoon.

Our guests today are Srdja Popovic and Tina Rosenberg. Srdja is the author of a wonderfully entertaining book entitled Blueprint for Revolution: How to Use Rice Pudding, Lego Men, and Other Nonviolent Techniques to Galvanize Communities, Overthrow Dictators, or Simply Change the World. Interviewing Srdja about his book and his work will be New York Times journalist Tina Rosenberg, author of the widely acclaimed The Haunted Land: Facing Europe's Ghosts after Communism, for which she won both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award for Nonfiction.

In reading Blueprint for Revolution, which, as the title suggests, talks about how to wage a nonviolent revolution and achieve your goals, I am reminded of a quote from a movie, Field of Dreams. In this film the protagonist, Kevin Costner, hears a voice. It is a voice that says, "If you build it, they will come." Of course, this refers to creating a baseball diamond in an Iowa cornfield, but in many ways it is a message that resonates with Srdja as he tells us that if you dream big but start small, anything is possible.

In 1998, during the reign of the ruthless dictator, Slobodan Milošević, Srdja, founder of the Serbian activist group Otpor!, along with some of his friends, did what many only dreamed about. Using humor, irony, and imagination, they began a nonviolent revolution. Their goal: to create a more just and democratic society. And in the end, they did just that. They were successful in toppling Milošević.

Since then, Srdja and his friends have been in demand. In 2003, they founded the Centre for Applied Nonviolent Action and Strategies, also known as CANVAS. This independent, Belgrade-based NGO now advises and trains pro-democracy activists in more than 15 countries, including India, Iran, Zimbabwe, Burma, Ukraine, Georgia, Palestine, Belarus, Tunisia, and Egypt. CANVAS's materials, including its handbook, Nonviolent Struggle: 50 Crucial Points, have been translated into a half-dozen languages and downloaded tens of thousands of times—17,000 in Iran alone.

Srdja now teaches classes in nonviolent political and social change at some of the world's most prestigious universities, including Harvard, Columbia, New York University, and UCLA.

How he and his friends did this, how they achieved the unthinkable, is stuff that dreams are made of—and, if you are clever enough like Srdja, books can also be written.

Tina will engage Srdja in a conversation for about half an hour or so and then we will invite you, the audience, to ask any questions that you have that weren't answered. Please join me in welcoming this dynamic duo. Srdja and Tina, thank you so much for joining us.


TINA ROSENBERG: Thank you so much, Joanne. Thank you to the Carnegie Council for having Srdja here today and allowing us to benefit from his wisdom. Thank you for being here.

You are a student at Belgrade University in 1998 in the midst of a dictatorship that has just started its fourth war. You are meeting with 10 other students in a café, lots of cigarette-smoking, and you decide, "Let's overthrow this guy." That's insane. How did you do it?

SRDJA POPOVIC: It's a great question. It's a pleasure being here for the second time. Thank you for hosting me. It's great sharing space with one of the best journalists I have ever heard of, Tina.

I think it is a great story. The story of Serbian students as political nobodies, like little Hobbits, to undertake the strange struggle to overthrow one of the worst Balkan dictators is really inspiring. It was partly lunacy, it was partly necessity. Up to 1998, we were already engaged for years. We started in our early twenties when we gave up our rock music life and turned to the activist life. It was necessity. The guy was just there and he was just destroying everything that we were taking for common sense. It was getting the country into wars. It was bringing dictatorships. It was bringing the worst junk culture. Every single thing which is unethical was blossoming in that country.

So we were in a situation where you had two different options. You could fight or you could flee. One hundred thousand people, including my older brother, just fled the country. But some of us stayed and fought.

Yes, we were not the best-equipped—like any other Hobbits, we didn't wear the shiny armor and didn't have the big magic. But we had some skills. We had hard-to-do stuff. We know how to mobilize the people. We understood a certain level of creativity. In 1998 we already had a tremendous experience of doing it—1992 in universities, 1996-97 for the 100 days of demonstrations. So in our late twenties, in a very weird way, we were kind of nonviolent struggle veterans.

The book tells a compelling story about this generation, but also about its creativity and the small brave things they have done in the face of the great oppression.

TINA ROSENBERG: So you were not newbies when you started in 1998. You had already been involved in the struggle since 1991, I think, and had learned a lot. You said you knew how to mobilize people. That is a very, very difficult thing to do. What did Otpor! do to mobilize people, and how was Otpor! different than other political movements in Serbia? Why did you succeed where others did not at mobilizing people?

SRDJA POPOVIC: First of all, Serbs, unlike our audience—whom I assume is going to buy the book—don't read books. We like to learn by our own experience, doing things, making mistakes. We were trying and failing since 1991. I think we learned a lot of things. Mobilization was one of them.

We first understood that staying in our little circle of people—in 1992 we had this beautiful anti-war movement. We occupied the campuses. We were taking guitars out—"all we were saying was giving peace a chance." Guess what? We were happy in our little "occupy" type of universe. But around the corner, Milošević was sending his tanks to do the wars in Croatia.

First of all, we understood that you need to build different alliances. You need to reach to the people who are not like you, clever, urban intellectuals. You need to really look at where the numbers are. Numbers, unfortunately, in Serbia—but more or less in any other countries—are not only in urban intellectual circles. The numbers are in what you Americans call rednecks—very often, people who live in the villages.

This is the first thing we understood, that we need to build numbers where they are. We need to build a vision of tomorrow. The part of the book is like "dream big, start small." Once we started dreaming big, we were starting small. We were starting with graffiti. Very often groups have a big stamina to start with the big stuff. But what really works in nonviolent struggle—and this is the book of the small things people successfully did to challenge oppressors—is that you want to do achievable things. People will sit on the fence until they see that you are kind of successful. If you start with a little prank, with a little graffiti—you don't really aim for let's make a climate change march and bring 400,000 people. That comes at the end. But if you gradually build these numbers, then people will join.

The second very important thing with Otpor!, I think, was that we understood—it took us eight years to understand—that we will never win alone. We need to bring other parts of the civil society. We need to bring the international community. We need to bring opposition there.

Last but not of least importance, don't try to be too serious. Serbs are not a serious people. We love jokes. We grew up listening to Monty Python's Flying Circus. One of the things in this book which is kind of funny as well—and it is not only me; it is also my co-writer, who sits here—(Matt, thank you for everything you did great for this book)—is catching the moment of creativity, how this thing really works, how to really challenge evil and fear with humor and creativity.

TINA ROSENBERG: Give me an example.

SRDJA POPOVIC: There are many of these in the book. We started with the famous anecdote of the barrel. We were like 20 people. We would paint Milošević's picture—well, Serbs are not politically correct at all. You need to understand this. We would paint Milošević's picture and make it as a flipper, so people will put the coin in and have the right to hit the barrel. We put the barrel in the Serbian version of Fifth Avenue, which is the main downtown shopping district. Within the range of 15 minutes, you have people waiting in line to really show their respect for their ruler.

TINA ROSENBERG: And where are you in this?

SRDJA POPOVIC: We were withdrawn to the reserve position, smoking cigarettes and drinking coffee in a bar, watching—

TINA ROSENBERG: Watching. So the barrel was sitting out there by itself.

SRDJA POPOVIC: Yes. The barrel was there. The people were having fun. The kids were kicking the barrel. You know kids love this type of fun.

That was not the funny moment. The funny moment was when police arrived. What will they do? They will arrest the downtown shoppers? It doesn't really work. And charge them with what? They arrest us? We are not there. Well, they arrested the barrel. The photojournalists were super-happy. The photograph of police arresting the barrel with Milošević's face, dragging it to the police station—you are a journalist. You would use this opportunity to really publish it widely.

These small acts of resistance, which we tried to explain the book, in a chapter called "Laugh Your Way to Victory"—why is humor so powerful?


SRDJA POPOVIC: There are several reasons for this. First of all, I think when you look at the status quo in the society, the status quo is either fear or apathy. When you look at dictatorships, it is fear. When you look at corrupt democracies, people are too busy buying in Walmarts. That is what the American activists will tell you.

How do you break it? You break it very loudly with humor. Imagine the situation where you need to go to get major surgery. The last thing you want to hear is the procedure—"They are going to open your chest. They are going to do this." No, no, no. But if your husband or your family member or friend cracks a joke, immediately the fear disappears.

The second very important thing is very much the book tells a story. The movements are very much things from your life. If you are a person standing for values in your life, if you are an ethical person in your life, if you are a funny person in your life, you can build a funny movement. When you look in your own environment, who is the most popular person around you? The richest one, the tallest one, the biggest one, the most educated one, or the one who can make you laugh? Laughter is the natural center of gravity for the people, and that adds the cool factor. A lot of these movements, not only the Serbian movement, but when you look throughout the world, the successful movements were cool. People wanted to go there.

By the way, you wrote a great piece on it in your book Join the Club: How Peer Pressure Can Transform the Worldy when you were talking about joining the club. One of the things that Otpor! did specifically well, it was cool to be there.

So unlike sitting home and studying, we create a whole parallel reality where you can be the last geek in the class with thick glasses, but if you are in the street, if you are protesting, you are getting all the best dates. So you kind of change the behavior.

Then the last very important thing about the humor is, when you are challenging people in power, you will realize that they take themselves too often too seriously. Whether democratically elected or dictators, they watch too much of themselves on the TV, on the billboards, in the newspapers. They start believing this big image. If there are little people pranking them with a petrol barrel—there is also a great story about toy protests in Russia. You have a ruler who spends millions in PR, who poses shirtless, wrestles tigers, saves dolphins from drowning. Putin is the master of being The Guy. Now you have a little group of people in 2012 who are protesting the disputed election in Barnaul, Siberia. It's a small place. Protests are not allowed. So people build their little legal town and they come with little toys, who are carrying protest signs—"130 percent votes for Putin." "Give us our vote back."

The first day everybody has fun. Everybody is taping it. It went viral. Then what really happens is that somebody sees this in the Kremlin. They understand the very nature—the book tells the story about the "laughtivism." If they react, they will regret it. If they don't react, people will think, "Oh, we can do this at home. So let's make a little toy protest everywhere."

The phone rings at the chief police station in Barnaul. He gets a call. He needs to take a press conference. He needs to stand in front of the camera and say that the protest of 100 toy soldiers, 50 Kinder toys, and 50 toy cars is banned because toys are not citizens of Russia.

Now we are having the shirtless guy wrestling tigers being afraid of little toys. This is the power of creativity. It's not expensive. It takes a little bit of creativity. It is basically low-risk. What, they will sentence you for organizing a toy protest? That is not the case.

TINA ROSENBERG: Srdja, that is a great story. It is easy to understand how this embarrassed the authorities. But what happened with it? Did it produce anything? How do you go from these cute, funny little pranks to having a wider impact?

SRDJA POPOVIC: This is part of the knowledge that we are looking at. Every single movement is different, and there is no copy-paste on this kind of struggle. The consequences are different. But you need to follow the rules. One of the rules you need to follow is, you need to build unity. Aside from these little pranking tactics, making the movement cool, you really need numbers. Numbers are never on the fringe.

You remember the environmental movement starting as groups of people tying themselves to the fence of the nukes. But it became really big where it involves people who are less radical and more realistic, and there was scientific research.

So you need to build toward the center. The numbers are never on the fringe. Effective nonviolent movements operate well only when they have numbers. Numbers are always at the center.

You need to compromise with these people. That is the hard part. One of the things the book points—yes, it is super-cool being right and being surrounded with the cool people around you, but if you really want to change the society, it is not enough to be right. You need to listen.

TINA ROSENBERG: I would imagine that is a point of contention in a lot of movements, that we need to compromise.

SRDJA POPOVIC: Yes, I think it is a big thing. One of the mistakes that movements make, one of many mistakes, is insisting on their point of view.

I had a marvelous class with NYU students, tremendous, clever young men and women. We were discussing the Black Lives Matter campaign and what can be done to make it more mainstream and enroll more people in it. Because they go through the part of the training we give to the activists in the class, they came out with very good results. They are looking at the social distance. You are looking at the black population and you are looking at the white police, which has the perception of being invaders, occupiers of the place. The cause of the problem is how you bridge this social distance, because if it is "us" and "them," there will never be social change. You need to work to build across this bridge.

One of the things we learned in Serbia, and other protest groups in Georgia, Ukraine, and elsewhere also learned—the nonviolent struggle is about pulling people from pillars. It is not about pushing and pressing and bringing down and bombing and destroying. It is about, can you persuade the people to step out?

There is a great quote from my political mentor and a great friend, the late prime minister of Serbia, Zoran Dindić. He captured it in a sentence: "We will start winning when we understand that a policeman is a man in a police uniform." It is not an enemy. It is not something you would whistle at. It is not something you would throw a stone at. It is somebody who shares dreams. It is somebody with a family.

You can pull this person towards your vision of society. This is the way to communicate with these guys. It is not only more ethical; it is also more effective.

TINA ROSENBERG: After 2000, when this movement that Otpor! was very important to resulted in Milošević acknowledging that he had lost an election, you, as Joanne said, were very much in demand in other countries. You started this group to teach democracy movements and other kinds of activists about these kinds of tactics.

I want you to talk a little bit about that, but also about this idea that, while I think it is universally acknowledged that nonviolent struggle is the moral choice, it is the ethical choice, not everybody would agree with you that it is the more effective choice.

SRDJA POPOVIC: First of all, the beauty of this job is that you always learn. We have witnessed fantastic holographic protests in Spain like last week or underwater protests in Maldives.

TINA ROSENBERG: Underwater protests?

SRDJA POPOVIC: Underwater protests, yes, because the jailed leader of the opposition on Maldives was one of the champions of climate change. You can understand how clever this is. It is low-risk, super-effective. It applies to the environmental groups. It was published in The Wall Street Journal. One hundred people diving in a small island have reached a target audience across the world because they were clever. [Editor's note: For more on Mohamed Nasheed, the Maldives, and climate change, check out this Ethics on Film review of The Island President.]

But the consequences are different and there is no copy-paste. However, there are certain rules that you can observe and you can look at these kinds of struggles.

The first one is unity. You need to build unity. Whatever is the unity that is most difficult for you to reach—if it is the religious unity in Syria between the Kurds and Alawites, it is that part of unity. It was the political unity, of course. We say two Serbs, three political parties, four football clubs. It is like that. But we bring 19 opposition parties together.

TINA ROSENBERG: And that was quite an achievement.

SRDJA POPOVIC: Whenever you see this unity, then you can see that the movement is winning.

What is really kind of interesting—throughout these years, we understood that there is no universal way of changing things, but there are certain rules you need to follow. We tried to distill these rules. One of the things that people often say is that Gandhi won because he was nonviolent. Gandhi won because he was a great strategist. You want to have nonviolence as a part of your movement. It is (a) more moral; it is (b) more ethical. But there are studies that show it is also more likely to succeed.

There is this fantastic study, which we quote often in the book, by Maria Stephan and Erica Chenoweth, two American scholars, which examines 323 different campaigns in 106 years—really serious scientific research. I don't pretend to be a scientist, but they are. This study shows that the nonviolent struggles are twice more likely to succeed, plus they are twice more likely to succeed within half the time. So the very idea that the violence is faster—this is something which doesn't work.

That brings us to explanation: How do you maintain nonviolent discipline? Probably the chapter which relates the most to the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs is the chapter called "The Demons of Violence." We are trying to learn throughout these years that nonviolent discipline is a skill, and skills can be taught and learned. You can preach it as an ideology. You can train your people to sit in front of the police rather than throw stones. Of course, you can identify potentially violent parts of the society that will join—black bloc types of people—and disaffiliate your movement from these people.

TINA ROSENBERG: You have said that when you do workshops for democracy activists in other countries, almost always one of the first questions you get is, "This might have worked in Serbia, but it would not work here. Our guy is too violent. You can't just ask somebody to step down. This kind of peaceful, nonviolent passivity," I guess they identify it with, "won't work here." What is your response to that?

SRDJA POPOVIC: My response is that they are basically right, in terms that every single struggle is different. You can't really take the Serbian struggle and copy-paste it to somewhere. You can't really take the Tunisian struggle and copy-paste it to Egypt. The conditions are different; the mentalities are different. The tactics that work in the United States when it comes to female rights, like protests disrobing a female, wouldn't work in the Arab world. It would alienate the people, in fact.

There is one thing that they are, of course, right about. But you want to look at the certain elements of success and you want to look at the movements in the past. You want to look at the case studies of movements which really changed the world. You want to look at Gandhi. You want to look at Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela. All these movements have things in common. Instead of telling people, persuading them that this can work, you try to really change their point of view. Through all the workshops—and you are the only journalist in history who participated in one of these—we smuggled you in. This is great. Here are a bunch of people from Burma who say, "This will never work in Burma, because if we go on the street, they will shoot us dead."


SRDJA POPOVIC: They are 100 percent right. So you don't say to them, "No, no, they aren't going to do it," because they know better.

But still they were capable to build up the movement. They were capable to understand the situation. They were capable to exploit from the possible political space.

I had a great opportunity to speak with some North Koreans recently, defected North Koreans. This is probably one of the most closed societies in the world. Still people are looking: Where is the political space? Of course, they can't go and protest because they will end up in concentration camps, or worse. But they are looking at these little things, like the regime is not delivering: The streets are dirty. Nobody carries out the garbage. There is no public transportation. Every single one of these points can become the point for gathering. This is where people build horizontal relationships. This is where they build the sense of community.

TINA ROSENBERG: So you focus on an ostensibly non-political goal to help build your movement and build confidence.

SRDJA POPOVIC: Very often, because (a) you build small victories; (b) you build confidence; (c) you make the—once again, this is a story in Russia, in Yekaterinburg. There was this corrupt, I don't know, mayor or governor—somebody who was not paving the streets. There were potholes everywhere. What people did during one night was to portray the face of their mayor around the potholes. So when you come there with a car and you hit the pothole, of course you curse, but it becomes personal now.

This is where you understand that this is not only "laughtivism." This is making people understand that it is their taxes paying their officials to fix their potholes. This non-delivery and keeping politicians accountable may sound like a very small success for somebody who lives in a democracy, but in an autocratic society it is all the difference between very obedient citizens and what they consider national awakening. Once they understand that they are paying the officials and these officials are not delivering, they may ask for delivery, and that may become very difficult for these governments to cope with.

TINA ROSENBERG: Talk about tactics of dispersal.

SRDJA POPOVIC: It is a great point. One of the main reasons we wrote this book is because I hate people having a wrong picture of what nonviolent struggle is. When you say nonviolent struggle, people say protests, marches, millions of people, occupy this, occupy that. We call these tactics of concentration. You concentrate either your people or your time or your resources in one spot. It looks great on the TV, which is probably the reason everybody thinks that this is what a nonviolent struggle is all about.

But you lived in Chile, so you know what would happen to Chileans when they go to demonstrate against Pinochet. They were shot dead. That is a clear thing—harassed, something really nasty.

We thought we discovered this, of course. The Serbs think they discovered everything. Because we discovered electricity, we think we discovered everything.

We had this problem with Milošević in the 1990s. Then we discovered only afterward that the Chileans came before us. When you are prevented from going to the square, what would you do? Would you insist on going and get into conflict with the police or would you disperse? We call these small acts of resistance or low-risk tactics of dispersion. Chileans would go home and hit pots and pans from windows. We were doing this as well. They would turn the lights on and off.

The beauty of it is (a) most important, anybody can do it and, (b) they will arrest you for what? For banging pots and pans from your own home? It is unlikely.

The book tells a story from the Maldives to Serbia to Chile. Successful nonviolent movements know how to engage young people, rural people, clever people, stupid people, old people. The pensioners could do it. My grandma was hitting pots and pans. It is great, because if you want to win by numbers, you need to offer a little bit for somebody. My grandma couldn't demonstrate in a harsh winter, in 1997, but she could do this kind of stuff.

Chileans were even more clever. They were developing this fantastic moment of driving at half speed and walking at half speed. It started with taxi drivers and continued with the people. Immediately everybody was doing something which was (a) subversive and (b) completely legal. Even in North Korea there is no traffic sign which says, "You must drive faster than 7 miles an hour." You must drive slower than 30 miles an hour, and that's it. But what if you drive 2 miles an hour and I drive 2 miles an hour and she drives 2 miles an hour? We collapse the whole city. Everybody is honking, and immediately—this fantastic sentence I have seen in one of the movies about Chile. There is a guy who says, "Okay, the main thing was that this blurb of fear just disappeared at the moment, because we understand that we are the many and they are the few."

TINA ROSENBERG: That is a very good point.

SRDJA POPOVIC: That is the power in numbers. It also builds this kind of stuff. These small acts of resistance are—that, by the way, is the name of another great book—what we should focus on and what we should explain. Unfortunately, they are not so media-sexy, so they don't get so much attention as a big thing. But one of the reasons why I think this book matters now is because we are witnessing the "occupyism." It is the trend in the world which has nothing to do with the fair goals of the Occupy movement. It has to do with copying the Tahrir strategy. So Tahrir was bringing people in one place. Occupy was bringing people in one place. Hong Kong now—bring people in one place.

The problem with high-risk tactics of concentration is (a) it is demanding. People need food. People need to sleep. People need toilets. How will the square look after seven days? How will you keep people busy and happy after seven days? It is highly ineffective in terms that your opponent, like mainland China, only needed to sit and wait for numbers to dwindle. You are wasting the large resources.

Part of the things we do in our workshops and in our classes is cost-benefit analysis. Ten thousand people sitting in the square for three hours listening to this stupid speaker, this is 30,000 working hours. What else? How many doors can we knock on? How many pots and pans can we bang? These low-risk tactics of dispersion were everywhere, but people just don't look at it.

Look at the Polish struggle. The Polish are probably the only people higher on the scale of pranking and making things funny than the Serbs. These guys were looking at the time when the state TV news was broadcast, because it was a symbol of the state propaganda. Because they were hitting pots and pans but it didn't really work, what they did was put their TVs in the strollers and they were taking their TVs for a walk. Now you have people taking their TVs for a walk in the neighborhood and meeting and, of course, talking politics. But still it is not illegal. What can they do? Can somebody arrest you for taking your TV—instead of your kid, you put the TV in a stroller and take the TV for a walk.

These small dispersion tactics are dominating the world. They are so much better designed for highly oppressive societies, because you are less likely to get arrested or worse.

TINA ROSENBERG: They are safer. They are often a better use of resources. You have said that a march is not how you start a movement; it's a victory lap. You do a march when you have the big numbers.

SRDJA POPOVIC: When you are ready.

TINA ROSENBERG: Also you have said that one bad march can kill your movement, and the government will try to do that by infiltrating to cause violent acts.

SRDJA POPOVIC: Of course, people throwing stones, yes.

TINA ROSENBERG: Talk about the Occupy movement in the United States. What went wrong? Do you see any hope for effective nonviolent protest movements here?

SRDJA POPOVIC: I think the need is there. I think especially the topic of social injustice is very hot in the United States and most of the Western world.

I met these people. I tell this short story in the book. I was amazed how clever they are and how committed they are and how we share this cause that we are all 99 [percent, as opposed to the 1 percent]. But, first of all, I think they failed to formulate their goals very clearly. I think that is the problem. Why will they join you if you can't explain what you are standing for?

This is the problem that Saul Alinsky looks at in his book Rules for Radicals. He says anger is a powerful mobilizer, but anger without hope—what you are offering me should be the very important part. What is the vision of the future?

Second, I think they were tied to the tactics, which is really problematic—and very expensive tactics and difficult to maintain.

TINA ROSENBERG: It was their name.

SRDJA POPOVIC: They branded themselves after the tactics. Let's imagine that they were branded "99 Percent." That would be a kind of worldwide social movement immediately.

So there were several mistakes. But movements learn from their mistakes. Hopefully we are going to see a more prospective equality rights movement in the United States, and the one who can really harm the greedy banks and evil companies rather than just protesting in front of them. What really hurts these people is when you cost them money. This is the language they understand.

TINA ROSENBERG: So what would you do if you were designing an effective protest movement?

SRDJA POPOVIC: First of all, there must be a vision. If you would be a king for a day, what would be different? How would the banking system work? What is the social equality? What is the social program?

Second, how are you going to achieve it? One, two, three, four, five: What are the five goals you stand for?

TINA ROSENBERG: So you make that clear to people.

SRDJA POPOVIC: To make that clear. One of the things we often do with our workshops is try to push people through the process where they are really capable to write down a useful plan. We often say, "Nobody will join you if you can't explain to him or her who is going to do what, when, how, and why." This is not corporate thinking. This is being highly organized. I think with the higher organization, the different branding, but also with this more inclusive politics—because this is not only the movement of the liberal people sitting in the park; this is the movement of the people who stand for the social justice in this country.

If you want to win in climate change and if you want to win in occupying and bringing social justice, unfortunately, your target audience is far wider than clever, bright, white, university-educated people. You need to go and touch.

TINA ROSENBERG: So what do you do? You don't do a march in a park. What do you do?

SRDJA POPOVIC: It is like I was talking about. Do you get business-reply mail? Yes, everybody gets business-reply mail. What if we send a brick back to the bank? Every business-reply mail will cost the bank 70 bucks. Now we are talking about the real cost, because this is the language the banks talk. If you can cost them money, then you can bring them to the negotiating table and maybe talk about the forced evictions which you want to fix.

This is what the Indignados did in Spain. They were focusing on banks. They were preventing people from forced evictions. I think this is why they were successful in turning into the major party.


QUESTION: James Starkman.

How much of your personal motivation stems from the religious and cultural repression in Serbia, which ultimately led to ethnic cleansing? Are you, in fact, yourself of a Muslim persuasion? Was that a large part of your motivation in becoming a political activist?

SRDJA POPOVIC: Part of the thing which we are very proud of in the book is explaining the environment in which we grew up. I was born in Tito's Yugoslavia, which, unlike what people think, was a pretty culturally liberal environment. It was politically oppressive, but it was really—we call it socialism. You had jazz. You had culture. You had all this kind of stuff.

The major part of our vision was looking at the more liberal society in terms of culture. Part of it was really—what Milošević was trying to do, he was destroying the system of values. We were growing up persuaded that the Croats are our brothers. When I was a little Tito Pioneer, we were built on the idea that all the Yugoslav nations, meaning Slovenians, Croatians, Bosnians, Macedonians, Montenegrins, Albanians, Serbs, we are brothers. We were growing up into brotherhood and fraternity. And immediately when you are 18, somebody is giving you a gun to go and kill a person because the person is Croat. It was really a schizophrenic position.

I think the large part of our movement was coming from trying to prevail these normal tolerance values which we were sharing. Part of it was that we were super-shocked with what Milošević was doing with the other nations.

I was trying to explain this to the people very often. They tend to be surprised. For us, it was easy to make a nonviolent movement. After five Milošević wars and his horrible ethnic cleansing, violence was not cool. That was something done by non-cool people. So if you want to be different than them, you would be standing for nonviolence. In fact, it was a really big part of the movement. Talking about the ethics of the violence and talking about the culture, it was the big part of the movement.

TINA ROSENBERG: You were all Serb Orthodox Christians, correct?

SRDJA POPOVIC: No. Some of us were atheistic, like me.

TINA ROSENBERG: But there were no Muslims among the founders.

SRDJA POPOVIC: No, but what was really interesting is that Otpor! was really relying on ethnic minorities and these types of groups. In Serbia, when you look at the margin by which Milošević lost the election in 2000, it was 300,000 or 400,000 votes, not more. It was because Hungarians and Muslims from Sandžak and Croats and Slovaks supported the side against Milošević. The number of their votes was bigger than this margin, and they were obviously not voting for Milošević. It was obvious for whom they were going to vote. So they were the important part.

I think there were several Otpor! leaders, especially in Vojvodina, which is the multicultural north part of Serbia, who were not Serbs. There are plenty of non-Serbs in the organization.

Religion was not playing such a large factor. In part, that was because the Serbian Orthodox Church on the top kind of aligned with Milošević. Then on the ground you have priests who were preaching resistance and training people in the church, like here in the United States. So it wasn't really a monolithic pillar. You couldn't really put the finger on the church and say it was on that side or on that side.

But when you look at the ethnicity, multi-ethnicity was on our side, definitely.

QUESTION: Stephanie Baric. I work for the AHA Foundation, which is a women's organization here in New York.

I have two questions. There was an article, which I am sure you are aware of, years ago in The New York Times, in the Sunday magazine, about Otpor! What it specifically talked about is the structure of Otpor!, which was largely based on the Palestinians and this idea of resistance, and not necessarily having one central leader, but that the leadership structure is very decentralized. If you could talk a little bit about that.

The other thing is that the article mentioned that the U.S. government provided financial support to Otpor! I am not quite sure which agency, but as someone who has worked for years on U.S. government programs, typically we fund civil society organizations and the registered NGOs. That is fantastic, but what we are seeing increasingly, I think, and especially in the Middle East, where I worked most recently, is that we are talking about movements versus civil society organizations. And I think that it is a bit of a challenge for a lot of donors to fund a movement rather than funding an organization, where they can enforce some kind of financial accountability.

SRDJA POPOVIC: First, decentralization was a necessity. It came from necessity. The Serbians in the '90s were so disappointed in opposition leaders that we understood that having charismatic leaders was not a good idea. Plus leaders are vulnerable. You can put them in jail, like Nelson Mandela or Aung San Suu Kyi, or you can kill them. What Pinochet was doing to the opposition leaders was throwing them from the plane.

Decentralization did several great things for us. First, we were gathered around the symbol of the clenched fist. I think the book tells an important story, why these elements of group identity really matter. This is, of course, values first, but also symbols and the type of music and the type of culture. What is this shared culture you have in the movement? This is the glue that keeps you together, even if they arrest people.

I think a decentralized system was really helpful. It brought us to the fantastic situation where we had internal competition. The local branches did their own thing, and while they were sticking to the message and staying nonviolent, they were free to do whatever types of activities they would do. They ended up getting the crazier, the more powerful, the more "pranky" thing, getting more people arrested. There was internal competition.

It was also hell on earth for the government. We couldn't predict what our local branches would do, and, of course, they couldn't predict. So it is a really good way to keep your opponent off-guard.

Funding was kind of important in several levels. One of the things that American donor society should learn from Serbia is what works and what doesn't work. I think this is a grand lesson learned. Look at the sanctions. Targeted sanctions work; shotgun sanctions don't work. When you look at the petrol embargo, it is strengthening Milošević. When you look at freezing accounts of 10 of his associates, it really helps.

When you look at the donor money, I would particularly say that there were several levels where it was well spent.

First of all, local radio and TV stations—empowering the alternative media network in Serbia was so important. In 1996-97, we won the war on the local elections. We got mayors of 30 different municipalities, including the city of Belgrade. That meant having 23 radio and seven TV stations in the network. Equipping this network was the best-spent international money in the history of international support that I am aware of. I am not an expert in this.

Then funding the civil rights organizations, particularly training election monitors. One of the things you can do without being—when you are giving money to the opposition, of course, the opposition would be labeled to be foreign puppets, mercenaries, whatever. We have been there; we have done that. But one of the things which is really important is you want to develop a capacity for an independent election count. In many of these countries you get the situations where a government doesn't allow monitors or the opposition is not capable of producing them. We need 30,000 trained monitors on the day of election. This is our need.

TINA ROSENBERG: That was crucial in Chile also.

SRDJA POPOVIC: This is really a lot of work. I think IFES [International Foundation for Electoral Systems] and NDI [National Democractic Institute]—I don't know who funded it, but it was well-invested money. You can always tell—it will be labeled as foreign mercenaries, but you are basically funding free and fair elections.

So this type of money given to the concrete projects from abroad is something really, really useful, as opposed to having professional NGOs like you have in Belarus now. Funding different NGOs makes the international community a part of the problem rather than a part of the solution. This is how we get the NGO professionals and this is how we get the best excuses of the Lukashenkos of this world: "Oh, they are receiving money. They are NGO professionals."

I don't know if this helps, this type of advice, but the international community should help, and I think it is our obligation to help, but this type of stuff should be carefully taught.

TINA ROSENBERG: How important was international funding to Otpor!?

SRDJA POPOVIC: The last year it was important. At the very end, it was very important in this last campaign, and he is finished. It was basically done through printing and creating the materials and the T-shirts and stuff like that.

I think one of the mistakes the movement made—and that was also our mistake at the very beginning—you don't understand that the more you rely on your resources, the less vulnerable you are. Before we got to the position where we were really receiving a tremendous amount of some kind of aid, we were capable to survive. We had 23 offices that were donated by the members. You don't really look where you can fundraise inside a country.

There is also the highly underappreciated possibility to fundraise from internal business, because the businessmen are always sitting on two chairs. In the day they will have their photo opportunities with the government; in the night they are going to give—like we were getting cell phones from the top Serbian businessman for free because he wanted to make sure that in case we win—you never know.

When you look at the Hong Kong protests, they were reportedly supported by one of the two Hong Kong businesspeople.

It is really interesting, where there are so many opportunities for funding. Unfortunately, the organizations and movements, they sit down and write grants. This is how they become dependent. That is a big problem.

QUESTION: Good evening. Youssef Bahammi.

My question is in regard to the efforts of the former Yugoslav republics to be part of the European Union economy. Galvanization will be the best option for that?

My second question would be in regard to the fact that—is there really a galvanization versus Balkanization conflict here? Not only we have the division ever since the socialist republic has abated, we had the divisions with Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia, and Serbia-Montenegro. Inside of Serbia itself, it splits to Montenegro and now we have Kosovo and Vojvodina also trying to claim official sovereignty.

So is there galvanization versus local identity in this kind of context of action?

SRDJA POPOVIC: I think the process of breakdown of the former Yugoslavia ended effectively in 2000-2003, and we are witnessing since then, fortunately for me, what we were standing for. One of the things we often say is successful nonviolent struggles are about the values. One of the values we were standing for was peace and good neighborhood relationships. I think that was a very important ethical but also political moment in the movement's history. I think this idea prevailed. I think this idea is now driving the Balkans.

When I look at the Balkans in the next 10 to 15 years, if you are looking at the market, it is getting more integrated. If you are looking at the culture, it is getting more integrated. You have 20,000 people going to the concert of the biggest Croatian singer [in Serbia] and then have 20,000 people going to the concert of the biggest Serbian singer in Croatia.

So we are witnessing a kind of integration. Will this ever be one country again? I don't think so. It is not possible. But whether we are going to be all members of the European Union and good neighbors in 10 to 15 years, that is probably a far more possible prospect, and I am very happy for it. I see governments are—at least my government is trying hard to achieve this.

This is also another point: How do you make this victory stand? Very often you say, okay, you had the lovely nonviolent revolution in Egypt, but look what came out after that. That is a very important point. But when you build the movements around the personalities—like this is the movement to dismantle Mubarak—well, guess what? They were terribly successful in dismantling Mubarak. The problem is that they left the square and somebody else, the Muslim Brotherhood and the military, took over the show.

I think the Serbian transition was reasonably successful because it was about the values. One of these values was good relationships with neighbors. Now we have people who are sitting in government. The actual prime minister of Serbia is a former Milošević information minister. Guess what? When you look at him, he stands for European integration, free and fair elections, and he tries to be the best friend with Croats and Bosnians. That means that these values prevailed in the society, and whoever comes to power cannot get elected or cannot rule if they don't stick to these values.

So I think this is, overall, the good news for Balkans. Will it be easy? No, it won't be easy.

QUESTION: Ron Berenbeim.

Can you give us some thoughts on social media? Is it effective? Is it ineffective? When does it work, and how? When does it not work, and why doesn't it work?

SRDJA POPOVIC: We are living in a city where the biggest expert and enthusiast of social media and the political movements lives. His name is Clay Shirky. He is far more qualified to speak about it. But I will try to look at three things which are good and three things which are bad.

I'll start with the good. New media makes organizing faster, cheaper, less risky. Ten years ago, you needed to do leaflets, knock on doors, make posters. Now we make a Facebook group; everybody is there.

I had dinner last night with a wonderful woman, Yvette, who runs the organization called WITNESS. New media brought a fantastic price tag to every state-sponsored violence and human rights violation everywhere in the world. When you look at demonstrations in the lowest-tech place in the world, like Bahrain, some of these are being taped. You make sure that if there is violence, it will go viral very fast.

Last but not least in importance, what we are passionate about, new media brought a whole new world of learning. This is not only downloading e-books. This is now groups teaching how to do tactics from each other. There are groups being inspired by viral videos. We are in the process of conquering the technique. Last year, through Harvard, we did a workshop on nonviolent tactics—200 people, 63 different countries. You can't imagine the cost of it, as you can't imagine the risk of smuggling 17,000 physical books on how to organize the popular movement in Iran. It was not possible before new media.

However, new media has some downsides as well. The first of them I will call "clicktivism." How man polar bears have you saved by clicking on a Facebook page? Not too many. But you still do it.

We have this marvelous, great, fantastic movie called Kony 2012, with the great idea to put the light on one of the biggest war criminals in the world, hiding somewhere in the bushes of Africa. It had tremendous reach online. It fundraised a lot of money and did a lot of the public awareness raising. Unfortunately, Joseph Kony sits wherever he was sitting in 2012, doing whatever he was doing in 2012, meaning making child soldiers and raping women.

The problem is that very often you get seduced by the power of the online world. But the change is really done in the real world.

I think the organizations are really figuring this out. I had a great meeting with the leader of Avaaz, Ricken Patel, who is one of the most intelligent persons I have met. [Editor's note: For more on Patel, check out his 2013 Ethics Matter talk.] These are the people behind this tremendous climate change march. They, for the first time, say, "We have such a huge online following. Let's go offline. Let's do something on Mother Earth to see if this power of clicks can be translated down."

The second downside of the new media: Dictators learn it. Putin has an army of people who are called bots, like robots, the people who pose nasty comments under the opposition. They will sh*t on you on Twitter and do stuff like that all over the place. Dictators learn. They know how to use these tools. Of course, Erdoğan will consult Twitter. They will look at this new media as a new danger and they will try to conquer it.

Last but not of least importance, there is a danger in assembling people easily. We have seen this last year in Bosnia, for example, and in many other places. Because you have seen Tahrirs and Hong Kongs on the TV and because you can bring people together easily, you think that the occupation of the symbolic public space is the only thing you can do, because it's so easy to bring people, so let's occupy this and let's occupy that, without even thinking that there are so many other things. It is kind of thrilling. You are on the street. You have numbers. Everybody is singing and dancing.

I think the problem with this is—you need to understand that reaching numbers too fast, before you are ready, is equally dangerous as not reaching numbers at all. Last year we were witnessing tremendous—Bosnia is a small country. When you have 10,000 people there, it is like a million people here. It is a really small country. Tens of thousands of angry people were protesting because somebody called them over Facebook—no organization, no nonviolent discipline. It ended up by burning several governmental buildings, a lot of injured people. No clear demands; great disappointment.

Everything was coming from the fact that it was so easy to bring together angry people in large numbers without being ready. Who is there to talk to these people? Where are the security people? Where are the banners? Where are the people with music? How do we make this demonstration?

So, yes, new media is fantastic at bringing people together and putting a price tag on violence, and especially learning, but we need to understand that this is a tool and this is not the substance. Substance is happening in the real world.

JOANNE MYERS: Srdja and Tina, I want to thank you both for giving us a wonderful discussion. Srdja, if anyone could lead a revolution and have followers, you would be the one, certainly. I thank you for joining us.

You may also like

<a href="">Police and Protesters, Kiev, Jan 2014</a> via Shutterstock

MAR 5, 2014 Article

The Secret of Political Jiu-Jitsu

"While oppression may appear to be a display of the government's power, skilled activists know that it's actually a sign of weakness."

Anti-Morsy Graffiti.CREDIT: <a href="">Jonathan Rashad</a> (<a href=""">CC</a>)

APR 9, 2013 Article

Why Dictators Don't Like Jokes

Pro-democracy activists around the world are discovering that humor is one of the most powerful weapons in the fight against authoritarianism.

Images from left to right:<br><a href="" target="_blank">Otpor</a>; <a href="" target="_blank">April 6 Movement</a>; <a href="http://upload.

FEB 18, 2011 Article

From Resistance to Revolution and Back Again: What Egyptian Youth Can Learn From Otpor When Its Activists Leave Tahrir Square

Joksic and Spoerri discuss Otpor, the Serbian youth movement that influenced Egypt's youths. In analyzing the sources of Otpor's ultimate collapse after Milosevic's fall, they ...

Not translated

This content has not yet been translated into your language. You can request a translation by clicking the button below.

Request Translation