MARLENE SPOERRI: Hello, and welcome to Ethics Matter. I’m Marlene Spoerri, program officer for Ethics Matter here at Carnegie Council for Ethics and International Affairs.
Today’s guest doesn’t simply study revolutionary change; he lives it. Born and raised in the former Yugoslavia, Srdja Popovic learned the art of revolution the hard way. In the 1990s, he watched with horror as political elites drew his country into a succession of civil wars, bloodshed, and dictatorship. When Yugoslavia’s self-professed democratic leaders failed to bring democracy, Popovic and a small circle of students took matters into their own hands. Together, they founded the youth movement Otpor!. Like Gandhi, King, and other nonviolent revolutionaries before them, Otpor! used nonviolence strategically to undermine the pillars of power supporting injustice.
In the fall of 2000, Popovic and his colleagues helped to achieve the unthinkable. They forced the resignation of Slobodan Milosevic. The accomplishment was not lost on the international community. Before long, Popovic was getting invitations to teach lessons learned to activists from across the former Soviet Union, Asia, Africa, and the Middle East.
In 2004, Popovic and his colleagues co-founded CANVAS, the Centre for Applied Nonviolent Action and Strategy. As its executive director, Popovic is turning the art of revolution into a science. Working with democratic activists from some of the world’s most authoritarian countries, he argues that nonviolent resistance is not simply the most ethical way to bring down a dictator, but that it’s also the most effective.
It’s a lesson that has caught on. Whether in Egypt, Tunisia, Iran, or Burma, CANVAS-trained activists are employing the lessons of nonviolent resistance to counteract authoritarianism, which is why Popovic has been called one of the century’s most dangerous dictator slayers. It’s also why CANVAS was nominated for the 2012 Nobel Peace Prize.
Srjda Popovic, I’m so excited to welcome you to the Council.
SRJDA POPOVIC: It’s great being here.
MARLENE SPOERRI: You’re here as an activist, but, in fact, you didn’t start out that way. In your teens you were actually studying to become a biologist, if I’m correct. Tell me, how does a biology student who, on the face of it, wouldn’t seem to be particularly involved in politics, get into the business of bringing down a dictator?
SRJDA POPOVIC: Now none of my students in political science departments will listen to me, but I’m a master of biology. That’s my education. I feel very strongly about fishing and the outdoors, which is why I studied biology. But when you were a young man in a place like Serbia in the 1990s, you really had only two choices. One, faced with a deteriorating situation, was to leave and find your luck somewhere else. Unfortunately, the world is full of clever Serbs. I see some of them here tonight. They have very good jobs. They have very nice families. But, unfortunately, they are not coming back.
The other choice was to stay back and say to Milosevic, “No, you’re not going to keep me away.” This is what most of my generation did. We decided to stay back and fight.
So that was not courage; that was lack of choice.
MARLENE SPOERRI: So you decided to fight, but you decided to fight nonviolently. Given all the bloodshed of the Yugoslav wars, the NATO bombing, the years of sanctions, it almost seems ironic that you would turn to nonviolence. Explain that.
SRJDA POPOVIC: It seems actually logical. After being exposed to so much violence and seeing so many ugly people running around with guns, and seeing this national ethnic cleansing all around the globe, then seeing NATO bombs, one of which almost killed my mom in what was claimed to be a legitimate war target, hitting the national TV station of Serbia—she was in the building that night when the bomb hit —you really start avoiding violence.
For the Serbian movement, nonviolence was a clear, conscious choice, not only because we thought it ethically mattered, but because we knew it was going to work. Nonviolent conflict, as we see it, is an asymmetric form of warfare. You are actually waging war, but you don't have any particular chances to win on the military field.
Milosevic was very competent in the military field, and struggling with him, but also struggling with people like Assad in the military arena, would be like choosing to box with Tyson. The guy will come in, he will first eat your ears, then he’s going to eat you. This is not the choice for you. You pick the battlefield where you can, in fact, win. So you want to play chess with Tyson and you want to play nonviolent struggle with the Milosevics and Assads of this world.
MARLENE SPOERRI: You, of course, chose to co-found Otpor! in 1998. That was almost a decade into Milosevic's rule, a decade after political parties had been formed, dozens of NGOs had been formed, and alliances had been formed, all to oust Milosevic. What do you think distinguished Otpor! from these organizations at the time?
SRJDA POPOVIC: First of all, it took the Serbs 10 years to take out Milosevic. That means we are very stubborn people and slow learners. If you say to a Serb, “The stove is very hot,” he will still need to touch it.
But we were learning by doing it. We were doing it slowly but steadily. In 1992, my student protest—that was my freshman year—started in Belgrade. We were super excited to be in this cool place, occupying this lovely building, waving our hands, like your Occupy Wall Street guys. All the cool bands were there. All the rock bands were there. All the actors were there.
But we were living in our small bubble of common sense. Outside, Milosevic was arming his tanks. This is where we learned that we needed to build upon numbers, to talk to the middle ground, in order to win.
In 1996-97—our second challenge—Milosevic stole local elections after he lost them. We marched for 100 days. That means you need somehow to imagine what to do with tens of thousands of people every single day. It really stretches your creativity and it’s really a challenging process. This is where we learned a lot.
We made Milosevic recognize his defeat in the elections, February 4, 1997. But, still, we lost. It took the opposition seven minutes to split apart. This was where we learned a big lesson: If the opposition is not a part of the solution, it will be a part of the problem. The first principle of success in nonviolent struggle is unity. It took us two more years to make the opposition united behind one presidential candidate, so at the end of the day, we won.
What Otpor! particularly brought to this struggle is maybe three specific things. Every single movement thinks that this movement is super-cool and we are all reinventing history, but basically Otpor! was very well known for its very huge commitment to nonviolence, but also the huge commitment of being "in" and "cool." So if you want these movements to be really successful, you want people to feel good in this movement.
Second, Otpor! had a legendary branding and visual identity. The clenched fist, the symbol made by a young Serbian designer and my good friend Duda Petrovic, has been copied in eight different conflicts throughout the globe. That is the power of the symbol.
Third, we were relying very much on humor. That was one of the specifics of this movement. You were melting the fear with humor. This is a very important thing.
MARLENE SPOERRI: At what point did you realize that the lessons you had learned in Serbia might extend beyond the confines of Serbia and might have global application?
SRJDA POPOVIC: There’s a fantastic documentary made by American director Steve York, Bringing Down a Dictator. If you have five bucks to spend on Amazon, that’s five bucks well spent and it’s 60 minutes well spent. It guides you through the Serbian revolution. Even more important, it has been seen by 25 million people in the world, translated into 18 different languages. We often bump into people who know it.
I was so thrilled to find Zimbabweans watching it and being inspired by the Serbian revolution. Even Burmese monks who started the Saffron Revolution were watching this movie. Can you imagine the strange ways which bring a movie about the Serbian revolution into the monastery in the jungles of Burma? This is how the activism spreads.
So people see this movie, they come to us, and what is really interesting is that they are inspired with the model, but also with this idea that a small group of outsiders, like little Hobbits, are the guys who are going to make this process. We are not talking about elite-driven change. Popular nonviolent movements are the best way for the common people like you or me to really bring about the change.
Normally that excites the activists in strange places. They are disappointed in their government. They are disappointed in their opposition. They think their labor unions don't work. They think the NGO sector is completely taken by the government. So what do they do? They take the destiny into their own hands. It's up to them to believe that it is possible. Once they see that it was possible in Serbia, they get super-excited.
The funny thing is that when you meet these guys, it’s always the same. At every single workshop, they say, “Okay, you guys were very good in Serbia, but this will really never work in Burma because we have this habit of obedience.” “This will never work in Syria because the regime is too oppressive.”
Now it’s up to us to guide them through the process, to understand how they could find the courage to break this cultural fear and apathy.
MARLENE SPOERRI: Can you tell us a little bit about how this works? Do you reach out to activists? Do they come to you?
SRJDA POPOVIC: They come to us, thanks to the movie and our small booklet called Bringing Down a Dictator, but also thanks to the growing number of free sources. In the last two or three years there are so many phenomenal books. To mention a few:
• Small Acts of Resistance, the great book by a man who sits here, actually, John Jackson, and another friend of mine [Steve Crawshaw], telling all the beautiful stories about how activists throughout the globe do the small things against the oppressive regimes.
So there are a huge number of resources. What’s happening is that people get some of these resources. They call and contact us. We never go uninvited. The movements contact us. Then we try to respond.
You need to understand that we are a group of seven people, seven employees, in a small office in Belgrade, and 12 trainers who work internationally, but they are not employed. So we have a very limited number of human and material resources to respond, though we try to respond.
We go and we meet with these people. Sometimes we go to the countries where this happens. Sometimes we get expelled from these countries. We got expelled from Belarus. We got expelled from Lebanon after Hariri’s assassination. Sometimes we ask people to come across the border, and we need somehow to smuggle them out and meet them on a safe ground.
But it's basically the same: You spend five days with these people. You explore their struggle. First of all, you tell them that there is absolutely no way that foreigners can tell you what to do. In order to be efficient, this revolution needs to be your own. You need really to follow your own instincts and follow the things. Then you drive them through the history. You tell them the very important things.
Look at this. We’re sitting here in the Carnegie Council, whose slogan is Ethics Matter. We are talking about nonviolence. Look at your history books. Eighty percent of this is violent conflict. Look at your movie collection. Seventy percent of these are movies about Vietnam. How many good movies about Martin Luther King? One or two? One with Ben Kingsley about Gandhi, one—very cool—one about Harvey Milk. It’s a very limited piece on your shelf. Why?
When we look at the results, what really matters in history are the consequences. There is this fantastic study by two young American scholars—you should invite these two—Maria Stephan and Erica Chenoweth. It’s called Why Civil Resistance Works. They examined 323 campaigns from 1900 to 2006. They understood that if you run a violent campaign, you have about a 26 percent chance of winning. If you, however, run a nonviolent campaign, you have a 53 percent chance of winning. So by taking up firearms, the people of Syria and Libya effectively cut their chances by half.
MARLENE SPOERRI: One of the overarching ambitions, as you mentioned, of the Council is that of engaging in ethical inquiries. I would like to get your perspective on the ethics of foreign intervention, and in particular the kinds of intervention that you are dealing with. Your critics, of course, say that you’re in the business of exporting revolution and regime change. I’m curious about your response to those accusations. In particular, do you think that what CANVAS does to intervene abroad raises any ethical questions, particularly as relates to the question of state sovereignty?
SRJDA POPOVIC: First of all, we never tell people what to do. We just give them the toolbox. What they will do with the toolbox is completely up to them.
There was this very popular narrative. It was launched in Russia, basically, after the Orange Revolution in Ukraine and the Revolution of Roses in Georgia. Chávez has actually done a lot to advertise this. He appeared on TV with this popular story of a few Serbs being armed with a lot of knowledge and 1 million bucks, and then you ship them into a country and, boom, you have the revolution.
I would be the luckiest person in the world if this is how easy it is to bring about democracy. I would easily fundraise for a few million bucks and then go from country to country and make them free. But unfortunately it doesn’t work this way.
Why is nonviolent revolution so different from violent revolution when it comes to international intervention? Numbers. You win a nonviolent revolution by gaining numbers. You could easily imagine a world in which you have 4,000 or 5,000 trained guerilla soldiers, with the cool Che Guevara guy at the top. They get into one banana republic. They seize the parliament, the airport, the radio station, the TV station, put a pistol to the head of Mr. President, make him concede the government to the Revolutionary Committee of X, whatever, and then pack their crowd in trucks and go to another banana republic.
Very much like that, in order to win the nonviolent struggle, it is numbers. People will need to really feel something about change in the country. Do you think it would be possible to take 1 million Egyptians and export them to Burma to do the revolution? They wouldn’t care about Burma. Half of them wouldn’t find Burma on the map. These revolutions are absolutely not exportable and importable.
But when it comes to foreign intervention, we were members of a very interesting event organized by Independent Diplomat on exploring intervention and its tools. It happened last year. We were talking about why the international community always thinks about "hamburger," which stands for foreign bombing and foreign military intervention, or “French fries,” which stands for sanctions. As somebody who has been exposed to sanctions and bombing as a democratic activist, I must tell you, they don’t work.
Shotgun sanctions, which hit the population, give the dictator an easy way out to deal with the economy, to push the whole population into the gray zone, to find an excuse for the lousy situation—"It’s about these evil foreigners; they’re all in conspiracy against the Serbs." Then foreign bombings just bring people around the dictator.
When you look at George W. Bush's ratings, they were highest on September 12. This is normal. When you look at Milosevic's ratings, they were highest during the NATO bombing. If a bear is dancing in front of this door, we will find a way to reach a consensus, get rid of the bear, and then argue on whatever we are.
This is why foreign military interventions don't work.
When you look at the numbers, though, what do you want to achieve? If you are a knowledgable foreigner, like a guy sitting here in the Carnegie Council, and you really want to bring democracy, look at the numbers. The same study, Why Civil Resistance Works, looks at five years after the change, and if the change is achieved through violent means, you have about a 4 percent chance to end in democracy—4 percent. If the change is achieved through a nonviolent struggle, you have about a 42 percent chance.
So not only is nonviolent struggle twice more likely to succeed, but it is 10 times more likely to proceed to democracy. Why? Again, let us go back to what the nonviolent movements are. They are groups of common people. They stand for the values for the future. They win their victories. By participating in a struggle, they become the shareholders of change, and then it’s very difficult to take this change away from them.
Unlike that, when you look at foreign military intervention, what happens? The cavalry comes in, they take the bad guy out, they hang him in front of the TV cameras, and when they leave, what’s there to be left? What’s there for the people to feel that they belong to this change?
MARLENE SPOERRI: I think that’s a good bridge to my next question, which is about the Middle East. As you have written, 2011 was a bad year for bad guys. Initially at least, the Arab Spring was very much a narrative about the surprising success of nonviolent resistance. In 2012, however, that narrative changed. We witnessed the violence in Libya and Syria and the very slow pace of reform in Egypt. Do you see what’s happening across the Middle East as a repudiation of nonviolent resistance or as further justification thereof?
SRJDA POPOVIC: In the easy and very Monty Python way to say that 2011 was a bad year for bad guys, 2012 can be the year for a bad hangover. But it’s not the hangover. It is just the lessons we learned.
Look at this. When you look at all the struggles in the Middle East—and I'm talking about the nonviolent struggles, Tunisia and Egypt—it’s very important to understand that the moment you achieve electoral democracy, M&Ms [candies] do not start falling from the sky. It’s a long process. I would say to those who are very impatient with what is happening, for example, in Egypt—that now, even a year after this transition, you still have this turmoil; the people are taking to the streets—the very smell of the president taking the dictatorial route, being in charge for this and that or overtaking the judiciary—really makes people very angry, and they go out in the street.
We need to understand that the transition is a three-step process. What is actually happening is that you have a phase one, which we know a lot about. This is how you mobilize people, how you achieve unity, how you build numbers, how you use communications—how you get rid of the bad guys.
Then the phase two, which we too often overlook, is what happens once you shake this building. If the government is rolling in the street, it is very likely that the most organized groups will take over. Look at Burma. The military stepped in to solve the situation and somehow stayed in power for 25 years. SCAF [Supreme Council of the Armed Forces], in Egypt, overtook and said, “We will do the transition.”
The military is not the entity which can easily do a transition, and in fact, in history, it never has.
So what is very important to know is how to make this revolution happen, but to also make the swift transition to a democratic government. It means you need to have a democratic government, or at least a plan, in charge.
There are the five most common mistakes a movement makes. First, they forget about the vision of tomorrow. The vision of tomorrow is not getting rid of Mubarak. The vision of tomorrow is having a democratic and prosperous Egypt. The vision of tomorrow was not getting rid of Milosevic. The vision of tomorrow was having Serbia at peace with its neighbors, economically prosperous, with complete democracy, and relatively underway to join the EU.
That was the pressure being put on the new government from day one after the revolution. We were highly criticized that we were using the same toolbox against the new government when Milosevic left, but I actually think that was very healing for the new government, because they are accountable and they understand that the people and the numbers count.
The second big mistake is that too often you lose the momentum. You have this powerful momentum, then you set off fireworks, you go home, and then, instead of continuously changing the system, you leave other players to step into place. What in the world makes you think that if only a small group of Hobbits is capable to deal against the powers of Mordor, these other guys who were unable to struggle against Mordor will govern your state efficiently without your help? They need your help. You need to stay tuned. To come back to fish, movements are like sharks. If the movement stops, the movement dies. Sharks must be swimming at all times in order to survive.
There is also a third very common mistake: Don't fall in love with your new elite too fast. New elites can find the shoes of old elites very, very comfortable. So keep them accountable.
Last but not of least importance, maintain unity. Unity is the foremost principle of success in nonviolent struggle. And I know it’s very difficult. The real problem is that when you have this bogeyman sitting on the top, he’s a very strong unifying factor. But what about when the bogeyman is not there anymore, when you get rid of him? For some nations, specifically nations like Egypt or Serbia, it’s always easier to unify against something than for something. It’s a very bizarre logic.
But when you look at the Middle East, keep patience. We are talking about hundreds of millions of people moving from dictatorship to democracy. We will see the end of this process. Call me an optimist, but the world has changed. Look at Eastern Europe. Look at what Walesa started. Eastern Europe now mostly consists of democratic societies. Look at South America. Look at what happened after Pinochet fell. South America mostly consists of democracies now. The Balkans, too, and now North Africa is opening up.
So we are looking at this fourth wave of democratization. I’m not a social scientist. But more and more small groups of young people, mainly outsiders, are taking over the show, and sometimes they do it with very good results.
MARLENE SPOERRI: Let’s look at Syria. The death toll there is now believed to be well over 40,000. There are rumors of chemical weapons being in the works. In a case like this where you see extreme violence, can the international community simply afford to wait and hope that nonviolent movements are going to be successful? Don't we have an ethical obligation to intervene militarily to prevent further bloodshed?
SRJDA POPOVIC: I don't believe in foreign military intervention. I would like to see one single country where foreign military intervention brought democracy and stability in the last 30 years. Then I will move to that country and live there, starting from now.
Speaking of this, when you look at Syria, Syria is a very interesting example. These guys somehow decided to go to the boxing ring with Tyson, and now their ears have been eaten, literally. What is really happening there—you can compare it with South Africa. South Africa had a very similar situation—a very bad dictatorship; a small group of white people controlling most of the resources; two allied groups of minorities, Coloureds and Indians, who did have some rights; and then the huge deprived number of black people, whether talking Xhosa or Zulu or other languages.
When you look at Syria, you have a small group of Alawites affiliated with the Christians and Kurds, both of them with their own fears of the Sunni majority, and then you have the Sunni majority. So the first thing is unity. I hope that the new opposition coalition will bring some unity. But without building unity, you will never win. If this things slips into sectarian conflict, then it is going to be very bad news for the country, but also the conflict may spill over to other countries. We can actually see it spilling over in places like Lebanon or Jordan already.
Second, you need to learn from the other lessons. South Africa had this marvelous start of the African National Congress. Then you have a very stupid, slow breakdown, with the idea that somehow the Spear of the Nation—that was the guerilla movement—can challenge what was the most powerful army on the African continent in that point. At one point they were completely internationally isolated. They were still oppressed, and nothing worked.
There was this young student, whom I was lucky to meet, Mkhuseli Jack, who stepped out in front of his college students and said, “But who is paying for this oppression?” Then he listed the companies which were paying taxes to the government. They understood that actually they, the majority of the black people, by buying this and this and this, were paying for the oppression by buying these goods.
Very encouraging signals are coming from Syria, in two ways. What these guys should do, if I may advise them, for one thing, is go for low-risk tactics. Don't go to squares. Do flash demonstrations. We’ll see girls going out from the barbershop doing 30-second demonstrations and disappearing before the police are there. We see small loudspeakers singing revolutionary songs posted in markets, making the police go crazy to find them and destroy them.
Then we need to see more acts of mass non-cooperation. If the bills are not paid, if a general strike hits the country, where will Assad find the money to maintain this level of oppression? That’s the big question.
So playing chess—or whatever, Scrabble—with Mike Tyson would be picking on the vulnerabilities. In the case of Assad, it’s his wallet.
MARLENE SPOERRI: Just as revolutionary movements in Iran and Yemen and, to a lesser extent maybe, Syria are learning from their colleagues in Egypt and Tunisia, so too are today’s dictators. You mentioned William Dobson’s work, The Dictator’s Learning Curve. He shows that dictators, like activists, are constantly inventing new ways to crack down on their opponents. What challenges do you think this poses for today’s activists that perhaps weren’t there when you were struggling against Milosevic?
SRJDA POPOVIC: It's a mutual and very dynamic process. This is one other reason why you can’t copy and paste revolution. How will you copy and paste Facebook from Serbia to Egypt? We didn’t have even email.
You look at all the changes, and all the tactics are actually changing. But the principles are the same. When you look at the principles, they are following the principles. The scenarios are changing very much.
First of all, it's more difficult than ever to be a typical dictator nowadays. Will Dobson—I share this opinion 100 percent—says that traditional Kim Jung-un-types of dictators are going to be an extinct species in 10 or 20 years. Being in open confrontation with your populace—it’s a very bad idea. Look at Ben Ali. Look at Mubarak. Look at Qaddafi. Look at Assad. He can’t linger long. And look at these countries. They fell into civil war. It’s complicated. These guys don't want to do that.
We are looking at tough choices in front of dictators. There are two different scenarios they can pick. One, they can pick the scenario that we call accommodation. We are witnessing this in Morocco, with a very clever king who is trying to do reforms before the tide comes to his door. We are witnessing this, to my big surprise, in Burma, where generals actually tried to protect resources by pushing a step-by-step transition. It’s looking good up to now.
Then the other choice is that you need to prevent people, to stop them before they get to the street. Obviously, once they get to the street, it’s a very bad game for the dictators.
So we are witnessing all these new tactics, like, “Yes, you can have an NGO struggling for human rights, and you can register the Carnegie Council in Russia, but only if you put ‘Foreign Agents’ on here, so people can see that you are foreign agents.” “Yes, you can have a political opposition party in Azerbaijan, but we will close it down if it doesn’t have a fire extinguisher.”
This is not the open oppression. This is the phenomenon Will Dobson calls the "velvet glove over the iron fist." These are the tricks the dictator learns.
At the same time, on the activists’ side, we need to improve this process of learning. We need to invest more into learning.
I would like to see more competition to my organization. I would like to see 15 small CANVASs producing knowledge around the globe, translating books and making it available for the people. We are thinking about going online with our course. We are thinking about how to find the money to make a video tutorial, like how to play “Space Oddity,” by David Bowie, on the guitar on YouTube—"You strum like this. This is C-major and this is E-minor." This is how I learned to play. It’s very useful.
If you can make more tools available for the people, that could be a very good idea.
MARLENE SPOERRI: In addition to CANVAS, there is another advantage that today’s activists have that you and your colleagues at Otpor! didn’t have, and that’s social media. Twitter and Facebook were the symbols of the Arab Spring. To what extent do you think that credit is deserved, and are there potential drawbacks related to today’s use of social media?
SRJDA POPOVIC: Social media brought a lot of things to the nonviolent arena. First, it made things faster and cheaper. Imagine us making a rally 15 years ago. You need to print leaflets, posters, distribute them, knock on the doors, make radio commercials. It takes time; people get arrested. Now with Facebook groups, people know.
Second, it puts a huge price tag on state-sponsored violence, since the big breakthrough of citizen journalism during the Saffron Revolution, where people were using their small handy cameras to export images from Burma. Now whenever you see a demonstration, everybody is taping. Now the price is a little bigger, so don't be amazed that the people like Putin are handling their protesters with care in front of the cameras.
Third, but for me most important, it makes the learning process faster. I was a big fan of an American scholar called Gene Sharp. I smuggled, like, 700 pages of his books into Serbia, and I read them all. Then I needed to digest it for my fellow activists. The book we started with—Nonviolent Struggle for Dummies we called it; this was a very short manual—it has been downloaded 17,000 times in Iran only in June 2009. It’s 2 megabytes. It’s very small. It’s downloadable for free. There are a lot of these resources.
So it makes the learning process faster.
Every coin has two sides, of course. Dictators can learn these things. They can use the Internet to censor people. The first thing, when they arrest you in Iran, they get from you your passwords and your user names. They can be the "virtual you," so they lure your friends and they arrest them. Very unlike the real world, where they can't really put on your skin and lure your friends, this is what your friends believe. This is one of the big dangers.
A second is, we are witnessing this—we have this debate over and over around different campaigns—we are witnessing the era of collectivism, meaning there is this lovely Facebook page, I go there, I click there, and I save a polar bear. But I didn’t save a polar bear really.
The real trouble is that this struggle is fought and won in the real world. You may have 5 billion clicks on your lovely Facebook page, but Assad is still sitting in his presidential palace. In order to win, you need to mobilize people to really do things, to do things in the real world.
We never want to mistake tools for substance. The substance is, you have a vision, unity, movement, and then you have tools. In South Africa they didn’t have landlines, but they somehow sang their songs from village to village, and they found a way to convey their message on a very, very low-tech level, and they won.
QUESTION: Thanks very much, and thanks for all your great work. Two questions.
Gandhi, King, most proponents of nonviolence have argued that there’s a spiritual, religious dimension to it and that treating it only pragmatically is not likely to work. I’m just curious what you think about that.
The second question is, can the tools of nonviolence be used for ill purposes, shall we say?
SRJDA POPOVIC: The answer to the first question—when you look at these modern movements, they are watching the three dimensions of nonviolent struggle or nonviolent discipline. One is, they preach it. Otpor! was preaching nonviolence as the way of the moral high ground. I would disagree that it needs to have a religious dimension. In some cases, you meet people from Burma or Vietnam or the Orthodox Christians in Serbia, where it has a religious dimension. In other cases, it was preached as the moral high ground. So it has a moral dimension rather than a religious dimension.
Secondly, it has an operational dimension. You train your troops in nonviolence. You make sure that between you and the police ranks you have priests, girls, or your own security forces preventing your people from running into the police, because you want to diminish any possibility of violence. You also make sure that you are actually having a party, a carnival atmosphere—drums, music. You really want to diminish this possibility of having a violent outbreak.
Third, you practice nonviolence on the coalition dimension. You build these alliances with various groups, but you need to avoid the groups that have a history of violence. In Serbia it’s a case of football fans. It took us a hell of a lot of work to avoid them having the symbols of the resistance, because the moment they have the T-shirts, they will run into the police. The state news will have the story of their life.
I have seen this being done very efficiently in Italy—the latest protest in support of the Occupy movement, November 2011, in particular. There were 100,000 people in Rome, and there was this very small group called the Black Bloc. They are anti-globalist, anarchist types of people. They will come in. They will burn cars. They will throw Molotovs. They are very good at it.
What Italian activists did was to first make a line of their own security between them and the Black Bloc. Then they offered a 50 euro reward for the best tape of the people burning cars so they could give it to the police. So from moment zero, they distanced themselves in the perception of the people, and they also gave a very cool signal to these Black Bloc people that they are not welcome. They wouldn’t conflict with them, but they then would give them over to the police.
And yes, the tools of nonviolent struggle are used by dictators—putting forward Nashi, for example which was a Russian-government-sponsored youth movement, in order to occupy the space that a potential youth movement could fill.
When you look at Chávez, he's on a constant campaign. But guess what? By doing this, we are moving this struggle to a more democratic field. We are luring these dictators to leave their boxing ring and come to the ground, where you can really beat them. We are talking about Chávez. He needed to win elections, participated in by 82 percent of Venezuelans, in order to stay in power. It was not enough to arrest three opposition leaders and then stay in power, you understand.
So dictators use these tools. But I don't think it’s a bad thing per se. I think it’s a different battleground, and I think this is actually the battleground where a nonviolent movement has more chance than the battleground opposing the high oppression.
QUESTION: David Speedie, Carnegie Council.
From the spiritual plane of the last question, I regret, to the highly practical. Who decides where you go? The list of choices may seem obvious, the ones that you have been discussing. But who decides? You? Is there an advisory group of your organization?
Who is your funding source or sources for all this—a small organization, but nevertheless extensive travel and so on?
Third, say a little bit more about your involvement, since it has been so recent, in Egypt and Tunisia. Who was the inviting organization? Was there a formal invitation? How did you come to go there in the first place?
SRJDA POPOVIC: First of all, groups invite us. We never go after the conflict. They learn about us through the books and movies, and they contact us.
Groups from Egypt and Tunisia—we met various Egyptian and Tunisian activists in various seminars and conferences all around the globe, especially Tunisians. They were very active at the very beginning.
We were invited to work with Egyptians by the organization called April 6 and Kefaya. April 6 is a student movement. They were already using the clenched fist symbol when they came into contact with us, that is they were using the symbol of the Serbian resistance. What is very interesting is that they mixed the two things. They had a tremendous talent. They took the name “April 6,” which is actually May Day in Egypt. This is a big workers’ thing. There were April 6 demonstrations in Mahalla.
In fact, we never went there. We brought them to Belgrade, because Egypt is very close to Belgrade and it’s easy to travel. We wouldn’t do this for the Burmese. It would cost us a lot of money to bring the Burmese to Belgrade.
We performed workshops, 15 days overall, for them and members of another group called Kefaya. We were in touch with these two groups. Later we were in touch with a bunch of other groups, people from [inaudible] Institute. We have a natural Egyptian friend now. It’s huge.
We delivered the standard workshop on nonviolent struggle. This is what we basically do. Then they went underground. It’s very interesting. Very unlike other groups, the Middle East groups don't follow up. They will never send you what they do.
There was the day I got a shock. We met them in July 2009. They tested the ground. This is where we understood that they are taking this ground of small victories. In February 2010, a year before the change really happened in Egypt, there was this huge photo on the cover page of the Serbian newspapers, while I was buying cigarettes. (I was smoking at that time.) It said, “Fist Shakes Egypt.” So all the people who were out—this iconic Associated Press photo of a scarred woman carrying a big flag with the clenched fist in the streets of Cairo.
They were testing this thing. They had a very distinguished strategy. They said, “We will reach for August 2011, because this is when Mubarak will meet to make the transition to his son, Gamal. This is going to be his weak point, because the military hates Gamal, the business community hates Gamal, and Egyptians feel like sheep to be left to the dictator’s son.”
In fact, they were building their movement to come out in public, and very strongly, in August 2011. The very fact that they came out earlier is because they were so jealous that the Tunisians had done it, and they are the smaller brother in this family. The Egyptians think of themselves as the big brother.
The second question: CANVAS is a small nonprofit based in Belgrade, 70-square-meter office, five fully-employed people, two interns. We have a lot of interns. Actually, part of my mission here in New York is to find myself more interns. We look like the UN. Entrants are coming from all over the world.
The decision-making process—basically, it’s two people, me and Slobodan Djinovic. Slobodan Djinovic is the founding chair of CANVAS and I’m kind of the executive director. We make the decisions whether or not to go. Our main thing is, we do the background analysis.
We would work with any group that doesn’t have a history of violence. We always search for a strong commitment to nonviolence. We work with all types of groups, from student groups, labor union groups, NGOs, political parties, environmental activists opposing big companies in places like Nigeria, female rights groups from places like Iran —all different types. We don't say we will not work with you because you are a party or you are a labor union. This is not very important for us. It’s important that these people have a plan to create a change.
Our annual budget is very low. It is 100 percent privately funded, talking about the fixed operational costs. Our main contributor is Slobodan Djinovic. He’s the owner of the second-biggest Serbian telecom, Orion Telekom.
Though we partner with people—and as we speak, I will use this opportunity to say that we are now fundraising for three big projects, and we would be very happy to partner with people who would help to develop our online course so that we can make sure that, through the online course, people can learn the same thing as through the real workshop. This will enable us to use tuition fees coming from Western students. There is growing interest in Western universities. We teach at NYU, Colorado College, places like this. So we can use their tuition fees to make studying free for people from places like Syria.
In Burma, we are also fundraising for a big project of making these video tutorials.
We partner with a variety of organizations. We probably partner with 50 different organizations. Some of them are the usual suspects in the world of democracy promotion, like Freedom House. Some of them funded our workshop for Colombians in Bogotá, like UNDP [United Nations Development Programme]. Probably the last entity in the world that will fund this was UNDP. But we have a very long list of the people who made these big seminars and then they invite us to teach.
But there’s a big difference. These people don't fund CANVAS. They do their thing and then our trainers come there and we charge travel costs and a small fee. They outsource CANVAS rather than fund CANVAS.
We keep private funding because we want to keep this independence. That’s very good because we have a reputation of being independent. But it’s very bad because we can’t grow. I spend three months a year making my small company run. This is the big dilemma—to grow and to become more bureaucratic and more dependent on governmental-related or business-related funds or to stay small, totally cool, relatively independent?
But then I have this dilemma, because I have groups from three or four different countries and I have manpower and finances to respond to two. So it’s a really tough place.
QUESTION: I'm Larry Bridwell. I teach MBA students in international business.
You kept emphasizing the unity, and when I follow what’s going on in Egypt, part of the revolution was the people from the Muslim Brotherhood who wanted to overthrow Mubarak, and right now the tension is with the people who want a secular Egypt. In terms of the Egyptian uprising, it was a coalition between the Brotherhood and the secularists. I’m curious as to your view in terms of this emphasis on unity, how you think this is going to play out in the future.
SRJDA POPOVIC: Unity is a very important thing when it comes to overthrowing a dictator. Definitely there was a high level of cooperation between the secular youth groups and the Muslim Brotherhood. I’m talking about January 2011. Then there was unity between the Muslim Brotherhood and the military, in a way, because the military, SCAF, overtook them. Youth groups made a lot of stupid mistakes. They fell apart. They didn’t maintain the momentum.
But now, with the growing fear that Egypt will somehow go into a more Islamic way or, even worse for the revolution, that Morsi, the first elected president of Egypt, will somehow take over powers that don't belong to the president, you can see the fast mobilization of youth groups, you can see the high level of unity, and you can see them colliding with media, labor unions. This is a very interesting dynamic.
But the reason why I’m hopeful for Egypt—and I keep arguing with the people about it, and they call me an optimist—you look at the results and you can see, actually, the Muslim Brotherhood, which was forbidden for years, and Salafists, who went into the politics arena in Egypt, formed the overwhelming majority in the first parliamentary elections. Then, less than a year after that, when you look at the results of their presidential candidates, they are far lower. That’s a sign that the Egyptian voters expect their politicians to deliver. This is the first really long-term sign of democracy.
But they need to learn these tools. These guys didn’t have normal elections for 26 years. For God’s sake, you can’t expect them to learn this within a year or two period. In Serbia it took us 12 years to perform a really thorough transition, and now we are living in a country where an NGO appears on TV, says who won the elections, and you go to sleep, if you are not particularly passionate about seeing the winning and conceding speeches. You believe you have free and fair elections.
We need three or four cycles of free and fair elections, and then you change the government. When the government changes, if they continue to stay in the mainstream, then it is a good sign that you are in a democracy. But sorry, it takes time. It doesn’t come overnight.
QUESTION: You have worked around the world. There are some cases in which you have been more successful in helping the local pro-democratic oppositions. I wonder, what is it that you think makes some difference in some cases over others?
SRJDA POPOVIC: I think we are more or less the same, but we learn fast. But I need to make this clear. CANVAS has no credit for whatever change happens in a place like Egypt or Venezuela or doesn’t happen in a place like Zimbabwe. All the credits and failures belong to the people who are really doing it. This is particularly the reason why I will never say, “Do this,” or, “Do that.” They know best. I’m a Serb, and I don't even pretend to understand Burma better than Burmese people. It would be stupid to even think that.
Yes, there were cases where groups were particularly efficient. There were, of course, Georgians, and Ukrainians, and Lebanese after Hariri’s assassination, Maldivians, and then Egyptians. There were cases where groups were not particularly successful. It depends on what the groups do.
When we are examining these things, we learn a lot from these mistakes. There are three groups of mistakes that a movement often makes. First, unity is a big problem. If they either fall apart or they can’t achieve unity, they will stay stuck in some kind of division or they will be consumed by the government.
Sometimes even unity is not enough. Capriles was the elected candidate against Chávez. But when you look at this thing, it really made Venezuela more exciting and more involved in the political process. It is the big breakthrough, very much like the cycle of the coups and high suppression 10 years ago.
Then the second thing is, movements miss the momentum. One of the tricks in nonviolent struggle is that you must know when and how to proclaim victory and get the hell out of town. You don't stay forever on the square: “This is the victory. This is what we are going to build from.”
Case study: Tiananmen, when you look at the situation where students were really high-ground, they had huge numbers, the government was ready to concede to something, and then they were looking at these crowds and saying, “No, no. Let’s ask for more.”
This is the moment where you don't recognize your momentum. You want to look at the narrow problematic momentum? Watch the great movie called Burma VJ. You will see how the monks are building the movement and the students are joining the movement. You have hundreds of thousands of people with absolutely no plan for what they were going to do. They sit there, and a guy says to another guy in the movie, “Oh, now we have 200,000 people. Let’s see what the military will do.”
There’s the moment they lost the momentum. There’s the moment they lost their chance. When you have a chance to shoot on goal, you do it. I know it’s better for you if you have done it two minutes before the end of the game, but do it.
Third, a lot of these movements suffer from outsiders. Outsiders tend to make many, many different mistakes. They make stupid sanctions. They bomb countries. They also love to micromanage. In Serbia, every single diplomat had his own private puppet politician or puppet NGO. It took a lot of work to really persuade foreigners that they should help build unity rather than discourage unity.
It’s sometimes tough work to do. Sometimes you can see some of these struggles being really, really, really exposed to the foreigners. This is why we need a guide on how to deal with these struggles and what they can do to help them, really.
QUESTION: Susan Woodward.
You may have already answered this question with this last one, but I want to just push you on Otpor! Why didn’t that continue the momentum?
SRJDA POPOVIC: It did. In fact, Otpor! did a big thing. Starting from day one, we were putting pressure on the new government. Otpor! made this decision to become a watchdog organization. I will tell you that it’s very problematic, how the new government would look if there was no pressure from Otpor!. Otpor! played a particularly big role in facing two big problems for the new government. One was, of course, corruption, and the second was sending Milosevic to The Hague. Djindjic really needed assistance to do that, because the first elected president was not very happy to do it either. Thanks to Otpor! it happened.
In 2003, Otpor! shifted into a political party. I was not a member of the movement then. I went into Parliament in 2000. So I really can’t tell what happened and who brought about this decision. Sometimes these movements should turn into political parties. I actually think that new political parties would make a lot of sense in a place like Egypt, because we are talking about a very young situation.
You can pick different destinies for these activists. They can become political parties. They can become watchdog organizations. They can become even the seeds of the new civil society, because after the training, a new civil society is needed in this situation.
But the most important thing is that somehow you need to maintain the social activism, because this is what society needs. It’s very, very difficult to put the movement into the structure, especially if it’s a widely dispersed, leaderless kind of thing. It’s easier when you have a top-bottom organization, like Lech Walesa’s Solidarity. You can easily organize out of that. You can make an election and you have a candidate.
But when you have a dispersed movement, like in Serbia, Czechoslovakia, and Egypt, it’s very difficult to put these people into a box and say, “Now you’re an NGO.” Being an NGO is not half as sexy as being anti-Mubarak. People will leave. They will finish their studies. They will go back to their families, jobs. It’s a tricky process.
But if the vision of tomorrow is there and if you advertise it strongly, people may stay there in order to keep their politicians accountable. This is why Otpor! was particularly important. It stayed on the scene for two or three more years, poking the new government every time when it was losing its orientation.
QUESTION: Sherin Gobran.
Can you talk about the role of humor and satire in the process?
SRJDA POPOVIC: Absolutely. First of all, go buy Small Acts of Resistance. This is a very good book. I don't have a percentage in this. I’m just advertising it because there are so many cool examples. You will have a lot of fun on the subway when reading this.
Social scientists of the 19th century really thought that revolutionaries should be serious, because they are involved with the serious business of revolution. When you look at Castro and Che Guevara, even Yugoslav strongman Tito, they are, like—you know, grim faces. And when you look at this new breed of revolutionaries, they are all funny, playing drums. It’s all of this different kind of stuff.
In fact, I must tell you, they are coming. This is the new era.
There are three particular reasons why humor is such a powerful element in nonviolent struggle. First, if we would play a video game instead of waging nonviolent war, the video game would have two parameters. There would be fear and apathy here, and humor and enthusiasm here. If you can build the humor and enthusiasm, and you can melt the fear and apathy, then your character in the videogame is winning. This is how you can observe this.
Humor, though, has three great aspects:
• First, it melts fear and builds enthusiasm, of course.
• Second, it makes your movement cool. You want your movement to be cool. People want to join the things that are cool. I remember, in 1996 and 1997, if you were not protesting on the street, nobody would date you. People would think that you’re a geek and are sitting home and learning, and the whole fun and the whole society is out in the street. I have people here in the audience who remember this time, some of the vets of the movement.
• Third, and very important, people in power, even democratically elected politicians, who spend too much time in the office, tend to start believing this picture they see on TV and on the billboards, and start thinking very seriously about themselves, which is the mistake movements must never do.
Look at the situation. You are a group of 15 activists. You bring a big, fat barrel into the central Belgrade downtown shopping district. There is a hole in it and there is a baseball bat. There’s the president’s face on the barrel. You put the coin in, you hit the guy, boom. Two hundred people are waiting for this. We are nearby having coffee.
But that's not the funniest part. The funniest part is when police arrive. What will they do? This fantastic dilemma is one example. Arrest shoppers? A very stupid choice. What will they charge them for? For hitting that barrel? Arrest us? We are nowhere to be seen. So at the end of the day, they arrested the barrel. The picture of the police dragging the barrel to the police car was the best shot on the cover page of the Serbian opposition newspapers.
Look at the recent events in Russia. Yes, you can protest in St. Petersburg and Moscow, because that’s where the cameras are. But if you are living in Barnaul, Siberia, a very small place, a very distant place, you can’t really go on the street and protest. So people came to this genius idea to bring out their toys. They built a stage on the central square. The toys were carrying small placards asking for free and fair elections and claiming election fraud.
You can see it on a video by a great Russian artist Anna Emiliyva [phonetic]. Everybody’s taping. The police are there, and the police are having fun. They’re taping as well. It’s a toy protest. Then it goes viral on YouTube. The next thing you know, the telephone of the police chief in Barnaul is ringing. Somebody in Moscow is really, really angry about what is happening. “You need to stop this.” So tomorrow, when they apply for the toy protest, they get a written ban by Barnaul police claiming that 100 Lego toys, 100 Kinder toys, and 50 toy cars cannot protest because they are made in China. They’re not citizens of Russia. Next time it will be the Russian toys or small toy passports.
What does it tell you about the government? Do they look serious and really powerful if they are afraid of the toy protest? Look at the situation. What would you do if you were the government? It’s a combination of humor and dilemma.
I often make jokes with my academia friends. We need to go to some of these scientific magazines and define this new term “laughterism.”
QUESTION: It’s a totally different subject, but you reminded me that you are a Serb. What about the war crime reversals that occurred in the last couple of weeks? How do you think that reflects on your country?
SRJDA POPOVIC: The latest verdict of The Hague Tribunal, which, with absolutely no common sense, released two Croatian generals who expelled 300,000 Serbs from Croatia. This a great setback for the Serbian democratic movement, which believed in international justice, despite Milosevic, and very bad for Croatia, because there will be no reconciliation after this. It is also very bad for the international community, because who will believe in the international justice ever after this?
I strongly regret this. I think this is going to be a big slap in the face for the people who believe in international justice, outside of the fact that I feel very sad. The Serbs swallowed this bitter pill. We sent 42 individuals, including three former presidents of state, to The Hague to be prosecuted, because we believe in this tribunal.
At the end of the day, when you look at this, it is completely reasonable to send people to long trials, because they were ethnically cleansing Croats and Bosnians. But look at this message. If you happen to cleanse 300,000 Serbs, you walk free.
It’s really, really bad, and I really feel miserable, as somebody who believes strongly in international justice, specifically because we were on the brink of the reconciliation in the region. Our relationships with our neighbors were getting better. Now old nationalisms are put in flame again. I absolutely don't understand that.
MARLENE SPOERRI: Perhaps an example of negative backlash for an intervention.
Thank you so much for this event.