Thought Leader: Srdja Popovic

January 18, 2013

As part of the Carnegie Council Centennial Thought Leaders Forum, Carnegie Council's Devin Stewart spoke with Serbian political activist Srdja Popovic, one of the founders of the Serbian nonviolent resistance group Otpor! and co-founder and executive director of the Centre for Applied Nonviolent Action and Strategies (CANVAS).

DEVIN STEWART: How do you see the world today? Is it distinct from previous eras and, particularly from a moral perspective, how would you describe the world?

SRDJA POPOVIC: It's a mix of good news and bad news. It's definitely faster. It's definitely more globalized. That means definitely people are spending too much time watching their smartphones, which is the part I don't like, and they get detached from each other.

But when I look at the world from my personal passion, which is democracy and human rights, it is a little bit better, because when you look at the world 40 years ago, when you look to Eastern Europe, there were a bunch of countries under the Soviet Union that are solid democracies now. When you look to South America, there were several Pinochet types of dictatorships. And when you look to my country, Serbia, it was also not looking very nice.

Now when you look at the world, it is kind of moving towards democracy. The phenomenon we like to explore, the phenomenon I've spent my life researching is what we call "people power." Nonviolent struggle really plays a role there. So from the point of my passion, the world seems like it is becoming a better place. But there are so many warring signs we need to take care of.

DEVIN STEWART: Very interesting. There are some people these days who are a little bit pessimistic about the future of democracy. You sound more optimistic. Why do you think that people want democracy?

SRDJA POPOVIC: I think it's a natural thing. When you're a kid, you kind of disobey authority. Since we were kids, we've lived in this culture of obedience. First we obey our parents, then we obey our teachers, and then we obey our superiors in the army, and then we obey our bosses. At the end of the day, some of us get married and we obey our wives. There is this culture of obedience.

I think people do have the right to have democracy. I wouldn't really try to define democracy. Never forget that I am teaching political science, but I am a biologist, so it's not really my field of expertise.

I would say that there are two kinds of countries in this world, the good ones and the bad ones. The good ones I count as the countries where the governments are afraid of their people. The bad ones I count as the countries where people are afraid of their governments.

We are talking about two different worlds. So if people can break this habit of obedience and do the "people power" and understand that if people do not obey, rulers cannot rule, and the governments are dependent on the people and accountable to what people want, I think we are talking about a better world.

For better or worse, we are looking at this process throughout the globe and we are looking at how people power is facing two different enemies.

In dictatorships, it's facing fear, because fear is the air the dictators breathe. So if you find a way to break through the fear and built enthusiasm and you look at these very interesting dynamics, then you can see the changes coming.

In classical democracies, liberal democracies, the countries of capitalism, however you name it, people are facing apathy. I think apathy is an equally deadly opponent as fear, because apathy keeps you in the status quo, and you need progress in order to survive.

So when you look at the contemporary movements throughout the globe, whether they are facing fear in dictatorships or they are facing apathy and social injustice in standard democracies, the set of tools we are looking at as the organization, the set of tools for people power, this is our big passion.

We look at this set of tools and see that groups are learning faster from each other and that more and more this phenomenon of people power is really changing the world. It leaves the circles of academia and it gets into the real media and it gets into the real world.

So yes, when it comes to understanding democracy, I am kind of optimistic, because more and more people in the world demand to be free and find ways to be free.

DEVIN STEWART: You were alluding to the tools. So you are saying the tools are the same for both democracies and for non-democracies?


DEVIN STEWART: What are the tools?

SRDJA POPOVIC: First of all, we need to understand this phenomenon of people power. Since I was a young student in the students' movement in Serbia, I have been trying to achieve this understanding of how people power works. We need to make things clear. You can't export/import/copy-paste this. Every single country, every single group of people, need to find their way to human rights and democracy.

But we look at these struggles, we look at the successes, like human rights movements and the anti-colonial movement of Gandhi, and then we look at the failures, like the struggles in Zimbabwe or Belarus, and we try to understand what went well and what went wrong. Though every single struggle can be specific, the principles are the same.

First of all, you need a vision of tomorrow. You need the answer to the question: "What is the society of the future you want to look at?" If you don't have a vision, you will never have a successful movement.

Second, you need to follow the three principles of success in nonviolent struggle:

• The principle of unity. You will never win by being disunited. This is a broad struggle. You need numbers. You need many, many allies. Once you build this unity, then you start winning. When you see seven presidential candidates running against Lukashenko, you know what is going to happenyou are going to lose.

• Second thing, you need planning. This is a very painful thing for the people coming from places like Serbia or the Middle East, because we are not used to planning. We are by no means Germans or Asians or Americans, who are very good at planning. You need strategic planning. You need a plan from day one how you build your movement, how you start with a small group, how you pick up the small victories, how you proclaim these victories, and then get the hell out of there, because this is a very important thing.

You know, when you look at Tiananmen, the people were doing fine, and then they just increased their demands, and then the tanks came to slaughter them from Manchuria. If they could only proclaim victory at the right moment, the movement in China would look like a completely different thing.

So planning is a very important thing, from a grand strategy to the very specific tactics.

• Last but not of least importance, you need nonviolent discipline. You need ways to stay nonviolent. Often when we talk to the groups, sometimes these groups slip to violence. When you look to the different struggles, you can really see this danger all over the globe.

First of all, you need to preach nonviolence. You need to understand that in order to win you need to maintain nonviolent discipline. That's not only a matter of ethics. This is a matter of statistics. There is this fantastic study by two American scholars, Chenoweth and Stephan. They observed 323 different struggles between 1900 and 2006. They looked at the point of efficiency, and they understood that nonviolent struggles were successful in 53 percent of cases while violent struggles were successful in only 26. So by taking to arms, the Syrian rebels really cut their efficiency chances by half.

When you look at this stuff, you need to understand that nonviolent discipline is the way to win. It's not only the more ethical way to win, but it's also the more efficient way to win.

Then, the second thing is you need to practice nonviolence. You can really train your people to stay nonviolent. When you have a march of 100,000 peaceful demonstrators and then you have only one drunk guy or agent provocateur or just an idiot throw a Molotov at the police, guess what is in all the newspapers? That guy.

And then the last but not of least importance, you need to understand how you detach your movement from potentially violent groups in a society. When we were running our movement in Serbia, our biggest trick was not letting soccer fans join the movement, because these guys would have the T-shirts with the clenched fist, the symbol of the movement, and ultimately attack the police.

So when you look at these thingsunity, planning, and nonviolent disciplineyou can see that movements who can achieve these things can ultimately win. So the movements can learn from each other, and this is our big passion, how to make this knowledge user-friendly.

DEVIN STEWART: Very clear answer. Thank you.

Let's move to a bit more abstract stuff. Take this question the way you want it. Maybe it's a very practical question.

One of our projects for our Centennialwe will be 100 in 2014is to examine the idea of a global ethic. Now, first of all, does that mean anything to you? If so, what does it mean?

SRDJA POPOVIC: It definitely means standing for a set of values. I think it's a very important thing in life. If you don't have this set of values, then your life is wasted, even if you are happy or rich or traveling around the globe.

I think this set of values involves the idea of a better environment for your kids. Just to quote a famous Native American chieftain, "We haven't inherited this planet from our ancestors, we borrowed it from those who are going to come." So we have an obligation to leave this place a better world

Sometimes we forget to do it. When we look at the way we are treating our environment, for example, we are leaving a worse world, we are leaving a dying planet.

When we look at it from the point of the society, I think a lot of things should be done to improve the society. Whether we are talking more democracy in the countries where we don't have democracy, and we are talking about the countries where billions are living; or we are talking about religious intolerance, ethnic conflicts around the globe, there are so many things which can be done.

When it comes to the global ethics, I think we need to find a more efficient way to cooperate among the nations. I think the UN is still highly inefficient. It's a very good idea, but when it comes to practice it fails very, very often.

I think we need to find a way to understand what we really want and we need to find a way to communicate. The world is becoming more and more interconnected. The good news is that there is no such thing as a local conflict anymore.

But when you look at how we can treat conflictsI attended a very interesting conference run by the organization called Independent Diplomat here in New York [Editor's note: Check out the June 2013 Thought Leader interview with Independent Diplomat founder Carne Ross.]. We were discussing what foreigners can do to help democracy movements around the globe, aside from the very common practice of foreign military intervention, which we need to delete from the world repertoire because it doesn't help. My mother was almost killed in NATO bombing in 1999, when the Serbian national TV building was proclaimed a legitimate military goal. We know that this and sanctions doesn't help.

What we can do to help the positive process in this country? And then we brainstormed for a few days and we came out with 132 things to do.

We can help people how to learn, we can give them safe platforms, we can give them visibility, we can give them international media coverage, we can give them knowledge, we can give them moneyI mean there are so many things where we can really help the world when it comes to fighting for democracy.

The same thing stands for social justice or the environment. So when I look at the world in the future, I think we need to learn more how to help positive processes, and I think we need to focus more on how to equip these people with the knowledge and resources, because every single struggle is local, but sometimes the consequences can be global.

DEVIN STEWART: You're touching on one of our questions that we ask a lot of the interviewees, which is we're celebrating our 100 years, but we also want to think about the next 100 years. We don't want to put you on the spot to ask for a prediction, but what would you like to see happen in the next 100 years?

SRDJA POPOVIC: Let's start with big issues and then go to the smaller issues. I think we need more understanding of this world and how nature functions. As a biologist and an ecologistthat's my basic M.A., educationI really see that we are not seeing this relationship and we are very, very close to screwing up our planet. I think that's one big goal.

I think we are losing a lot of time in arguing about who is going to pay the price for it, because at the end of the day we are all going to pay the price. This is our kids, kids from developed countries and kids from undeveloped countries, and everybody is going to pay the price if we don't act now. So one of my big concerns is the environmental situation.

The second big concern is, of course, democracy. I devoted my life to helping people develop democracy. Democracy is an issue on many tables now. But we need to learn how to help those who are struggling to make democracy more efficient, not only to deal with the dictators but also how to really build democracy. When we look at the Arab Spring, we obviously see that we learned a lot about how to take good care and build a strong movement against the autocrats. But once we are done with the autocrats, what's there?

So how do we maintain this vision of tomorrow? How do we build those democratic institutions? How do we turn movements into the structure and how do we keep up the world attention? I mean the real problem is once the camera leaves the big squares with millions of people, the people are left alone. They need to be helped to build those democratic institutions, because after 26 years of Mubarak, you don't expect democracy to come from the blue sky. This is not happening. This is a slow process. And it is not as sexy as the process of opposing the dictators. So we need to keep helping these people, we need to keep a lot of patience in this process.

The last but not of least importancethis is another issue which grabs the world attention nowis the social injustice issue. You can call this the "Occupy movement," you can call this "99-against-1 movement." Whether we are talking about the liberal capitalism or countries like Russia, there is definitely an unfair distribution of wealth. There must be a way to create a more safe place and a more socially just place. So you can call me a moderate leftist, but I really believe in social justice.

Even more important, I believe that there is this growing movement of young people across the globe who really feel that somebody is stealing their future. So whether they will find their vision of tomorrow, their means to build up the movements and pressure the government and accommodate them towards a more socially just world, or we are going to keep seeing conflict between the majority of the poor and the minority of the rich unresolved, it is going to really influence the world in the long termin the United States of America, but also all around the globe.

DEVIN STEWART: Tell me about that. If we don't address those things, what's at stake?

SRDJA POPOVIC: If we don't address this thing, I think the world is going to become an unhappy place. I'm not really an idealist in the terms of saying, "Okay, social justice will solve it all so we will all move and live in Sweden." I don't really believe we can all fit in Sweden. It's not a big country.

But there are models in this world where you can meet both progress and the social justice. I don't think we research these models enough. Of course these models include years of planning, years of government improvement, years of democracy. But it's achievable, and there are places in this world where people are happier than in other places, and there are places in this world where we have more social justice than in other places. But we don't champion these ideas in these countries enough. We just look at them and say, "Oh, you know, the people are cool there, but we will never give Medicare to the people," or whatever.

When you look at these things, I think the powerful countries who should lead the world keep reinventing the wheel. Instead of reinventing the wheel, we should look at the models where social justice is functioning and just apply these models.

DEVIN STEWART: What's the biggest ethical question on the planet? In your mind is it democracy, is it the spread of social justice, or is it something else? What is it?

SRDJA POPOVIC: I will start with democracy. I grew up in a country where people didn't have a free life, which is Serbia. That's a really sensitive question for me.

I don't even think we can start thinking about a better world without healing this problem, because the governments who are oppressing their people, they spend too much time oppressing the people. So, obviously, they can't think about the environment or social justice or stuff like that.

I will, of course, start with democracy. So issue number one for me is democracy. The world is moving towards the right direction when it comes to the numbers. More and more people are free, more and more countries are free every year. But there is so much work to be done.

First of all, we need to understand the basic mechanism for democracy is people power. So democracy is not something imposed from upside-down; this is something coming from downside-up. We need to find a way to teach these people.

What we can contribute? I'm running a five-employee organization. But we are always exploring new tools, we are always exploring new books, we are always exploring new videos, we are always exploring how to go online and reach even more people than this. So issue number one is democracy.

Issue number two, environment for me, because as a biologist I see the decaying world and changing of climate.

Issue number three is social justice.

If I could name three things, they would be democracy, environment, and social justicenot that I am a big thinker.

DEVIN STEWART: You talked a lot about what leadership means. One of our questions is, what is moral leadership? What does leadership mean to you?

SRDJA POPOVIC: One of the biggest misconceptions when you look to social change is that social change and social movements demand strong leaders. This is the misconception we keep meeting all over.

First of all, we don't want to put an equal sign between leadership and charismatic leaders. It is very useful for a movement or a country to have charismatic leaders. There are many historic examples, just to name Mohandas Gandhi or Martin Luther King, where you had the leaders running the movements, being an inspiration, being a strategist, being a philosopher, being public figures, being CEOs of these movements.

Then you have another set of movements where you have a more symbolic role of leadership. You want to name Nelson Mandela, who was sitting in jail for so long; Aung San Suu Kyi obviously spending years under house arrest in Burma; but they were an inspiration to their people.

Now you are witnessing the completely new breed of movements, even called leaderless movements. So you have this kind of hidden leadership that operates the movement, and people don't want to be seen, whether because the people lost faith in traditional leadership in the society or they are just afraid that the government will come and kill them all. But in any case, you really don't see the charismatic leaders.

There are many movements like this that were successful in the past. Who was the leader of the Chilean movement or the Serbian movement? You can't really point to a figure. But these movements were efficient.

But leadership is needed. Leadership is needed in nonviolent movements, leadership is needed in successful countries. There are so many roles of leadership. Whether we are talking about individual leaders or group leadership, there must be somebody to lead these movements, there must be somebody to formulate the vision, there must be somebody to achieve the unity, there must be somebody taking credit or giving other credit for success, there must be somebody taking the responsibility for mistakes. That's the basic role of leadership. So the world needs a lot of leadership.

The good news is that you need a little bit of talent to be a leader, but, like in music, like when you are playing a violin, the talent is only part of the deal. You can train people in leadership skills, and leadership skills are transferable. There must be an effort to make those leadership skills more available to the people.

I have met so many different groups. We work with groups from 46 different countries. You can't imagine the kind of talented young people in their early 20s that I have met in the craziest countries of this world. They must be equipped with the toolbox to emerge as real leaders, because, believe me, the talent is there.

DEVIN STEWART: Excellent. A couple more questions.

Andrew Carnegie was an advocate of world peace. He was ahead of his time in something that almost seems like a cliché now, world peace. What is it? Whatever world peace means to you, is world peace possible?

SRDJA POPOVIC: Well, you're talking to somebody who spent the best years of his life in five civil wars. I was born in a country called Yugoslavia. Then it fell apart. Then there was another version of Yugoslavia, then Serbia and Montenegro, and then Serbia. So I changed four countries without moving more than 500 meters from the place I lived. I witnessed five bloody civil wars in the Balkanswith Slovenia, with Croatia, with Bosnia, with Kosovo, and with NATOand we lost all five.

I think the lessons you draw from these types of things is not only that ethnic war is stupid, in civil war there are no good guys and bad guys, everybody is a victim during civil war; but also how to prevent these wars.

When you look at the Balkans or you look at the other places, you can see that there is a direct relationship between war and democracy. I think the more democracies we achieve, the less likely that you have wars. When you look at the percentage of the wars, the wars generally don't start between democracy and democracy, because there are such powerful mechanisms in the governments to stop wars. Democracies sometimes go to war, but there is still public pressure put on them to withdraw from these wars.

When you look at the evolution, for example, in the United States, it is less and less likely that you will have the Iraqs and Afghanistans in the future because you have democracy and you have a mechanism to put the pressure on the government.

So by having more democracies around the globe and by empowering people to put pressure on their government, there is a direct influence on world peace. So I would like to strengthen this line.

If you can help people put pressure on their government and if you can empower them to be the real bosses of their destinies, then you somehow decrease the possibility of war breaking out, and this is what can bring us to world peace, as Mr. Carnegie dreamed about.

DEVIN STEWART: Wonderful answer.

You talked about spreading democracy in order to get to world peace and pushing governments to become more democratic. Whose responsibility is it?

SRDJA POPOVIC: It's the responsibility of the people who have knowledge. The way I developed was that I started as an activist and then, like many Serbswe like to do it this wayI learned from my own mistakes. This is why the Serbian struggle took 10 years, because we didn't want to learn from others.

I think it's the responsibility of the international community and the philanthropists combined, to understand that $1 invested into development of the tools and training of the people for social activism is more worthy than $10 million invested into the military vehicles and tanks and drones.

When you look at the result, the result is there. So when you look at how you can really train these people and how we can really develop these educational tools, this is the mutual obligation. So the happy marriage between the governments and rich people and international institutions on one hand, and universities and people who have real access to the activistswe can create a better world. Add the technological companies to it, because, with fantastic technology, they can enable us to reach the places where people are still oppressed.

When I look at the future, if this coalition is to be built, let's try to build something small, let's try to enable activists from around the globe to learn about people power, to learn about how to build a democratic movement, and let's marry it to one or two good universities to get the good certificate, because it's always very attractive. Let's add a lot of the people from academia to bring their case studies, and let's bring Google, for example, to enable a powerful learning platform for this, and then we are talking about the product which can change the world a lot in the future. Me and my organization are very passionate about working on this.

DEVIN STEWART: Fantastic. That's wonderful.