Serbia’s Srdja Popovic is known by many as a leading architect of regime changes in Eastern Europe and elsewhere since the late-1990s
HARARE – The embattled Zimbabwean government has accused a Serbian national Srdja Popovic of training civic society activists in Zimbabwe.
The state-controlled Herald has reported that Srdja Popovic’s CANVAS organisation has of late been involved in the mobilisation of small groups of Zimbabweans to lead Zimbabweans into a mass uprising to remove the Emmerson Mnangagwa led government.
Government has arrested some activist with the State alleging the activists received training in organising mass protests, the use of small arms and counter-intelligence in the Maldives.
Minister of Home Affairs Cain Ndabazekhaya Ginyilitshe Mathema was quoted in the media saying, “Anybody who agitates, therefore, against the Government of the President of this country illegally will be dealt with according to the dictates of our laws.
“Those who are actually here for subversion and those who are being trained outside the country, will face the full wrath of the law. I have no qualms about it. I am prepared to use the law as it stands in Zimbabwe.”
Srdja Popovic was one of the founders and key organizers of the Serbian nonviolent resistance group Otpor! Otpor!’s campaign to unseat Serbian president Slobodan Milosovic found success in October 2000 when hundreds of thousands of protestors converged upon and took over the Serbian Parliament, effectively ending Milosevic’s rule. After the revolution, Popovic served a term as a member of the Serbian National Assembly 2000-2003.
In 2003, Popovic and other ex-Otpor! activists started the nonprofit educational institution the Centre for Applied Nonviolent Action and Strategies (CANVAS). CANVAS has worked with people from 37 countries, including Zimbabwe, Burma, Iran and Venezuela, spreading knowledge on nonviolent strategies and tactics that was used by the Serbian pro-democracy movement to other non-democratic countries.
CANVAS has worked with the activists responsible for successful movements such as the Georgian “Rose Revolution” of 2003 and the Ukrainian “Orange Revolution” of 2004-2005. It also transferred knowledge to Lebanese activists in 2004 to address the crisis after the assassination of Prime Minister Harriri, and assisted participants in the Maldives’ revolution in 2008.
Recently CANVAS has worked with April 6th, a key group in the Egyptian nonviolent uprising, as well as other groups from the Middle East.
In early spring 1992, Srdja Popovic was a first-year student at the University of Belgrade, reading not a lot of biology and playing bass in a band. Like his friends, he was revolted by the soldiers, the security police, the wars, the terror, the repression, the whole brutal and bloody mess that Serbia had become under its crazed dictator, Slobodan Milosevic.
But like most 18-year-olds, he didn’t feel there was much he was could actually do about it. “I was,” he says – a wiry and, at past 40, still impish figure – “basically into three things: drinking a lot, staying up late, and getting off with girls. About the only thing that would haul me off my backside was a rock concert.”
And one night in March 1992, a massive Serbian supergroup called Rimtutituki (the name is an anagram of Turim ti kitu, which means, roughly, “I put my dick in you”) played Belgrade, except that the authorities had denied them permission, so they performed on a flatbed truck.
“So there they were, our idols, driving round Republic Square in circles in a truck, singing,” says Popovic. “They looked more like generals than rockers. And what they were singing was stuff like: ‘There’s no brain under that helmet’ and ‘If I shoot, I won’t have time to fuck.’ Just really mocking, funny, seditious stuff. And I got it. We all got it.”
What Popovic got, although it took him some time to work through its implications, was that “resistance is possible, and that it doesn’t have to be about boring sit-ins – in fact it could be quite cool, and indeed the more fun it is, the more effective it will probably be. That even in hopeless situations, you can get people to care. And that ultimately, it had to be us. We had to do something.”
So they did. The campaign Popovic and his friends started, and the group that by 1998 it grew into, Otpor! (translation: Resistance!) inspired a mass, non-violent movement. They finally saw off the repression and horror of Milosevic, who at the end could not even make it to the final round of the elections he called in September 2000.
Since then, Popovic and his friends have been in some demand. The Centre for Applied Non-violent Action and Strategies or Canvas, an independent, five-man, Belgrade-based NGO he founded with a handful of other Otpor! members in 2003, has now advised and trained pro-democracy activists in more than 50 countries, including India, Iran, Zimbabwe, Burma, Ukraine, Georgia, Palestine, Belarus, Tunisia and Egypt.
The organisation’s materials, including its handbook, Non-violent Struggle: 50 Crucial Points [PDF], have been translated into half a dozen languages and counting, and downloaded tens of thousands of times – 17,000 in Iran alone. Popovic and his pals now teach classes in non-violent political and social change at some of the world’s most prestigious universities, including Harvard, New York, Columbia and UCL.
The rangy, too-cool-to-care student bass guitarist (his term) whose favourite place in London is Camden Market has mutated into a respected teacher, writer and thinker in the new but fast-growing academic field of non-violent struggle, the influence of which is felt around the world.
He has now published a highly readable book, the deftly titled Blueprint for Revolution: How to Use Rice Pudding, Lego Men and Other Non-Violent Techniques to Galvanise Communities, Overthrow Dictators or Simply Change the World, combining an entertaining primer on the theory and practice of peaceful protest with a very personal account of his own involvement with it.
The journey, he acknowledges, has not always been straightforward. The second son of a fearless 70s TV reporter father and a glamorous TV presenter mother, he says there was “nothing in my childhood to suggest I was any kind of rebel. I wanted to make animal documentaries. David Attenborough … Thirty years after I first saw him, I can still hear his voice.”
But when you grew up in liberal, free-thinking, even pretty damn cool Tito-era Yugoslavia, in “a certain system of values, and they are just stamped on … Not just the ugly bully-boys running around everywhere in really uncool uniforms, but the worst kind of nationalist folk culture all over TV, the insane hate speech … Croats were our brothers, you know? And suddenly we were being told to kill them; it’s like you being told it’s your patriotic duty to shoot Scots. Well, you change.”
There were moments of desperation. Not so much for himself, Popovic says (“Once you’ve been arrested, beaten, you know what’s going to happen, you know there are people outside the jail and a lawyer, the media – that you’re not alone – you beat the fear”), but for the younger Otpor! members, and above all for their mothers.
“Those midnight phone calls from parents when their kids were picked up by the cops,” says Popovic. “Those were hard. The responsibility can get to you.” The toughest moment, the time he doubted change would ever come, was during the Nato bombardment of Serbia in April 1999, when the national TV centre where his mother worked – and where Popovic had spent many hours of his childhood – was targeted.
“She wasn’t there; she worked an afternoon shift that day,” he says. “But our neighbour was. I stood at the window watching the smoke rise with her son. That was the pits. Like, your country’s being bombed; sixteen of your mum’s colleagues die; she comes this close to losing her life … It was bad.”
But there was a lesson even in that. “Milosevic had his highest approval ratings in 1999,” Popovic says. “Just like George W Bush was never as popular as he was on 12 September 2001. When a country is attacked from the outside, everyone rallies around its leadership – even a really bad leadership. Foreign military interventions don’t bring change.”
Nor, Popovic argues, do many sanctions. “The targeted ones, on Milosevic’s inner circle, were great. But the oil embargo just made the mafia richer, and the trade embargo plunged us into hyper-inflation; my parents were selling smuggled petrol in the streets to survive.”
Imposing this kind of thing on a society from outside, Popovic is now convinced, “gives the government every excuse to do whatever it wants to do. That’s number one. Number two, it makes every single person who you’re going to be relying on for durable change really struggle for their life. They are all going to be too busy just surviving to mobilise.”
Srdja Popovic: ‘You need to offer people the chance to do something meaningful, and – crucially – to get away with it.’ Photograph: David Levene
From such experiences, Otpor! reached its conclusion that internal resistance, not external intervention, is the best driver for political change. Through trial and error in its own campaigns, it confirmed Popovic’s own intimate conviction, acquired during the now-seminal 1992 epiphany-on-a-truck, that non-violent and, if remotely possible, amusing protest will be the most effective driver of all.
But the core principles – unity, planning and non-violent discipline – that the movement evolved, and that Canvas now teaches, did not come overnight. “In 1992, we were in our Occupy phase,” says Popovic. “We occupied all four university campuses in Serbia – it’s a small country – and we were super-liberal, super-educated, super-cool and super-isolated. Meanwhile Milosevic was sending his tanks to Croatia. We had to go out and listen. Get the real people, rural people, not so clever-clever people, behind us. Build a movement. We did, but it took us five years.”
Fear and apathy are the “status quo forces” in oppressive and corrupt societies, Popovic believes, and to counter them you need mobilisation, enthusiasm and humour. Otpor!’s wonderfully stylised raised and clenched fist, designed by Popovic’s best friend Nenad Duda Petrovic, could be stencilled on to walls, stamped on to any old bit of paper from flyers to banknotes, and imitated in the street. No banners, no chants – just bumping fists with your fellow man (and woman).
Similarly, the group’s campaigns never asked too much of anyone. “All successful movements come with a very low entry bar,” says Popovic. “You need to offer people the chance to do something meaningful, and – crucially – to get away with it. In Chile, against Pinochet, they drove at half speed: not illegal, very low risk, pretty funny, nothing the cops can do. It’s about doing something neat, and living to tell everyone.”
Campaigns that are funny count double, at least; Popovic calls this “laughtivism”. One of Otpor’s best-known stunts involved painting Milosevic’s face on a barrel, propping a stick against it, and leaving both on a busy street. No passerby would be arrested for having a bash, but the authorities faced a dilemma: make fools of themselves by arresting an empty barrel, or act unfazed and risk hundreds of them popping up everywhere.
The Canvas approach has some academic underpinning. A 2011 study of 323 civil resistance campaigns around the world between 1900 and 2006 by two US researchers, Erica Chenoweth and Maria J Stephan, found that nonviolent campaigns were successful in 53% of cases, and violent ones in only 26%. Moreover, only 4% of violent regime changes ended up in a functioning democracy, compared with 42% of non-violent regime changes.
But some pro-democracy movements have failed spectacularly. Egypt’s initially successful revolution, for example – in which Canvas played a sizable role as close advisers to the 6 April youth movement – has given way to two authoritarian regimes in quick succession; Syria’s has descended into bloody civil war on a quite horrifying scale. Why?
Working out why a successful revolution did not transition to a successful democracy is hard, Popovic acknowledges: “In Egypt’s case, I think they probably called ‘game over’ too soon. They shook the tree, got rid of Mubarak, had their party and went home. Given the country didn’t have grownup institutions, it had been a one-man state for so long …
“And they weren’t able to maintain unity afterwards. If, say, they’d been able to form a transitional government of the civil youth movement, the military, the Muslim Brotherhood … As it was, the more powerful and organised groups simply took over, and have been fighting it out ever since.”
And Syria … Well, Syria’s opposition, Popovic says, “figured that if only they took up arms, the cavalry would come riding over the hill, just like it did in Libya. Except it didn’t. And they picked the wrong battle. Fighting Assad is like boxing Mike Tyson, and you don’t want to challenge Mike Tyson in a boxing ring. You want to challenge him at chess.”
Here, too, he reckons, a different course just might have produced different results – although with murderous dictators, nothing is ever certain: “If the opposition had achieved some unity between Arabs, Kurds and Christians; managed to hit Assad where it hurt, in his wallet, with mass non-co-operation, international consumer boycotts … I mean, who knows? That was what did for Apartheid South Africa. But instead, they plundered the arsenals and started fighting a war they can’t win.”
So the learning curve is not always a smooth one, Popovic concludes. He is optimistic, though, that Canvas-type techniques can be successfully transferred to movements for broader social change: the Syrizas, Podemoses, even – with some reservations – the assorted Occupy movements of the past few years. There are, he reckons, “many parallels and overlaps”.
A Belgrade student throws leaflets from a rooftop as part of the 2000 protests against Slobodan Milosevic. Photograph: Reuters
But Occupy frustrates him. “They’re just too predictable,” he says. “And confrontational. Instead of unpredictable; exploiting the political space that’s open to you. In Hong Kong, they simply occupied the same space every day, and mainland China knew all it had to do was wait.
“You see, what you want in a campaign are what we call low-risk, inclusive tactics of dispersal. Occupy is a high-risk, divisive tactic of concentration: getting everyone in one place, fighting with the police, and pissing off the people – like shopkeepers – you need to win over.”
When, in 2002, a small, brave group of Zimbabwean opposition activists became the first to seek out Otpor! and ask their advice, Popovic and his fellow revolutionaries suspected they might be on to something. When Georgians, Ukrainians, Belarussians followed suit, they knew it.
Now that the “let’s solve this with guns” approach is even more discredited (“we know now that guns solve nothing; we’ve seen this in Libya, Iraq, Syria, in many, many places”), non-violent revolution must play an even greater role, he says: “The challenge now is threefold: activists have to learn the rules of non-violent resistance, and we need to make the tools for that available. We need to keep on convincing elites that planes and bombs won’t change anything. And we need to watch our opponents, because dictators are learning just as fast as we are. Look at Putin.”
Above all, though, ordinary people everywhere who are oppressed – a lifelong Tolkien fan, he refers often to the “hobbits” – should realise that together, with discipline, humour, careful planning and a few neat tactics, they can move mountains. “In 1992, all we actually wanted was a normal country with cool music,” he says. “And look where it got us.”
Plus The Guardian (UK)