A New Chapter of People Power

Srdja Popovic is one of the central figures behind to Serbian Otpor! movement and the founder of the activist consulting organization CANVAS. He talked with Florian Guckelsberger about non-violent resistance, the legacy of the Arab Spring, and the importance of strategic thinking.

The European: Your work aims to transfer knowledge to strengthen revolts. So I assume that business is going well these days?
Popović: It is overwhelming as you are constantly interacting with activists from various countries, but also coordinating with a variety of academic institutions throughout the world. I travelled 93 days with a total of 104,364 miles in the air this year, so it’s thrilling to constantly be on the move.

The European: As an insider, what part of the world would you say we have to look carefully at for the next revolutionary movements?
Popović: 2011 has been a bad year for bad guys. If anyone had predicted at the end of 2010 that before January 2012 Mubarak of Egypt and Ben Ali of Tunisia would be out and prosecuted, Gaddafi, Kim Jong IL, and Osama Bin Laden dead, and Saleh of Yemen on their knees, Assad of Syria seriously challenged, and Ratko Mladic in jail, no one would have believed it. So its definitely difficult to predict 2012, with many dynamic events around the globe scheduled for this year. We might see transition in the Middle East countries, a deepening of the current crisis in Syria, Aung Sun Suu Kyi participating in Burmese elections, and elections scheduled in more than ten countries.

The European: Your work has massive political implications. What kind of people ask for advice and what are your guidelines when replying to them? What justifies revolution or uprising?
Popović: It is always brave activists who face oppression in their struggle for a better future that must be credited – not us, or any foreign consultants. It is their work which has important political implications, and we are only there to provide generic and practical knowledge. CANVAS doesn’t give political advice or by any means interfere with these struggles. The worst mistake for a nonviolent movement would be “listening to foreign experts” instead of developing indigenous strategy and picking locally applicable tactics. Nonviolent struggles are successful only when they are domestically designed, driven, and led.

The European: Don’t you fear, being utilized for the wrong motives? Do you regret any help you’ve given to a certain movement so far?
Popović: CANVAS is educational institution, not an ideological or political organization. We should look to the phenomenon of nonviolent struggle more as a “strategic” rather than an “ideological” or “moral” choice. A commitment to nonviolence is the logical choice for movements that do not have any military option against their powerful opponents. Our most important question when we decide whether to work with group from some country is their firm commitment to nonviolent struggle. For CANVAS, the substance is not in achieving victory against one dictator or another, but in spreading the word of “people power” to the world. Our next big mission should obviously be to use this window of opportunity and explain to the world how nonviolent struggle is a powerful tool for achieving freedom, democracy, and human rights. This means that we will pursue educational efforts and establish permanent institutions. We want to make our knowledge available to decision makers, diplomats, and journalists, and even future employees of security and intelligence agencies, so that these guys don’t get “so surprised” when they see nonviolent social movements being more powerful than the autocrats of this world. Our lectures are available at prominent educational institutions. Our books are downloadable for free from the internet. Whoever wants to utilize our knowledge in nonviolent struggle can do so – our mission is to make this knowledge widely available.

*The European: You have been accused of being on the Western states payroll. How do you respond to such allegations?
Popović: There is this naïve narrative of “exporting nonviolent revolutions” that emanates mostly from state media in countries like Belarus, Iran, Syria, or Russia. That narrative preaches that all you need for nonviolent revolution is a million dollars, a secret service plan, a few Serbs with their fancy suitcases and “boom” – next thing you know, millions are in the street. Unfortunately this is not how nonviolent struggle works – otherwise the world would be democratic in a matter of months. In violent revolutions, you might need only a handful of armed men to seize a main TV station or airport. But you need thousands, sometimes hundreds of thousands of people to engage in nonviolent struggle. They will follow only a domestically developed vision of tomorrow and take risks for their own country – you can’t really “export” millions of Serbs to the streets of Kiev or Tbilisi or millions of Tunisians to Damascus. Successful nonviolent movements are always 100% indigenous and domestically driven.

The European: And how do you finance your work?
Popović: CANVAS itself is small and independent institution. Basic funding for 5 employees and the running of a small office in Belgrade is coming from a few private donors. Our biggest donor is the founding chair of CANVAS and successful telecom businessman, our friend, and partner Slobodan Djinovic. CANVAS has worked and organized talks, lectures and educational programs with more than 40 different organizations and institutions, which include the OSCE, Freedom House, the UN Development Program, Amnesty International, and prominent schools like Tufts in Boston, Columbia and NYU in New York, or the University of Belgrade. This gives us independence, and we are very proud of it.

The European: 2011 saw uprisings in Morocco, Egypt, Libya, and several others countries in the MENA-Region. Your own expertise comes from the protests in Serbia in the late 2000s. Is it possible to compare these situations?
Popović: Every single movement is unique and adds new strategies, tactics, and ideas to the history of “People Power.” This has been proven by movements as diverse as Gandhi’s efforts to end British rule in India, the drive to defeat Pinochet at the polls in Chile, the U.S. civil rights movement under Martin Luther King, Jr., Lech Walesa’s leadership of the Solidarity labor movement in communist Poland, the overthrow of Slobodan Milosevic in Serbia, and now the Middle East. Here’s the important lesson: Governments, no matter how brutal, ultimately rely on the consent of the people. And that a movement that is united, committed to nonviolence, and strategically planned is capable of significant achievements. It can, quite literally, pull the pillars of support out from under a government and force it to make concessions once considered impossible. Most young activists from the Middle East are operating under harsh authoritarian regimes, in very narrow political environments, between oppressive governments and sometimes radical Islamist groups they don’t want to be affiliated with. For Serbs it was easier – as we had to deal with only oppressive government and relatively pro-democratic opposition parties. Another significant difference is age – unlike Eastern Europe with its middle-aged population, Arab societies are very young. The average age in Egypt is 24. These young boys and girls were born after this anachronous system had taken hold. They have open minds, communicate over the internet, and are quite aware that life can be different. This gives them a strong boost in this “politically frozen” region. Finally, Serbian nonviolent resistance to Milosevic was more about human rights, democracy, and politics – nowadays, protests around the globe are more about bread-and-butter issues and social justice.

The European: Under the framework of non-violence, what tactics do you endorse to achieve the overthrow of autocratic regimes?
Popović: Since 2003 CANVAS has worked with people from 46 different countries, not only activists opposing autocrats, but also human rights advocates, environmental groups from Nigeria, movement for the nonviolent solution of Columbia’s crisis, deprived indigenous people of Guatemala and of course many countries from the so called “Arab World,” trying to educate them in basic principles for success in Nonviolent Struggle. They all needed a group identity, a clear slogan to communicate clearly with target audiences, investment into people’s skills and knowledge, and solidarity among its activists in case they are arrested, detained or fired from their jobs. These elements were crucial in growing movements from a handful to tens of thousands of activists.

The European: What roll do social networks like Twitter or Facebook play? Is the internet a fire accelerant for protest?
Popović: New media has a huge role in everyday life and also reshapes the world arena for nonviolent movements. When young Serbs “discovered” text messaging for mass mobilization back in September 2000, we couldn’t dream that it would one day be the “technological stone-age” for young Burmese, Iranians, Egyptians or Tunisians. It’s one more proof that every nonviolent movement adds a new chapter to the history of People Power. There are three key aspects of new media: They create alternative media spaces and therefore undermine state controlled media and their propaganda. They are also great tools for mobilization and exchange of knowledge among different activist groups, and they make every struggle global. There is now a constant “price tag” on violent responses from oppressors: Somebody will catch those moments with a simple camera and upload it on Youtube. Before you know it the world will watch, as it was in June 2009, with the terrifying murder of the young Iranian protester Neda Aga Soltani. But let’s not overestimate the role of social media. It is the commitment and courage of the people to freedom and their nonviolent discipline which counts. Never forget that Chileans won their nonviolent battle against one of worst dictators without a cell phone or twitter.

The European: CANVAS is an acronym for “Centre for Applied Non-Violent Action and Strategies.” Consider that we have to mourn hundreds of deaths after the uprisings in Egypt and Libya – what went wrong there?
Popović: You are right, the Arab Spring did have its victims, known and unknown heroes. They should be remembered with pain and honor, like all those who gave their lives for the future of countries like India, South Africa, Chile and Serbia. But Egypt and Libya were two very different cases: The Egyptian struggle was predominantly nonviolent. A high level of nonviolent discipline existed during the nineteen days on Tahrir Square. You could see people fraternizing with the police force, bringing flowers to police lines and even putting their own children on top of armored military vehicles. Most of the violence took place in a later phase, when the movement lost its focus and democratic transition was stopped by the military government (SCAF) and ethnic and religious tensions erupted. By contrast, Libya is an example of a predominantly violent uprising, followed by foreign military intervention and bloody civil war. That is a bad way to seek change: It is usually bloody and makes future transition less likely. Nothing seems to be learned from simple fact that in 50 out of 67 transitions from dictatorships to democracy in last 35 years were nonviolent struggles. If you take a look in the great book “Why Civil Resistance works” by Maria Stephan and Erica Chenoweth, you will see the point. They examined 323 different violent and nonviolent campaigns from 1900 to 2006. Not only were nonviolent campaigns twice as likely to succeed as violent revolutions, but also ten times more likely to end in stable and durable democracy.

The European: Revolution, justified or not, is only half of the job. After the dictator has gone, the movements have to build a new, hopefully democratic society from the scratch. The difficulties of this task are quite obvious. What ist your advice for the post-revolution phase?
Popović: Removing the incumbent regime is only one of the three broad, essential components of a democratic revolution. Electing and functional installment of a new democratic government and protecting it from a coup d’etat are essential for the birth of freedom and democracy and effective transition from dictatorship to durable democratic society. Though we have learned a lot about how nonviolent movements grow and successfully oppose autocratic governments, it seems that next big challenge is to understand the next steps. During our workshops with activists we point out certain measures that may be taken before and during different phases of nonviolent struggle to make its outcomes more durable and more likely to end in democracy. Let’s take Serbia as a case study: First, OTPOR knew what we wanted from the very early stages. We wanted free elections, freedom of the press, an independent judiciary. We also wanted to improve relations with our neighbors and set Serbia on the path to the European Union membership. This transparency is very important not only to retain the people’s trust, it also allows you to measure how much you managed to achieve. The next thing is a smooth transition of power. Good timing is crucial: The reason why we were successful is that our whole campaign was centered on winning the presidential elections, and we also knew what we would do if Milosevic tried to fake the results. The moment he finally acknowledged his defeat and stepped down, a new president was immediately sworn in and the transition could move on. The third step that we took was to remind the new government that it was accountable to its citizens. After the elections we posted posters all around the country to let the politicians know we were watching. There was a bulldozer on them – a symbol of Serbian revolution – and an inscription: “Serbia has 4500 registered bulldozers and almost 7 million potential drivers.” I think that turning a political movement into a watchdog is the best thing you can do after the fight is complete. You need to have a tool to constantly check the elites and not rely entirely on their good will as a society – because this is what really makes society “democratic.”

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