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May / June 2012
When he was
a boy, in the 1970s, Srdja Popovic used to crawl through a hole
in the wall of a half-built cathedral. "It was my playground,"
he says. We are in downtown Belgrade, and Popovic is talking about
his work, his city and, for now, the vast white building in front
of us, the Cathedral of St Sava.
He was nine,
a new recruit to the international army of "Lord of the Rings"
fans. He made the north tower his own, naming it Barad-dûr
after Sauron-s fortress in Mordor. He was old enough to know
that Nazi bombing (in 1941) had halted the construction of the cathedral
(begun in 1935), young enough not to be aware of any danger. For
him and his friends, the surviving shell of walls and towers was
a haven. "We used to swap shifts with amorous couples, we
took the day shift and they appeared in the evening. We respected
allowed building to resume in 1985, Popovic-s playground grew
into one of the world-s ten largest churches. It can take
10,000 worshippers, but is still unfinished. For the adult Popovic,
it is less about Tolkien and more about Serbian history. The church,
he tells me, stands on the site where the Ottomans burned the remains
of St Sava in 1595. The saint, a 13th-century prince, was the founder
of the self-governing Serbian Orthodox church and the author of
Serbia-s first constitution. When the Serbs revolted against
the Ottomans, his image appeared on the flags they carried into
battle. Hence the conflagration of his remains: a pointed retaliation.
about symbols, revolts and rallies. Now aged 39, he was only 18
when he took his first steps as a revolutionary. He was a key member
of Otpor (Resistance), the nonviolent, 70,000-strong youth group
that helped topple Serbia-s dictator, Slobodan Milosevic,
in October 2000. Three years later, he and another Otpor member,
Slobodan Djinovic, founded an NGO, the Centre for Applied NonViolent
Action and Strategies or, more palatably, Canvas.
pro-democracy activists in lessons derived from Otpor-s experience.
And it has impact. Popovic is widely seen as one of the architects
of the Arab spring: when the American journal Foreign Policy named
its top hundred global thinkers in December 2011, it put "the
Arab revolutionaries" at number one, and named Popovic as
one of them. He is even, according to the director of the Peace
Research Institute Oslo, in line for a Nobel peace prize nomination.
When a repressive
regime wobbles, the hand of Canvas can often be seen at work. Ahead
of the Arab spring, it trained activists from Tunisia, Lebanon and
Egypt. The protests in Tahrir Square, Cairo, that brought down President
Mubarak in February 2011 unfolded like something from the Canvas
training manual. Among the leaders were members of the April 6 Youth
Movement, who had travelled to Belgrade in 2009 to learn how to
conduct peaceful demonstrations, and cope with violence from security
forces without resorting to it themselves. Canvas also helped them
with organisation, mobilisation, overcoming fear and passivity,
and training other protesters to spread the techniques.
Popovic is quick
to state that the Arab spring is indigenous. "It-s the
result of the efforts and perseverance of the brave individuals
in each movement. If Canvas-s movies, books and the Otpor
symbol have helped, that makes us proud, but we don-t claim
any credit. Canvas may have equipped activists from the Middle East
and elsewhere with the tools to wage their struggle more efficiently,
but it is their victory. It belongs to them."
The movie he
is referring to is Steve York-s documentary about the fall
of Milosevic, "Bringing Down a Dictator", first shown
on PBS in 2002. The symbol is Otpor-s clenched fist, designed
by Popovic-s best friend, Nenad Petrovic-Duda, and based on
the hand of Saruman from "Lord of the Rings". Canvas-s
logo takes the fist a stage further, embedding it in the arrow triangle
that is the international symbol of recycling.
got married, last summer, Petrovic-Duda was best man. The wedding
was a sweltering affair in a glade in a Belgrade park. His bride,
Masha, a radio and television journalist, appeared through the trees
dressed in white embroidered satin, as the elf queen Galadriel.
The groom, by contrast, wore frayed jeans and white sneakers.
Popovic is wearing
jeans and sneakers now, at work. His day begins at 8am in a small
grey cube of an office in New Belgrade. He is all energy, circling
the room. He takes an emergency call from Syrian activists, speaking
in Serbian. A response is needed on the Maldives. Other, more secret
enquiries, follow. He reverts to English and mentions an American
historian, Howard Zinn. "You know what he said?" he
asks with a grin. "Education may and should be dangerous."
With the Arab
spring, the nonviolent strategies in which he educates clients have
leapt into the limelight. Canvas has been involved in revolutions
in Georgia, Ukraine and the Maldives, and works with activists from
40 more countries, ranging from Soviet throwbacks (Belarus) to Asian
giants (India and China), Middle Eastern oligarchies (Iran, Yemen)
and small, brutal dictatorships (Zimbabwe, Burma).
is unique," Popovic says. "In evolutionary strategy
some species accommodate to their conditions . . . " He looks
outside at the grey Belgrade tower blocks. "Like pigeons—they-re
everywhere." Others go for narrow specialisation. "Canvas
is like those bacteria that can live at temperatures of 60°C—highly
and, until recently, reluctant to be observed. Canvas "came
out of the closet", as Popovic puts it, by way of an Al Jazeera
documentary during the Arab spring (on YouTube). It-s sensitive
work. Canvas has been accused of being a tool of Western secret
services. "There-s a naive narrative in which these
revolutions are a product of Langley or MI6," Popovic scoffs.
"As if all you need is a wad of CIA dollars, a bunch of crazy
Serbs, send them to country X and boom, you have your revolution!"
He laughs. "If it was a question of money only . . . "
curriculum, designed to be taken anywhere and adapted to any situation,
shows how much planning goes into revolution. "We-re
constantly updating, building on lessons learned." He breaks
off to describe a workshop. "One night back in 2006, we were
on the beach in Sri Lanka, working long sessions with Maldivian
activists. Instead of using flipcharts we were writing in the sand—only
to discover that the sand was populated by newly hatching turtles.
We had to help them find their way to the sea or they-d have
followed the streetlights instead of the moon and been killed on
the road. The session turned into a Discovery Channel type of 'saving
baby turtles- experience—the craziest thing that has
ever happened to a workshop."
workshops run for five to seven days, with up to 20 activists in
the room. "We don-t really give specific advice, but
prefer people to develop their own tools—helping them to shape
their own indigenous ideas. Normally, they finish the workshop with
their own campaign plans and 'people-power toolbox-
to use once they get back to their organisations."
all former participants in protests, deliver the curriculum, usually
in English. The trainees analyse and evaluate their country-s
situation, after being coached in the theory of nonviolent struggle
and the three principles for its success: unity, planning and nonviolent
discipline. They study the role of consent and obedience, and "pillars
of society" (military, police, judiciary, bureaucracy), and
how to lure ordinary people away from them and towards the nonviolent
movement. Next come strategy and tactics, especially "low-risk
tactics", such as co-ordinated banging of metal pans at set
times across a city—actions in which all can join, and which
keep people in the movement even under harsh oppression.
They focus on
communications (targeted and channelled appropriately). They are
taught the importance of humour: decorating a barrel, say, with
a dictator-s face, encouraging passers-by to bash it, and
leaving police with a tricky choice—do nothing and look weak,
or confiscate the barrel and look foolish. They are shown how to
deal with fear. Having identified the pillars of their particular
nation, participants design plans to win them over. "In other
words, we give them a fishing rod and teach them how to use it,
but the rest is up to them." The funny thing, Popovic claims,
"is that every workshop starts with at least one smart activist
saying, 'Well guys, congratulations, we all know about Otpor . . . Maybe
this worked in Serbia, but it will never work in our country.-
That-s how they begin, and we try to see that they finish
day five with a clear idea of what may well work for civil mobilisation
in their own society. And the best part is that they reach this
particularly impressed by one of the Egyptian April 6 leaders, Mohammed
Adel. "He was with us in Belgrade in 2010. I asked him why
they chose the name 'April 6- [the date of the workers-
demonstrations in Mahalla in 2008] and he told me, 'because
we understood that we were picking the wrong social space. When
we demonstrated for political change in Egypt, we were arrested
and tear-gassed all the time. Labour movements protest about bread-and-butter
issues and get concessions from the government. We wanted to choose
the right battles—the ones we can win, as the labour movement
does, and so we picked the name that reflects this.- A year
and half after that, they were winning."
don-t take on unwinnable battles, they opt for small victories
and build on them, and they need a strong brand to attract broad
support. Clever slogans, unifying songs and identity symbols are
vital: Otpor-s clenched fist has been so successful that it
is often co-opted by activists with no link to Canvas. "Once
I saw it on the T-shirts of a Kenyan group," Popovic says,
"complete with the logo in Cyrillic, which none of them would
is a challenge he relishes. "Milosevic played the cheap card
of nationalism, using fear to manipulate the population."
Otpor-s experience produced a number of tools for dealing
with fear in case of arrest. "We trained activists in what
the procedure would be, how the interrogation room would look, how
one interrogator would be gentle and sympathetic, the other a bully.
Knowing what to expect diminished the fear," says Popovic.
Coded messages were used to set off a list of rapid responses: "Grandmothers
who would telephone the police station where activists were held,
visitors asking after the arrested, enquiries by international groups,
journalists alerted. All to put pressure on the security forces."
that it-s essential to keep violence out, because one slip
will ruin everything. "Here in Serbia", Popovic says,
"we had to spend months persuading the football-fan element
to keep out." Students receive training in techniques to avoid
and face violence, especially from the police and the army, without
retaliating in kind. "At Otpor we created a party atmosphere,
with whistles, drummers, humour—kids having fun. And we used
our own security people to be sure the football fans were kept out."
The Canvas message
spreads. Its handbook for activists, "Nonviolent Struggle—50
Crucial Points", is available in six languages, including
Arabic and Farsi, and has been downloaded 20,000 times in the Middle
East, largely by Iranians. Its foreign clients are usually young
and can identify with Canvas, a small, committed group, born between
1968 and 1975. They are old enough to remember the Tito era of summer
holidays on the Adriatic and winter holidays in the mountains near
Kosovo, when Yugoslav passports were the most powerful and the most
expensive on the black market because "they could get you
anywhere, from Washington to the Kremlin," as Popovic says.
"So there we were, aged 18 or 19, ready to be conscripted,
to do what? Kill the guys we-d been on holiday with? Faced
with this, one-third of us took to drugs and went crazy, a third
took off altogether—the biggest brain drain you can imagine—and
a third stood up to fight."
from a liberal, educated home, the son of two respected television
journalists. He was influenced by his experiences as a teenager
in Belgrade. "We were closely aligned with India and of course
Gandhi—his story is so powerful, anti-colonial. His tactics
were brilliant." In 1991, when protests here led to two deaths
in one day and the government-s response was martial law,
tanks, refugees, uniforms and war in the Balkans, "our response
wasn-t so much ethical, let alone religious, it was spontaneous
revulsion." Those protests, for him and other young urban
middle-class Serbs, were a landmark. "It was our 'losing
our virginity-—heady stuff, but not very effective."
He was anti-violence,
or as he would call it pro-nonviolence, from an early stage. "Eighteen
was the perfect age to be shaped. These crazy romantic guys in rock
groups organised the last attempt to prevent war." A concert
in Republic Square was banned, so the protesters put on a moving
concert on the back of a truck. The song "Mir, Brate, Mir"
("Peace, Brother, Peace") rang out time and again. "It
was like 'Give Peace a Chance-, but cool," Popovic
says, teasing. They also sang "Under the helmet there is no
brain" —"very provocative. And —"
now he looks mildly uncomfortable—"when I shoot, I cannot
fuck." It was very rebellious.
In 1998 they
formed Otpor, and in 2000 in Budapest they met Gene Sharp. An American
professor, now 84, Sharp is another of Foreign Policy-s Arab
revolutionaries. He has been a tireless advocate of nonviolent revolution
since the 1950s. He helped Otpor with practical issues and structuring
their campaigns, and influenced Canvas later in developing a solid
academic base. "By now we had a wider framework, 40,000 people
involved, and had come up with the anti-Milosevic slogan 'Gotov
je-, 'he-s finished-." In the 2000
presidential election, Otpor-s efforts helped produce a record
turnout, 72% of the electorate. "And that was Milosevic, finished."
Square, buses come and go as Popovic describes what happened here
12 years ago. Sitting on a concrete bollard, he points to a circle
of buildings. "There, and there, members of Otpor were posted."
Each spot was a vantage point, with landlines to co-ordinate events
and pre-empt either a government blackout of cellphones or an overload
on the system. "Thousands of protesters from all over Serbia
were converging on Republic Square to shout out their objections
to Milosevic. The government forces were met by protesters with
smiles, songs and laughter." They did not oppose the protesters.
They responded by standing by and watching; some even joined in.
By nightfall, Milosevic had fled.
burst of energy, we-re standing at a crossroads in downtown
Belgrade, looking at buildings full of holes. NATO bombed Yugoslavia
in 1999 for 78 days, night after night, to impose peace in Kosovo,
and Belgrade is still peppered with unrepaired bomb damage. As we
look up at the gutted buildings, named after battles fought by Serbs
in the second world war, Popovic points out one building in particular,
and his face darkens.
In 1996, he
explains, he had finished his studies as a freshwater biologist
and joined the liberal opposition Democratic Party, becoming the
youngest member of the Belgrade City Parliament, at 23. By 1998
he was losing his faith in the party, but still believed in its
leader, Zoran Djindjic. Another two years later, Djindjic was prime
minister, and he appointed Popovic, by now an MP, as an adviser
on environmental issues. "I spent three years persuading people
to recycle garbage. The state can only do so much—people have
to play their part." In 2003, in the building Popovic is pointing
at now, Djindjic was assassinated. "I-ve been blessed
to have two idols, Djindjic being one and the rock star Milan Mladenovic
the other." The first song Popovic learned to play on the
electric guitar was by The Clash. Then, noting that I-m British,
he adds, "you should know all about The Clash, and Joy Division . . . "
as a hobby. In 2002 Zimbabweans, Georgians and Ukrainians were using
the Otpor fist and asking for advice. Popovic was surprised by this,
but with Djindjic gone and Milosevic safely in The Hague, he saw
the chance to quit politics—"my two good life decisions:
quitting politics, and quitting smoking, last year". Meanwhile
his comrade in non-arms, Slobodan Djinovic, had started a successful
software business. It is this success that provides the bulk of
Canvas-s funds. "With journalists for parents, and a
rock star for a brother, I know a few tricks about presentation."
His aim now
is to make people power available and mainstream, through education,
academic programmes, university courses and talks. "I-d
like to shine the light of people-power science on NATO."
Popovic is a visiting scholar at Columbia University, and lectures
at Rutgers and Northwestern. When we met, he had just given presentations
to students at two British schools, Eton, near Windsor, and Atlantic
College in South Wales—gatherings of young people hearing
how a man changed his country-s political system when he was
not much older than they are. Popovic, who is invariably dressed
casually and considers "wearing a tie is a form of slavery",
was riveted by the formality of Eton with its tailcoats and stiff
collars. The boys were more interested in what he had to say than
what he was wearing. "It was the best talk I have heard in
my life," said one 15-year-old.
It is hard to
imagine nonviolent struggle working every time. Doesn-t it
just crumble in the midst of armed conflicts or against the most
determined regimes? Popovic is undaunted. "No matter how big
or small conflict is, it-s about whether or not you can mobilise
numbers, and make the majority of the population active against
the guy at the top. Nonviolence will work where there-s any
vulnerability in the 'bad guys-. And they are vulnerable.
or Assads of this world cannot personally collect taxes, torture
citizens, shoot into crowds of protesters, operate public transport
or fix roads by themselves. They need obedience and co-operation
to do so. And if enough people deny obedience and withhold their
co-operation—even after credible threats—rulers simply
With total confidence,
he quotes two American scholars, Erica Chenoweth and Maria J. Stephan.
In their study, "Why Civil Resistance Works" (2011),
they analysed 323 situations from the period 1900-2006, and found
that nonviolent campaigns were successful in 53% of cases, whereas
violent ones managed only 26%. Academia is important for Popovic
not only as support for his arguments for nonviolent protest, but
also in propagating the philosophy. To this end, Canvas has designed
a master-s degree for the department of political science
at the University of Belgrade. It is awaiting certification and
Popovic shrugs with irritation at the red tape.
He talks of
Syria, and the choice protesters have faced of whether, and when,
to call a halt to nonviolence and pick up arms. As we talked, in
March, he felt that the best case study for Syria might be South
Africa-s anti-apartheid struggle. "It had three phases—a
successful initial nonviolent struggle with the freedom charter
and the growth of the African National Congress, then years lost
in an unsuccessful and costly (in terms of lives) attempt to challenge
the apartheid government with a guerrilla movement," and in
the end, winning over an isolated and economically vulnerable government
by shifting to non-co-operation (strikes, consumer boycotts) and
wielding vast numbers. "If there-s one field where Assad
has a tremendous advantage, it-s the field of armed struggle.
If there-s one area he-s particularly vulnerable, it-s
conflicts," Popovic argues, "the only arena in which
protesters cannot win is the military one." And yet, so often,
what happens? The military option.
Syria, he concedes, is a huge test. "Can Assad go further
than Mubarak and Ben Ali with even more ruthlessness and readiness
to shoot and bomb his own people?" he wonders. As we talk,
it certainly looks that way. "And will the international community
learn from the Libyan, Kosovar, Afghan and Iraqi cases and refrain
from military intervention?"
that the Arab spring has problems. "And we-ve seen nonviolent
victories followed up by stalemate, coups d-etat or even deeper
social crises." He mentions the Cedar revolution of April
2005, when young Lebanese mobilised and kicked out 14,000 Syrian
troops after decades of bloody civil war, without a bullet being
fired. "But this was followed by political crisis and armed
conflict, ending in a Hizbullah-controlled government that-s
still in power."
The sight of
Tunisians voting in their first fair elections in almost 30 years
was inspiring. "But the Egyptian nonviolent blitzkrieg, now
frozen by the generals on one side and Islamic tensions on the other,
while the real drivers of Mubarak-s downfall seem to be marginalised . . . what
the hell went wrong?"
His own answer
is, "We-re talking about 'complete- and
'incomplete- revolutions. Getting rid of the bad guy
is only the first of three parts of a democratic revolution."
The other two are electing a democratic government, and protecting
it. "In 1961, when President Kennedy announced the plan to
land a man on the moon, he didn-t say just 'get a man
to the moon-, but specified getting him back to Earth as well.
It seems that the operational planning for some of these nonviolent
revolutions has been limited to 'removing the incumbent regimes-.
We-ve learned a lot about how nonviolent movements grow and
successfully oppose autocratic governments, but we must work on
the next steps."
He denies having
any expertise on transition, "but we do point out measures
to make the outcome more durable and more likely to end in democracy".
The factors he lists that made Serbia-s transition a reasonable
success include reminding the new government that it was accountable
to its citizens. "After the elections in 2000, we put up posters
all around the country to let the politicians know we were watching
them. They showed a bulldozer—a symbol of our revolution—and
the caption: 'Serbia has 4,500 registered bulldozers and almost
7m potential drivers-. 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 goodwill."
Not far from
the statues of young men restraining rearing horses in front of
parliament is a building where Popovic-s mother used to work.
It stands sliced in two, the front half "melted away",
as Popovic puts it, leaving the insides dangling, thanks to a NATO
missile. His mother escaped death by a matter of hours. She was
the day editor when the TV station was targeted. Thinking of home,
and being bombed, brings Popovic onto the Israel-Palestine conflict.
"It has such a wide impact." Several nonviolent attempts
to end the Israeli occupation have failed, so far. Popovic is not
to be deflected. "Now nonviolence is all the more important.
Previously oppressors could deal with nonviolent protest harshly
and get away with it. After the Arab spring, the bad year for bad
guys, the price of using force skyrocketed."
adopted by the Holy Land Trust, impressed him. A piece of street
theatre, a pilgrimage with donkeys echoing Jesus-s entry into
Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, managed to get a few hundred yards beyond
the perimeter checkpoints. "This is what we call a 'dilemma
action-. What were the police to do—arrest the donkeys?"
In the end, the pilgrims were charged with illegally bringing animals
into the city. "No one got hurt, no one was prosecuted seriously.
And they made their point."
In the apartment
he shares with his wife, reached by a rickety lift that refuses
to go back down again, he shows me his photographs on a large TV
screen, and his shrine to Tolkien: a shelf of books in English and
Serbian, two Ringwraith figures, a map of Middle Earth. A ring on
a chain sits to one side. And a miniature execution block and axe?
"Oh, that-s Masha-s, she-s fascinated by
Anne Boleyn, so I bought her that."
There are photos
of the wedding (he was back at work two days later), the couple-s
log-cabin retreat in northern Serbia, their fishing exploits on
various European rivers: Popovic looking into the eyes of a vast
captured pike (which he then kissed and released, as is his habit),
an underwater shot of a carp, and an underwater shot of Masha swimming.
community, Popovic believes, can help promote democratic change
through nonviolence. How? "By mediation and representing democratic
parties abroad," he says, or by providing a safe internet
platform that cannot be infiltrated by police. "It-s
being tried in Iran." Social media and new technology offer
huge opportunities. "Footage taken in the Maldives in February
was spread that same afternoon to refute the claim that the political
events were democratic change. It was a coup."
Best of all,
Popovic says dreamily, would be "to divert even 1% of the
millions of dollars" spent by the West on bombing selected
dictators into promoting nonviolent movements. "The biggest
hope of the Arab spring", he goes on, "is to understand
that this path is a cheap and efficient way to help." His
enthusiasm dims and reality returns: "But it-s a Don
Quixote struggle against the war industry. We-re still dominated
by the mantra that oppressors will respond only to force."
By now we have
had a hearty Serbian lunch of chicken with beetroot, pork, rakia
(Serbian brandy), and Popovic has explained the tradition of "slava".
"We celebrate our family saint-s day once a year."
Friends visit each other on their saints- days, out of respect.
"That-s how we survived 500 years of Turkish rule. Christianity
went underground, and slavas held communities together and sustained
faith in his work is palpable. "Djindjic, who learnt English
at 41 before making a trip to the US, taught me: you stop learning,
you stop living." There is evidence that such learning is
happening, but not always for the good. Canvas-s techniques
have been studied by oppressors, and social media have been turned
into a tool of repression, with tweets and online groups used to
trace and arrest activists and demonstrators identified from internet
photographs in Iran. In Egypt, a falsified Facebook group claimed
victory over Mubarak to persuade protesters to stop; in Sudan, activists-
Facebook accounts were used by the authorities to spread misinformation
spring was all about respect, dignity and the right to work, and
the state not delivering." He muses: "All these movements
lie outside the mainstream, like Otpor and like the hobbits on the
journey to Mordor. In desperation at the behaviour of 'adults-
or those in power, the little guys say, 'I will take the ring-."
Even if these
movements don-t work at first, Popovic believes, the failure
will be temporary, the issues will remain: dignity, equality, the
stolen futures. "Social justice connects the dots. And the
movement for social justice will be long-term, fuelled by governments
leaning right. People power and nonviolence are here to stay."
is a doctor and the author of "It's Easier to Reach Heaven
than the End of the Street", an account of the second Palestinian
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