Leading Nonviolent Movements: An Interview with Srđa Popović

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Stephan Röhl/Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung
Popović speaks at an event in Berlin in 2012.

In 1998, Srđa Popović helped to found the Serbian nonviolent resistance group, Otpor! Two years later, this nonviolent movement helped to remove Serbian dictator Slobodan Milošević from power. In 2003, Popović established the Centre for Applied Nonviolent Action (CANVAS). As Director, Popović has worked with pro-democracy activists from more than 50 countries and has become an international leader in promoting and teaching principles for success in nonviolent resistance.

It’s been almost 15 years since the group Otpor! that you helped to lead overthrew Milošević. Can you reflect on where Serbia is now and how it has developed for better or for worse since 2000?

The general goal of the movement was to move the country towards Europe. Fifteen years after, I think these goals have become the mainstream of Serbian society and politics. I think we’ve progressed a lot in terms of interaction and democracy. The parties that are advocating approach to the European Union are representing 90 percent of the Serbian electorate. It is a lot slower than I would expect. All this was achieved in big part thanks to the first Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Đinđić, who took over after Milošević and led the country until his assassination in 2003. If he had stayed alive, it would probably be a faster process.

In your TED Talk “How to Topple a Dictator and the Rise of People Power,” you defined the principles of success as “unity, nonviolent discipline, and planning.” How do each of those qualities affect the success of a nonviolent movement?

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Bartolomeo Koczenasz/TEDxKrakow
Popović outlines his principals for successful movements at a TEDx event in Krakow.

Every single movement is different. But you will never win without the three principles—unity, planning, and nonviolent discipline. In Serbia, it was a political unity. There were 19 opposition parties with only one Presidential candidate who ran against Milošević in 2000. In the Arab world, it’s more like sectarian or religious unities. In some other cases, we are talking about the gender unity. Wherever you look, the most complicated types of unity that you achieve are also the most important ones. How you build the unity is how you build the joint vision for tomorrow. How you mobilize your potential allies is what very often distinguishes the movement between success and failure. The vision of tomorrow is just a daydream without clear planning on how to get there. The nonviolent discipline is self-explanatory. When you look at the research of Maria Stephan and Erica Chenoweth, you will find nonviolent movements in the last 100 years twice more successful than violent movements. And the reason for this is, of course, the level of participation. Not too many people will go to demonstrations where cars are burning and the windows are smashed. And part of the story is avoiding being affiliated with potentially violent groups. I see this happen over and over where you have a bunch of nonviolent organized people being overtaken by a few dozen people from super extreme groups.

You’ve advocated for using humor as a strategy. What advice do you have for the best way to utilize humor? And are there any times the use of humor can be detrimental to a cause?

We were looking at a very specific use of humor. It’s not only jokes about the bad guys. It is designing a situation. The story we always use is the Serbian petrol bottle story where we painted the picture of Milošević on the petrol bottle, and people had fun hitting it with a bat. Then, the police appeared and arrested the bottle. Humor breaks fear and apathy. And fear and apathy are, reportedly, the most important factors of status quo. Also, it’s very important to understand that humor is only one of the tools and that it should be the supplement to your grand strategy and the tactics you are taking. Otherwise, you can turn into the prankster.

The Internet has in many ways changed the way revolutions and movements are conducted. How instrumental has the Internet been in recent movements? Has its importance been at all exaggerated at times?

The Internet has changed the battlefield very much. You make things faster, cheaper, and less risky. It would take you weeks and leaflets and pamphlets and radio commercials and a lot of manpower, a lot of money to assemble people to rally. And now you can make it available and everybody knows. The second important role is the side of the Internet where you get into the journalism world. Now, wherever you see demonstrations in the world, from Baltimore to Bahrain, you see people taping with their cell phones, and you have truth. Not least important, the Internet makes it possible to learn from each other in faster ways. Now, you can find access to online education. At the same time, look at the power of horizontal learning where one group in Venezuela makes a cool viral video and another group in Ukraine picks it up horizontally. The speed of learning is probably the most underappreciated role of the Internet. However, the Internet, like any other technology, comes with two sides. You have this phenomenon of “clicktivism” and the whole range of pages claiming they are saving the polar bears by having millions of clicks. Nothing is really happening in the real world. We call this activism from your couch. And there are so many people clicking from their couches and thinking they are doing something really good instead of going on the streets. One of the many things which came with new media is “occupyism.” Because people were so excited seeing Tahrir Square, they got the very wrong idea that all we have to do is sit in an occupied public park or place for long enough and M&M chocolates will start falling from the sky. If you are sticking to an occupation tactic, you will be incapable to build numbers because people are busy with their own lives. And it will alienate the very people you want to recruit. By blocking the street, you are actually destroying peoples’ businesses. These are the people you want to recruit, not to harm. All your opponent has to do is sit on their fat ass until your numbers dwindle. Which is exactly what mainland China did in the case of Hong Kong. It is actually a very demanding, high-risk tactic that successful movements were always keeping until the end when they’d already built their numbers and organization. Beware of the easiness of assembling people.

You’re quoted in an article in The Guardian as saying, “Foreign military interventions don’t bring change.” You also say in that article that sanctions, for the most part, are unsuccessful. What do you think is the best move for foreign countries when a revolution falls to violence or a civil war?

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Peter Durand
A poster depicting Ivan Marovic, a founding member of Otpor.

There is no proof that the use of force brings long-term democracy. When the system is attacked from the outside, everybody rallies around the leadership. If you look at Milošević’s ratings, they were highest during the NATO bombing. When we are talking about sanctions, there are things that work and things that don’t work. You can technically divide this into shotgun sanctions, which are designed to target the population, and sniper sanctions, which are basically designed to target officials. The first sanctions don’t work. When the international community came out with a petrol embargo over Serbia, people in the government, people in the police, made a deal with the petrol smugglers. So, everybody was becoming a petrol smuggler, and that destroyed the middle class. The middle class was too busy surviving, and they didn’t have time to think. It is the middle, urban, more educated class that you mostly rely on when you start recruiting for a democratic nonviolent movement. However, when you look at the sanctions targeted at members of the regime, they are very effective. I think there are so many things that internationals can do, and they deal mostly with values. How to promote the values in the society, how to promote independent institutions, how to promote free media. One of the most effective helps that we ever got from abroad was buying the equipment for the independent radio and TV stations in Serbia, which enabled the democratic movement to have a voice and to fight back against Milošević’s regime state TV propaganda. One of the things you can do, you can offer people free online resources, free books. There are so many different things outside of bombing and sanctions that a government can do. I think this is one of the tasks for the future: to identify the effective cases of foreign support and to compare them with ineffective cases of foreign military intervention and to really look at what brings goodness and support and what only brings misery and more support for the bad guys on the top.

Many countries are mired in intractable conflicts, such as Iraq and Afghanistan—imagine a future in which all the right steps were taken to move towards peace and security. Describe what that scenario looks like, and what would have to happen in order to get there?

I think understanding the needs of the people is very important, and I think we’ve learned a lot about how to build successful nonviolent movements in the past. Where we lack knowledge is how to follow up the successful revolution with a successful transition. I think looking at the delivery and skills the people need and institutions to be built, and all this boring work, which at the end brings you the well-organized society, is the way to go. I don’t have really precise advice, but as in any struggle, you can’t win without having the majority of the people on your side. The majority of people are always in the middle, never on the fringe. And the majority of people will care only for things they find personally important. Listening to what is personally important to these people and directing your help towards building what is important for them is a good way to start thinking.