Special Reports / What’s that thing called democracy?

Revolutionaries without borders

Srdja Popovic in conversation with Łukasz Pawłowski · 27 December 2011
An interview with Srdja Popovic, Serbian democratic activist, recognized by “Foreign Policy” magazine as one of the top 10 intellectuals in the world in 2011

Łukasz Pawłowski: A few weeks ago “Foreign Policy” magazine published its annual list of 100 Top Global Thinkers. 10 first positions were granted ex aequo to “Arab revolutionaries”. The striking thing is that among them there are two non-Arabs – you and Gene Sharp – retired professor of political science from Boston. Can you explain how you – a Serbian biologist – ended up listed as an “Arab revolutionary”?

Srdja Popovic: Well, back at the end of the 1990’s I was a revolutionary in Serbia. In 1997 with a group of fellow students we established an organization called “Otpor” – in Serbian meaning “Ressistance” – which aim was to topple the dictatorship of Slobodan Milosevic. In October 2000, using only non-violent means of political struggle, we finally succeeded. Thousands of Serbs took to the streets of Belgrade thus preventing Milosevic from forging the results of presidential elections and forcing him to resign. After that for a brief time I served as a Serbian MP but in 2003 I gave up my political career. With friends, Andrej Milivojevic and Slobodan Djinovic, we founded CANVAS – Centre for Applied Non-Violent Action and Strategies – and since then we have been devoted to spreading the experience we gained in opposing Milosevic all around the world. Because we organized workshops for people engaged later on in the Arab Spring and because we wrote a pretty popular non-violent struggle manual called “Non-Violent Struggle: 50 Crucial Points” – translated by now into 6 different languages and read by revolutionaries across the Middle East and Iran – “Foreign Policy” connected the dots and put us in the context of those events. We always repeat that it is the people actually doing the revolution who deserve all the credit for what is achieved. Yet, I believe we have a small role of passing to them the knowledge that is useful in their undertakings.

ŁP: And what about Gene Sharp? He is 83 years old now so I assume he was not so actively involved in the Arab Spring as you were…

SP: Sharp is a brilliant scholar who spent most of his life researching the phenomenon of non-violent struggle against dictatorships. His most popular book, “From dictatorship to democracy: A conceptual framework for liberation” has been translated into 28 languages and used by revolutionaries throughout the world, including us in Serbia at the time of “Otpor”.

ŁP: How did “Otpor” come across the ideas of Gene Sharp?

 SP: In May 2000 at a conference in Budapest I met Bob Helvey, retired U.S. army colonel who became a close associate of Sharp and a devoted promoter of his ideas. Gene’s work helped us structure what we had already been doing in Serbia for a few years. Up to that point we learned all the strategies of non-violent resistance simply by doing them. Suddenly we bumped into a man who had been studying this approach for over 30 years. By reading his books we learned that many of our techniques of fighting Milosevic’s regime were in fact invented many years ago and thousands miles away.

ŁP: For example?

SP: For example “pots and pans protests”. Back in 1996-97 we used to come out on our balconies at 7:30 p.m. – the time of state TV news which were the symbol of Milosevic’s propaganda – hitting pots and pans making as much noise as we could. Later on it turned out that this particular strategy was first applied in Chile 30 years before. This made me realize that there is a larger context to what we do and that we are not the only ones fighting a dictator. It did not have a large influence on “Otpor” because at that time we were at the last stages of our preparations for presidential elections in autumn 2000 but Sharp’s work inspired me afterwards. Most of his theory is based on one single sentence: “If people do not obey, rulers cannot rule”. The goal of our work is to explain it to those who live under undemocratic rule and want to change it.

ŁP: How precisely did you start doing what you do now? As you said in 2003 you ceased to be a MP and established CANVAS. Why?

SP: After the success of our campaign and especially after a documentary movie “Bringing Down the Dictator” made in 2002 we began to receive invitations and request for help from countries all over the world like Zimbabwe, Georgia and Belarus. People there claimed to be inspired by our struggle and wanted to learn more. We were very surprised because at that point we did not know that the Serbian revolution may and in fact will become a very strong international brand, the way Polish revolution of 1989 is. It is now a bigger brand internationally than it actually is in Serbia. After toppling Milosevic Serbians soon returned to business as usual. We don’t even have any official marking of the 5th of October – the day Milosevic stepped down. And then suddenly we were contacted by people from places we sometimes couldn’t even find on the map and the clenched fist – symbol of “Otpor” – to our astonishment appeared on banners and T-shirts of protesters in Africa, Europe and Asia.

ŁP: What were you thinking when you replied to those people? How did you see your task at that time?

SP: At the very beginning it was more of a hobby for me and my friends – an opportunity to travel, meet other interesting people, and exchange our experiences. Only after the Rose Revolution in Georgia in November 2003 we sat down with Slobodan Djinovic and Andrej Milivojevic to plan and structure our work. This is how we first came up with the idea of actually teaching people non-violent struggle in a systematized way. We began to organize more and more workshops, later on our reflections developed into the book I mentioned and now we established a master’s program in non-violent social change at the Department of Political Science at Belgrade University We also give guest lectures at foreign universities – e.g. Colorado University and Columbia University in the United States – because we believe what we teach should become a common knowledge. Thus, our work covers three main fields: (1) working with activists; (2) spreading the knowledge at universities and conferences; (3) developing new practical tools for non-violent struggle.

ŁP: How is CANVAS financed?

SP: It is financed in a way that guarantees our independence. It is a small institution with only 5 permanent employees and the costs of its regular operation are covered primarily by Slobodan Djinovic and a few other private individuals. Only when we engage in particular projects we align with many different organizations. For example, the next three trips I am preparing for now are going to be financed by respectively Heinrich Böll Foundation, Freedom House and OSCE. This is how we keep our independence which is crucial for our reputation and credibility. The problem is that we are already extremely understaffed and soon will not be able to respond to all the requests.

ŁP: How do you as an institution decide to cooperate with this or that group that asks for your help?

 SP: Basically, our only concern when responding to a potential partner is whether this partner has a history of violent struggle. If not, we usually accept the proposition. For that reason we ended up working with environmental groups, anticorruption groups, leftist as well as nationalistic ones. We don’t really care about the ideology and believe that the knowledge we possess should be spread to all the people for free.

ŁP: Nonetheless, you help groups that may become serious political forces in their countries. Do you somehow differentiate between democracy promotion and interfering with another country’s affairs?

SP: I believe there is a major difference between what we do and interference with another country’s affairs. First of all, we always operate per invitation. We don’t go out to search for commissions – it is the people that find us. Furthermore, we only give these people knowledge and do not tell them what to do with it. Teaching people how to organize themselves, how to manage their resources or how to send their message clearly is just providing them with tools. How they are going to use them is for them to decide. Besides, successful non-violent struggle is always based on large numbers of people so eventually each organization that we work with will have to gain popular support. If they cannot come up with some appealing programme they will never win. I wouldn’t therefore describe our work as interference. We rather tell people how to empower themselves. It is like teaching them a new skill, a new language for example.

ŁP: This does not change the fact that democratization is often thought to be merely a “cover” for Western imperialism. For example George Bush maintained that by removing Saddam Hussein in Iraq he wanted to democratize the country but it was widely claimed that his aim was simply to gain control over the country. Are you not afraid that your activity may be seen the same way?

SP: I am not, because of our emphasis on non-violent struggle. Democracy cannot be easily exported, nor can it be installed successfully after violent coup performed by foreign forces. In the book “Why Civil Resistance Works” Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan, by analyzing over 300 conflicts between 1900 and 2006 came to conclusion that non-violent struggle is much more efficient than violent one. Then of course there is the question of maintaining democracy after revolution. Here again, non-violent movements have a greater chance of succeeding.

ŁP: However, it is sometimes maintained that some countries are not ready to become democratic, due to reasons of political, cultural, religious etc. nature. Do you share this opinion or do you believe that every non-democratic country can become democratic?

SP: I believe a country is ready for democracy the moment majority of the people wants it. I was shocked when at one point of the Arab Spring Israeli ambassador to the United States said on CNN that the Arabs were not yet ready for democracy. It is one of the most stupid statements I have ever heard, tantamount to claiming that Israelis are not mature for this or that. Not one single country or race is superior to another when it comes to democracy.

ŁP: Yet democracy is a very nebulous term. Virtually every leader in the world claims or claimed to be a democrat – Putin, Hu Jintao, Castro, Chávez, Kaddafi, Milosevic. What then do you understand by the term “democracy” and why do you think your definition is better than theirs?

 SP: I see democracy primarily as a contract between the government and the people which allows the latter to replace the former by means of elections. There is this popular saying in Serbia comparing the political class to underwear – if you don’t change it on regular basis it tends to get smelly. I agree with it and I’m saying this as a former MP. However, democracy is obviously not only about elections. The second aspect of it is constituted by a set of basic freedoms – freedom of the press, of speech, of assembly and independent judiciary. If all these elements are in place I believe we can speak of democracy. It is by no means some ideal political system in which economy always grows and the politicians are not corrupt. Democratic politicians are equally corrupt as those in dictatorships – the major difference is that democracy provides a mechanism to replace them.

ŁP: Not everyone would agree with that. The people from Occupy Wall Street movement say that replacing politicians can’t change anything because the new ones are bribed by big companies and lobbies even before they get elected.

SP: That might be true but then the main challenge for the Occupy movement is to propose some specific measures on how to remedy this problem. If they stick only to the list of the things they don’t like instead of suggesting remedies for their grievances they will never grow in numbers and never succeed. What they need is a clear vision of tomorrow. In this sense they face similar problems as the revolutionaries in Egypt. The reason why the Egyptian revolution is now being suppressed by the military is precisely the lack of clear vision of what is supposed to happen after Mubarak is gone. In every revolution, once the previous regime is toppled a major unifying factor is gone so that to retain the unity of the movement you need to tell people exactly what they are fighting for. They should know where the train they got on is going; therefore subsequent steps should be planned well in advance.

ŁP: But isn’t a revolution supposed to be a spontaneous, usually surprising outburst of people’s will? You seem to be saying something entirely the opposite – successful revolutions are well-organized ventures. They don’t just happen they have to be planned.

SP: Planning does not make a revolution less authentic. Developing strategies and coming up with particular tactics of fighting a regime is always only a first step. It may be taken by a small group of people but later on those people are always faced with a crucial test – will they be able to gain wider support for their cause? Without it success is impossible. One cannot simply export or implant revolution in one country or another, unless with violent means. For a military coup no wide support is needed. Non-violent change, however, will never come without mass support of the people. There is no way I could come to Georgia, Egypt or Tunisia and mobilize thousands by bringing the revolution in my suitcase. To be honest I would be the happiest person in the world if it worked this way and probably as we speak I would already be on my way to North Korea to overthrow Kim dynasty. Unfortunately this is not how things work.

ŁP: Tell me then, how do they work? What do you teach the people who ask for your help?

SP: First, they need to understand that power is never a constant asset. It may shift in every society, even in dictatorships. Then, they need to carry out a thorough analysis of a given society in order to be able to understand which institutions are crucial for making such shift possible – in case of Serbia these were the police and national television. If your revolution is to be successful you need to pull people out of them. We persuade our students that non-violent means of struggle are a lot more effective way of doing that, than a call to arms and violent rebellion. The potential revolutionaries must therefore develop a strategy for gradually “sucking people out” of the regime. Although these steps are usually taken by a small group, if successful, they turn it into a wide movement. The next point is therefore to teach people what a political movement actually is, what keeps its various parts together, why is it important to have common symbols and identity, etc. Generally speaking at this point we teach how to turn people’s fear into a mass enthusiasm for change. Most dictatorial regimes are based on fear. If you take it out from them, the whole structure begins to shake and may eventually come down.

ŁP: However, as you said before, even if the regime is overthrown it is not the end of the process. When Adam Michnik was once asked what the worst thing about communism is, he replied, “that what comes after”. Very often it is easier to topple a dictator than to destroy the structure of dictatorship. Georgia, Kirgizstan and even Ukraine are good examples of how difficult democratic change is to maintain. Do you advise on that subject as well?

SP: No, we don’t engage in that. Transition is quite often a very long lasting process and we are too small organization to be monitoring it in many different countries. Furthermore there are many other institutions out there which specialize in the area of democratic transitions. Nevertheless, at our workshops we point out to certain measures that may be taken before and during the revolution to make its outcomes more durable. In the case of Serbia there were a few factors that made our transition a reasonable success.

First, we knew what we wanted from the very early stages of our work and this vision of tomorrow was pretty clear throughout the whole process. We wanted free elections, freedom of the press, independent judiciary. We also wanted to improve relations with our neighbors and set Serbia on the way to the European Union. This transparency is very important not only to retain people’s trust; it also allows you to measure how much you managed to achieve.

The next thing is a smooth transition of power and for that good timing is crucial. The reason why in Serbia 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 forge the results. Therefore the moment he finally acknowledged his defeat and stepped down, a new president was immediately sworn in and the transition could go on.

The third step that we took was to remind the new government that it was accountable before its citizens. After the elections we posted posters all around the country to let the politicians know we were watching them. 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.

ŁP: What motivates you to do what have been doing for many years now?

SP: First of all, you get a chance to meet really the best parts of different societies. You teach at prestigious schools and talk to very bright people who will be future decision makers and who by applying this knowledge may prevent many wars from happening. You also work with activists who are often the most valuable people a given society have. Those people risk – sometimes risk a lot – not for themselves but for the sake of the future generations. Secondly, it is also a great way to learn. I believe you can find out more about Egyptian society from a dozen of Egyptians than from a dozen of books on Egypt. In this way really become a citizen of the world which, in my view, is priceless.