How to Sharpen a Nonviolent Movement

Article Source: Journal of Democracy

By Sophia McClennen, Srdja Popovic, and Joseph Wright

In 1982, during the Polish Solidarity movement, the people of Świdnik, a small town in eastern Poland, decided to protest government-media propaganda by taking their television sets for a walk. Activists had wanted to register their discontent at the communist state’s control of all news media, but decided that encouraging individuals to attempt a private boycott would be pointless: After all, who would know if you were sitting at home in your living room not watching the news? But what if a way could be found to make such a boycott publicly visible? What if dissatisfaction with government propaganda and the state’s stranglehold on information could be put on unmistakable display for everyone to see?

Eventually, the activists decided to take their television sets onto the street at the time of the main evening newscast, “walking” them in wheelbarrows as though they were babies in carriages. Before long, anyone walking the streets of the town at this hour could see friends and neighbors ambling and laughing, pushing their TVs, using the thirty minutes previously spent listening to the official newscast to greet one another, gossip, and share in the thrill of standing up to the regime together.

The practice of “walking” TV sets was not only creative but contagious. It was a great gag, and the practice soon spread to other Polish towns. Flabbergasted, the communist government weighed its options. It could not arrest anyone; there was no law forbidding Polish citizens from pushing television sets down streets. All the regime could do was move the 10 p.m. curfew up to 7 p.m., thereby forcing everyone indoors [End Page 110] and signaling its powerlessness to contain criticism with a move that outraged the Polish public even more.

The wheelbarrow protests put the government in a tough spot: Ignoring the protesters would simply embolden them, reveal the government’s weakness, and increase resistance. Repressing protesters for doing something as innocuous as pushing TVs in wheelbarrows would make officials look heavy-handed and overly repressive. The clumsy effort to tamp down the protests by decreeing an earlier start to the curfew cost the regime credibility, expanded the base of Polish citizens critical of the government, and made the authorities look absurd. They could no longer claim that they were acting in the best interest of the people. Once that narrative had been disrupted, their grip on power became tenuous and eventually the regime fell. This specific type of nonviolent tactic is called a dilemma action. It is designed to create a dilemma for the target and force opponents into a “lose-lose” situation: Whatever the opponents do, they will suffer reputational harm and end up looking bad. A well-chosen dilemma action taps into widely held beliefs and uses unpredictability and humor to destabilize the official narrative and attract widespread public support.

But, beyond making for a good story, is this tactic effective? Does it have outcomes that we can measure? Our research suggests that dilemma actions can make a nonviolent campaign 11 to 14 percent more likely to succeed. Nonviolent campaigns are already nearly twice as likely to succeed as violent campaigns (working half the time versus only 29 percent of the time), and our findings suggest that dilemma actions can give nonviolent campaigns a further edge, helping them to succeed almost two-thirds of the time (64 percent).

Over the past three decades, research has shown that nonviolent social protest has been the most reliable path to democracy.1 Recent democratic backsliding notwithstanding, sustained nonviolent mobilization remains a proven path to democratic survival, especially among new democracies.2

Nonviolent mobilization campaigns can and do fail, of course. Since 1905, their rate of full success has been 47 percent (150 of 320 cases). In a more recent subset of all cases since 1974—namely, all the cases that have occurred since the “third wave” of democratization began with the Carnation Revolution in Portugal—the rate of failure (defined as anything less than full success) has been 53 percent (137 out of 258 cases). Civil resistance reached a “new level of popularity” after 2010, but its effectiveness began to decline.3

We know that nonviolent mass movements are significantly more effective than violent ones, but why do nonviolent movements sometimes fail? Could their tactics play a role? Nonviolence itself is a broad tactic, but simply saying that a movement is nonviolent says little about how it actually pursues its goals (other than by abjuring violence, of course). [End Page 111] There is a vast difference, for example, between nonviolent movements that emphasize protests and ones that incorporate more disruptive direct actions such as strikes.

Research on the efficacy of specific nonviolent tactics is scant. Most of it focuses on comparing a few cases to one another, or studies tactical changes within a movement. Apart from suggestions that campaigns will be more effective if they use a “variety” of methods, there has been little noted regarding specific types of tactics and their role in campaign success.

This said, there has been growing interest in assessing the effects of creative tactics. Building on anecdotal accounts such as Steve Crawshaw’s Street Spirit: The Power of Protests and Mischief, or activist training guides such Andrew Boyd and Dave Oswald Mitchell’s Beautiful Trouble: A Toolkit for Revolution, or the Guide to Effective Nonviolent Struggle published by the Center for Applied Nonviolent Action and Strategies (CANVAS), Steven Duncombe and Silas Harrebye offer data on the relative effectiveness of creative versus conventional forms of activism.4 They find that across nearly every quantitative measure—observations of interest, numbers of petition signatures gathered, speed and scale of flyer distribution, reactions to the activists—the creative approach beat the conventional one when it came to reaching desired objectives.

Our study is meant to add to these contributions. It introduces, conceptualizes, and measures the efficacy of dilemma actions. We then use global data on dilemma actions during nonviolent campaigns to assess how this tactic influences campaign success. Our findings suggest that dilemma actions reliably boost campaign success. What makes this tactic so effective?

Dilemma Power
During their colonial occupation of India, British authorities held monopoly control over the vital everyday staple of salt, taxing it and controlling its production and distribution with an eye toward its value as an export. The independence movement could have angrily protested this state of affairs, but instead chose to do something far more creative. Led by Mohandas K. Gandhi, independence activists marched to the coast and began evaporating seawater to make their own salt. Tax protests and noncompliance soon spread across India and affected many things besides salt.

The British authorities found themselves in a bind: They could watch their control over salt (and more) go away, or they could launch a crackdown. They chose the latter, arresting thousands and along the way harming the colonial regime’s legitimacy, sparking an international outcry, and giving the independence movement additional momentum. [End Page 112] Gandhi’s unique ideas regarding civil disobedience became famous, but he was also a master at devising creative dilemmas that would confound his opponents and help his cause.

We have documented cases of dilemma actions across history and on every continent, but systematic study of them is a recent endeavor. The first activist to write about the success of dilemma actions was George Lakey, who in 1987 described what he called “dilemma demonstrations.” Canadian activist Philippe Duhamel read Lakey and devised a “dilemma demonstration” in 2001 designed to protest the Canadian government’s participation in the Free Trade Association of the Americas. Armed with a “giant key,” protesters embarked on a “search-and-seizure operation” at the Department of International Trade and Foreign Affairs in Ottawa, where they demanded that they be given access to the draft trade treaty. Protesters were arrested, which then drew public scrutiny. Why was the Canadian government refusing to release a draft? Why the secrecy? A week later, the protesters had achieved their goals and the drafts were made public. Duhamel later published a detailed account of the tactic.5

For Lakey and Duhamel, at the tactic’s core is the dilemma, which is created by a direct action tactic that forces the opponent into a lose-lose choice. Like all direct actions, dilemma actions work outside of conventional advocacy. They are designed to make the target respond. The typical choice is between efforts to repress the activists, which look heavy-handed, or inaction, which looks weak. In both scenarios, the target loses public credibility and the campaign builds momentum.

In one classic example, the Serbian movement Otpor! (Resistance!) plastered an oil barrel with President Slobodan Milošević’s picture, then placed the barrel in a busy shopping area. Passersby could drop a coin into the barrel and hit the image of Milošević in the face with a baseball bat. Calling the action “dime for change,” the activists encouraged their audience to recognize that they lived under a regime where the government cared more about shielding the autocrat’s image than about letting people peacefully express themselves. Police arrived and had to decide what, if anything, to do. They chose to “arrest” the barrel, which provided excellent photo opportunities and left the police, and by association Milošević, looking absurd. Otpor! could have gone the route of traditional protest, but a fun, provocative dilemma action drew far greater attention to the regime’s repression and built support for the nonviolent movement against it.

Even more important, our definition of dilemma actions, which builds on the CANVAS training experience, requires that activists tap into a widely held belief. Thus, for example, the “dime for change” dilemma action foregrounded the belief that people should be able to peacefully express frustration with their government. When the police shut things down, the repressive response made Otpor! more legitimate and the Milošević regime less so. By combining a peaceful action with [End Page 113] one that taps into a widely held belief, activists have a better chance of building broad public sympathy for their goals and incorporating the type of “large and diverse participation” that Erica Chenoweth has noted as critical for campaign success.6

The third element of a good dilemma action is playful irony. Humor is a powerful tool for activists targeting authoritarian regimes. Laughtivism has been defined as the “strategic use of humor and mocking by social nonviolent movements in order to undermine the authority of an opponent, build credibility, break fear and apathy and reach target audiences.”7 Showing that humor in political activism goes beyond just “letting off steam,” Majken Jul Sørensen explains how funny political stunts can disrupt repressive regimes’ discourse and reframe the narrative.8 Her research shows that using humor also helps activists themselves, who report feeling less fear when engaging in acts that have a humorous element.

Not all humorous stunts are ironic, of course. Activists dressing up in funny costumes may be fun but is not necessarily ironic. Dilemma actions, by contrast, need irony. They hinge above all on exposing the situational irony of opponents’ claims to be acting in the public’s best interest when in fact they are not doing so. As Bill Moyer writes, power-holders devise myths to justify their self-serving policies and programs.9 Oppressive governments do not need citizens to actually believe these myths, but they do need citizens to act publicly “as if” they believe them.10 The inherent irony is that the powerholders’ public narrative hides the truth of their actual practices.

The activists’ goals, then, are to use creative tactics to reveal the truth behind the myths that have been presented to the public as true, and—just as important—to expose citizens to public acts that subvert those myths. If, for example, a regime will not allow the people to publicly express themselves in protest, then a dilemma action will ironically call attention to that by displaying blank signs, staging silent protests, or having toys instead of people do the protesting. Dilemma actions are therefore a form of public disobedience that undermines regime narratives, but in a manner that honors a widely held social norm. The upshot is a public demonstration of how the regime’s narrative defies social norms.

A government may say that it has started a war to keep its citizens safe, while in fact the war puts the citizens at far greater risk. Protesters could respond by hitting the streets in a traditional protest, or they could try creatively ironic dilemma actions: writing antiwar messages on currency, [End Page 114] dressing in skeleton costumes to protest in cemeteries, or holding up blank pieces of paper in silent complaint.11 Arresting a bunch of creative activists for peaceful actions will hurt the regime’s reputation. This outcome is of great interest since a major factor shaping campaign success or failure is how the public perceives activists. When they are seen as disruptive or annoying or extremist, they tend to fail to attract new members.12 By contrast, research shows that if the public feels moral outrage at how the state treats activists, public support for the movement will likely rise.13 Actions that have an element of ironic play can be very effective at portraying activists sympathetically and their targets as hostile.

While the dilemma actions in our study vary in terms of how playful or funny their actions may be, they all share an effort to use creative irony to expose the intrinsic ironies of autocratic power.

The Dilemma-Action Study
This project began with the goal of pairing decades of activist experience with academic research. One member of our research team, Srdja Popovic, knew that dilemma actions could make a difference. He learned this firsthand as a leader of Otpor! helping to bring down the Milošević regime, and later from decades of CANVAS work training other activists across the globe. In order to put experience to a test, we conducted a holistic case study of 44 dilemma actions, coding nine different success metrics. This formed the basis of our 2020 book Pranksters vs. Autocrats.14 The results were encouraging, and led to this study, which documents the extent to which nonviolent campaigns use dilemma actions and tests whether they affect success rates.

To test the efficacy of dilemma actions as part of a nonviolent campaign, we examined dilemma-action tactics that took place during the 320 nonviolent campaigns occurring between 1905 and 2019, and which are included in the larger Nonviolent and Violent Campaigns and Outcomes (NAVCO) 1.3 dataset covering the period from 1905 through 2019.15 The nonviolent campaigns in NAVCO 1.3 provide a sample that we can code for the presence of dilemma actions, allowing us to compare success rates of campaigns with and without dilemma actions.

The first step in coding was to learn the range of tactics used by each campaign and to search for markers of dilemma actions. Examples of these markers include boycotts, hunger strikes, media art, labor strikes, sit-ins, and symbols. If we found a dilemma action, we then coded its descriptive and evaluative features. If our team found a single example of dilemma-action tactics being used within a campaign, the search of the campaign stopped at that point—there was no need to find all dilemma actions since one was enough for comparative purposes. If no evidence of dilemma actions surfaced at first look, the team revisited primary and secondary sources twice more to confirm the absence. [End Page 115]

To give an example of how the coding went: In January 2009, during Iceland’s so-called Cutlery Revolution, nearly two-thousand people gathered outside the Althing (parliament) building to bang pans, pots, and other kitchenware. This use of everyday kitchen items was a helpful and ironic way to highlight the effect that the government’s handling of a massive banking collapse and financial crisis was having on ordinary citizens’ ability to feed their families. Banging pots and pans also made a lot of noise and drew media attention.

The demonstrators called on Prime Minister Geir Haarde and his cabinet to resign, and demanded reforms to make government more transparent. This disruptive action forced the government to either treat the protesters like criminals—and likely face charges of having overreacted—or let the noisy demonstrations continue. The demonstrators achieved their short-term goals: Haarde, the head of the central bank, and the country’s top financial-oversight officer all stepped down. Early elections were held that April. In order to code this case, two members of the research team independently consulted five distinct secondary sources, including newspaper articles, an encyclopedia entry, a peer-reviewed journal article, and an extant database of nonviolent mobilization.

Iceland’s Cutlery Revolution is just one example. Overall, our data indicate that dilemma actions occurred in only about a third of nonviolent campaigns, but at a fairly constant rate over time, suggesting that the presence of dilemma actions is not new. Dilemma actions also occur outside nonviolent campaigns, in part because many attempts at mass mobilization—both with and without dilemma actions—never attract the thousand or more participants that are needed to make it into the NAVCO dataset. In order to get around this limitation in the data, we have assembled our own database of more than four-hundred dilemma actions that includes instances where such actions were one-off events untied to any larger movement, let alone one with a thousand members. We have included, for example, the May 2013 “Kisses in the Subway” protest that happened after public-transit officials in Ankara, Turkey, looked at a station’s security-camera feed and noticed a couple kissing. Defying official admonitions to cease displaying affection on public transport, more than a hundred people flooded a station and spent several minutes kissing. Some held signs reading “free kisses.” Officials then had to decide whether to criminalize kissing or let these protesters undermine their authority. The dataset of dilemma actions found in the NAVCO data comprises about a quarter of the cases that we have studied thus far.

The Evidence
The success rate across all nonviolent campaigns in the NAVCO 1.3 dataset is roughly 54 percent. The left plot in Figure 1 shows that this average varies considerably by whether a campaign uses a dilemma action. [End Page 116] Nonviolent campaigns lacking a dilemma action have an overall success rate of just under 50 percent, while those with dilemma actions succeed on average 64 percent of the time.


Figure 1.

Dilemma Actions and Nonviolent-Campaign Success

Note: Partial success is treated as 50 percent, failure as 0, and full success as 100 percent.

Next, we tested the efficacy of dilemma actions.16 Our estimate suggests that dilemma actions are associated with an increase of ten percentage points in the probability of campaign success. This is lower than the prior fourteen-point estimate (64 versus 50 percent success rate), but our estimate comes from an approach that is often less sensitive to outlier observations. Both approaches suggest that, on average, dilemma actions make nonviolent campaigns significantly more likely to succeed.

The difference in success rates has narrowed over the last three decades, however, just as the overall success rate for nonviolent campaigns has dropped. Both these trends—the smaller difference made by dilemma actions, and nonviolent campaigns succeeding more rarely overall—seem to have started as the Cold War was ending. For much of the twentieth century, including the years from 1920 to 1950, we see a success rate for dilemma-action–inclusive campaigns that substantially outstrips the success rate of campaigns lacking a dilemma action. In the three decades or so since the Cold War ended, however, the difference shrinks. Specifically, it goes from 25 points between 1905 and 1988 to 9 points since that latter year: From 1989 through 2019, nonviolent campaigns with at least one dilemma action succeeded in 61 percent of cases, while campaigns without succeeded 52 percent of the time.

What can explain the shrinking success gap? Could it be that dilemma [End Page 117] actions have a bigger impact when used against full-fledged autocracies of the sort that were more common before the Cold War’s end? Such regimes are by definition farthest from rule by consent of the governed, and as such start out with wider legitimacy gaps for dilemma actions to exploit. To examine this possibility, in Figure 2 we plot the estimated marginal effect of dilemma actions by the level of democracy of the targeted government.

Figure 2. Dilemma Actions Boost Nonviolent-Campaign Success in Autocracies

Source: Democracy data (x-axis) from the Varieties of Democracy (V-Dem) project.

The plotted line indicates that the marginal effect of dilemma actions is highest in more autocratic countries. When campaigns target the most autocratic governments (those with democracy scores between zero and 0.2), the dilemma-action effect is well above average. In the most democratic governments in the set (those with democracy scores above 0.6), by contrast, the dilemma-action effect is about half what it is in autocracies. In short, when nonviolent campaigns target more-autocratic governments, dilemma actions are nearly twice as likely to boost campaign success compared to the situation where dilemma actions are used in more-democratic settings.

How Dilemma Actions Help Nonviolent Campaigns
Our team gathered a range of descriptive data on each dilemma action case to code fifteen distinct metrics, some of which were descriptive and some evaluative. Our evaluative findings indicate four specific elements of dilemma actions that shape nonviolent-campaign success: facilitating [End Page 118] group formation, delegitimizing opponents, reducing fear, and generating sympathetic media coverage.

Group formation
Popovic has argued that a successful movement will tap into what he calls the “cool factor.” His experience is borne out by research regarding what dilemma actions can do to shape public perceptions of the movement as well as the morale of those directly involved. Such actions, for example, present activists as nonthreatening.17 Research on humor and activism further suggests that the use of humor lowers the resistance of the audience to the activist’s message and can induce audience members to think about an issue that they might have been avoiding.18 Even more important, the use of play in activism can help to break down social barriers, creating new alliances among disparate members of society.19

Dilemma actions not only affect public perceptions but the activists themselves. Dilemma actions done with humor and irony give participants as a group positive feelings. To a greater degree than other nonviolent strategies, dilemma actions can help groups to form and stay active. The short-term adverse reactions that dilemma actions tend to rouse from opponents are easily interpreted as tactical successes, which can make activists feel empowered.

Almost all the time (that is, in 92 percent of cases) dilemma actions during nonviolent campaigns are followed by increases in the numbers of campaign participants. Movement mobilization continues after the dilemma action 82 percent of the time, and in 93 percent of cases the event boosts public sympathy for the nonviolent campaign.

Dilemma actions must not only pose a true dilemma (failed attempts are often traceable to a lapse on this score), but must also touch the chord of a widely held belief. Getting the opponent to respond to the dilemma action in a norm-transgressing way is key. The response is “lose-lose” because the dilemma action dictates that the only alternative to violating a widely shared norm is nonaction, which is a loss because it looks weak.

The dilemma then creates a situation whereby the target is likely to lose legitimacy in the eyes of the public. How onlookers assess the probable value of activism against the target may change as well.20 For example, if the opponent’s first choice is to avoid responding publicly to a dilemma, citizens may sense weakness and resistance grows as a result. If the number of people involved in the dilemma action swells, activists’ legitimacy will rise while their target’s falls. In practice, this means that one of the best ways to mount a dilemma action is to aim at an opponent’s absurd, excessive, irrational, or repressive rules. If protesting is outlawed, then activists can hold up blank signs. Arresting people with blank signs will cost the opponent legitimacy as the public loses respect [End Page 119] for the opponent’s rules. A well-executed dilemma action can reframe the narrative of the regime from legitimate to illegitimate, from just to unjust, from representative to autocratic, and so on.

Regime nonresponse is rare. We find that 90 percent of the time, a dilemma action meets with an aggressive or violent response, or at least one that arguably looks like an overreaction. In July 2011, for example, people marched en masse in Malawi to protest their government. They flew the country’s original postindependence flag—the government had recently changed the design and banned display of the old one. They wore red clothing and called themselves the “Red Army for Democracy and Peace.” Riot police launched violent crackdowns in several cities, but this did not quell the protests, which went on for several more days and sparked again in August and September. The authorities’ harsh reaction, just as in our earlier example of the Polish government’s overreaction to walking TVs in wheelbarrows, aided the activists and undercut the legitimacy of the regime.

A third causal mechanism linking dilemma actions to campaign success involves the psychology of fear. Egyptian satirist Bassem Youssef writes that fear has always been the “best weapon” of repressive regimes, but “when you laugh, you aren’t afraid anymore.”21 He is the Cairo heart surgeon who became famous for his satire in early 2011, not long after the Arab Spring had toppled the Hosni Mubarak dictatorship, through videos shot in his laundry room and posted to YouTube. Youssef accumulated millions of views on the internet and then made waves with a television show styled similarly to Jon Stewart’s Daily Show. Youssef’s program, Al Bernameg, eventually reached thirty-million Egyptians (almost a third of the populace) and offered groundbreaking comedy featuring unprecedented open mockery of the Egyptian government. Authoritarian regimes use fear to discourage expression, stifle resistance, and foster social division. Fear may create feelings of isolation and apathy by inducing pessimistic perceptions of risks and by boosting risk aversion—two mechanisms that reduce participation in protest.22 Yet as Youssef learned firsthand, laughter can work against fear. When the government of President Mohamed Morsi arrested him in March 2013 for allegedly insulting Islam and the Egyptian state, for example, Youssef showed up at his hearing in a massively oversized version of the hat that Morsi had worn earlier that month while receiving an honorary degree in Pakistan. Rather than let himself be intimidated by the arrest, Youssef used the opportunity to laugh at Morsi’s inability to handle criticism.

Youssef left Egypt in 2014 after further repression from the military regime that had ousted Morsi in a July 2013 coup, but the effects of Al Bernameg continued as other comics such as Shady Abu Zeid launched their own political-satire shows. Zeid also took his satire to the streets [End Page 120] with a dilemma action in 2016, offering inflated condoms as balloons to police in Cairo on the fifth anniversary of Mubarak’s fall. Videos of the protest show the activists and members of the public laughing in the face of police authorities.23 Since laughter is a positive emotion that enhances group formation and collective action, it can be a powerful activist tool.

Dilemma actions may reduce the fear of both activists and their observers. The use of laughter to counter fear may well attract more members to the movement and ease the problem of activist burnout. Perhaps even more importantly, dilemma actions that induce the opponent to react absurdly or illogically may reduce fear among nonparticipants such that they may be likelier to join future protests against the opponent or to replicate the dilemma actions in a different time or place with a different audience.

Autocrats, as Popovic and Youssef underline, do not like jokes. Dictators tend to have thin skins, and to overreact if ridiculed. Their overblown reactions to humor lay bare their outsized egos and fragile identities. In Belarus in 2011, activists were able to agitate the regime of President Alyaksandr Lukashenka by simply clapping in public. When his police arrested some of them, the public saw a heavily armed authoritarian government with every means of coercion at its disposal revealing its fear of peaceful protest.24 We find qualitative evidence suggesting that most dilemma actions (87 percent) help to reduce fear or apathy among campaign participants. By reducing fear and boosting public sympathy, dilemma actions nearly always (88 percent of cases) help to reframe the opponent as less scary or more repressive.

Finally, a well-designed dilemma action will receive media coverage. The key question is whether it is favorable. Research has shown that, in general, protests get bad press and protesters are painted as deviants.25 Coverage will vary based on the outlets doing the reporting and the level of press freedom in the country. Regarding actions in highly repressive countries, international and domestic coverage will predictably diverge.

In the ideal case, media coverage of the dilemma action will introduce the group doing it (assuming it is new or otherwise unfamiliar to the public) and document the norm-violating behavior of the opponent.26 A media report might convey summary information about the group such as its size, composition, and ties to allied or sympathetic groups. Widening public awareness may in turn lead more citizens to change how they assess the legitimacy of the group and its goals.

Media coverage is key to agenda setting, framing, and priming.27 Agenda setting has to do with issue saliency (whether or not the public is thinking about an issue), framing has to do with how the public thinks about an issue, and priming has to do with what leaps first to mind when the topic is raised. For a dilemma action, media coverage is crucial: [End Page 121] Without sufficient coverage of the right sort, there will be no reframing the narrative or priming the public mind to influence what people think of the activism and the reasons behind it. The playful nature of dilemma actions, their use of irony, and their appeal to widely held beliefs are meant to attract sympathetic coverage that can reshape how the public sees the opponent. Our finding in this regard is encouraging: The goals of dilemma actions drew favorable coverage 84 percent of the time.

What Does Success Look Like?
Chenoweth has noted that even when campaigns of nonviolent civil resistance fail, they still lead to long-term reforms more often than violent campaigns do. In fact, nonviolent campaigns were about ten times more likely to precede a democratic transition by five years or less than were violent campaigns.28 Our research suggests that nonviolent campaigns deploying dilemma actions may be even more effective at these long-term outcomes.

In 2012, protesters in Sudan organized “elbow-licking Friday” in an ironic reference to then-president Omar al-Bashir’s habit of calling those who wanted him to leave office “elbow-lickers”—people with a foolish appetite for attempting the impossible. As masses of “elbow-licking” protesters hit the streets, they were met with rubber bullets, tear gas, beatings, and arrests. This aggressive repression went hand-in-hand with internet and media clampdowns plus the president’s bizarre efforts to claim that there had never been any real revolt in the first place. His government’s legitimacy drained away. He hung onto power, but it seems fair to say that the “elbow-lickers” contributed to the growth of a prodemocracy movement in Sudan. Bashir was finally toppled by a 2019 military coup, and despite another putsch in 2021 there are plans to hold elections and write a new constitution in 2023. There were no immediate concessions in this case, but again it seems fair to say that the cause of better and freer government did gain ground in the public mind, and that exposing a repressive president’s absurd ego aided the cause.

Thus, even within the set of campaigns that the NAVCO set designates as failures, those that used dilemma actions still had high success across critical metrics such as reframing the narrative, increasing activists’ appeal, and reducing fear among activists themselves. Each of these positive outcomes has the potential to help unravel repressive power in the future. Once an autocrat’s image has been tarnished by an effective dilemma, it can be hard to recover.

These effects can be seen in various instances that we have tracked of dilemma actions targeting Vladimir Putin’s regime in Russia, revealing the potential positive effects of dilemma actions even if they have not so far led to regime change. Over the last decade, a range of Russian [End Page 122] activists have deployed dilemma actions to challenge the legitimacy of Russian autocracy. In one hilarious 2012 example, activists in Barnaul, Russia, bypassed a ban on public dissent by setting up a display of toys holding tiny protest signs. Seeming to take inspiration from the arrest of the Milošević barrel in Serbia, the authorities ruled the toy array an “unsanctioned event,” then denied an application for a new display by declaring that toys could not be citizens of Russia.29 The situation drew international media coverage and made the Kremlin look ridiculous. In 2021, the police made an arrest in a snowman protest.30

Since the invasion of Ukraine, creative activists in Russia have used dilemma actions to protest the brutal crackdown on any mention of “war.” They have staged silent actions with copies of Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace, and have drawn up self-censored posters that bear asterisks where the phrase “no to war” should appear. They have even added antiwar signs to merchandise price tags.31

In late 2022, similarly, protesters in the People’s Republic of China held up blank signs and violated bans on public gatherings in response to the government’s repressive “zero-covid” laws, efforts that led to modest concessions as the government decided to loosen restrictions. In the Islamic Republic of Iran, protesters have also used dilemma actions in antigovernment protests. Women have danced, removed their head coverings, and cut their hair publicly in efforts to mock the authority of the morality police. Their actions have received widespread public support. Each of these acts allows protesters to playfully expose the ironies of repressive power and to reframe aggressive policies as exercises in absurdity.

Will these creative tactics force the regimes in Russia, China, and Iran to end their aggressive policies? Probably not. But can such approaches harm these regimes’ authority and popularity?32 Our research shows that there is a decent chance for both to suffer damage. [End Page 123]

What would success look like for the protests in China and Iran?

Article Source: Grid News

By Joshua Keating

What would success look like for the protests in China and Iran?
An activist who helped bring down a dictator on how China’s government learns from dissent, why Vladimir Putin might be more vulnerable than we think and why the climate movement could be a force for democracy.

It’s been a year of dramatic demonstrations in authoritarian regimes around the world, and several of the most-watched protest movements are now at critical junctures.

In China, where protests in cities across the country erupted late last month, sparked by draconian anti-covid measures, the government has now reversed course and is easing up on many restrictions. Some China experts view this as a victory for the protesters and proof that people power can force change, even in the most authoritarian of countries — though the pivot from “zero-covid” is far from the more fundamental political transformation that some protesters were calling for.

In Iran, where protests against discriminatory laws and dress codes targeting women have been roiling the streets since September, the government has hinted at concessions including disbanding the much-despised morality police and amending the law requiring women to cover their hair in public. But it’s not clear whether the regime is really serious about these measures or whether the changes will satisfy a movement that, as one expert told Grid, has “targeted the heart of the Islamic Republic” rather than any specific grievance.

Meanwhile, in Russia, the public protests that erupted in response to the invasion of Ukraine in February and the government’s mass mobilization order in the fall appear to have died down. But questions remain about the strength of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s rule, given clear signs that opposition to the war is growing among the Russian public.

These and other ongoing examples of public dissent have raised a question: When and how do protests against authoritarian governments actually achieve results?

To assess these movements, and the state of the global struggle against authoritarianism more broadly, Grid contacted global democracy activist and researcher Srdja Popovic. In his 20s, Popovic was one of the founders of Otpor!, the student movement that played a key role in organizing the mass protests that overthrew Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic in 2000. He went on to form the Center for Applied Nonviolent Action and Strategies (CANVAS) an organization that has provided support and training for pro-democracy activists in dozens of countries around the world. Speaking by Zoom from Oslo, Norway, Popovic discussed the strategies that make nonviolent movements effective, why Putin may be more vulnerable that he appears and why the climate movement may be the future of pro-democracy activism.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Grid: What’s more important to the success of a protest movement in an authoritarian country, the movement itself or the political context in which it operates? Continue reading “What would success look like for the protests in China and Iran?”

A look at the top contenders for the 2022 Nobel Peace Prize

Article source: The Washington Post

By Paul Schemm

The awarding Friday of the 2022 Nobel Peace Prize comes at a particularly fraught moment, amid Europe’s biggest land war since World War II, major increases in food and energy prices and growing alarm over talk of using nuclear weapons.

While the nominations closed in February — before the invasion of Ukraine — it is widely believed the war could have an effect on the final selection, as the Norwegian Nobel Committee often makes political statements with its choices.

In 2021, the committee put the focus on freedom of the press with awards to embattled journalists Dmitry Muratov of Russia and Maria Ressa of the Philippines, while in 2020, it feted the World Food Program. In light of current events, 2022 might be about politics again.

Here are some of the contenders as chosen by the Peace Research Institute of Oslo, whose shortlists in the past have included the 2019 winner, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, and the 2018 winners, humanitarians Denis Mukwege and Nadia Murad.

Russian and Belarusian opposition

Two likely possibilities could be the most prominent opposition figures in Russia and its close ally Belarus: Alexei Navalny and Svetlana Tikhanovskaya.

Navalny, who has appeared on a string of shortlists over the years, is currently spending much of his time in solitary confinement at a Russian high-security penal colony 155 miles east of Moscow following convictions on embezzlement and other charges that rights groups have described as bogus.

His anti-corruption organization has highlighted the misdeeds of Vladimir Putin’s regime for years, resulting in his poisoning by Russian security forces with a banned nerve agent in August 2020. After a convalescence in Germany, however, he returned to Russia in January 2021 and was immediately imprisoned.

From his cell, he has managed to repeatedly condemn the war in Ukraine and Putin’s “criminal mobilization because of which tens of thousands of people are going to die in trenches.”

After her husband was imprisoned just two days following his announcement in 2020 that he would run for president, Tikhanovskaya became the leader of the opposition in Belarus against long-serving strongman and close Putin ally Alexander Lukashenko.

Lukashenko’s reelection victory in August 2020 was widely described as rigged, but the ensuing protests were crushed. Tikhanovskaya and her two children fled the country out of fear for their safety. But in the years since she became the face of a movement challenging Lukashenko’s rule, Tikhanovskaya has continued to present herself as Belarus’s legitimate leader.

Chinese activists

The doomed 2019 pro-democracy demonstrations in Hong Kong gained worldwide attention, as did China’s brutal treatment of the Uyghur minority in the far northwest of the country, which was addressed in a long-delayed United Nations report released in August.

The committee could send a message by awarding the prize to activists such as Nathan Law and Agnes Chow of Hong Kong or Ilham Tohti, an imprisoned Uyghur scholar.

Law, who was given political asylum in Britain last year, is one of the most prominent of the Hong Kong activists in exile. He co-founded the pro-democracy Demosisto party in 2016 and was briefly elected as a lawmaker in the city before being disqualified for not taking the oath of office correctly.

He fled the country before the passage of a draconian national security law in 2020 that outlawed most protests and snagged many of his fellow activists, including Chow.

She gained prominence as a 15-year-old spokesperson of the 2012 student protests and went on to participate in most of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movements, including the Demosisto party. She was eventually arrested and imprisoned for 10 months for her role in the 2019 protests and was released in June 2021. She remains in Hong Kong.

Tohti, a professor of economics, has been imprisoned for life since 2014 on charges of advocating separatism. In 2006, he established a website to draw attention to the discrimination faced by Uyghurs, as well as provide a platform for exchange between Uyghurs and Han Chinese, China’s largest ethnic group. He was arrested in January 2014 and convicted in September after a two-day trial.

Interfaith champion

The selection of Harsh Mander, an activist for interfaith harmony in India, would cast a harsh spotlight on the growing religious polarization in the country that many say has been fueled by the right-wing Hindu nationalist government.

Beginning in 2017, Mander, 67, led activists, writers, lawyers and artists in his Karwan-e-Mohabbat, or Caravan of Love, across India to visit families affected by communal bloodshed.

Mander has been highly critical of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his policies, which Mander says deepen the religious cleavages in the country and are discriminatory toward Muslims.

The ‘World Court’

In a time of increased rivalry among the global powers and competing narratives about world events, there is a degree of yearning for international institutions that can present impartial opinions, which makes the 77-year-old International Court of Justice, or “World Court,” an attractive candidate.

“Despite having no binding force, the Court’s advisory opinions nevertheless carry great legal weight and moral authority,” the court has noted about itself, and it has been an instrument of preventive diplomacy to keep the peace.

Established in 1945 after World War II, the ICJ is the main United Nations judicial body with a mandate to settle legal disputes between countries and provide advisory opinions on matters of law referred to it by other U.N. bodies.

On March 16, the court ordered Russia to completely stop its military operations in Ukraine. The decision is seen as mostly symbolic, as the court lacks a viable way to enforce its ruling.

Research and activism

If the committee decides to go the route of activism, two organizations that work on human rights and peaceful responses to conflict that might catch its eye are the San Francisco-based Human Rights Data Analysis Group (HRDAG) and the Center for Applied Nonviolent Action and Strategies (CANVAS), an organization based in Belgrade.

HRDAG aims to bring the rigor of scientific analysis to human rights, with investigations into conflicts, while CANVAS educates activists about nonviolent resistance to autocratic regimes and the promotion of human rights and democracy.

Though HRDAG and CANVAS are not directly linked, they were formed in a similar period of activism around the turn of the millennium. Both organizations have worked on similar causes.

They carried out significant work during the Arab Spring, with CANVAS initially advising anti-government protesters in Syria before a violent government response to demonstrations helped precipitate civil war.

HRDAG gained renown at the start of the war, when it was one of the few organizations that tried to put a number on the war’s enormous toll in Syrian lives.


Robyn Dixon and Mary Ilyushina in Riga, Latvia; Theodora Yu in Hong Kong; Lily Kuo in Taipei, Taiwan; Gerry Shih and Niha Masih in New Delhi; and Maite Fernández Simon and Adam Taylor in Washington contributed to this report.

Here Are the Favorites To Win the 2022 Nobel Peace Prize

Article source: TIME

By Sanya Mansoor

The winner of the Nobel Peace Prize will be announced at 11am local time on Friday in Oslo, Norway.

The Peace Prize is one of six awards established by Swedish chemist (and inventor of dynamite) Alfred Nobel in 1895. The prize is considered the most expansive in its recognition, given that it awards people “who have conferred the greatest benefit to humankind.” The other five recognize contributions in literature, physics, chemistry, physiology or medicine, and economic sciences.

The winner is selected by the five-person Norwegian Nobel Committee, which is appointed by Norway’s parliament.

According to a Reuters survey, Belarusian opposition politician Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, British nature broadcaster David Attenborough, the World Health Organization, environmental activist Greta Thunberg, Pope Francis, Tuvalu’s foreign minister Simon Kofe, and Myanmar’s National Unity government are among those who have been nominated by Norwegian lawmakers. The lawmakers have a track record of picking the eventual winner.

Below, a list of some of the favorites to win, based on nominations that were made public via Norwegian lawmakers, bookmakers’ odds, and a personal shortlist by the director of the Peace Research Institute Oslo.

Volodymyr Zelensky

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who was on the 2022 TIME 100 list, is the bookmakers’ favorite to win the peace prize. After Russian President Vladimir Putin’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, Zelensky stood firm in Kyiv. He recorded a simple message, saying: “We are here… We are in Kyiv. We are protecting Ukraine.”

Zelensky has since repeatedly spoken out against Russia’s actions on the global stage and urged international allies to punish the Kremlin for its aggression. He has had his share of close escapes; as the war first broke out, Russian troops were just minutes from finding him and his family. And more than seven months after the conflict broke out—and after Russia annexed parts of Ukraine—Zelensky continues to advocate for the country.

The People of Ukraine and the Kyiv Independent rank high up on the list of bookmakers’ odds.

Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya

Belarusian opposition politician Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya has been living in exile ever since running against Alexander Lukashenko in the country’s 2020 presidential election. Lukashenko claimed victory despite concerns that the election was unfair and a widespread belief that the results put Tsikhanouskaya ahead of him.

Tsikhanouskaya didn’t always intend to enter politics. She was a full-time mother who had been considering restarting her career as an English teacher until May 2020 when Belarusian authorities arrested her husband—bringing his campaign to President to an end. That’s when she stepped in. Her candidacy galvanized many Belarusians and women in particular. After Lukashenko claimed victory two years ago, he ordered security forces to crack down violently on protests. Demonstrations against Lukashenko’s regime have continued since and Tsikhanouskaya has continued to play a key role in challenging the President and authorities in calls for fair elections and an end to violence.

Tsikhanouskaya was on the 2021 TIME100 Next list, which honors emerging leaders shaping the future, and is a favorite among bookmakers.

Alexey Navalny

Russia’s jailed opposition leader and anti-corruption activist Alexey Navalny has been a key figure in fighting for democratic reform. In 2011, Navalny created the Anti-Corruption Foundation to investigate high ranking Russian officials for corruption. For years, he has worked to hold Putin’s regime—along with its allied oligarchs—accountable.

Navalny’s work has come at a high cost to his personal safety and freedom. He survived an assassination attempt in 2020, when he was poisoned by a nerve agent. Despite the danger to his life, he returned to Russia after living briefly in Germany during his recovery.

Navalny has some critics on the liberal side, too. Amnesty International stripped Navalny of his “prisoner of conscience” status after receiving many complaints about xenophobic comments he made that appeared to compare immigrants to cockroaches.

Navalny was recognized on the 2021 TIME100 list.

The U.N. Refugee Agency

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has been at the forefront of responding to crises in Ukraine and Afghanistan, providing cash assistance and relief items to those in need.

The war in Ukraine has led to more than 7.2 million refugees from Ukraine across Europe since Feb. 24 and more than 6.9 million Ukrainians have been internally displaced, according to the U.N. It amounts to Europe’s largest refugee crisis since the Second World War. In recent years, UNHCR has also led humanitarian responses to the Syrian war and the migrant crisis in the Mediterranean. The agency previously received the peace prize in 1954 and 1981.

The World Health Organization

For almost three years, the World Health Organization has been at the forefront of the global response to the COVID-19 pandemic. In that time, it has garnered praise for providing money, vaccines, and equipment to help contain the disease around the world. The WHO-backed COVAX program, which focuses on poorer countries, has so far delivered more than 1.7 billion vaccines to 146 countries.

But the United Nations agency has also been criticized for a series of missteps. Among them: a week’s delay in declaring the outbreak in China an international emergency, contradictory statements about asymptomatic spread, and a lack of urgency in advising people to wear masks to reduce transmission in the early phases of the outbreak.

The WHO was also considered a frontrunner to win the peace prize in both 2020 and 2021.

Simon Kofe

Tuvalu’s foreign minister Simon Kofe has made it a key part of his mission to address the climate crisis. Rising seas are a significant threat for sinking Pacific islands like Tuvalu, which is the fourth smallest country in the world and made up of nine small islands.

Kofe delivered his COP26 speech while knee-deep in the ocean to show just how much global warming and the sea level rise was impacting the island nation. Kofe pulled out of this year’s U.N. Ocean Conference to protest China’s decision to block Taiwanese delegates.

David Attenborough

David Attenborough, 95, is most beloved for his iconic voice and award-winning nature series, including Life on Earth and The Blue Planet. His works have intimately showcased wildlife and nature for many decades. More recently, Attenborough has spoken before the U.N. and World Economic Forum to advocate for addressing the climate crisis.

Greta Thunberg

Swedish climate activist Greta Thunburg, TIME’s 2019 Person of the Year, has kept the pressure on global powers to do more to combat the climate crisis. Thunberg has long been vocal about a “lack of action” on climate change.

In 2021, she dismissed the COP26 climate summit as a “failure”—saying that it did not do enough to drastically cut CO2 emissions. More recently, she took aim at Swedish politicians—saying that they ignored the climate crisis ahead of September’s national elections.

Thunberg first rose to fame in 2018 after starting a movement for students across the world to protest in favor of actions to combat the climate crisis. The 19-year-old has been considered a favorite to win the Peace Prize every year since 2019.

Harsh Mander and Karwan-e-Mohabbat

Indian activist Harsh Mander has long been vocal about the country’s crackdown on religious minorities—what he has described as a move away from its secular constitution. The Indian government charged Mander with inciting violence after he gave a speech at a peaceful anti-government protest in 2019. “Today, when the Muslims of this country are being asked to prove their love and loyalty for this country, it’s important to note that this question is being asked by those who never participated in India’s freedom struggle and made no sacrifices,” Mander had said.

Officials raided Mander’s home in 2021 after he went to Germany for a six-month fellowship program—prompting backlash from hundreds of activists and academics.

Mander created the national initiative Karwan e Mohabbat (“Caravan of Love”) in 2017—a collaborative movement that supports families who lost loved ones to hate violence and lynching.

Pratik Sinha and Mohammed Zubair

Journalists Pratik Sinha and Mohammed Zubair, co-founders of Indian fact checking website AltNews, have relentlessly been battling misinformation in India, where the Hindu nationalist BJP party has been accused of frequently stoking discrimination against Muslims. Sinha and Zubair have methodologically debunked rumors and fake news circulating on social media and called out hate speech.

Indian authorities arrested Zubair in June for a meme he tweeted four years ago. Journalists around the world condemned the arrest and argued it was retribution for his fact-checking work. “It is apparent that AltNews’ alert vigilance was resented by those who use disinformation as a tool to polarize the society and rake nationalist sentiments,” said a June 28 statement from the Editors Guild of India. The Committee to Protect Journalists also called for Zubair’s release—pointing to his arrest as “another low for press freedom in India, where the government has created a hostile and unsafe environment for members of the press reporting on sectarian issues.”

Ilham Tohti

Uyghur activist Ilham Tohti was an economist and academic at Minzu University of Chinain Beijing before China charged Tohti with promoting separatism in 2014 and sentenced him to life in prison. He frequently used his position to shed light on the Chinese governments’ oppresion of the Muslim Uyghur community. Human rights groups have reported that Tohti has faced torture, including the denial of food and having his feet shackled, during his imprisonment. Tohti’s daughter has repeatedly expressed concern for his life—saying she doesn’t know whether he is still alive.

Earlier this year, a set of essays and articles written by Tohti before his imprisonment—We Uyghurs Have No Say—was released. The writings expand on his work unpacking China’s treatment of Uyghurs and how the consequences of the country’s promotion of Han ethno-nationalism.

Myanmar National Unity Government

The Myanmar National Unity Government emerged as a shadow government after the country’s military detained Aung San Suu Kyi in a coup last February. The military charged her with violating COVID-19 rules and corruption. More than 1,000 people have been killed since her arrest. Thousands more have been arrested for protesting military rule.

The Myanmar National Unity Government is made up of elected officials who oppose military rule; many remain in exile. Myanmar’s military has ruled with a heavy hand—perpetuating a genocide against Rohingya Muslims and cracking down on nationwide protests calling for democratic reform.

Other contenders

The director of the Peace Research Institute Oslo’s personal shortlist includes Tsikhanouskaya and Navalny, Mander, and Tohti but also features: the International Court of Justice; Hong Kong activists Agnes Chow and Nathan Law; and the Human Rights Data Analysis Group Center (HRDAG) and the Center for Applied Nonviolent Action and Strategies (CANVAS).

Bookmakers also list the Committee to Protect Journalists.

According to the Reuters survey, the Arctic Council, aid group CARE, Chelsea Manning, Iranian human rights activist Masih Alinejad, the International Criminal Court, NATO, and WikiLeaks are also nominees that have been revealed by Norwegian lawmakers.

He’s Advised Pro-Democracy Activists in 50 Countries. Here’s His Advice for Americans.

The source of the article: Mother Jones

Serbian revolutionary Srdja Popovic talks about how to mobilize massive nonviolent movements.

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He’s been called “the secret architect of global revolution” (by the Guardian) and a “nonviolent storm trooper” (in the pages of our magazine). Now, after two decades traveling the world training pro-democracy activists in more than 50 countries, Serbian revolutionary Srdja Popovic finds himself in the United States, where he’s teaching strategic nonviolent struggle to students at Colorado College. Upon arriving here not long before the election, Popovic was struck by the deluge of headlines questioning whether the upcoming presidential race would be free and fair, which he found eerie but unsurprising.

“Some people get haunted by ex-lovers, or scary movies, or ghosts,” he told me shortly before the election, in an edifying and hilarious video chat. “What haunts me is the spirit of the disputed election.”

Popovic first tasted the “narcotic collectivism” of movement-building while studying ecology in Belgrade. When Serbia’s autocratic President Slobodan Milošević refused to recognize opposition victories in local elections in 1996, Popovic and other activists founded Otpor! (Resistance!), which organized mass demonstrations and strikes until Milošević recognized the election results three months later; he later resigned from the presidency following another disputed election in 2000. Four years later, Popovic founded the Centre for Applied Nonviolent Actions and Strategies (CANVAS), based in Belgrade, which seeks to undermine autocrats worldwide by distributing handbooks to activists and consulting with movements fighting regimes from Ukraine and Myanmar to Venezuela and the Maldives.

As the United States endures what, at least for now, feels like a failing slow-motion coup, Popovic—also an instructor at Harvard’s Kennedy School and rector of Scotland’s University of St. Andrews—explains how activists can not only ensure that Trump leaves office, but sustain the popular movements for racial justice, gun control, and climate action that will continue into the Biden years.

Delilah Friedler: What did you learn from Serbia’s disputed elections in the 1990s?

Srdja Popovic: Movements witness exponential growth when things stop being political and start being personal. I vote Republican, you vote Democrat—that’s politics. Government steals my vote—that’s personal. That’s like stealing my wallet. This is where the people who don’t traditionally participate in politics come in. Serbia is a country of 6 million people, and we had 70,000 people mobilized before the elections. Then it grew into a half million, because people felt somebody stole something from them.

You need organizations that can net that mobilization. This is a large problem with movements across the globe, and in the United States. You often misunderstand that successful movements are the happily married couple of mobilization and organization. In the case of the gun control movement, you have these peaks of mobilization when, unfortunately, innocent people get killed. But you need to recruit the people who are out then, put them into some kind of organization and give them tasks, so next time, when there is a window of opportunity—when there is a law passing your local legislature, or another school shooting—you use this increased organization in order to have bigger-scale results. Mobilization is like the sea, it comes in waves. Your organization needs to be there to build on this.

What’s different about an election being disputed by someone like Trump, who’s supposedly a democratic figure, as opposed to the more authoritarian figures we see in other countries?

You don’t want to look at the politicians or the people in power. You want to examine the status of the pillars. What’s happening in the US is incomparable with the situations like in Serbia, Georgia, and elsewhere, because you guys, at least in my view, have strong democratic institutions: the way your elections are conducted; the way your media operates. It’s very difficult to expect that that we would witness some kind of major election fraud in the United States. But when you have disputed elections, there are five main things you want to focus on.

First, if you think elections will be disputed, you need to win, and win big. The bigger the win, the larger the landslide, the more refutable is the claim that the elections are stolen. This is what worked in Belarus: huge participation, large turnout, a lot of new voters and young voters. That gives gravitas to the results that is very difficult to dispute.

Second thing, have a comprehensive plan for putting pressure on pillar after pillar. In Serbia, demonstrations were held across the country, but it was the general strike that was more important. Labor unions were involved, citizens were blocking the streets, every Serbian version of a 7-Eleven was closed with a sticker that said “closed because of the fraud.” You couldn’t buy cigarettes, you couldn’t buy gas, you couldn’t buy anything. Milošević called the army and police with orders to intervene and they refused, because they knew their kids were in the crowd.

Number three, to sustain the struggle, you need nonviolent discipline. Put your strong points against your opponent’s weak points. If you need to defeat Mike Tyson, is the boxing ring the battlefield you would pick? No, because your life expectancy in a ring with Mike Tyson is probably 37 seconds. Depends how fast you can run. But if you pick Scrabble, or chess, or a puzzle, you may win. Having violence involved in a situation where your opponent, the state, has more weapons and a legal monopoly over violence—that’s entering the ring with Mike Tyson.

Then you need to sustain this struggle. Election defense tends to be a marathon, not a sprint. It’s taken six weeks in Georgia, three months in Serbia, three months in the Ukrainian winter. This is not something that could be resolved if enough people show on the street for one day; it’s always going to be back and forth. I doubt this scenario is ever possible in the US, but as Ronald Reagan—not my favorite American president—once said, “Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction.” Theoretically, a disputed election can happen anywhere.

Finally, you need to maintain your democracy. I have to remind my American friends that democracy is like a marriage. You didn’t win by getting married; you need to make love every day, buy flowers for your wife. It’s not, “We have a constitution, so we’ll have democracy forever.” You need to nurture this thing. The fewer people participate in the process, the more you get unorganized, and when the wrong guy comes into power, next thing you know, you live in a dictatorship like Turkey

Having worked in dozens of countries, what have you seen that makes movements successful?

You need to have a vision and unity. Know what you want, not only what you don’t want, and have a clear answer to the question: If we win, what will be different? Movements never win by mobilizing only like-minded people; movements win because they are capable of building diversity, figuring out who potential allies are and finding the smallest common denominator between them. Often that means building weird coalitions with people you wouldn’t normally have a coffee with. Look at the Polish Solidarity Movement, which ended domination of the Soviet Union in Poland. It was the urban intelligentsia, blue collar workers led by Lech Wałęsa, and the Roman Catholic Church—very unlikely allies, but they found a way to work together.

When you see millions of people in the streets, it may appear spontaneous, but the truth is there are only two types of nonviolent movements: they’re either spontaneous or successful. And either the mobilization wanes, or it turns into chaos.

That’s why we talk about nonviolent discipline. You win by numbers, and the less a movement is likely to get involved in violence, the more people will participate. If a protest is going to have rock bands and church singing, I will bring my two kids and wife. If, however, I think they will burn down a Wendy’s, I may still come, but I’m not bringing my kids. The first time they burn a police car, I won’t come. By turning to violence, you lose four out of four from our household. What you want is to be bringing people to your side.

The way movements grow, whether you like it or not, is from the extreme to the mainstream. That’s how you win in football—and I mean the real football, not this game in the US where people wear armor and push each other—you win by controlling the middle ground, and that’s the way you win in social change. People were tying themselves to the fences of nuclear power plants in 60s, but the movement became effective when it reached the point of building institutions like the Environmental Protection Agency. To get into the mainstream, your largest vehicles are staying nonviolent so you don’t disrupt people from joining, and finding what speaks to lots of people without being exclusive.

You are going to have people in your movements who are angry, and people that you’ve never seen ready to act. You need the organization to tell them what to do, otherwise, there will be more Wendy’s. Poor Wendy’s. My kids love Wendy’s.

How have you seen these kinds of strategies play out in the United States?

When people think of Rosa Parks, they see a heroic Black woman who decided not to follow the rules of segregation. The story people don’t ask themselves is, Why Montgomery? Why not New York? Why buses, not planes? Because this was strategic thinking. If you were a Black civil rights organizer in Montgomery, Alabama, one of the most segregated, awful places to be a Black person, what would you do? You get angry, go in front of the City Hall, you march. Then the police or the white folks come and beat you up. City Hall ignores you, because they are elected by the very people who love segregation.

So turn your gaze somewhere you have power: public transportation. The majority of people riding public transportation in the South were African Americans, so this is where they have leverage, the power to deny the companies their money until the buses get desegregated, using tactics that are very difficult to suppress. How can you make me use the bus?

The kids from Parkland fighting for gun control, they think strategically. They figured out that the people who can bring gun control legislation don’t give a damn about them. They care more about the money they’re getting from the NRA. Now we see the enemy. They put pressure on airlines and car rental companies to stop giving discounts to NRA members, and that helps us get to where we are now with the NRA being weaker than before. The kids try to get background checks at Dick’s Sporting Goods and Walmart, chains where people buy guns. The stores start listening, because they don’t care about politics, they care about customers. This is where people have leverage. Improvements haven’t come from the legislative pillar, they’re coming from the pillar of business.

You go after these victories, you win, you proclaim the victory, you empower people, you give them a boost to go off to next victory. The road to success is paved with small victories, and determining what we call the “order of battle” is really important. What do you attack first? Which institutions do you engage first? And I love the word “engage”—because it’s not always attack.

But the Parkland movement hasn’t done much to curtail gun violence in our country. The civil rights struggle still continues. Why do you think US movements aren’t having more success?

In democracies, people are often content with how they are living—it’s not bad enough to get engaged. People are too busy distracted with football or Wendy’s. They’re comfortable, they think the problem is something happening to somebody else, which is why I needed to quote Reagan.

But it’s not that it’s not working. Some of the most important achievements of the modern world have happened in the US. The environmental movement was sparked by people here, the anti-racial movement starts here. You now have the Indian minority in Burma using the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter. There would never be Nelson Mandela if there wasn’t Martin Luther King. We would never have our gay prime minister in Serbia if it wasn’t for Harvey Milk.

People are looking at environmental movement and saying, “America has left the Paris Climate accord. We are back to fossil fuels. The EPA is run by a political climate activist denier.” But the thing is, every single Friday, students of high schools everywhere in the world are marching for climate. These people will vote in four years. Sometimes it doesn’t work tomorrow, but it will work. Despite all odds, my kids will live in the world where majority of the energy will be renewable. For these global challenges of race and environment, it takes time. It’s a marathon. You’re not losing just because you’re on the second or third kilometer, you need to keep running, and keep the pace.

You say the pillars of US democracy are strong, but under Trump, we’ve seen a rise in dangerous misinformation from unreliable sources. How can we rebuild the integrity of our media?

Conspiracy theories like QAnon and such—they’re not just attacking the other side, they’re destroying the middle. Autocrats do this in other countries: to socially disenfranchise your opponent, you want to hurt their capability to recruit neutrals. So the opponent needs to be pedophiles, terrorists, drug dealers, the stooge of the foreign power; whatever will prevent people from speaking with you. This is done with intention, whether through blunt tools like state TV attacks, or with more subtle tools like this mysterious QAnon that doesn’t really need to say who you need to support. It’s more subtle, and it can be more brutal. It’s an assault on truth.

You defend your movement by holding on to values, building up your own narrative that sticks to the science, and not getting engaged in relativization of the facts—but also not taking yourself too seriously, potentially mocking the other side. I read this amazing piece on how K-pop groups are actually the largest threat to QAnon, which sells its conspiracy theories under mainstream hashtags. I couldn’t recognize a K-pop star if he was driving my car, but with their huge internet firepower, the fans are using these hashtags to post K-pop songs and water down the number of conspiracy stories. Young, clever people respond to bullshit with wit, and that builds civil resistance. By watching and engaging in satire, you’re building your common sense immunity, getting the fake news vaccine.

In other words, non-traditional attacks need non-traditional responses.

Everything is non-traditional. We are living in a time where my six-year-old downloads five games on my phone between me going to the café and coming back. I didn’t know how to turn the radio when I was six. So this is a very non-traditional world, and we need to accommodate.

Crash Course in Revolution: Srdja Popovic on Toppling Dictators with Peaceful Protests and Key Strategies for Building Successful Movements

Listen podcast on: Superhumanize

He is a thorn in the flesh and a threat to dictators and autocrats worldwide. For democracy fighters, from Tehran to Minsk, to Istanbul, he is the guru of peaceful resistance.

My guest today is the Serbian political activists Srdja Popovic. Srdja is one of the founders of the student movement OTPOR and one of the leading figures of the revolution that toppled the Milosevic regime of Yugoslavia In October, 2000.

International media calls Srdja the secret architect of global revolution. He is co-founder of the Belgrade think tank CANVAS, Center for Applied Nonviolent Action and Strategies.

To date, he has trained pro-democracy activists in more than 50 countries over the world. He also lectures on the topic of nonviolent struggle and building movements at universities such as Harvard, Johns Hopkins and Columbia.

Apart from being nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2012, Srdja was listed as one of the top 100 global thinkers by Foreign Policy Magazine. And in 2014, he was named one of the Young Global Leaders by the World Economic Forum in Davos.

Silent Threats to Democracy in the Balkans Reach a Roar

The source Harvard International Review

On the night of July 7, thousands of protesters faced off with police in Belgrade. Incensed over a snap COVID-related lockdown that they viewed as another self-serving move of a government already known to modify the system for its own benefit, the crowd attempted to storm parliament. The air filled with tear gas and repeated chants of “Ostavka! Ostavka!”—a word meaning “resignation” in many Slavic languages.

Just two days later, Bulgarians took to the streets of the capital en masse after a journalist reported on yet another act of corruption within the political elite. As they stood in front of the National Assembly waving flags and staring down state security forces, they rallied around a familiar cry: “Ostavka! Ostavka!”

While the EU has locked its eyes on the Belarusian and Hungarian cases of democratic backsliding, threats to institutions in the Balkans have continued to grow. The EU has failed to recognize how declining democracy on the peninsula will erode civil rights protections, undercut the legitimacy of both national governments and the EU, and cause it to lose control over human rights norms in Europe.

Causes of the Current Protests

Both Serbia and Bulgaria, two neighboring states on the Balkan peninsula, have watched their democracies quietly erode for years. This July’s protests marked the end of that silence. As Bulgaria is an EU member state, but Serbia is not, examining these case studies side-by-side can provide a valuable perspective on the EU’s role in the protection of democracy.

Although the largest wave of protests in recent Bulgarian history started on July 9, its citizens’ frustrations have existed for much longer, especially over government corruption. During Bulgaria’s Communist era just a few decades ago, the mafia controlled much of the business and political worlds. Oligarchs still control much of Bulgarian society today, despite the judicial and economic reforms that were instituted prior to the country’s accession to the EU in 2007. A prominent mobster has accused Prime Minister Boyko Borissov of having strong ties to the mafia, an allegation that protesters, and even President Rumen Radev, give weight to. The consequences of corruption on this scale are staggering: according to a Eurobarometer poll from 2019, 78 percent of Bulgarians believe that the “only way to succeed in business is to have political connections,” and an estimated 11 billion euros (approximately US$13 billion) are lost from the economy to corruption every year.

Beyond corruption, Bulgaria’s track record with human rights is reprehensible. The country has by far the worst press freedoms in the EU: it ranked 111th in the world in 2019, trailing behind many widely-criticized countries such as Kenya and Malaysia. Just last year, Bulgarian journalists protested the suspension of reporter Silvia Velikova from a public radio station for urging her audience to oppose the appointment of Ivan Geshev for Chief Prosecutor, though their numbers paled in comparison to the sheer volume of demonstrators on the street now. This demonstration is just one example of a broader trend of media suppression. Oligarchs control many formerly independent news organizations. Journalists outside of those organizations who may have more discretion about what they report on are harassed or threatened when they report on the mafia or government misdoings; some are threatened with up to a year of jail time for defamation. During the current protests, police have beaten and pepper sprayed journalists even after these reporters have shown their media IDs. The International Press Institute reports that members of the media were also prevented from approaching protests so they could document the events.

If the Bulgarian people have faced these concerns for decades, why have they started protesting now? As the answer often is nowadays, it is because of social media. On July 7, the leader of Bulgaria’s anti-corruption party showed on a livestream that an honorary chairman of the state’s ethnically Turkish party had illegally privatized a beach—despite all beaches in the country being public—and defended it with state-funded security guards. This corruption scandal was the spark that “lit the powder keg.” Every single night since July 9, Bulgarian protesters have taken to the streets in droves demanding the resignation of the Prime Minister Borissov and his entire cabinet.

The protests remained relatively peaceful on both sides, until Borissov’s party, known as Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria (GERB), attempted to solve the crisis by proposing a new constitution—one that glossed over most of the demonstrators’ demands. In order to secure enough votes to begin deliberations on the constitution, GERB had to form a coalition with one of the nation’s far-right parties and include provisions like mandatory conscription for adults into the Bulgarian army. In response, unprecedented numbers of protesters well into the thousands joined demonstrations on September 3 in a “grand national uprising.” As police pushed protestors to the ground and used pepper spray to suppress any resistance, they arrested 126 people and injured over 50.

Just across the border, the deterioration of Serbia’s democracy has grown increasingly apparent in recent years. Earlier this year, Freedom House demoted Serbia and Montenegro (as well as Hungary) from democracies to “hybrid regimes” that exist “in a ‘grey zone’ between democracies and pure autocracies.” The prominent rights group called the backsliding “unprecedented.” The Serbian government controls all daily newspapers and nationwide television channels and gives significant loans to private media companies, evidence of how the country has the worst press freedoms in the Western Balkans. Opposition members in parliament are prevented from fully engaging in legislative debate and proposing amendments to bills because President Vučić’s allies fast-track nearly half of all laws through parliament under “urgent procedure.” This trend of rushed process began before the COVID-19 emergency emerged. In short, almost all of the country’s power is consolidated in the ruling party.

When protesters stormed Parliament in Belgrade, they were reacting to President Vučić’s move to impose strict COVID-19 lockdown measures just days after securing re-election. Prior to the election, he lifted restrictions so that people could attend sports matches and vote while under the impression that the state had defeated the virus. In response to this rapid policy reversal from a government that many viewed as “botching” a COVID-19 response, Serbians rushed to parliament and clashed with police officers in Belgrade. Though the Serbian protests have fizzled out, the underlying issues with the manipulative electoral politics remain.

The State of the EU

In spite of the recent turmoil, the EU has remained woefully silent. Although the European Commission authors annual “rule of law” reports on member and candidate countries, these reports usually have no teeth. Serbia and Bulgaria failed to muster an appropriate response to critiques on their democratic institutions in their 2020 reports. In fact, Borissov actually commented that this year’s report on Bulgaria was “exceptionally objective” and did not seem to be concerned by its findings. In contrast to their radio silence on Serbia, though, the European Commission passed a resolution in October that “chastised Bulgaria for flaws in respecting the rule of law, combating endemic corruption, and supporting media freedom.” However, the reports and resolution have no enforcement and, at best, merely embarrass Bulgaria and Serbia’s leaders.

The EU has made a critical mistake by remaining inert in the face of these threats to democracy given the massive internal implications of Bulgaria’s fragile democracy. Bulgarians already distrust governing systems as a whole. If the EU does not defend the values it claims to embody by decisively standing with the Bulgarian people during their time of need, Bulgarians’ support for the Union will likely fall while the breakneck growth of Euroskepticism across the continent in countries such as Italy already threatens the health of the EU.

Beyond Euroskepticism, the EU will face disastrous consequences for letting Bulgaria’s corruption run rampant. If Bulgaria continues to misuse EU funds, other nations in the EU may grow resentful of how the Bulgarian government wastes their contributions and resist paying into the EU’s initiatives.

In addition to decreased faith in the EU and its funding, democratic backsliding threatens to undermine the enforcement of human rights protections throughout Europe. The EU’s Charter of Fundamental Rights lays out standards for the protection of rights that it expects from each of its member states. If constituents of the EU fail to uphold those standards, enforcement elsewhere becomes much more difficult. This is especially true as it pertains to countries wishing to accede to the EU: membership in the valuable economic and political union is often used as leverage to force candidate states to significantly decrease human rights violations.

Serbia stands out as a prominent example. In order to accede to the EU, Serbia must meet certain standards for transparency and human rights. Clearly, Serbia does not yet meet those standards, based on its issues with media freedom and the democratic process; but, the EU has good reason to want Serbia as an eventual member state. Otherwise, it will likely fall into the arms of China, a nation that has already invested heavily in the Balkan state’s infrastructure and COVID-19 response. The citizens of Serbia are no stranger to this aid: the Institute for European Affairs found that 40 percent of Serbian citizens consider China their largest donor, whereas only about 20 percent believed the EU filled that role. Similarly, Russia could occupy this role: Serbia already imports 75 percent of its natural gas from Russia, has a strong connection with Russia through the Orthodox church, and is influenced by Serbian-language Russian state media. Close ties between either of these non-Western powers and Serbia could limit the EU’s influence. This becomes especially important considering that Russia and China are not exactly champions of democratic values like the EU views itself as. If Serbia knows it will receive assistance from China or Russia regardless of its human rights practices, it is less likely to rectify its current abuses; the Serbian government is unlikely to listen to the shouting voices of its constituents unless the EU leverages it to do so.

When faced with the threats in Serbia and Bulgaria, the EU has a few options. For the case of Bulgaria, members of the European Parliament can put party differences aside and call the corruption what it is, in contrast to the partisan vote held on the statement of condemnation earlier this month. It can also stop pouring funds into projects riddled with corruption until the government makes substantial reforms ranging from the judiciary to the press. Serbia can face either the carrot or the stick for its actions: either the EU can back up its abhorrent rule of law report with consequences, or it can incentivize President Vučić and his party to halt anti-democratic practices. Without this action, the EU has failed both its member states and neighbors.

The people of Bulgaria and Serbia are no longer staying silent about the threats to their democracies. The EU should not be, either.

Five Lessons for Fighting Back After a Disputed Election

The source of the article: Slate

The leader of the movement that brought down Milosevic on what Americans might need to prepare for.

When I was 23, my country’s president lost an election and, not caring for that outcome, decided to annul the results. His name was Slobodan Milosevic—a lovely character sometimes called the “the Butcher of Balkans”—and my homeland was Serbia. In 1996, Milosevic’s party had lost local elections to a united opposition in 15 of the 18 largest cities. It took three months of demonstrations and street protests to make him concede. And that experience changed my life forever.

Four years later, he tried to do it again, after he lost the presidential election in a landslide. But this time, together with my friends in the Serbian student movement Otpor, I led nationwide demonstrations and strikes that inspired hundreds of thousands of my fellow Serbs. Milosevic finally conceded on Oct. 5, 2000, only after our movement had turned out half a million protesters in front of the national assembly and strikes brought the country to a standstill.

For the last 15 years, my organization CANVAS, which specializes in empowering pro-democracy movements, had worked with dozens of groups around the world facing unfair, stolen, and disputed elections. Some of them like Ukrainians in 2004, Georgians in 2005, or Maldivians in 2008 were capable of defending democracy, despite the vast arsenal of autocratic tricks they had to overcome, including bribing voters, ballot stuffing, annulling results in state-controlled courts, and, if that didn’t work, brutal violence and repression.

Last Autumn, I moved to the United States, so imagine my surprise when I discovered that the overwhelming fear of my American friends is that their country may now be on the verge of a disputed election. I may be a newcomer to American democracy, but after my work combating autocracies globally, I believe there are some universal tips that people facing the danger of a disputed election should know.

  1. Win, and win big. Numbers are important, and history teaches us that the larger the turnout and margin of victory, the more difficult it is for anyone to cast doubt on the result.

When Georgia held parliamentary elections in 2003, exit polls and parallel vote tabulations by local nongovernmental organizations showed opposition parties winning by a landslide, while the state-run electoral commission affiliated with long time country’s leader Eduard Shevardnadze claimed the opposite.* International organizations like the OSCE deemed the election neither free nor fair. Soon after, a series of nationwide nonviolent protests known as the “Rose Revolution” brought the county to a standstill, resulting in Shevardnadze’s resignation on Nov. 3 as well as the Supreme Court of Georgia annulling the results of the election. (Americans may not be able to count on their own Supreme Court in this election.)

When a fresh round of elections was held six weeks later, opposition leader Mikheil Saakashvili won 80 percent of the vote.* None of this would have been possible if the real winner had not been so clear and obvious from the beginning.

  1. Plan. And do it before the election results are disputed. Serbia, Georgia, Ukraine, Gambia … basically every case study teaches us that disputed elections are likely to trigger an unprecedented opportunity for mobilization. Remember: Elections are “political” (so they drive “political” people), but election fraud is personal (so it affects everybody). Expect people who have never been active to feel the urge to join. Make sure you have the organization to channel that mobilization, and that’s not something that can be built over a coffee. Successful movements strategically select the institutions that they want to target or defend with nonviolent strategies early, and prepare step-by-step plans and proper tactics for targeting each one of them. Do not wait for the storm to start planning.
  2. Stay nonviolent . Anticipating, preventing, and resisting political violence is always critical to protecting the vote and ensuring the survival of democracy in any country. Remember the iconic photos of smiling women handing flowers to armored members of Ukrainian security forces in 2004? This is exactly what I am talking about. Political scientists Erica Chenoweth and Maria J. Stephan in their landmark work Why Civil Resistance Works demonstrated that nonviolent movements are twice as likely to succeed as those that fail to prevent looting, rioting, or outright violence. Humor and creativity help also. As my recent research with professor Sophia McClennen shows, wit works far better than anger.
  3. Prepare for the marathon. Bad news: Movements to defend democratic elections rarely end quickly. After Milosevic annulled election results in autumn 1996, Serbian citizens protested for more than 100 days, sometimes in harsh winter temperatures. We learned our lesson well, so when he tried to steal the election again in 2000, we made him concede in less than three months. Even that was less challenging and heroic than the Ukrainians who defended their election victory from November 2004 until January 2005 in a far harsher Ukrainian winter! Gather your warm clothes, persistence, and patience. Tell your kids that you will be out a lot, or even better, embrace the idea that marches and protests are great for building family connections. It’s your democracy to defend—and this may well be the most important battle of your lifetime.
  4. Never, ever take democracy for granted. Ronald Reagan was not my favorite U.S. president, but his warning that “Freedom is a fragile thing and is never more than one generation away from extinction” is unfortunately true. We have witnessed dozens of democracies backslide or slowly die across the globe—from the Philippines to Hungary—because people were either too busy or lazy to defend them. No, defending the vote is not “somebody else’s problem.” It’s your country.

Never forget that democracy is not something granted to you because of your place of birth. Rather, think of democracy like love: You need to practice it every day.

Protest in a Time of Pandemic

Unjust Systems of Power are Solvable

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Episode Description

Host Anne Applebaum speaks with Srdja Popovic about how strategic nonviolent action can bring about lasting and meaningful social change. Srdja Popovic is the executive director of the Centre for Applied Nonviolent Action and Strategies (CANVAS). He’s a social change educator who draws on his experience as a leader of the student movement Otpor! Optor! is credited with helping to oust Serbian president Slobodan Milošević using creative and strategic techniques that marry humor and coalition building. He is the author of Blueprint for Revolution: How to Use Rice Pudding, Lego Men, and Other Nonviolent Techniques to Galvanize Communities, Overthrow Dictators, or Simply Change the World. Popovic references a series of short educational videos about nonviolent strategies which can be found at