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

Listen the podcast on Spotify

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 www.canvasopedia.org

Protests and Principles

The source of the article: The Wilson Quarterly

In Africa, Asia, Europe, and the Americas, a fire of civil resistance blazed around the world in 2019. And citizens around the world who are awakening to the far-reaching effects of the climate crisis have made the tide of protest truly global with actions such as Extinction Rebellion.

Civilians protested against corrupt regimes, repressive legislation, gross human rights violations, exploitative economies and environmental injustice. However, beyond any immediate trigger events, recent popular mobilizations also are driven by a deep seated, emotional discontent created by years of accumulated grievances and thwarted aspirations for progress. As a result, we have not just protests, but persistent civil resistance within these movements.

The far-reaching and sustained wave of global protest and resistance in 2019 attracted considerable media attention. But do news outlets and social media commentators focus on the actual reasons that citizens are mobilizing? Or do they succumb to misconceptions that attempt to place pervasive social movements into narrow regional, geopolitical or ideological “folders?”

As an organizer, I take a different view. What interests me is what protest movements share in common – and the principles they put into practice as they coalesce. If we focus on those things, we often can predict a particular movement’s prospects, and discover why nonviolent forms of protest have more sustained success in achieving their aims.

The Wrong Optics?

The most popular media explanations for protest often center on ideological or geopolitical factors. For example, the recent protests in Lebanon, Iraq and Iran that had coalesced in 2019, before the U.S. drone strike on commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard’s Quds Force, Qasem Soleimani, were explained as symptoms of Iran’s waning influence across the Levant. Global unrest from Latin America to the Middle East is viewed through an ideological lens, with suggestions that the public reacts negatively to populism on a broad scale, and rejects authoritarian leaders associated with it.

Simply filing protest movements into bins of left and right serves both sides equally well. In Bolivia, for example, the left sees evil forces of the West back an “imperialist” coup – and counts a battle against social injustice lost. Right-wingers and centrists applaud a “democratic outbreak” in the same country. Even a global force such as the climate movement often is explained away by assigning its members allegiances within dominant political narratives.

These explanations have some truth, of course. But frames of thought that deploy political or regional trends rarely offer useful mechanisms to accurately predict the success of any given movement.

As Hardy Merriman, President of the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict, observes, structural conditions “can influence a movement, but they alone do not determine a movement’s trajectory and outcome.” When waves of protest reach not only fragile governments, but also stable democracies and autocracies, it is overly simplistic to point to a single common denominator or trigger.

What does it really tell us that nonviolent movements can be categorized by their motives, such as people organizing against autocracy (Sudan, Algeria, Hong Kong, Bolivia), or people struggling with bread and butter issues (Columbia, Chile, Ecuador, Iran), or people mobilizing against failed and unsustainable systems (Lebanon and Iraq)?

The Washington Post’s Jackson Diehl suggests a different frame: Movements should be viewed through the lens of their outcomes, and that many of 2019’s protests have lacked the “revolutionary” impact of 1989 or 2011 protests.

What the protests of 2019 do have in common is that organizers of “people power” have begun to fill the vacuum left by the failure of existing political elites to address public demands. In many (but not all) cases, 2019 demonstrated that the traditional and institutional ways of creating change – elections, legal systems and dialogue with the elites – are insufficiently effective. So protesters have decided to utilize another form of power to force constructive change.

The climate movement is a perfect example of this trend. The United States withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accord and insufficient progress in tackling the crisis increasingly has mobilized millions of average citizens across the globe with a new sense of urgency to make change.

Organizers of nonviolent movements look especially at outcomes, such as those outlined by Maria Stephan and Erica Chenoweth in their book, Why Civil Resistance Works: the Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict. Where are the “successes?” The movements in which the demands of protesters were fully (or partially) met? Where did protests fail?

Geography and ideology are rarely the determining factors in the success of a movement. The movements that reversed government policies in Chile and Ecuador, won fresh elections after voter fraud in Bolivia, and ousted the Sudanese dictator Omar al-Bashir can be counted as successes. Algerians who ousted president Bouteflika but remain stuck within the same corrupt system and rule by military elites, or the resignations of prime ministers in Lebanon and Iraq without substantive changes in the status quo, count only as limited successes. And the perception of “failure” has attached to many movements at present, including those in Colombia, Venezuela, Iran, climate and many others.

Sticking to Principles

If geography and ideology don’t determine success, what does? How can organizers understand how turmoil in one place can feed turmoil elsewhere, or how movements are exacerbated by government reactions? Why is nonviolence often the best strategy for channeling the energy of protest into change?

In my experience, there are four key principles to have in mind in order to understand protest, act effectively in using it, and engineer ultimate success in a predictable way.

Principle One: A Vision of Tomorrow

It is not enough to be “angry and against.” Real social change may begin with anger, but it needs a clear vision of the desired change. Movements need a “Vision of Tomorrow.” One must first define exactly what should happen, and precisely what success looks like.

A clear definition of change is a consistent theme of successful movements. Mahatma Gandhi wanted independence from the British. The U.S. civil rights movement pushed for specific legislation. The color revolutions wanted a change in leadership. These movements could build a strategy around these tangible goals.

Even a smaller organizing point will do in the near term. In the Serbian case of the Bulldozer Revolution of 2000, the ultimate objective was to change the system, but a clear intermediate goal was to oust Slobodan Milošević, who earned the title “Butcher of the Balkans” through his decade in power.

A concrete goal is a useful measure. Take the Women’s Marches of 2017. Was the goal of these actions to raise awareness, introduce specific policies, or to spur on impeachment? Those who marched with such great enthusiasm need to ask themselves: If we could wave a magic wand and create change, what specifically would happen?

Failed movements usually lack this clarity of vision. New York Times columnist Joe Nocera noted that the Occupy movement “had plenty of grievances, aimed mainly at the ‘oppressive’ power of corporations,” but “never got beyond their own slogans.” It is not enough to point out what you do not like. What do you want instead?

Clarity does not mean rigidity, however. Movements should listen, and be respectful, to those who do not hold the same views. Yet clarity is essential, so that everyone knows where he or she stands.

Sudan is one country where clarity is working. The movement in that country, led by the Sudanese Professionals Associated (SPA), drafted the Declaration of Freedom and Change in January of 2019. This document made clear demands for reform in Sudan, called for an end to Oman al-Bashir’s presidency, suggesting a four-year transitional government as a sustainable democratic structure, and condemned the mistreatment of peaceful protestors. It was a manifesto for freedom and a blueprint for strategic action. It attracted support from other groups and communities, both domestically and internationally.

Making a comparison between Sudan and Algeria is irresistible. Sudan is in a fragile but indisputable political transition. Algeria’s year of protests ended in a deadlock. According to indicators such as the Transformational Index, one might argue that Algerians had a better starting point for change, and their strongman was arguably more a benevolent figure. Yet Algerians have not articulated what they want, other than “regime change.” After almost a year of protest, the newly elected regime is still working to stifle what is left of democratic and individual freedoms.

Principle Two: It’s the Unity, Stupid

After clearly defining a desired change, activists must examine their potential spectrum of allies. From whom can they expect active support? Passive assistance? Neutrality? Who will offer opposition? As Sun Tzu wrote in his Art of War, “Know yourself, know your enemy, and know the terrain.” In any social conflict, the spectrum of allies is the terrain.

Successful movements do not win by overpowering their opponents. Instead, they gradually chip away at their support. Activists must start at the receptive end of their spectrum of allies, and eventually work their way through higher and higher thresholds of resistance. First, mobilize active allies and core supporters. Then, engage passive supporters and those who are neutral. Once a movement begins to win over the passive opposition, they are on the brink of victory.

When Harvey Milk sought to expand the LGBT movement, he started with gay people on Castro Street, and then moved to convince straight liberals in the San Francisco Bay area. But it was not until long after Milk’s assassination in 1978 that the movement he helped to pioneer won over “traditional opponents.”

When U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney and other conservative political figures ultimately shifted their position on the issue in the first decades of the 21st Century, the sexual equality movement was on a path to victory. Attracting your opponents, or simply the people you disagree with on some points, is essential in building successful social movements.

Poland`s Solidarity movement also illustrates this point. What started as a working-class movement in the shipyards of Gdansk in 1980 succeeded only when diverse groups came together to stand with workers: intellectuals, youth and students, the middle class and farmers, and even the Roman Catholic Church. They agreed to agree on getting rid of communism, while agreeing to disagree on many other socioeconomic issues.

A clear definition of change is a consistent theme of successful movements. Movements must articulate their values with a clarity that persuades others to join the cause. To win, you need to convince others to defect.

Principle Three: The Key Pillars

If any social change aims to be durable, it requires not only personal change in leadership, but also deep institutional changes. Therefore, while it is crucial to recruit allies from every point along the spectrum of potential support, activists must also identify the institutions that have the power to implement the changes they want. These “pillars of power” can be the police, the media, the education system, government agencies, or social institutions.

In his 2004 book, Strategic Nonviolent Struggle-Thinking on Fundamentals, Robert Helvey observes that in strategic nonviolent conflicts, the primary operational focus for planners is the alignment and capabilities of any pillars of support.

In the series of protests over the past three years in Romania, for instance, targeting the right pillars of society produced a sustained string of small victories that accumulated into overall success. In Bolivia, a coalition of environmental organizations, urban youth, the international electoral mission by OAS, and indigenous groups that were outraged by President Evo Morales’ corruption eventually garnered enough popular support to ensure his resignation. Even the police force came to their side during peaceful protest marches, helping Bolivians achieve legislation that guaranteed fresh elections.

Similarly, Sudanese protesters targeted large business sectors with mass noncooperation tactics, while at same time building international support for civilian-led government via the powerful Blue for Sudan social media campaign. Ultimately, President al-Bashir’s military successors were powerless to rule, so they had to concede.

Venezuela’s protests offer a cautionary tale about pillars. Despite massive international support, the efforts of Juan Guaidó and his supporters were doomed from the moment they decided that the only way to enact change was to focus on only one “pillar,” e.g. to transform military support for Maduro into a coup.

Principle Four: The Power of Attraction

One common element in the current wave of uprisings is that most protestors are opting for nonviolent methods over violence. Research suggests movements that maintain this choice are significantly more likely to achieve their goals over time.

Nonviolent discipline can make and break movements, however. Violence by protestors not only allows governments to justify a crackdown, but it also affects a movement’s reputation, and compromises its ability to mobilize numbers. An example of this danger can be seen in Hong Kong, where numbers at protests fall with increases in violence.

Every movement seeks to correct some injustice, so it is easy to fall into the trap of demonizing the other side. The world is in turmoil, and the temptation to resort to violence is strong – especially when stakes are high and the powers that are being challenged are so pervasive. Practitioners of nonviolent resistance cannot understate its moral essence and its practical effectiveness.

Yet violence is the place where many movements go off the rails. Anger is an effective mobilizer, but anger without hope is a destructive force. Demonstrators must make an affirmative case with affirmative tactics.

This is why it is often best for movements to start with small, achievable goals. Gandhi’s allies questioned his idea to make the salt tax a primary focus of the Indian independence movement, because they favored a plan for comprehensive change. But Gandhi saw that a single issue, even a small one, could unify the nation and break British Raj’s monopoly on power.

Cheap, easily replicable, and low-risk tactics are the most likely to succeed – especially if they are seen as positive and good-humored. Blocking streets and throwing rocks at the police will likely turn off those in the middle of your spectrum of allies, and will make it particularly difficult to gain support from institutions inside the pillars of power.

In Sudan, the SPA meticulously assembled campaigns of consistent nonviolent resistance across Khartoum and dozens of minor cities and towns. Their protest tactics included sit-ins, occupations of major streets, social media initiatives aimed at spreading awareness, and appeals to the international community.

The time invested in these tactics worked. When government forces moved to disrupt protestors at a sit-in on April 6, 2019, many security personnel opted to join the civilians and protect them from al-Bashir loyalists. The SPA maintained a policy of nonviolence throughout the protest period, eroding al-Bashir’s ability to govern, and eventually resulting in his removal from power.

Follow the Roadmap

When civilians rise up to fill a vacuum left by failing institutions and corrupt leaders, attempting to rationalize the movements along merely geopolitical lines or ideological boundaries will not help to make sense of them.

The principles presented above offer a more useful measure, especially for nonviolent movements. Conditions and context matter, but strategic skills matter even more. Are organizers of a particular protest doing these things? If yes, the movement likely will move forward. If no, there is a significant chance it will fail.

We can find make sense of the turmoil of 2019 and predict the paths that these movements will travel, if we direct our attention to whether they possess the substantial and strategic ingredients to achieve victory.

Srdja Popovic is the Executive Director of the Center for Applied Nonviolence Action and Strategies (CANVAS). He has been named one of Foreign Policy’s Top 100 Global Thinkers, and is the author of Blueprint for Revolution. He was previously a founder of Otpor!, the Serbian youth movement that toppled Slobodan Milosevic. He is also the rector of St. Andrews University in Scotland.

Toppling A Dictator with Srdja Popovic

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Episode Description


Srdja breaks down the elements of what makes a successful movement of resistance and what that looks like in practice.

Srdja Popovic is the Founder and Executive director of the Center for Applied Nonviolent Actions and Strategies (CANVAS), a non-profit organization based in Belgrade, Serbia that aims to teach the use of nonviolence to make a change.

He was born and raised in Belgrade, Serbia (then part of Yugoslavia), in 1973. Popovic played the guitar in a rock band and graduated from the Faculty of Biology in Belgrade, holding a Master’s degree (MA) in animal ecology. Since his early 20ies, he has focused on activism, democracy and human rights issues.In 1998, Popovic founded the student movement “Otpor!” (“Resistance!”) which played a crucial role in ousting president Slobodan Milosevic, former Serbian dictator accused of war crimes. After Milosevic was defeated in 2000, Popovic was elected to the Serbian Parliament where he served from 2000 until 2004.Following his career in the Serbian Parliament, Popovic went on to found CANVAS, acting as its executive director ever since.

CANVAS was created with the intent of teaching people all over the world about how to be successful in nonviolent conflict. So far, the organization has worked with activists from 46 different countries, spreading the knowledge of the nonviolent strategies and tactics used by Otpor! worldwide.He is currently the 53rd Rector of the University of St. Andrews. He commenced the role of the University Rector for a period of 3 years from 1 November 2017.

Apart from being nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2012, Popovic was listed as one of the “Top 100 Global Thinkers” of 2011 by the Foreign Policy Magazine. And in 2014 he was listed as a “Young Global Leader” by the World Economic Forum in Davos. Popovic is also the author of the recent book Blueprint for Revolution.

Episode Questions:

• What forms of art have stirred your consciousness? What about this/these work(s) moved you?

• What is the vision of the movements you support or are a part of? What about their vision captivates you? What steps are they taking to see their vision become reality?

• Who are folks who might ally with you in your work for social change? What makes them effective allies?

KEEP IT CIVIL (AND DISOBEDIENT): the power of non-violent direct action, podcast

The source of the podcast: Podfollow

Episode notes

Hello! Is mobilising 3.5% of the population all it takes to achieve political change? As Extinction Rebellion continue their latest action in London, we’re talking about the ideas behind non-violent civil disobedience. We hear from some of those involved in Extinction Rebellion, before spokesperson Zion Lights talks us through their theory of change. Historian Talat Ahmed explains Gandhi’s approach to civil disobedience and how this has inspired movements since. And Serbian activist Srdja Popovic tells us about the principles of effective non-violent strategy that he teaches to campaigners around the world. 

Why a Successful Cultural (R)evolution Requires a Movement

The source of the podcast: Agabajer

Meet Srdja Popovic, an activist who formed the Otpor! movement in 1998 to overthrow Slobodan Milosevic.

Born and raised in Belgrade, Serbia during times that he describes as culturally schizophrenic, economically devastating, and historically confusing, Srdja initially didn’t see himself as a change agent.

A bass player in a band, Srdja just wanted to play music and have fun. Like most of his friends, he despised the security police, the terror, and the repression, but he didn’t believe anything could be done about it. That is, until he and his friends realized that activism could be…cool and that it was, in fact, possible to mobilize people to resist Milosevic regime.

Today, Srdja is the Executive Director of The Centre for Applied Nonviolent Action and Strategies or CANVAS, a Belgrade-based NGO he founded with a handful of other Otpor! members in 2003. He has now advised and trained pro-democracy activists in more than 50 countries, including India, Iran, Zimbabwe, Burma, Ukraine, Georgia, Palestine, Belarus, Tunisia, and Egypt.

I really wanted to interview Srdja because the principles he developed are extremely relevant to creating change in organizations, especially in evolving organizational culture.

Episode Highlights

In this interview, Srdja and I discuss:

What changed Srdja’s self-perception and allowed him to view himself as a change agent

How Srdja and his colleagues from CANVAS identified the main principles of nonviolent movements

What makes a movement successful

What makes humor such a powerful tool in building movements

How nonviolent action principles can be applied to non-movement organizations (aka: to your company!)

What to do after you have succeeded with the change you were looking to create

Why disruption can be one of the best opportunities to shake things up and improve them

More about Srdja Popovic

Srdja was born and raised in Belgrade, Serbia (then part of Yugoslavia). Popovic played the guitar in a rock band and graduated from the Faculty of Biology in Belgrade, holding a master’s degree in animal ecology. Since his early twenties, he has focused on activism, democracy, and human rights issues.

Apart from being nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2012, Popovic was listed as one of the Top 100 Global Thinkers of 2011 by the Foreign Policy Magazine. And in 2014, he was listed as a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum in Davos. Popovic is also the author of the recent book Blueprint for Revolution: How to Use Rice Pudding, Lego Men, and Other Nonviolent Techniques to Galvanize Communities, Overthrow Dictators, or Simply Change the World.