The people are unhappy; the dictator is oppressive. But how to turn protest into regime change? Peter Popham meets the man who created the blueprint for 21st-century rebellion
Question: what do the so-called «colour» revolutions – Georgia (2003) and Ukraine (2004), and
the rest – have in common with the uprising that drove Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak from power? Answer: the great majority of the people involved avoided committing acts of violence; and the organisers took advice from a young Serbianrevolutionary called Srdja Popovic and his colleagues.
For many of us, the way that one deeply embedded Middle Eastern dictatorship after another has collapsed this year is a baffling mystery. But for Popovic, tall, lean and brimming with vitality, it was no great surprise. «How do we see political power?» he asks. «Mainly we see power as the state wants us to, as a monolith. So we believe power is fixed; and nothing can change except the people at the top.» But at an age when he was still tender enough to do something with the information, Popovic (pictured right) discovered that power is not like that. «The true nature of power is very different. In a society, power can change very swiftly. It can become fragile and can be redistributed, especially in non-democratic regimes… Ultimately, power in society comes from the obedience of the people. And those people – each of whom is individually a small source of power – can change their minds, and refuse to follow commands.»
Not such a great discovery, you may say: no more than common sense. But it is common sense that the world’s tyrants are dedicated to obscuring. Popovic and his friends, meanwhile, are dedicated to exposing it, and enabling the victims of autocracies to see the lie for themselves, and to draw the obvious conclusion: that if obedience can be given, it can also be taken away. And that if enough people withdraw their obedience, then power, which had seemed mighty and beyond challenge, no longer has anything on which to repose. At which point it collapses.
If Popovic is bouncy to the point of bumptiousness, and has an ecstatic gleam in his eye, it is not without reason. Milosevic (Serbia), Shevardnadze (Georgia), Ben-Ali (Tunisia), Mubarak (Egypt): all autocrats who once enjoyed massive power but then lost it, brought down not by guns, bombs, military coups or foreign intervention but by the raw power of an idea whose time has come. And Popovic and his colleagues played a significant part in the downfall of all of them.
The son of two journalists – his mother narrowly avoided being killed during the Nato bombing of Belgrade in 1999 – Popovic, 38, was raised in the relatively stable, comfortable and broad-minded world of Yugoslavia under Josip Broz Tito – a world that now seems as remote as Russia under the Tsars. «I was of the generation old enough to remember the good old days,» he tells me in his organisation’s plain, almost empty office in a low-rent corner of Belgrade. «Summers in Greece or Croatia, winters in the mountains – we were the kids of the middle-class, and whatever we may say about Tito’s economic system, we had a decent middle-class life. The passport of Tito’s Yugoslavia was the most expensive on the black market because it was the only one in the world with which you could travel literally anywhere.»
And they were not just privileged: Yugoslavia was a pillar of the Non-Aligned Movement, and young Yugoslavs were brought up to feel good about their country’s role in it. «Also part of growing up,» Popovic goes on, «was the concept of Brotherhood and Fraternity: the concept that not only Croats and Slovenians but also people from Zambia, Chad and Somalia are our brothers.»
In Poland, Czechoslovakia and Hungary, the collapse of the Eastern bloc was greeted as a long-overdue liberation. But in Yugoslavia it resulted in the Communist rulers of the nation’s federal republics turning on each other in a bloody internecine struggle. «We were brought up to love people from the other socialist Yugoslavian republics,» he remembers, «but then we were drafted into the army to kill people because they were Croats – a very schizophrenic situation for somebody in their late teens.»
As a result, «This generation split into three pieces. One piece really went to the bad with all the consequences, freaking out, going into mental isolation, heroin. The second part made the biggest brain drain in our history: you will find these guys in good jobs all over the world: not washing dishes but doing really decent work, in Silicon Valley, Harvard. Then the third part,» he says, turning to himself and his colleagues, «stood up and fought.» In the process, through long years of trial and error, this group discovered the peculiarly potent form of fighting known as non-violence.
Most of us brought up in the slipstream of the 20th-century’s terrible wars have an instinctive sympathy for non-violence. There must, we think, be a better way to solve the world’s problems then taking up arms. Hiroshima was the end of a long road. Yet when it comes to the crunch, violence can seem the only sane recourse.
Non-violence often seems a way of wrapping oneself in self-righteousness. One thinks of John Lennon and Yoko Ono and their bed-ins, the conscientious objectors of the world wars, the refuseniks of Vietnam. They saved their skins and salved their consciences, but what did they actually achieve? Meanwhile it took blood and guts to bring down Hitler. Bringing the story up to date, very few on either right or left opposed Nato’s original assault on Libya, designed to protect the anti-Gaddafi civilians of Bengazi.
But while Popovic and his colleagues are fiercely wedded to non-violence – what they call «non-violent discipline» is one of the cardinal rules of their movement – this is not for reasons of principle or religious morality, nor from squeamishness or the desire to feel virtuous. Non-violence is so fundamental that they embedded the term in their organisation’s name: Canvas – the Centre for Applied Non-Violent Actions and Strategies. You could laugh the idea out of court except for the fact that it keeps on working.
Srdja Popovic served a long apprenticeship in revolution. As a teenager he was drawn into the protest movement against Milosevic which first erupted in March 1991. The Serbian president declared martial law, the students took to the streets in protest and were greeted by tanks; two people died. «My first contact with the street protests was the next day,» he recalls. «We called it the Velvet Revolution, inspired by Prague’s.» He had just turned 18. «To be among all these people, listening to the speeches, feeling part of it, this is so important when you are 18. And seeing people pouring in from rural areas with Milosevic’s picture on their tractors – thinking, where the hell is this country going?»
From then on the protests became Popovic’s school of life. When more of them exploded in the coming years he was at the heart of them. «We were the generation leading these protests. Then in 1996, 1997, when we were 23, 24, there were 100 days of street protests against Milosevic, and this was the biggest training of all: this was when we learnt how to deal with the police, how to deal with the tear gas, how to deal with street theatre, how to control 10,000 people with one megaphone.»
Then, in October 1998, at the culmination of these events, Popovic and 10 of his friends formed an organisation called Otpor!. Thanks to the student struggles that had punctuated the Milosevic years, they felt like veterans. «We already had seven years’ experience of opposition under our belts, which was ridiculous, as we were only in our mid-twenties.»
Otpor! is Serbian for «Resistance!» and it was the students’ response to Milosevic’s grim determination to cling to power despite hyperinflation, the loss of three wars and the hostility of the international community which would soon result in the Nato bombing campaign. The movement was symbolised by a stark clenched fist, and in the process of building it, Popovic and his colleagues crystallised many of the ideas which they have since passed on through their workshops to protest movements from 46 different countries.
They can be summarised in a few simple principles: essential for the success of the movement are unity, planning and non-violent discipline. There must be a shared vision of tomorrow and a grand strategy for how to attain it. No movement can succeed if it bites off more than it can chew: that is the bitter lesson of Tiananmen; instead, win small victories and build on them. Identify and tackle the «pillars» of power, which differ from one country to another but which typically consist of army, police, judiciary, civil service, religious leaders, media, business establishment, teachers and so on; don’t aim to destroy or defeat these but to win them to your side. «Each individual government is based on very few crucial pillars,» they explain in their handbook, Non-Violent Struggle – 50 Crucial Points. The obedience of individuals within those pillars «keeps each pillar functional… the pyramid could not stand without thousands of individuals following orders… The non-violent campaign’s primary task is pulling individuals out of the pillars of support.»
Otpor! was already a mature organisation, increasingly sure of its methods, when Popovic and his colleagues discovered they were not alone. At a five-day meeting in Budapest organised by the US, they met a former American military attaché called Robert Helvey. Through Helvey, they learnt of the man who is the unrivalled guru of modern non-violent studies, a bony American academic now in his eighties called Dr Gene Sharp.
Like electricity, the principles of the modern non-violent struggle were discovered by people working in different countries and in isolation from one another. The work of Popovic and his friends was the culmination of a process of opposition to tyranny which stretched back to Soviet dissidents such as Sakharov; which took in the triumphs of Gdansk and Warsaw and Prague; and which had now brought them to the threshold of toppling the Butcher of the Balkans. Helvey and Sharp, meanwhile, had reached the same place by a very different route.
Helvey had been the US military attaché in Burma from 1983 to 1985. He was back in the US in 1988 when a major uprising broke out in Burma, and he watched from a distance as the military regime brutally suppressed the first green shoots of democratic change. Burma’s problem, as he saw it, was the armed insurgencies on the country’s borders, which had been under way for decades but which posed no serious threat to the regime. «Here was a people that really wanted democracy, really wanted political reform,» he said later, «but the only option they had was armed struggle. And that was really a non-starter, so there was really a sense of helplessness.»
At the Harvard Centre for International Affairs, where he became a fellow, he made friends with Gene Sharp, who had been teaching there for decades. It was from Sharp that Helvey learnt about the principles of non-violence. «Strategic non-violent struggle is all about political power,» Helvey said. «How to seize political power and how to deny it to others. I saw immediately that there may be an opportunity here for the Burmese. You know, if you only have a hammer in your toolbox, every problem looks like a nail. So maybe if they had another tool in their toolbox, they could at least examine the potential of strategic non-violent struggle. So that’s how I got interested in it.»
Helvey and Sharp travelled to Burma in 1992 and at a jungle camp on the border set about explaining their ideas to rebels who had fled there from the Burmese heartland. Out of those sessions emerged a little book, a distillation of Sharp’s lifetime of immersion in the subject, entitled From Dictatorship to Democracy. It has since been translated into numerous languages and become a basic text for non-violent revolutionaries everywhere.
It was in Budapest in March 1999 that these two schools finally met up. «Asymmetrical struggle» is one of the terms Popovic gives to the sort of uprisings in which he has become expert, but there was something asymmetrical in this meeting, too. The choice of venue was symptomatic: a conference room in the Budapest Hilton. «We thought it was stupid to organise a revolution in a luxury hotel,» Popovic said later, «but the Americans chose that place.»
«Helvey instructed more than 20 Otpor! leaders in techniques of non-violent resistance,» the American journalist Roger Cohen wrote in an essay in The New York Times in November 2000 headlined «Who really brought down Milosevic?» «This session appears to have been significant.»
Popovic is a mild, even-tempered fellow, but one sure way to rile him is to suggest that it was Helvey and Sharp who put Otpor! on the road to success. Cohen «really exaggerated», he says. «The fact is, we met Helvey in Budapest for five days in April 2000, but by then we were already the most powerful movement in the country: we were pissing Milosevic off, we were denounced as a terrorist organisation, we had had our own training programme running for a month-and-a-half, we had offices in 37 different towns and 40,000 active members. Yes, meeting Helvey was nice, yes he helped structure our training programme even better and we will stay friends for the rest of our lives. But the impact on the Serbian revolution wasn’t so big.»
Setting aside Yankee arrogance and Serbian amour propre, the two sides had plenty to offer one another: Sharp and Helvey had the fruits of Sharp’s vast knowledge of non-violent practice from Gandhi onwards and his pithy dissection of how the weaknesses of dictatorships can be exposed and exploited; Popovic and colleagues had their unique experience of living the revolution day by day and year by year. Nothing in Sharp’s analysis, for example, could match Popovic’s account of how to deal with fear.
Fear, he points out, is a natural phenomenon: it is like rain, but there are ways to prevent it from drenching you. Towards the climax of their uprising in Serbia, the police started rounding up activists wearing Otpor! T-shirts and hauling them into the police stations. Naturally the kids were terrified. Otpor! set about defusing their anxiety.
«First we debriefed our people when they came out of the police station, then we briefed the people who were at risk of being arrested. We told them, you will be handcuffed, then if you are male you will be put in a cell with drunk k people; if female, with whores. They will separate you from your friends, then after a few hours they will come and take your fingerprints and they will remove your belt and shoelaces and you will feel embarrassed because your trousers will fall down. Then after a few hours they will take you to an interrogation and this is the list of questions they will ask you and these are the answers you will give them.
«Meanwhile, we invited people to gather in front of the police station; everybody at risk of being arrested had lined up a lawyer in advance. Parents of the kids were informed, and we had a network of old ladies who called the police station continuously to ask about those who had been arrested. And now you are sitting there, and everything is happening as predicted, and the good detective is offering you a cigarette and the bad one is hitting you on the head and it looks like a bad joke. And the phones are ringing in the police station and nobody can do anything. And my question is, who is under siege now? This is not the most comfortable situation for the police: they deal with criminals. You block them from doing their normal job, traffic, looters, the things they should do instead of interrogating an 18-year-old kid for wearing a T-shirt…» And gradually that particular pillar of tyranny, the police, is weakened, one policeman at a time.
Popovic is frank about the uniqueness of every revolution. «After the revolution in Serbia, everybody was claiming the credit: hundreds of consultants appeared and said, ‘Oh this wouldn’t have worked if we hadn’t worked with the democratic opposition.’ But it was Serbs who made the revolution in Serbia. They were the only people who could have done it.»
This is one of the many things that distinguishes the non-violent revolution from the violent model popular until recently. Popovic summarises the traditional model of the revolution thus: «Two hundred strong men seize power, put a pistol to the president’s head, make him appear on the radio, seize the airport, then Che Guevara gets back in the truck, and goes on to another banana republic.» Voilà: revolution accomplished. «This is because all you need is 200 strong men, this is the trick.»
Because the Communist revolution could be exported, people assume the same is true of the Popovic version, and that as a result he and his colleagues are in the business of exporting revolution. «This has brought us to the stupid situation where we have to explain to journalists that yes, we spent five days with the Egyptians – yes we gave them tools, yes we brainstormed – but 100 per cent of credit for the Egyptian revolution or the Georgian revolution or the Ukraininan revolution goes to the Egyptians or the Georgians or the Ukrainians. Not to the Serbs.
«This export/import theory actually originates from Roger Cohen’s question: would the revolution have happened without outside help?» The Americans, in Cohen’s analysis, were the secret weapon in the Serbian revolution, and now, it is suggested, the Serbs are playing the same role all over the Middle East. «What you need,» says Popovic, summarising the notion, «is $1m and a Serb with a fancy suitcase, he spreads the virus and before you know it there are a million people in the streets of Kiev. This is the revolution export narrative.» It has gained currency with a couple of documentaries. The kicker for the most recent, entitled The Revolution Business, goes, «Was what seems like a revolution actually a strategically planned event, fabricated by ‘revolution consultants’ long in advance?»
It is another theme that gets Popovic a little worked up. «It put a big stain on what we are teaching. One of the first things you hear in our workshops is that there are two things you need to avoid if you don’t want your movement to be doomed: one is violence, the other is taking advice from foreigners. It’s the most contaminant thing a movement can do: call a Serb, a Serb will tell you how to run your revolution. It’s not going to happen! A Serb might provide you with tools, but you will have to develop your own vision of tomorrow.»
Each non-violent revolution is as different as the countries where they occur. But one fact is a constant: violence is the kiss of death. It gives regimes the excuse to crack down, brings the risk of escalation, alienates the public and obscures the movement’s message. Robert Helvey compares violence to water getting into a car’s petrol tank: just a little and the car will still go; too much and it will stall. For revolutionaries of the traditional sort, like Mao, political power «grows out of the barrel of a gun» – but as victims of communist oppression worldwide discovered, that is a fast track to tyranny. For Popovic, a revolution which is really going to change a nation’s prospects must cleave to non-violence. He quotes Jorge Luis Borges: «Violence,» the great Argentine writer put it, «is the last refuge of the weak.»