Srdja Popović (OTPOR leader), 2010

Srdja Popović, interview by phone Feb 11, 2010. He was in Belgrade.
Interviewer — Metta Spencer

MS: I assume that you have contacts in Russia who are interested in nonviolent resistance.

SJ: Nope. Russia and China are probably the only two big cases that we never worked with. There was a movement in Russia called Oborona, which completely modeled itself on Otpor. But we learned about it from the BBC World Service. We participated in training people from Georgia and Ukraine, but never Russia. We never work anywhere that we are not invited. I only went to Ukraine once—after the Orange Revolution, which worked with people from my organization, CANVAS, but not with me.

You can classify movements in three different levels. Level one is survival mode. Level two is building mode; and level three is engagement mode. Today the Burmese opposition is in the survival mode and the Iranian opposition is somewhere between building and engagement mode. Normally we get involved quite early. Successful movements are always driven domestically. International groups are making a big mistake when they jump onto the cause that they see on CNN. People need your help in a very early stage. When they have built up enough capability to get onto CNN, they don’t need you anymore.

MS: Let’s talk about what to do at the Stage One level.

SJ: What you always have to do is try to understand the conflict. There are two different approaches. One is: What is the vision of tomorrow for the society? Formulate the question: Where do you want to be when the struggle is over? What we were able to do in Serbia was put together a vision of tomorrow that was wide enough for the different groups and popular enough to get people mobilized around it, and clear enough for lots of people to understand, and loud enough for lots of people to hear. It’s very different from the reality that people see on the streets, so it’s also annoying to the regime. So the first element is the vision of tomorrow.

And then, the first day of our workshops we help people learn the tools. How to develop strategy. How to listen to the groups in society. How to talk to the farmers, to policemen, to women. How to articulate a clear answer to: Where do we want the society to be when the struggle is over?

And after that, here comes the planning phase, which is to answer the question: How the hell are we going to get there? Here we are talking about strategy. Step One is vision of tomorrow. Step Two is strategy. There is a difference between the vision and the strategy.

And after strategy, here comes the phase of planning: The campaigns and the tactics we are going to apply. In the very early stages, it is important to answer those questions. Usually the failure of a movement comes from not having spent enough time planning.

Then there’s another huge principle that you can apply in Eastern Europe to compare successful movements like the Ukrainian one with the unsuccessful ones, like the Belarusian one. I am talking only about cases that I know well, not mentioning Russia because I could make a mistake.

The second big question is: What are the prerequisites for success? We have examined probably 15 different movements, from historical success stories like Gandhi, to current unsuccessful stories like Zimbabwe.

There are three principles. The first one is unity: unity of people, unity of organization, and unity of purpose.

The second principle is planning. Is the group capable to develop their strategy, their plan, and to carry it out effectively?

The third is nonviolent discipline. Is the group capable of maintaining nonviolent discipline, rather than burning cars and throwing stones at Basij, as they are doing in Iran? Because the most powerful contaminant to nonviolent struggle is violence. One single act of violence can harm the reputation of the movement. If you look at these three principles they are present in every successful nonviolent struggle, from Gandhi until the Maldives, the last successful case study of victory in 2008. And if you look at unsuccessful struggles, there is always at least one of these things missing.

If you look at Venezuelan struggle, the unity is missing. They are good at planning, they are pretty capable of maintaining nonviolent discipline, but they are absolutely incapable of stopping fighting among themselves. We were in this stage in Serbia in 1996-97. The anti-Milosevic politicians were in a contest to be the most popular opposition. But in 2000 they were capable of uniting around Kostunica, who at that point had like 8 percent of popular support but he was the common candidate and he won.

MS: How did you get that degree of unity?

SP: If you observe the story about the Serbian struggle, you will find lots of material on the conflict between Otpor and the regime, some material on the conflict between NGOs and the regime, some on the conflict between the international community and the regime. What you won’t see is that Otpor spent 40 percent of its time fighting Milosevic, and probably 30 to 35 percent of its time putting pressure on the opposition to unite. But we spent probably 20 percent of our time, energy, and resources explaining to the international community that the only way to help Serbian people is to leave the struggle domestic—that they should suspend the sanctions that were in force and support the opposition and student groups only if they are united. This is the part of the story you don’t see.

Unity is essential to success. You ‘ll never win by being part of the struggle. The only way to win is with a broad, wide coalition that will bring you a majority. Because when we talk about nonviolent struggle, we are talking about numbers. Numbers are the human resources of the people within the pillars of support. This is the only evaluation of your performance. The more people you attract to your side, the more people you can mobilize, the closer you are to victory—if you have unity. The only way to achieve this unity is develop a vision of tomorrow that is wide enough so all groups support it.

And then consider the campaigning position: Can you put the costs onto the others? Otpor was clearly blackmailing the Serbian opposition. We built a movement that was clearly recognized by the regime as State Enemy Number One. We built a movement that the people recognized as the most capable of opposing the regime. Our reputation with the international community was as the only movement that would never negotiate with Milosevic. And we built a movement that could tell the opposition: The only way we’ll support you is if you go together. If you don’t go together, you’re working with Milosevic and we’re going to attack you publicly. That was clear blackmail. Either you are with us or you are against us. And you cannot live by being against us because we are more popular than you are. You need the symbol of the arm and the fist in order to win in the election. And you need 20,000 people daily to be in the front line of the struggle with the regime. And you need 2,000 students who are ready to be arrested during the presidential campaign, but the only way that we are going to go into the struggle with you is if you say: We are going to argue after Milosevic is gone. This is the only way we are going to work with you.

And then they got together – all except one, all except Draskovic. And Draskovic got 3 percent in the election. He was wiped out. You can apply this to every conflict in the world.

MS: What do you think about the election of the opponents of the Orange Revolution?

SP: People are looking at it from a geopolitical point of view. Now Yushchenko is going to be the president, which means the Russians are coming back and the whole Orange Revolution is erased! This is bullshit. The Orange Revolution was not about pro-Russians or anti-Russians. It was about the right of the people to elect their government by free and fair elections. If they have gained free and fair elections, from my point of view I don’t give a damn who is elected. That is not my job. My job is to change people’s heads, so they understand that they have the power to change.

In many cases – in Russia, for example – the struggle is in a limited political space. It is probably smallest in Burma or North Korea, it’s bigger in Russia, and it’s far bigger in places like Venezuela, where they have a developed NGO sector, a free and fair local media, and opposition mayors.

But the rule is always the same: political space is never granted. Political space is always conquered. If you are building in a very small space, then we have many examples of growing movements. For example, in Africa or South America, they are building on very simple actions.

They have the same problem over and over. The first successful actions of students in Venezuela was on campuses and its extent was limited to intellectual people, who are already opposed to Chavez. So they were actually talking to themselves. The first time when they created a campaign in the barrios, it was not about Chavez, but about garbage. They said that the city is incapable of removing garbage. They were able to create a lot of public activity about that, to collect petitions about it, hold small rallies, and even have a small traffic blockade organized around a simple issue like garbage.

The outcome of this was that three or four years later Chavez lost in Caracas and in other places that were supposed to be his traditional base. They voted for somebody else because his guys in the field were incapable of dealing with garbage. Or with street crime. Or with something you would normally perceive as a non-political issue.

People have often been driven to the streets by local corruption, for example. which the government was not clever enough to address. Then in the end, they replaced the corrupt local people and even sentenced some of them to harsh penalties.

There’s the story of the earthquake in China in 2008.

MS: That’s where the schools collapsed because the building code wasn’t observed.

SP: Yes, people came out with it to the new media, even though they had limited access. Then the big media around the world started reporting it. Then the government of China reported it, even though it was probably two or three months before China would recognize that there had been an earthquake at all. Then the story was about who had built these schools with cheaper material. I think that there were even some executions because China allows executions. Lots of officials were sentenced. That was clearly people power. These are people struggling for their own rights. Compare it to Iran, where you can be picked up from the streets and sentenced to death for conspiracy against the guards. And even your body goes missing because they don’t want the martyred to receive a ceremonial burial. So there is a bigger space for people power in China.

People power is about releasing the spirit of people power into the society. It is not necessarily done in the field of political conflict, but sometimes in the field of human rights. Sometimes done in the field of corruption. In Africa it is often done on the question of whether or not the government is capable of delivering water to the villages.


I was speaking to the people of Guatemala, who are capable to organize an indigenous people movement against a big company which was coming to their village, building a mine next to the village, destroying their roads by the big trucks, and not leaving one single dollar from the natural resources they are sucking out. People were capable to organize a strike, a boycott, to build a gate at the mine, to stop the production, even to do some hunger strikes. There was a little bit of shooting involved because it is a violent country, and at the end of the day the government was forced to __ the license of the company to exploit the mine. I’m talking about a society where maybe 5 to 10 percent of the population have high school. I’m not talking about well-educated middle class people living in places like Moscow or Caracas. I’m talking about Guatemala.

So when it comes to the question to which extent political space plays a role, yes it plays a role, but the skills you bring to the struggle are, in our opinion, more important than the conditions you find on the battlefield. This is why people consider us an important part of armed struggle, because we have never participated in the struggle ourselves. This is our code of behavior. We never get involved in the struggle. We give them tools, skill. And we strongly oppose the idea that foreigners should get involved in the struggle because we think it’s a very big contaminant to the struggle. The only way the struggle will be efficient in any country in the world is if the locals are carrying it from the point of the vision of tomorrow to the point of execution.

You can always hear stories about every revolution. You know: The Serbs are carrying the revolution in their fancy laptop bags and they go somewhere and the revolution pops out. Unfortunately, that has nothing to do with reality.

MS: Tell me your position about funding. I am sure you know that George Bush’s efforts to spread democracy around the world backfired and lots of people lost confidence in the value of promoting democracy abroad. Even many of my friends in Canada say that we shouldn’t do that. I think it would be useful to have standards or principles to guide the allocation of government funding to pro-democracy movements in places like Russia and China, to decide what is legitimate and what is not. I think Obama has retreated from the Bush position. I don’t think he is funding groups as much as Bush did. He is careful not to antagonize Putin or Medvedev, who are extremely sensitive about color revolutions. What would you think of a principle to guide where it is appropriate to fund prodemocracy.

SP: There are three questions: How did it come to this debates? Second, what are the positive measures that can be done by governments to strengthen pro-democracy movements, and the third, what are the sanctions that can be used against regimes that are violating human rights and ruling undemocratically.

CANVAS is not a political organization. There is a huge perception that American has suffered a lot because of the aggressive posture of the Bush administration. That is why Obama won the election. And then comes to the different exaggerations. American influence on the Georgian and Ukrainian revolutions was highly over-exaggerated. If you go to the worst text on the Serbian revolution in history and the biggest mistake of the Serbian revolutionaries was to give the interview to Roger Cohen of the NY Times. “Who Really Brought Down Milosevic? “ That was the biggest mistake I ever committed in my life to talk to that guy. He was misleading with one fact and turned the whole idea of the Serbian revolution around. When this started in 2000, it started with one irresponsible journalist, the guy who took one single thing out of the Time context and said, yes they were trained by IRI and Bob Helvey in order to teach their people. This was crucial. That was bullshit. Otpor people met with Bob Helvey in April 2000. At that point we were 40,000 people strong – the most popular opposition movement. That workshop was very useful but it was far from crucial. If this workshop never happend, what do you think would be the outcome? That Milosevic would win the election? Bullshit. By manipulating the time scale he started the history of this conspiracy theory thing — that the international funding agencies are behind every single movement against every single government. This is crazy. If it is that easy, how come the Russians have never developed such capability? How come the Russians were not capable to train their own nonviolent movement in their own neighborhood? If this is just a matter of money, you can put more money in and there will be an emerging movement supporting your side against the governments you dislike, whether the government is disliked by Ottawa, or Moscow or any other country. This is not how things work. It is more complex than this.

The second thing is, Americans are normally very loud in taking credit for something they have not done. And on the other hand, the regimes are very loud in discrediting the opposition by calling them foreign mercenaries. This is something that every single non-democratic regime in the world does. You can copy-paste the sentences of Milosevic and paste them into the mouths of Shevardnadze, Kuchma, Yanukovich now. Yanukovich won the elections. he made the goal. And between the elections he was giving speeches about how the evil Georgians and Polish are planning to take the election from him. It’s not Americans this time. The Eastern Europeans who are playing for global imperialism, whatever. This is the favorite game. If you listen to Ahmadinejad, it is people who are operated and paid by the Western states. He just changes the players. When UK is the main enemy, then it is organized by the British Embassy. And the Germans are very interesting for Tehran because obviously Anglo-Americans are preparing sanctions for the EU, so now it is about the German diplomats being arrested for being involved in organizing the nonviolent movement against the Islamic Republic. This is mantra of the dictators. I can exactly tell you who is going to be next. For dictators it is useful to portray the opposition as foreign mercenaries. So you need to look at the situation behind it.

And that brings us to the sensitive issue of what democratic governments should or could do to help democratic movements and what they shoouldn’t do under any circumstances. The first thing is they shouldn’t interfere in politics. The last thing they should do is support the opposition parties. They should stay out of the political arena.

MS: I have felt all along that this business of the Republican and Democratic Parties having their own funds to support foreign parties, I think that would be the first thing that ought to be shut down.

SP: I am clear on this. On the other hand I can walk you through the Serbian political experience. Take the situation where you have a lot of opposition parties and a lot of international diplomats – not just Americans. Also Europeans. They were all involved in micro-management. Each one had their own favorite opposition leader and the money would go to his party and he’s going to receive trainings and he’s going to meet with officials – that all destroyed the unity. So that’s the last thing the international community should do. This was awful. It took us a hell of effort to explain this to America. The big change came when Zoran Djinjic and I were in the US in 2000. Zoran explained to them that only a united opposition should be funded and that they should refrain from picking any favorite opposition leader, including himself.

Second thing the internationals should avoid is public support. It took us a hell of work to stop people like Madeline Albright giving public statements because Madeline Albright was the person responsible for the bombing of Serbia. It harmed us domestically very much.

Then let’s speak about the things that are efficient, things they should do. In my opinion the most efficient help to Serbia was helping the independent media. That support is very valuable because you are building the capability of the independent movement to communicate, you are raising the price for the regime of committing human rights violations, and you are also developing the roots of democratic society. One of the reasons I strongly disagree with the criticism of the success of the Orange revolution is the fact that you have fair media in Ukraine. Quite fair, compared to what it was six years ago.

MS: The trouble is, in Russia and China, it’s not just a matter of giving money to a newspaper like Novaya Gazeta. The problem is that the government actually suppresses what they are able to do and takes over control of newspapers and television. It’s not just a matter of money. What do you do about that?

SP: In this century, what used to be the radio waves of Radio Free Europe, these are the new media now. If you ask me what would be the biggest help that could be done for the people of Iran by the Canadian or US government or any other administration that cares, it would be to help them bridge the Internet censorship. Develop platforms, machines, technology, whatever. Or support somebody who is developing it. I’m not giving single answers like “give them computers.” There are 25 different ways to raise the capability of the movement to increase their communication means. This is one of the backbones of our university course. This is not like helping the newspapers or TV stations in the country, Let’s assume that the regime is capable to consume the traditional media and perform the traditional media censorship 100%.

Second, put a price on human rights violations by supporting the ability of organizations that are dealing with documentation of court cases, organizing free legal help. If Canada and the United States are standing for the value of democracy, free media, and human rights, these are things they are helping, clearly, and they cannot be accused of interfering because, by supporting independent media you are not supporting the opposition or the government. They are just supporting the right of the people to hear the truth. There are many, many good programs in the fields of human rights support, publishing support, legal support, library support, independent media support, for example in Iran.

And now your supporting such programs of strong anti-Bush sentiment will be like interfering in their lives. And now I’m seeing these people from the Left over-exaggerating. Like “No, no, no. We cannot help them develop the web site because we will be accused of helping the opposition.” For God’s sake! Ahmadinejad will accuse you? He accuses the university of helping the opposition – officially! The United States will always be the evil devil which is trying to plot the coup in Iran, and not helping the opposition to develop their alternative media, especially people in the June demonstrations, will not stop Ahmadinejad accusing countries of trying to make a plot and interfere.

… Number One, how did it come to this?

Number Two: What should be done?

Number Thre: Sanctions. The issue of sanctions is a tricky thing. On one hand, this is the normal _____ of nonviolent struggle. If you go through the 198 methods of Gene Sharp you will find sanctions imposed by governments – trade embargoes, things like that. But sanctions are a very tricky animal. Sometimes it’s counterproductive. When it comes to the issue of sanctions, in our experience targeted sanctions are very productive in the struggle for human rights and democracy, and the non-targeted sanctions are very counter-productive. I will give you an example. In 1992 the UN imposed sanctions on the former Yugoslavia, now Serbia, on petrol. The explanation was that if they suck Serbia dry of oil and petrol Milosevic will not be capable to help Bosnian Serbs to operate their tanks. And also there was a wide economic embargo on _____. The outcome of the sanctions was that the petrol trade was completely overtaken by the secret police and the mafia guys from Serbia. The whole economy went from the legal to the gray state of practically every citizen of Belgrade and Serbia being pressed to smuggle and to do illegal things and of course these are the situations in which autocrats blossom. Because if the whole country is doing illegal things, then it’s easy to blackmail people. So from my point of view there is nothing worse than non-targeted sanctions. ON the other hand if you take ____ targeted sanctions and see what the real impact is on the Serbian regime (and you can apply it to every single place in the world, including Iran) this is like the limitation of travel from the ____ of the regime. Finding the accounts or the companies on which specific persons or companies are trading in the international community, which are — I was watching a very interesting article in CNN yesterday about what should be done on Iran and somebody was pointing out the fact that the Revolutionary Guard is the organization which obviously holds a lot of power in the society and they are active economically. They have international companies and are earning big money. So hitting those companies will probably be more painful to the regime in Tehran than the alternative arrangement – how to cripple the Iranian government by sucking them dry of petrol That’s exactly what the international community shouldn’t do.

So you always target sanctions to the individual: people who are related to the violation of human rights, who are proven to be undemocrats and, if we are talking about the state, we are talking about pointing it to the state official. If we are talking about extreme parties or organizations, this is targeted to the people who are leading the organizations, but you never impose the wide array of sanctions which can harm the people. Because once you harm the people, you a) give a big excuse to the regime why the economy is dying. “It’s all because of the sanctions, of course.”

We were discussing non-targeted versus targeted sanctions. This is called the shotgun vs. sniper sanctions. I cannot find one single case in which shotgun sanctions were useful. If we talk about the sniper sanctions, the restrictions for individuals – for example, those who have a proven record in violating human rights. The restrictions of travel of those who are supporting non-democratic governments and stuff like that, these have proven to be efficient. And on another level, the targeted sanctions on the economic level have proven to be efficient. For example, the Maldives. If you look through the Lonely Planet Guide to Maldives, you will see that they were very capable of pointing out five or six resource owners who are big supporters of the government and efficiently advised the people who were reading the Lonely Planet Guide to avoid this resource. So when you hit the responsible people in their pockets, that does a lot. And when you are trying to look to sanctions as a _____ (pull?) to do something to the country, it is very likely that the _______ at the end of the day will go to the common people and the regime will get another excuse forever – bad economic situation for example.

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The Russian Quest for Peace and Democracy, by Metta Spencer, published by Lexington Books