In October 2000, a group of students from Belgrade University with a yearning to live a democratic life helped to overthrow the rule of Europe’s most bloody dictator, Slobodan Milosevic.
Their influences were Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and the work of the American academic and guru of non-violent resistance, Gene Sharp. They employed simple but effective tactics: using mobile phones, slogans and Monty Python-style street humour. But their secret was their methodology: unity, planning and non-violent discipline. Using this trio of tactics, they managed to pull together a politically divided Serbia.
The legendary activists – who called themselves Otpor, the Serb word for “resistance” – are not students any more and they are no longer sitting in cafes “pissing off the government”. Some are now MPs; others are government ministers. But a group of them have gone on to found the Centre for Applied NonViolent Strategies, better known as Canvas, an organisation that trains activists around the world in how to successfully overthrow a dictatorship.
The young Serbs’ revolution has become a textbook standard for non-violent, peaceful struggle. Canvas only works with groups with no history of violence: for example, they have refused to work with Hamas or Hizbollah. But they count Georgia, Ukraine and the Maldives (where they helped dissidents end the 30-year rule of Maumoon Abdul Gayoom) as success stories, and work with activists from nearly 50 other countries, including Iran, Zimbabwe, Burma, Venezuela, Belarus and, recently, Tunisia and Egypt.
Canvas is run by two best friends from the Otpor days, Srdja Popovic, 38, and Slobodan Djinovic, 36. They are the most unlikely duo. Popovic is lanky and nervous; a freshwater biologist by training: “A shark moves when it sleeps, if it stops moving, it dies,” he says. “Sharks only move forward. You have to keep the momentum of revolutions going.”
Djinovic is a good-looking former basketball player with an MA in international relations from The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy in the US, and has a self-possessed, confident air. He founded Serbia’s first wireless internet provider and could be a Silicon Valley mogul if he wanted to, but instead he gives half of what he earns to keep Canvas afloat. (The other half comes from various NGOs and the UN.) “I could be that guy in a suit, going to clubs, which is what my mother and wife want,” Djinovic says, “but I just can’t. Not after seeing and doing what we did.”
Like most of the Otpor generation, the two were brought up in the good old Tito days, a time of “socialism lite”, when they wore blue jeans, drank Coca-Cola and went on trips to Greece. They were 18 and 16 when the savage Yugoslav wars began in 1991, old enough to know that they needed to get rid of Milosevic. Now, they want to take their knowledge and pass it on to the world.
This is done with a staff of “four and a half”, dozens of trainers around the world and an office on Gandhiova (as in Gandhi) Street in New Belgrade. In one corner sits a Canvas worker who has just returned from a fact-finding mission to Tunisia aimed at helping the new leaders into a peaceful transition post-Ben Ali. Djinovic is wandering around, eating a sandwich and talking about targeting weak pillars in society to bring down governments. Someone else is talking about Mohamed Adel, the Egyptian April 6 activist who took lessons in Belgrade from the Canvas crowd in 2009. There is a whiteboard listing places they are targeting next, and Talking Heads music plays quietly in the background.
It looks more like a Seattle coffeehouse than a revolutionaries’ hive. How, I ask them, have they managed to spread the word from this tiny space to Tahrir Square? Why are people talking about them in Yemen and Algeria?
“When people hear the Serbs are coming,” laughs Popovic, “they want to see us, they want to hear how we did it. We can tell them what worked with us, what did not work in Georgia, what worked in Ukraine. We feel a responsibility to share our knowledge.”
He jokes that he sees himself as Frodo from The Lord of the Rings: “I didn’t ask for the Ring but I have it and we must deliver it,” he deadpans. In his Belgrade apartment, Popovic has a “shrine” to J.R.R. Tolkien and a gold replica of the Ring on a chain – his vision of a democratic world. It sits in a dusty wine glass under a map of Middle-earth. “There is a great line from Tolkien,” he says, sipping rakija, the popular Serb brandy. “Even the smallest creatures can change the world.”
Slobodan Homen, another former Otpor member whose life was for ever changed by the experience, left the group and went into the current Serbian government under President Boris Tadic as deputy justice minister.
“Ah, the shiny happy days of Otpor,” laughs Homen, slugging back a Coke Zero. Homen does not look like any minister I have ever met. He’s wearing a diamond earring, a rumpled shirt, no tie and is smoking Marlboro Lights in a public building that clearly says “No smoking” (by law, there’s a hefty fine). It’s this kind of “question authority” attitude that toppled Milosevic.
Back in the day, it was Homen’s wealthy mother who loaned Otpor her apartment in the centre of Belgrade as the chaotic movement grew from a group of friends to nearly 70,000 people. The Otpor kids worked 12 hours a day, were followed and beaten up by police, and lived on a diet of coffee and cigarettes.
“Our main goal,” recalls Homen, “was to show the general public that the regime could be changed. We started out by making Milosevic nervous. Then we brought down the system.” They used a combination of clever marketing tools – the famous Otpor and now Canvas fist logo, their unique slogans, edgy TV commercials – and street tactics, such as setting out a huge telescope on the day of the total eclipse and showing Milosevic’s face and the slogan ‘He’s finished!’
The group also realised they had a window of opportunity – which usually marks the debut moment of any revolution. It could be a hike in oil prices, a natural disaster or an assassination that binds the public together in their anger. In their case, Milosevic called elections. Massive demonstrations followed.
Homen admits that they never actually thought they could do it – but they did. “Because of our success, I believe it is our responsibility to go around the world and inspire with our example,” says Homen. “But it’s up to each people’s regime. Each region is different.”
After I leave Homen’s office, I go to see the designer of the fist. In the newspaper that same day, I spotted a photograph of an Egyptian woman carrying the Otpor fist around Tahrir Square, and I ask Duda Petrovic, who is now 37 and a father of two, how he feels about creating such a powerful image.
“I never knew it would be so important,” he says, stubbing out a cigarette and reaching for another. “I drew it not out of ideals, but because I was in love with the Otpor girl who asked me to do it.” No one went into revolution for money or fame. Petrovic didn’t copyright his fist design, which sells on websites in the US, on T-shirts, mugs, posters.
“I’m too lazy to sue,” he says. “And I gave it to my best friends. And now it’s used to make freedom. How could I charge for that?”
Like everyone I spoke to, Petrovic says Otpor changed his life. “Everything was grim and grey in Serbia. War. Inflation. Sanctions,” he says. “And suddenly out of nowhere came this energy. It’s a beautiful story. It’s the story of my life.”
I remember those victorious days well. I landed at Belgrade airport during the height of the demos and turned on my mobile phone. A message popped up about Milosevic – Gotov je – he’s finished. I laughed because I knew it was from the Otpor kids. I got 10 more messages in the next half hour, all the same. Gotov je.
After they had forced Milosevic from power, Otpor’s leaders received requests for help from democracy activists in other countries. But eventually Otpor fizzled out as a political party, and Djinovic and Popovic decided to establish Canvas, which sees itself as an educational institution.
Their training works as follows: activists will hear about Canvas (“It’s a small world, the world of non-violent struggle,” says one worker) and come to Belgrade. In 2009, Mohamed Adel was already working in Cairo with the April 6 movement, but felt he was stagnating. He had seen a pirated copy of Bringing Down a Dictator, a 2001 documentary depicting Otpor’s work, and contacted the Serbs. He spent a few weeks training in Belgrade in April 2009, using “power graphs” (invented by Djinovic) to demonstrate how to spot weakness in government (in the case of Egypt, it was military), how to target media and other institutions, and how to respond with non-violence.
When Adel returned to Cairo, he brought more copies of Bringing Down a Dictator subtitled in Arabic, and the Canvas textbooks. He then passed on the word. Shortly before the fall of Mubarak, a pamphlet largely modelled on the Canvas teachings was printed in Cairo, the main point being, as Popovic points out, “to fraternise with police and maintain non-violent discipline”.
“It took Gandhi 30 years to overthrow the regime; it took us 10 years; it took the Tunisians a month and a half; and it took the Egyptians 19 days,” says Popovic. “This is democratic blitzkrieg.”
Later that day, we head to Belgrade University to see the department they are setting up where graduate students will be able to study for an MA in strategy and methods of non-violent social change. Popovic, a visiting professor, drives me to the campus in his cluttered green Mercedes with the licence plate 007.
A friend told me she saw Popovic recently at a friend’s birthday party and he spent the whole night in front of the TV watching the Egyptian demos with a huge smile on his face. When it works, it really works, he tells me.
But it’s not the usual career choice: revolutionary. Stuck in the usual heavy Belgrade traffic, I ask him why he does it, spending one-third of the year travelling to remote locations to train activists. Growing up, the child of two journalists, Popovic said he wanted to travel around the world making films about fish. He’s uncharacteristically quiet for a moment while he thinks about his response.
“Working with activists is the best job on the planet,” he says. “These risk-takers – people who are not thinking of themselves, but of the lives of their children or future generations…” He cuts up two cars as he moves into the fast lane. “I can’t tell you how much I love it. Seeing people move from fear to enthusiasm, from helplessness to commitment … it’s awesome.”
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