The Evolution of Nonviolent Resistance

by Forum Staff

Srdja Popovic and Slobodan Djinovic are the co-founders of the Centre for Nonviolent Action and Strategies (CANVAS), an international network of nonviolent trainers and advisors founded in 2003. In 1998 as students, Popovic and Djinovic were two of the founding members and leaders of the Otpor! Resistance movement in Serbia. Otpor! was a nonviolent movement credited with the downfall of Slobodan Milosevic in 2000. Since then, Popovic has been a member of the Belgrade City Assembly (1997-2004) and Serbian National Assembly (2000-2004). He has written three books on nonviolent resistance, his most recent book Blueprint for Revolution was published in February 2015. Djinovic has served on the Faculty of Political Science at the University of Belgrade and as a visiting scholar at Colorado College and Grinnell College. Along with Popovic, Djinovic has published two books on nonviolence and designed CANVAS’ core curriculum. He has been hailed as a pioneer of wireless Internet in Serbia as the founder of Media Works in 2000, which later merged to become Orion Telecom, one of Serbia’s leading telecommunication providers, of which he is the current CEO. He is a 2006 graduate of the Fletcher School’s Global Masters of Arts Program.

In a conversation with the Fletcher Forum, Popovic and Djinovic discuss innovations in repression and resistance, the complexities of nonviolence and violent extremism, and the future of the scholarship and practice of nonviolence.

FLETCHER FORUM: What do you see as some of the main, new forms of repression as dictators are learning. And, how do you counter that? What are the innovations in teaching and analyzing the new repression and the new resistance?

DJINOVIC: Traditionally activists have been one step ahead. So, I’ll just mention one of the [new forms] I find unbelievably interesting is putting civil society groups on the terrorist list and denying them any physical access to the positions that are of particular interest to dictatorships or positions to dictators themselves…The second thing is, if you look at [dictators’] ability to focus on the resources and where the funding is coming from and just changing the legislation or the constitution  to forbid [those resources]. That’s an introduction to the new tactics that are disruptive on the side of the government.

We can’t neglect the power of social media in transferring this sort of information. I don’t think we have actually engaged enough into the area of how effective we could be. If we just do the online courses, trainings, teachings, etcetera, there’s a whole new area where I assume activists are going to be able to access much more easily than before….Now, another point where you see the governments actually improving is that they are talking to each other. They are changing their own ideas.

FLETCHER FORUM: Such as China organizing trainings for the police in Cambodia for example, so Cambodia becomes better at repression?

POPOVIC: Of course, and then you find the chief of Iranian police meeting with somebody from Belarus and talking about this.

FLETCHER FORUM: There are tactics of civil resistance that use the institutions of the state against itself but what about in weaker states that have failed institutions, or that have serious infrastructure problems? You mentioned the benefit of social media, but what about states that don’t have electricity? What are the differences in the tactics you would apply, what can civil resistance do, how would you approach activists from one of these countries

POPOVIC: I think that the main value of nonviolent struggle in terms of civil resistance or in terms of building a nonviolent movement is gaining power through numbers but also through unity around certain values.

We have seen this in many movements, like in South Africa, where people were sending little kids to tell stories at the villages because they didn’t have phones or a post office but they found a way to spread the message. It’s not whether or not you have very contemporary or technologically advanced messengers, it’s about how you structure your ideas. You structure your ideas around building community, building values in this community, and then making a kind of coalition with a list of potential allies…on the social spectrum. It doesn’t necessarily need to be a political spectrum, because this struggle is not limited to the political battlefield. It’s very often a struggle of ideas. It’s very often a struggle for human rights, a struggle for accountability. There doesn’t necessarily need to be regime and the people. It’s not necessarily anti-regime.

What do you need to build a successful movement? Obviously you need unity. You need planning, and you need discipline, nonviolent discipline. What else do you need? You need to understand that movements have a set of values— a set of connected campaigns and tactics. This is not a one-time protest and then we go home. This is a part of the campaign. And of course they have elements of group identities.

When you look at the countries you were just mentioning that have serious problems in institutions and infrastructure, I think the power of building a strong society is even stronger…because people can talk in [their] neighborhood: “We have a dysfunctional state. We have garbage everywhere. We have no access to drinking water. We have shit flowing on the street because the sewer system doesn’t work. And now we organize.”

Look at Burma, for example….[Collective organizing began] a few years before [the 2007 anti-regime protests], when the Tsunami came [in 2004] and the military was too slow to even collect the corpses. It was the civil rights activists and NGOs going to these places and collecting bodies, because if bodies stay there, next thing you know you have a cholera outbreak. It was [civil society] filling the vacuum of the state but also building the confidence and community and small victories and ground networks. It was their communal work which made them withstand the severe repression. Was this work political? No. Not necessarily political. They were saving lives. Was this work useful for the authorities? Oh yes. Was it useful for gaining numbers [for the anti-regime movement]? Oh yes. Because this way people understood that NGOs were not some foreign funded entities  fighting against the “beloved” regime, but these are the people who collected the corpses from your garden. Now you can touch these people, you can see these people. And maybe you will join these people.

FLETCHER FORUM: What about groups like Islamic State in Syria and Iraq (ISIL) and Boko Haram, in terms of providing some resources or some semblance of order? How do you engage nonviolently against these groups?

DJINOVIC: We used the example of Syria because once [Syrian President] Bashar al Assad’s forces were been driven out of certain [parts of the county], there were lots of problems in those areas because there were no local constituencies, no local infrastructure, no local elections at the municipal level, and…no immediate process for how people are going to be elected and put some kind of structures in place. [Syrians] have been looking widely for support internationally because they needed basic resources like cars for the local police, resources for security, knowledge and skills to rebuild local institutions, international aid for food, and basic things for schools to reopen. Guess what? Internationals failed in delivering those and the people of Syria have been suffering a lot and not just from Assad but from ISIL…For the local communities who are now under the control of ISIL, how much does it really matter whether you are punished in terms of being sentenced to two years in prison or whipped fifteen times. If you are whipped 15 times, that happens in a matter of half an hour, you are healed, you paid your debt toward your sins, and everybody is hugging everyone and forgiving each other and that’s it. Just analyzing that: it’s quick, it’s efficient, it doesn’t demand anymore resources. You don’t have prisons. You don’t have to fee prisoners. [ISIL is] building an efficient system it can deliver, and that’s what people are actually going towards. That’s what scares those who are outside of ISIL in other countries. That’s what really the fear is about. Are these guys really capable of delivering what our government or the state was failing to deliver?

FLETCHER FORUM: Well, there has been massive persecution and atrocities committed against minority groups like the Yazidis. There’s no due process in what you just mentioned. Whipping people is a violation of their human rights.

DJINOVIC: That’s right and that’s going to be growing..…But how do we change the perceptions of these non-state stakeholders that are actually so effective? How do we change perceptions so that we don’t have so many internationals flying in and joining these groups? That’s one of the issues that somebody needs to deal with. And I think some of the strategy is to [publicize] what is actually happening or going on and how it is not actually effective.

FLETCHER FORUM: You often interact with people who will be decision makers in the future. What advice do you have for those who want to influence policy toward more strategic nonviolent civil resistance?

DJINOVIC: The first step is to convince academia that these programs should be involved as part of their ongoing curriculum. The second thing is, you are right, once we have access to these kinds of people it is actually for them to understand the dynamics of these changes and the nonviolent struggles in terms of the way and how it operates as asymmetric conflict. Why are there misconceptions that protests and rallies are the only form [of nonviolent resistance]? How do you build symbols? How do you build momentum? When are you reaching the top number of activists? What are the negotiations about and when should they take the time? What should be the achievable goals and the results?

POPOVIC: From the point of view of the elites we want to see more courses and more research. [For] impact we want to see online courses, which will allow people to participate with whatever type of degree they have as long as they have interest. And on the level of making this available for a lot of people to understand worldwide, we’re looking at the tools, simple tools, which will explain the basics of this process. So basically this is how we are looking at our role in the next five years, but this is also how we are searching for partners, because we will need partners.

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