Srdja Popovic

In His Own Words: Srdja Popovic

One of the founding members of Otpor, Srdja Popovic's main responsibility was recruiting and training.

On the importance of Otpor's decentralized structure:

So this was the story called "Otpor In Your Neighborhood," which become very important in the "He's Finished" campaign. Because we recruited people from different neighborhoods. We provided some kind of anarchistic network with no solid organization. Those people had some kind of local leaders who were the centers for distribution and the information — even without them being gathered together very often. And even without them being included in any kind of delegating process inside the hierarchy.

That diffused network was very important in, in the last phases of "He's Finished" campaign because it provided to us between 20,000 and 30,000 people who were active daily in some way, putting out the stickers, spreading the leaflets, speaking to other people. And those guys were producing thousands of hours of useful time for the organization because that's what you are doing with the volunteers — you are managing their working hours for the organization. And if you produce more of those working hours with new people and with proper training and with proper motivation you are having a lot of working hours. Having 200,000 of working hours is an achievement you find at Microsoft [corporation]. And we didn't even have to pay to those people because it was our common mission. It was what we shared as our mission.

Did you sometimes try to win the police over to your side?

Well we had a strict policy with the police and with the wider audience considering the problem of the police. So as — as it's written in Gene Sharp's and some other books, there are three ways to involve the wider audience in your story. The first one was conversion, the second one is accommodation, the third one was coercion. Like Milosevic was coerced at the end.

But generally the sympathy of the people is a strong motivation for people to convert. There is a whole chapter in that book under the title, if I remember correctly, of "Being a Victim" as a way to convert someone. So this is what we were actually doing. We were producing the sympathy in the wider audience.

It was quite normal when the big, ugly policemen were arresting girls of 17. It was quite normal to produce in people who are parents because they can recognize their own children in Otpor activists. But as for the police, we tried three times to approach them and third time it was useful. First time, we developed a message. We had training for message development. Our message was "there is no war between police and us." Somebody else is misusing the police against students. It's abnormal. There is no reason for the police to fight against the future of this country — and we were repeating that and repeating that in our public actions.

One very important example was April 4, when we organized an, an event on, on Student Square. April 4 is known here as the "Student's Day" because in the 1930s, there was a conflict between students and police in which 2 students were killed here. And it was made a kind of official students' holiday here. So we picked up that day and we said: "history is not going to be repeated" — that was one of our messages. "We are not in a war with the police." And what we did, we picked 10 guys, tied their hands, blindfolded their eyes, and they were acting as students. They were facing the wall and there is a small girl with a can of red paint which symbolizes blood in front of them — and in front of the audience as well as journalists. On another wall on the same square, there was a group of our activists putting white sheets of paper, gluing them on the wall with markers and putting the names on that. And names on that papers were the names of the policemen who were killed in vain in Milosevic's war in Croatia, Bosnia, Kosovo.

And our message was that we, together, are the victims of the system. And there is no reason to be, to have war between victims and victims. One victims are in blue uniforms, other victims are in blue jeans, but there is no reason for that blood in the middle of those two columns. So we picked up four or five headlines in the news with that message, and we know that it produced results within the police.

After that we tried to organize a march with girls in front, carrying flowers on National Police Day. We went to the station. They stopped us. It was an absolutely stupid situation. They were standing there, the special forces, with camouflage uniforms, really tough looking. Beside them, the policemen from the station were looking out through the windows and the girls were, were throwing flowers to them — and that was another time.

But generally, the biggest achievement was a method we used in relaxing the police because on October 1, it was Monday and we started marches through Belgrade because our agreement with DOS was to leave their leaders free to leave Belgrade and go to Kolubara region where miners were striking. It was a key point of whole story. And we [would] take the role of getting adrenaline and pumping it inside of Belgrade.

So we provided 3 days of huge marches which started usually with a few thousand students rising and rising during many kilometers to 40,000 people. That's what we did. People were joining in, the people were coming out and it, the first one was 23, the last one was 29 kilometers long. It lasted for about seven and a half hours. So what did we achieve except to exhaust the guys who led that column? The achievement was that the column should pass everywhere and everyone should see it from their windows. For example, when you have 40,000 people in one momentum, for 7.5 hours — that means that more than 100,000 saw it for 5 minutes, 10 minutes, half an hour — and get that adrenaline injection.

Another example, one day there was a conflict at Kolubara mine. Police [were] ordered to intervene, but they refused. So let's give our student support — thousands of our troops will now give strong support to those brave men who were doing their job protecting their people — because it's the job of the police. And we used a chant from soccer games — the Yugoslav national soccer team wears blue uniforms, and they're very popular here. And there is a tradition that soccer fans chant: "Blue Guys! Blue Guys! Blue Guys! Blue Guys!" So what we did was training the mass and the crowd, so when we see even a single policeman on the street, there comes "Blue Guys! Blue Guys! Blue Guys!" from thousands of throats. That [decreased] the tension [sending a] message into their minds encouraging our own people and sending them a message, "Come on, come on. Join us."

In contrast to the previous demonstrations in Serbia, where without proper training people were ready to confront the police, provoking them with howling [like dogs] because Serbian slang for a policeman is a dog. And it increases tension, it gives a clear message to the police that we are enemies, and the conflict is necessary. So what we did [was] try to get under their skins and under their uniforms and try to reach them somewhere deep, to say come on guys, we are together. This is our country. You are necessary part of this country. There is no reason to save the fallen dictator — it's stupid.

On Otpor's strategy:

There are 6 general sources of power in each society and the story of Otpor and the story of Milosevic's fall [are] the story of those 6 sources of power. In one way you will see how sources of power were rising in the nonviolent movement. In another you will see how.. how the strength of each source decreased in the ruling leadership.

So there is authority, which is very important. Human resources —[of] which we had a lot, and trained well; and human resources of the regime were those policemen we were [speaking] about and propagandists and people inside the bureaucracy and others. So we had to convert them, or accommodate them or coerce them, however.

The third very important sources are skills and knowledge. What we did all the time [was] improving skills and knowledge of our people and trying to pick up as many people with skills and knowledge from the regime. The fourth is material resources and the fifth, very important, are sanctions. And the sixth source of power is the intangible factor.

We recognized the fear that regime was creating inside Serbia with — repressive laws, using repressive pillars of the regime...judiciary, police, threatening with the army, always being surrounded with the generals and so on and so on. So they tried to increase the rate of fear. But fear, fear of sanctions, which is the very strong source of power for every organization — and it was a strong source of power for the regime. And we recognized their weakness, because the chain is broken always on the weakest link. What we did, we were breaking that down with a story of personal bravery and personal example, getting arrested; and joking all the time.

Everything we did must have a dosage of humor. So we had only a few really serious actions. But generally each of our actions was full of humor. So what humor produces in the people is superiority of nonviolent movement. Because I'm joking, you're becoming angry. I'm full of humor and irony and you are beating me, arresting me, and in that story you are the dummy. So that's a story, that's a game you always lose because you are showing only one face and I'm always again with another joke, with another action, with another positive message to the wider audience.

And that's how we collected the third party in the whole story which is very important — the publicity. The people on the ground with sympathy for our activists who [were] brave and were victims of the violence. On one hand, and with that energy from the youth and the hope for [a] future flowing from actions full of humor and positivism. So we used humor at different levels. Simple humor we were using all the time, was a shape of our actions. You could see — always young people laughing, feeling good making Milosevic ridiculous.

The more important part was when we came to the last phase where... when the police broke into this office [where] we are sitting now-- and after that we had to shoot the last bullet of humor — before the big finale, before the, you know, the final game at September the 24th and the days after. They came in and they took out a whole truck load of our [printed] materials. It was all confiscated from us, it was all taken. So we announced, because we [knew] that the office [was] under surveillance, we [recognized] the faces of the cops sitting around in the cafes every day. We had 2 cameras recording everything around this place. So each of my espressos was on police TV tomorrow. And I'm drinking a lot of espressos.

So what we did [was] to announce that we will have a "load-in" of [new] materials two days after. Because we knew what [would] happen. The problem with them was that according to our analytic team and our marketing team, we were always one step [ahead]. So their problem with us was that they were the predictable party in this conflict. So what we did, we said, "We will bring some materials in just because they took it out. We don't care. We will show them."

We knew that there...there will be the dozens of policemen everywhere waiting to see the first box and to take it and to arrest whoever. So we knew that they will be there and we filled 9 empty boxes with air. And we say this is the load-in and people were carrying boxes like it is something hard, like it has really stickers or material inside.... in front of hundreds of people and journalists. Because we announced it in the papers and people came to see what will happen. And of course the police looked ridiculous — stopping those people and taking boxes from them and recognizing the fact that they were empty.

And that happened in front of eyes of 23 journalists and all the cover pages [the next day] in this country, even in, I don't know, Associated Press, the policemen with stupid faces carrying empty boxes. So what they actually did — they helped us to send a last message. They helped us to... to scientifically prove that Milosevic [was counting] his last days. Because if the police [are] so oppressive as well as stupid in listening to the stupid commands coming from the ex-leader of this country, everyone knows that he's finished.

Why did you work so hard recruiting in small towns, in the provinces?

We decided in that early period that the only way to provide a lot of human resources which could be trained and become useful activists [was] to work like a disease. So what we tried to do [was] to act like a huge disease, spreading all over the country. And that was uh —easier because police reacted that way so we could convert a lot of people from the third party because our people were always giving the personal example. And very soon Otpor became the very "in" thing. Because it was so efficient, it hurt the regime so [badly] and in a situation where you have 80% of people discontented, they will go to help whomever seems efficient in trying to remove the cause of their discontent.

We used brainstorming and mind-mapping to find which are the events where people could be approached to be recruited.

Ok, let's go to the uh — through the guide of theaters and cinemas and so on. Appear there with your material and there will be some people willingly who would like to approach the organization. So what we actually did — we find the different places where the recruits should be picked up and developed a different method out of each of these pieces of paper.

Did you want to reach beyond young people?

Yes, we did. Slogans were one way. We were shaping the slogans adapted to the average level of education of common people in Serbia, especially lower educated people. So we were addressing them with public actions on villages. Our activists were going to the villages to help the people in agricultural works for example, so we recruited farmers in our organization. We recruited some retired people so we tried to see how they could be part of our mission. What we did was use simple slogans which were very much like slogans of SPS [the Socialist party].

The second thing was we organized branches, for example "Resistant Mothers." It's a general idea that we have a lot of activists, and all those activists have mothers and usually the parents were supporting our activists. The ancient feeling of motherhood is strong enough to involve a woman, a grown-up woman — her child doesn't have to be an Otpor activist — but her feeling for her own child is strong enough to protect everyone else's children, that's the instinct. And it worked all over the country. And the bravery and the energy some of our Resistant Mothers were showing in our battle was quite impressive.

What about music?

Well music and drama are very important way of nonviolent acting generally and especially addressing the wider audience. You use it more often in comparison to what regime is using.

So if [the regime] is speaking by public speeches, we are speaking with actions. If they are speaking with uh — stern faces and [frowns] like this, we will laugh. We will show our smiley faces in contrast to theirs. If they are giving not a dime to a drama, music, theater, generally those cultural events, we were producing more and more and more public events in that way, because that means that we defeated them on that ground, and this is our ground. So this is the organization who can put on public events. And everyone will come because there will be some political messages together with some, you know, inside feelings of the people like drama and music are.

It was useful with younger people, with rock music we were using in our Get Out the Vote campaign. And, with the older people, using the public persons. Actors, professors, being presented at our — at each of our actions there was some kind of public person present. And having public [figures] in your movement is very important because common people identify with them. So it's really difficult to swallow the state propaganda which tells you that [the] nonviolent movement is terroristic, fascistic, and so on. If you see a guy you saw on television dozens of times, an actor you like, with those guys, with a button, with a [Otpor] T-shirt, this is where state propaganda doesn't work.

What kind of relations did Otpor have with the established political opposition parties?

Well, I would, I would divide that in three phases. So in first phase, they — we were, you know, they liked us. A group of kids playing, so on. On [the other] hand, they were really worried because we were filling the political space with, you know, like cancer. Filling all the blanks for which they didn't — [weren't] able to fill, giving all the answers to all the issues people asked, which they were not clever or competent enough to give. And [we had] the strongest network among the opposition parties in Serbia, physical network, physically coverage of the ground.

And in the last phase, we were partners. Generally with no love between the opposition parties and Otpor, [clearly], but you know, we have gotten more mature, they have gotten more mature in that relationship. And we say, okay, we are doing a big job and we are risking the whole thing and we are doing the dirty work in this revolution. And we are going to be arrested, we are going to be tortured, we are going to sweep the ground so they can go in after us with their positive messages to win a voice. We are going to prove that Milosevic is finished, and we know that nobody is going to give us a medal after that. But history is, you know, being an important part of the history of this people, and of this country, and positive Serbian image abroad, is quite a medal of itself.

And that partnership relation was based on a [necessity.] Because we produced a strong movement and strong ideology which gave one of two necessary responses when you are removing one system. So we gave the formula which [would] remove Milosevic; we put all that discontent and all of the pain of the people, and all of the hopes of the people, and we focused it, we had a magical formula to turn it into action. But we still [needed] people to sit in offices. We knew that our battle [would] be in vain, and will be probably finished as a nonviolent revolution if somebody doesn't remove Milosevic at elections. So they were necessary in that battle. They were [a] necessary part of that battle.

We didn't do it. The people did it. We helped people to learn how. Gave them the story, gave them the ideology, gave them the slogan and victimizing [ourselves] — converting new people, and giving that movement a — a fuel for its engine. But generally what we did was educated the people all the time, all the time, all the time, so the people were trained to remove Milosevic.

Excerpted from an interview with Steve York: Belgrade, December 1, 2000..