Srdja Popovic

In His Own Words: Srdja Popovic

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

What did you learn from the protests in 1996-97?

Well, I learned not to be impatient. I learned that what you see on the streets as a protest is only a one side of the coin, and that planning that, organizing that and commanding that system, must be dislocated from the whole event because of the adrenaline and the psychology of the mass and so on and so on. I also learned that, what I learned also in my party work [is] that there is a golden rule of, of campaigning — that you have democracy in coming to a decision, but there is no democracy in executing the decisions. Democracy in executing the decision is like anarchy — and it will cost you. So once the plan is settled on, everyone has to stick to the plan. So this is very important knowledge.

There must be discipline, there must be some kind of responsibility, and of course I've learned a lot about how to establish the discipline so there is a strong story of nonmaterial motivation in each protest.

What do you mean by non-material motivation?

So, there are some theories of nonmaterial motivation. I know something about it. Generally there are reasons why volunteers are joining an organization. If you go through Otpor's manual you will find 23 enumerated reasons. I don't know them all by heart, but for young people there are some things which are very important. For example, one: "You are [an] important part of a job. You are responsible which puts you in a position to [prove yourself]." And this is very important for a young man who has some kind of pressures from the family, from the environment, who is always faced with a famous question: What are you going to become in your life? And so on and so on. And now he's inside the organization, now he's inside of the organization and he's responsible. He works on something. He sees thousands of people tomorrow in the streets as a product of what he did. He sees his statement or his picture or a picture of what he achieved in the newspapers, on the cover page, and he says, "My God. This is what I achieved." And this is the probably strongest nonmaterial motivation for young people — to feel responsible, to be important in a huge work.

Second place where nonmaterial motivation should be well examined is, is in [the] infrastructure of the organization. So there is a rule in volunteer organization: you must put everyone in the right job. So if the job is not proper to you, you are not going to be motivated. So we had to work according to our and some other volunteer manuals during the months and months with our people to teach them how to motivate other people to join the movement and how to find a position for everyone and how to avoid a trap in which all the massive movements [get to] usually where a small group of people is deciding and a wider group of people is involved in it. But with time those people are out of the story because they are not deciding about anything. So this is how we develop group organizing. Not with voting about the decisions, but with groups who are producing some kind of project in which a lot of people are included; which is the more intelligent way to organize something which never has any kind of democratic institutions inside, which Otpor never had.

Why did Otpor adopt nonviolent methods?

Because this is a country in which violence was used too many times in daily politics, too many times in preserving the regime's power. And unfortunately, a country against which violence was used by the international community so many times. We are the country which has to have a war in each generation, which is called "Serbian curse," so each generation survived one war. What we actually did here is decide not only to be nonviolent but to use nonviolent methods, not only to remove the power but to show how superior [we] are, how advanced, how civilized, how efficient [we] can be if [we] stay nonviolent.

So what we tried to show is that there is a lesson for whoever is going to use the violence either here or wherever in the world. The lesson is clear: Stay nonviolent and you will get the support of the third party, either the people, voters, international community - whoever -- but the third party is very important to have in support of nonviolent movement.

With that nonviolent story we were being closer and closer to our goal. And our final goal [was] to prove … to prove that we are civilized people. So the Serbs are not barbarians. We are the people who could change its government on the elections. We are people in which voters know that going to elections and nonviolently protesting is the people's control over government. So these are the basic issues of future civil society here, which we wanted to establish.

So, the second very important thing is that we influenced — I can't say produced because this was a people's revolution, it wasn't only ours — we played an important role but the people dragged down Milosevic in elections. And being nonviolent and defending their votes. What we tried to prove here is that shifting power in this society can be bloodless. And the biggest achievement of our efforts is the fact that during the 5th of October demonstrations nobody actually was killed.

There was some violence but in comparison to for example, violence in [the] Balkan region in last ten years, it was piece of cake. Well, breaking [a] few windows and, and Parliament in flames, it's just nothing. The two human victims which unfortunately were registered October 5th, died somewhere else, not in a spot of conflict. Well, yes, dozen[s] of cars were destroyed but this is — by our estimation doesn't cost a human hand, not a human life, so okay, [a] few material goods were destroyed. Somebody may say, "Oh, this is a violence." But generally, no victims, and generally in comparison to the former period here — to what Milosevic did here, to what other Balkan countries did here, to what United States did here with its bombs, that was like a children's game.

On how Otpor developed strategy:

Well, there is a chapter in Gene Sharp's book which we tried to apply here in a very, in a very simple slogan which says "Don't Think — Act." So what we have here, and why Otpor succeeded so soon, is the fact that we were active all the time while the political parties from the government and the opposition were considering this, talking about that, giving it judgments about that, and so on and so on.

And when we want to say something, we are doing something. This is how we get media attention, this is how we get support from the people, because we wanted to invest something in it so we did something. Which gives you the story of actions, campaigns, rallies, walks, posters — all those products of action, the word nonviolent comes as the explanation. So we are going to be active in everything which involves nonviolence. [In years past], we were fighting with rallies, marches, convoys, but we never succeeded. Now the crucial thing was that sixth source of power, the intangible factor. Fear disintegrated. Milosevic's greatest problem was that he solved so [many] problems with fear. But fear is a, you know, double-bladed sword. It's [an] efficient manner of ruling people, but there is a problem with fear, you need a lot of time to produce massive fear, and once that pyramid starts to crumble, the pyramid of fear, it collapses much faster than you need it to build it.

Exactly how did you recruit?

Well, it was a kind of perverse motivation for Serbian people because here we have a long history of guerilla movements winning power in this country. So when I say guerrilla I don't think about violence, I just think about hidden leadership, some kind of mystery about that. There is an organization where we are — the whole story of Otpor, even the recruitment list — you're feeling is like you're joining the army — the army with a mission. Our people like to have some kind of mission and being involved in some kind of mission is a strong nonmaterial motivation also. So this is why we stayed undercover — for one reason. It was good for a global image.

And another reason — it was a weapon against the regime. So we developed a whole non-leadership concept which was strongly pushed through in Serbia by Otpor and which is very important for the political scene, even nowadays. There is a stupid superstition that in Serbia people adore leaders. But generally we drown[ed] that concept down because we had a movement, we had a story, we had a mission. We decided to communicate with people with symbols, not with personalities. And we developed a whole system. For example [we had] weekly spokesmen. There [were] different people each week who [were] representing the policy of the movement, who [were] presenting the new actions and so on and so on. And then that guy is whew! vanished.... And, and after that there is another guy next week [who] sends 2 different messages.

The first message is that we have a lot of intelligent people who are capable of being out in front, so much that we can change them each week. So that is good for image because people are recognizing the strength of a movement. And the second thing is that [it] makes some difficulty for the regime because the regime uses the same weapon with all the opposition leaders all the time — destroy the leader and you will destroy the position of the organization…

So it was quite easy for [the] state media to satanize those people using just one man every day repeating the same message: This man is bad because of this. This man is bad because of that. This man is bad... It was absolutely impossible with our movement.

In a third phase of the repression, it is something which was probably the main condition for our survival — staying underground. Because being transparent would help the regime to crush us, and so long as the regime didn't know — especially about the processing in the system, you know, how the decisions are written, how they're transmitted, who are the guys in charge of different groups, who are the guys in charge for money for distribution, for organizing actions, for training people. So we developed a whole smoke screen about that.

At the last phase, the people who were in the papers were not the most, but the least important people in the organization, in the system of decision-making, because those guys whom we were exposing to the papers were on the first bottom line to be arrested, to be examined. And we agreed that none of us is going to know everything. For example, I don't know anything about the funding. I know something, but I could be tortured for 9 hours giving no useful information to the police. Generally, another guy could tell you almost everything about the campaigns, but you can beat him for 12 hours, he doesn't even know how many branches do we have; he doesn't know anything about networking people on ground; in charge people for regions — he just doesn't know. And that was the kind of protection of the movement. Because after thousands of people being arrested or examined or contacted by regime people or the police, they had a very smoky picture still.

What was your approach to preparing your activists for repression?

We were sending two messages to them all the time. The one message was bravery — personal example, which was generally carried in two main sentences. The first one, we have a proverb in Serbian saying that being beaten produces pain for as long as you're afraid. So that was one sentence. Beating causes pain only if you're afraid, so if you're not afraid, beating causes no pain. It causes a few bruises. They will be healed in a few days, and so on and so on.

The second message was a sentence I took from Borges at time I was arrested in December 1998. And after that, somehow it became part of our system: "Violence is the last sanctuary for the weak." So whoever was in jail or outside repeated one of those two sentences -a message to others and to the wider audience.

A second direction was to prepare people for being arrested. What we did was to prepare the first ring of the people to give the same answers which will lead police to nowhere actually. And the second, when the repression took [on] huge level, we printed materials in which there were the three most common questions of the police with the answers in [a] humorous way. We even published it in the newspaper so everyone could read that. And it was also quite natural for all our activists who are going to be arrested [the] next week to have that in that mind.

“Who's the leader of the Otpor?” was the most frequent question of the police. And the correct answer was "My God, everyone knows that Otpor doesn't have a leader."

So the second question was '”How are you funded?” And the correct answer was "I personally do not know anything about that, but you're arresting 20 people daily so somebody else might tell you something about that.” “Where is the material is coming from?” "I got it at the office. Everyone knows where the office is."

And the third thing, ”How is Otpor territorially organized?” And then we developed the whole system out of jokes we made with the police. So the joke was, "Look around in your neighborhood and you will see a lot of people. You will never know whom of them is ours."

What did Otpor do when its members were beaten or arrested?

Facing violence and repression you have one very important thing. You must prove that you are an organization [that] cares for its own endangered members. Serbia learned a big lesson out of our activities — the lesson of solidarity. So what we tried to do is to show the solidarity as much as we could in each individual case. It was usually difficult because time after time we didn't even know when people were arrested. But we developed this chain of command which, when the information of arrest comes to the central office or the local office, there was a system producing [a] press release, providing the lawyer's help to the arrested guy, and producing as many activists as we can in [the] proper moment to be in 10 minutes in front of the police station.

So whoever was arrested knew that he's going to be out soon, that his friends [were] waiting for him outside, that the press is going to publish his name as the arrested character — and these were additional reasons why he wasn't afraid. And a special reason for that was to encourage people to go on because they were included in the process of protesting the arrested guys. And they awake the next morning knowing that if they are arrested, their friends will fight for them. So that was really important to develop such kind of solidarity.

Because we are an organization we had to prove that all the time. It was tough, exhausting. People got up in the night in shifts because there were arrests during the night. It was really important to show that resistance is the movement of people who care for their own. That was really important. That was something [the political] parties never achieved.

Was the state-controlled media a serious problem for you?

One of the most important pillars of Milosevic regime was media. But generally they used media in a rather stupid way. They were predictable. The media has a long history of attack on us, which we provoked.

In their [state] media, they were telling the story of us being foreign mercenaries which was already a second-hand story. It was already used too many times in speaking of Djindjic, Draskovic and other opposition leaders so the people [got] used to the situation in which they say “Oh, whoever is not in power is a foreign mercenary.” It didn't work.

Then they developed the fascistic story based on the fist [Otpor's logo]. Somewhere they found a similar fist and they say this is the fist used by fascistic formations in Croatia during the World War II...fascists wearing black shirts like Mussolini. Which is absolute stupidity. But generally the fascistic story was thin. We accommodate[d] the fascistic story easily. We just shifted black to white. And we printed white shirts with black fist, white flags with black fist.

So the third story was more important and most problematic. They accused Otpor of terrorism. That we have formations that are trained for violent attacks. A very common question during the interrogations of the police against our activists was, "Where are the weapons coming from?" And nobody ever mentioned any kind of weapons because we were a nonviolent movement and everyone knew that. And that story didn't work on the wider audience but gave the regime an excuse for being brutal, which is why they used that. When the story of us being terrorists was daily on state news broadcasts, the people who were speaking for Otpor were 18 or younger. So, while state propaganda was [saying] "the terrorists, fascists, they are armed" story, all the time the common people [in the street] were saying "they are beating children." That was enough. We won.

What did Otpor do during the NATO bombing?

That was the early phase of the movement. It did almost nothing. We brought, I think, clarity when we decided in that period to hibernate ourselves, to freeze it, to get into the refrigerator until the war is over. We considered it not politically correct to perform any kind of political acts in this country while civilians are being killed, and while the bombs are falling from the skies. We just well — it wasn't very fair to Serbian people to do something like that. So we decided not to.

Didn't the NATO campaign help you by weakening Milosevic?

No, it gave him a year of life more.... The bombing caused a great damage to democratic processes in Serbia in two different ways. The first way was leaving Milosevic in life for a year and more — because he was weak before the NATO bombing. I will remind you of massive rallies and the increasing rate of opposition before the war — which stopped during the war, and gave him an excuse to do what he ever did during the war. His propaganda and his acts against the people who [were] thinking different in this country were officially inspired by the hatred toward the NATO countries who were supporting those nonviolent activists of Otpor, or political parties or free media or whoever. So this helped him.

On the other hand, it caused great damage to Serbian people because we had to heal people here very slowly and patiently because those three or four years of isolationism, propaganda, "world conspiracy against the Serbs" and other stupid things which were the official policy here for years built up hard barriers in people's minds towards everything from the West.

So it helped [Milosevic] to survive for more than a year [on the] one hand, and it slowed the process of getting Serbia back to Europe and to the world on the other. So the damage was double. Not to mention the massive damages of material resources, and human victims, which were absolutely senseless. Because that bombing solved nothing, absolutely nothing.

How did the U.S. help the resistance and the opposition in Serbia?

In Washington, I was there twice, once in September 1998, and once on February first of the year 2000, trying to influence the people there to support the different nonviolent methods of Otpor, to increase their efforts for the opposition to stay together, to invest in Get-out-the-Vote campaign. And to explain [to] them that the number of people getting out the vote is very important both for Milosevic's manipulation because it will decrease the rate of manipulation if many people vote against him.

My impression is that there [were] a lot of people working in American NGOs, [non governmental organizations] for example, USIP,[United States Institute of Peace] IRI, [International Republican Institute] NDI, [National Democratic Institute] NED [National Endowment for Democracy]-- I probably missed something — Freedom House — I can't remember them all now, but I want to say "Thank you for understanding what is actually happening here." When I say that, that means that those people were all the time pressing, lobbying, campaigning, for different ways of material and training support to different political groups here who were against Milosevic. Never trying to build their policy but to support what we were actually doing.

This is the very important difference in comparison to what [the Clinton] administration was doing. They didn't only try to impact the political platform of opposition groups here, in which we stayed the most disobedient group, because we are, you know, we are disobedient. This is our image. But also to micro-manage within the opposition, picking one leader, meeting him in Budapest, telling him that he is going to be the first among equals and so on and so on.

So there [were] two different approaches. One [was] positive coming from a series of American NGO's. I know that NDI developed the training program for Alliance for Change first and then for DOS. I know that IRI helped in training election monitors for the opposition, which was probably [a] key part — together with [a] number of people getting out to vote so those people were full of understanding and were fighting a huge battle in States for their own method of support, which means, you know, equip and train those guys and they will know the best. So give them proper training, advisors, marketing campaigns, I don't know, money for polls, offices, computers, and when I say equip, I mean this furniture, what is necessary, paper, printing for propaganda and so on and so on.

You know, officials of United States, and I've met a lot of them, some of them really had [a] deep understanding of our problems and some did not. But anyhow, when for example they asked "How can we help?" and we said, "Support NGOs in helping us on the one hand, and don't be involved in Serbian political micro-management on another; and on third hand, never help us, please don't say even you know us. You never met us. You don't know who we are.”

I can't say the Administration had bad intentions. Their intentions were probably the same, to remove dictator from here, but generally their hands were clumsy. They should have let the guys from NGOs be their hands because they [were] more skillful.

Otpor activists attended a seminar on nonviolent strategy by an American?

We met [Robert] Helvey at the beginning of April in Budapest at an IRI seminar which consisted of three parts. One part was nonviolent action, two others were building the local organization and public appearances which are not very important for this story. Well, it helped some people but this is not generally the spine of this story.

There we were faced with the essential things we were already applying here, but we just didn't know that somebody had [already] written a book about that. So it was an amazing experience having this book [by Gene Sharp] in the hands, seeing it systematically written in one place [all] which we developed by our experience, looking towards to what Gandhi's movement did, and so on and so on.

So the first thing was to have that all in one place. The second thing is that Mr. Helvey is a quite impressive character and I even stole few methods in explaining people how to behave from him. Third thing is that we had a tool in the hands so we [could] do what we are always doing with the knowledge, to write it down in a short [applicable] form and use it in training.

We used the story of six sources of power: pillars of the regime; conversion, accommodation, coercion; organizing hidden leadership. We made it short and translated it into Otpor terms so part of our user manuals came from Gene Sharp's book and [part] came from Bob Helvey's lessons. What we did here [was] to organize regional groups coming to Belgrade for two days, and give them that knowledge, training, training, training, so they could go on the ground and train some others. As Gandhi says, you know, you must train the nonviolent army for so long that the battle becomes unnecessary. That's — these are Gandhi's words. But that's true.

So when it came to October 5th, we had the whole trained nation, not only the movement activists, but we had the nation trained not to attack the police, not to use the violence, to be organized, to be brave, to sit down, to blockade. We taught [the]Serbian nation how to organize the traffic blockades, one of [the] common methods of nonviolent resistance. And the whole nation spontaneously did that. We need[ed] a few examples first just to show that it works, and after that thousands of people spontaneously were blockading the streets, highways and so on and so on.

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