late last year, while visiting the United States to accept his nomination as one of Foreign Policy magazine’s top 100 global thinkers, Srdja Popovic took time to talk with a number of Occupy Wall Street activists in New York. He left those conversations with a mixed impression.
“The good news,” Popovic, a wiry Serb, told me, “is that for the first time in many years, something has awakened the enthusiasm and the activism in this country, which is not typically an activist society.” Yet he added that Occupy had to make sure it got three things exactly right: a clear vision of tomorrow, a clear plan for pursuing that vision, and a clear understanding that whatever happens in New York or Boston or Denver is connected to a larger global movement that stretches from the alleyways of Cairo to the beaches of the Maldives. “Talking about the 99 percent and the 1 percent can be applied in so many ways,” Popovic said. “But this is not just a story about capitalism. It’s a story about unjust societies around the world.”
Popovic is something of an expert on unjust societies, and in particular their rectification and reconstruction by nonviolent means. Just over a decade ago, Popovic was a student activist in Belgrade working to oust Slobodan Milošević. After that odds-defying campaign ended with the Yugoslav president’s one-way trip to The Hague, Popovic spent a few years in electoral politics before founding the Centre for Applied NonViolent Action and Strategies, or CANVAS, and began training activists interested in copying the Serbian model of bottom-up regime change. CANVAS has worked with people from 46 countries, and graduates of Popovic’s program include organizers of the successful movements in Georgia, Lebanon, Egypt, and the Maldives. The young Iranians rioting against Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2009 downloaded 17,000 copies of Popovic’s guide to nonviolent action. The Syrians currently standing up to Bashar al-Assad are the latest in the long line of advice-seekers. With little fanfare, Popovic, who is 39, has become an architect of global political change. And no one is more surprised about this than Popovic himself.
“It all started as a hobby,” he told me. A freshwater-biology student with a yen for politics, he organized march after march to protest Milošević’s increasingly authoritarian rule. But the marches had no effect: the president stifled criticism, defanged the press, and repeatedly waged war on Serbia’s neighbors, converting the inevitable surges in nationalism and anxiety into greater political power for himself. It was then that Popovic and a group of close friends had the idea of making regime change fun.
They painted Milošević’s face on a barrel and invited people on the street to bash it as hard as they could with a bat. The gimmick presented a quandary for police: Go after the angry citizens and their bats, and you risk provoking rage. But try to haul the offending object away, and you guarantee a front-page newspaper photo of an officer placing a barrel under arrest—which is exactly what happened, enhancing the mystique of Popovic and his friends. Marching under a banner featuring a tightly clenched fist, they gradually accumulated more than 70,000 supporters, and in September of 2000 they helped drive 72 percent of all eligible Serbian voters to the polls. A few weeks later, Milošević was out.
Popovic was elected to parliament as an ally of the reformist Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic. But when Djindjic was killed by a police officer working for the Serbian mob, Popovic lost his passion for electoral politics. He missed the freedom of the grass roots, the marches in the streets, the theatrics. So in 2003, he quit politics and started CANVAS.
Almost immediately, aspiring activists from all over the world came calling. “It was amazing for me to see that people from Zimbabwe or Belarus are getting inspired by the Serbian political revolution,” he told me. Putting together a curriculum for a five-day seminar, Popovic began teaching everything he knew. “We cover 20 different issues,” he said, “from understanding nonviolent struggle to the nature of political power, pillars of support, how power is expressed in society, and then moving on to how you build your vision of tomorrow.” The training is far from abstract, focusing on matters such as fund-raising, resource management, and campaign tactics. CANVAS offers its training to activists for free, and sends easily reproducible materials—DVDs, PDFs—to those who can’t make the trip to Belgrade.