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.