LONDON (Reuters) - Eleven years ago, Srdja Popovic was at the heart of the uprising to oust Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic. Now, he travels the globe helping other protest groups to plot the overthrow of autocrats.
As executive director for the Belgrade-based Centre for Applied Non-Violent Action and Strategies (CANVAS), he and his colleagues have worked to train activists in 46 countries in the face of repression and sometimes brutality.
His organisation began working with some Egyptian and Tunisian protesters in 2009, teaching skills that helped bring down their presidents and spark regional revolt.
“I don’t want to overstate what we do,” he says, adding that the success of uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia was “100 percent down to brave Arabs.”
“You can’t import or export revolution, it has to be homegrown. But what we can do is build skills and help. Sometimes it takes time, sometimes you know it isn’t going to work straight away. But there are always things you can do.”
He has coached protesters including those who brought about democratic reform and the ousting of a long-time autocrat in the Maldives, Syria’s withdrawal from Lebanon and revolutions in former Soviet Georgia and Ukraine.
But he has also seen uprisings fail and falter, sometimes outmanoeuvred by governments or stymied by internal divisions. Success, he says, takes effort and planning — a lesson he repeatedly preaches to groups from Myanmar, Vietnam, Zimbabwe, Belarus and elsewhere in quietly organised small group sessions.
“We in Serbia learned the hard way because they were 10 years of attempts and others can learn from our mistakes,” he told Reuters on a visit to London, during which he met Egyptian activists to discuss how to take their revolution forward.
“You really need three things: unity, planning and non-violent discipline. You need a strategy. There is no such thing as a successful spontaneous revolution.”
CANVAS says it sees itself as the successor to a host of non-violent campaigners from India’s Mahatma Gandhi to Martin Luther King. It says it brings a more rigorous, strategic model and skill-set to the process, as well as an encyclopaedic knowledge of recent global protest history.
Its booklet of 50 key points for non-violent struggle can be downloaded for free in six languages, while its documentary “Bringing down a Dictator,” telling the tale of Milosevic’s overthrow in 2000, has been translated into 19 different tongues.
Popovic was briefly an MP after the Serb revolution and now runs CANVAS full-time. He says the booklet and DVD are traded on backstreets from Tehran to Hanoi and Harare.
They have prompted activists around the world to contact CANVAS’s tiny Belgrade office, which then sends out pairs of trainers, often veterans of struggles elsewhere.
Despite occasional accusations from governments such as Venezuela that CANVAS is a U.S.-funded proxy fomenting unrest in Washington’s enemies, Popovic says it is almost entirely funded by Serbian business friends from his anti-Milosevic days.
The growth of social media has allowed protest groups to publish and disseminate information much more widely and quickly than a decade ago, he says, accelerating events — but it has not removed the need for planning, strategy and focus.
Popovic’s top tips for revolutionaries include a detailed analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of a regime, using humour to mock the national leader and proclaiming each small victory loudly to build momentum.
The most important thing, he says, is to break the hold of fear that autocrats have over their people and make it clear that there is a viable alternative.
In Serbia, opposition activists used graffiti of their clenched fist logo and street theatre displays to build the idea that Milosevic’s opponents — angry at war and a financial crisis — were in the majority before they took to the streets.
“The key thing is the balance between fear and enthusiasm,” he says. “The key argument of the dictator is always going to be that ‘you have me or you have chaos’. If the fear of the dictator is high and enthusiasm (of protesters) is low, it is not going to work. Humour is great because, if you mock the autocrat, you destroy the authority. Dictators take themselves very seriously, so they hate it, which is great.”
Once momentum is built, the key to victory is keeping up the pressure, acting unpredictably and using low-risk tactics to avoid violent confrontation.
Leadership failures and factionalism were largely to blame for the failure of revolts in Myanmar in 2007, Iran in 2009 and perhaps struggles in Libya, Syria and Bahrain, he said.
Libyan rebels, he said, did well early in the uprising, but should have shifted tactics to a general strike to halt oil production rather than escalating to armed confrontation, which sparked a so far inconclusive civil war.
“They are picking the ... battle they will lose by taking a violent approach,” he said, adding that they have played into the hands of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi — widely reported to have imported foreign fighters to help crush the revolt.
“Non-violent struggle would be far superior. Gaddafi could not use mercenaries from Chad to operate refineries.”
Ousting an unpopular leader was only the beginning, he said. In Egypt and Tunisia, the protesters must keep up the pressure to ensure the new rulers deliver.
“Once you’ve got rid of the big guy, you’ve lost your most important unifying force,” he said.
“You have to be disciplined and hold it together. When the new government came in Serbia, we put up posters saying ‘We are watching you’ so they knew we had not gone away.”
Editing by Kevin Liffey and Elizabeth Piper