BELGRADE | Among the shops at an inconspicuous building in the Serbian capital’s Gandijeva housing development is an unmarked door with the word “CANVAS” on the buzzer. On a recent afternoon, CANVAS Executive Director Srdja Popovic greeted a visitor with a warm smile. The office has a few desks, a computer, and a conference table. It gives little impression of CANVAS’ work. But then Popovic is rarely there. He had just returned from several weeks abroad and planned to fly out again in two days.
“South Sudan and Burma are my next destinations,” Popovic said.
Since 2003, the Center for Applied NonViolent Action and Strategies, or CANVAS, has offered a unique product in countries like Burma: a guide to overthrowing authoritarian regimes through peaceful resistance. The nonprofit taps Popovic’s experience leading the student movement that toppled Yugoslav strongman Slobodan Milosevic over a decade ago to train would-be revolutionaries to identify and attack the Achilles heel of autocrats. As Popovic likes to say, revolution is first and foremost a “carefully organized and planned action.”
Anyone can hire CANVAS. They need only convince Popovic their fight is just and pay the travel expenses of his small team of “lecturers.’” Ukraine’s Orange Revolution, the Arab Spring, the recent political opening in Burma – CANVAS has had a hand in all. It represents the worst fears of autocrats from Russian President Vladimir Putin to Belarusian dictator Alyaksandr Lukashenka.
Despite some skeptics, CANVAS has been getting a lot of attention. The prominent U.S. magazine Foreign Policy tapped Popovic for its 2011 list of the Top 100 Global Thinkers, and Wired magazine called him one of the 50 people who will change the world. There’s even talk of a Nobel Peace Prize nomination.
THE RISE OF THE RESISTANCE
Almost exactly 13 years ago, a turkey with a red flower fastened to its head appeared on Belgrade’s main street. At first people ignored the bird, but soon a gathering crowd began to cry, “Look, that’s our first lady!”
“You understand, the president’s wife wore exactly the same flower in her hair,” Popovic’s longtime friend Ivan Marovic said at a Belgrade cafe one recent afternoon. “Everyone made the connection.”
Without Marovic, there would arguably be no CANVAS. As university students, he and Popovic pulled off the turkey stunt and other acts of nonviolent resistance that would change the course of Balkan history. In the late 1990s and 2000, they organized concerts, rallies, and other events to challenge Milosevic, the former communist apparatchik who rose to president of Yugoslavia in 1997. This nascent opposition grew into the Otpor! (Resistance!) youth movement that boasted tens of thousands of supporters at its peak and ultimately forced Milosevic to resign in October 2000.
“The country was in a total economic and social morass,” said Marovic, who was an engineering student at the time. “That man led us into three lost wars and yet refused to give up power.”
Marovic became the Resistance’s spokesman, with Popovic as its strategist. Most of their early collaborations took place over beers at the pub, but Marovic eventually convinced his parents to let him use a vacant studio apartment in central Belgrade for meetings. From there, the movement quickly developed a structured leadership, as well as a message. The students devised a simple symbol: A clenched fist above the word “Otpor!,” which began to appear all over Belgrade.
For both the Resistance and the wider public, the turkey stunt was a tipping point, according to Marovic. As word that a turkey was loose on the street spread, he recalled, “soon the police showed up as expected. First they just watched the scene, baffled, but then they decided to intervene.”
Just as they got hold of the bird, a team of “animal protectors” hiding around the corner appeared and demanded its release.
“The officers were totally unprepared for something like that and began to babble about the turkey being detained,” Marovic said. “In the eyes of the bystanders, they suddenly looked like idiots serving a ludicrous regime. People were beginning to realize that it was possible to not take them seriously.”
The tactic of “small-scale protests and innuendoes” continued. In summer 1999, as Europe prepared for a solar eclipse, Marovic placed in central Belgrade a giant telescope that, through the eyepiece, showed Milosevic’s head falling toward earth as a shooting star. Other Resistance activists collected change for “Milosevic’s retirement” in the streets. When the group sliced a cake decorated with the name “Yugoslavia” in central Belgrade, the biggest piece was cut for the politicians.
‘HOW MUCH LONGER?’
The Resistance “reinvigorated the population … most people were tired and resigned,” said Popovic, the son of two well-known Serbian journalists. “Our goal was to awaken their interest and convince them that what they lived in was not normal. How did we live then? Zero prospects, sanctions imposed by the West, thousands of Serbians fleeing to live abroad.”
Some 20,000 Serbs died during conflicts in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s. Many more suffered the deprivations of poverty and life in a mafia-controlled state. At the turn of the millennium, average monthly wages in the Czech Republic, a historically poorer country than Serbia, tripled those in the Balkan nation.
To achieve its goal, the Resistance relied on more than just pranks and “innuendo.” In January 2000, it organized a concert in Belgrade to celebrate Orthodox new year. But instead of corking champagne at midnight, activists projected the images of war victims on a screen in the city center.
“These are the victims of the regime, the head of which is still in power,” an announcer said. “How much longer?”
Initially, Milosevic left the movement alone.
“Frankly, they couldn’t do much else,” Popovic said. A government crackdown, he added, would have only reaffirmed public perception that Milosevic knew only governance by force.
The regime eventually changed course, though. Dozens of activists were arrested after the Interior Ministry labeled the Resistance a terrorist organization in early 2000. But it was too late – the movement was already well established, with some 70,000 members by midyear. Well-organized and professional, it had even won grants from German and U.S. nonprofits. Several media outlets defended the Resistance for dispensing legitimate, nonviolent criticism. Increasingly, ordinary citizens began joining demonstrations and identifying with the group.
“The main problem of the opposition politicians was a lack of consensus, but we succeeded in uniting them through a simple slogan – ‘fair elections for all,’ ” Popovic said, referring to a filmed scene of opposition leaders holding a Resistance banner in Belgrade.
ALWAYS BE PREPARED FOR INFILTRATION
Recorded on video and in photographs and documentaries, those days are the foundation of CANVAS’ training materials.
“For example, the sections about the response to the first wave of arrests are truly indispensable,” he said, tapping a DVD case of the documentary Bringing Down a Dictator.
One scene shows demonstrators gathering outside police stations mere minutes after Resistance activists had been detained. They are writing reports for the media and international organizations and, using a megaphone, demanding health updates on their colleagues.
“Of course, there are many detailed methods of response,” Popovic said, flipping through a copy of CANVAS’ guide to civil resistance, “Nonviolent Struggle – 50 Crucial Points.” “We have simply organized them in a universally applicable model.”
The primer comprises everything from illustrations to advice on internal security.
“Names, dates, numbers – none should be discussed via open channels such as telephone or the Internet,” according to the guide. “Always be prepared for the possibility that agents of the regime might infiltrate your network.”
If some tips seem banal – “move forward by making small steps” – Popovic said the guide’s simplicity is its strength. There are dozens of books, he added, with detailed descriptions of nonviolent political conflicts. Regarding his influences, Popovic cited the U.S. scholar Gene Sharp, author of the classic The Politics of Nonviolent Action and founder of the Albert Einstein Institution.
“Our success, however, has definitely come from the experience we have lived through and the fact that we are willing to arrange a personal meeting with activists practically anywhere in the world,” Popovic said.
CANVAS has organized hundreds of workshops in more than 50 countries. It has 10 permanent lecturers, mostly Serbs, but also Ukrainians, Filipinos, and South Africans. Tens of thousands of people have downloaded “Nonviolent Struggle,” translated into several languages including Arabic and Persian.
ON SAFE SOIL
To experience a “workshop for revolutionaries” is, unfortunately, impossible. CANVAS has allowed only one journalist to attend an on-site lecture, and solely to demonstrate that it was “nothing conspiratorial,” as Popovic put it. That journalist was Foreign Policy‘s Tina Rosenberg, who visited a workshop with activists from Burma, which has seen a political thaw after years under a military junta. She describes an initially tense though ultimately collaborative and constructive environment.
In Belgrade, a female lecturer said training sessions resemble a “university seminar, only [they're] more intense and somewhat more serious.”
The lecturer agreed to meet after several requests and only on the condition of anonymity. (Popovic is CANVAS’ sole public face.)
“Whoever contacts us risks being accused of organizing a revolt in their home country,” she said. “That’s why we do not officially represent CANVAS, and we travel abroad as tourists.”
She and her colleagues travel in pairs to run workshops that last around a week and are usually held on the “safer” soil of a neighboring country, assuming local activists can travel there.
“So far, the people with whom we’ve cooperated, even repeatedly, have suffered no harm,” she said, rapping the table.
CANVAS does not actively pursue clients. But anyone can try to hire them, not only “revolutionaries.” This includes LGBT and women’s rights groups or even election monitors.
“If we see the goal as interesting, we are glad to help,” the lecturer explained.
CANVAS only asks for plane tickets and accommodation for the lecturers, premises for the workshop, and a symbolic fee that often varies “from case to case. There are many applicants. The lecturer travels abroad around once a month. And she and her colleagues often stay in touch with clients, some of whom have become lecturers themselves.
Today, Popovic no longer calls himself an activist. “Those times are gone – let’s say these days I’m primarily a theoretician,” he said.
Friends from the Resistance days describe a strong-minded intellectual with an interest in politics since adolescence. After Milosevic’s ouster, Popovic even won a parliamentary seat. But he stepped down three years later and, today, describes Serbia as a troubled country struggling to become a “decent society” once again.
“The slow building of democracy requires at least the same zeal we used to have, only more long term,” he said. “I like this work much better on an international scale.”
For years, Popovic has also collaborated with several European and U.S. universities. He has lectured on “nonviolent political struggle” at New York City’s prestigious Columbia University and claims to be relatively content off the streets. Suburban “resistance,” Popovic said, suits him.
Some in Serbia, however, doubt Popovic’s evident humility and altruism. CANVAS, skeptics say, is a lucrative business.
Popovic counters that CANVAS is a low-cost operation with only three-full time employees and a single office, in Belgrade. From the beginning, it has received funding from a friend of Popovic’s from the Resistance days who is now a prominent Serbian businessman.
“We do not receive any huge amounts from funders, the workshops are almost free,” Popovic said. “The talk about a fortune is silly.”
Still, in June Serbian journalists reported that Mohamed Nasheed, the former Maldivian opposition leader who served as president from 2008 to 2012, gave CANVAS the island of Tinad. Nasheed has said the gift is part reward for CANVAS’ help when he was in opposition and part haven for its activists should their lives ever be endangered. Popovic sees no conflict.
“The Maldivian constitution bars us from actually owning the island. We were just given a concession for 35 years,” he said, adding that Tinad is a great venue for organizing workshops and other events with local nonprofits.
CANVAS AND THE ARAB SPRING
In spring 2009, Mohammed Adel was a 20-year-old Egyptian blogger and activist with the April 6 movement, named after a botched protest the group tried to organize in April 2008. Adel knew of and admired CANVAS’ books, films, and work in Ukraine and Georgia. He introduced himself to Popovic over email, requested a meeting, and eventually took a weeklong course in nonviolent resistance in Belgrade that summer.
“I got trained in how to conduct demonstrations, how to organize people on the streets, how to avoid violence,” he later told Al Jazeera English.
The outcome is well-known. The April 6 Youth Movement became a key organizer of the 18-day street protests in Cairo that upended the 30-year rule of President Hosni Mubarak in February 2011.
CANVAS has played a similarly pivotal role in other revolutions.
“I doubt we would have succeeded without their assistance,” former Ukrainian student leader Alexej Tolkacov said via telephone, recalling how CANVAS helped mobilize Ukrainians for the Orange Revolution after the disputed 2004 presidential elections.
Then the leading activist in the Pora! (It is time!) youth movement against Leonid Kuchma, president of Ukraine from 1994 to 2005, Tolkacov described touring the country’s regions with CANVAS lecturers and organizing two-day seminars for local students and nonprofits.
“We learned to work with slogans and symbols,” Tolkacov said. “We began to point to the destructiveness of “kuchmism” and its key characteristics: arrogance and mafia-ism.”
Ukraine, however, also demonstrates that revolutions are fragile.
“It turned out that, without a functional civil society, things can easily turn around,” Tolkachov said, referring to Ukraine’s widely recognized backslide since 2004. “I’m now skeptical about fast revolts. I believe much more in slow grassroots work.”
To that end, Tolkachov leads a nonprofit in Kyiv that, among other activities, holds public debates on the potential benefits of Ukraine joining the European Union.
IN THE RING WITH POPOVIC
Since the beginning, Otpor has relied on a network of foreign activists in its work from Georgia to Kyrgyzstan.
“Our function was to maintain a kind of information exchange network,” Slovak activist Marek Kapusta said. “We used to travel to Serbia and later to Ukraine, and the network kept expanding.”
Popovic wants to retain this web of contacts while bringing on new trainers to update CANVAS’ curriculum.
“Of course, our approach has been evolving,” he said. “Autocrats learn quickly. What worked 10 years ago might not work any longer, so fresh resistance experience is invaluable.”
Still, Popovic said, all successful revolts have three pillars: a unified protest movement, planning, and, critically, nonviolence. Indeed, when Popovic last spoke with activists from war-torn Syria, he tried to persuade them that a boycott of state companies, not armed conflict, is the most effective tactic.
“Something similar worked perfectly in the Republic of South Africa a decade ago,” Popovic said. “A number of state enterprises depend on domestic demand, and it is their money the government still uses.”
Recent research supports Popovic’s approach. In the 2011 study Why Civil Resistance Works, U.S scholars analyzed more than 300 attempts at civil resistance over the past 100 years and found that nonviolent movements were more than twice as effective as their violent counterparts at achieving stated goals.
“As soon as protests turn into an armed conflict, it is a kind of defeat,” Popovic said. “It’s like challenging [Mike] Tyson to a boxing match. Why not play chess with him instead? Our playing field is called creativity.”
Tomas Sacher is a reporter for Respekt, a weekly magazine in Prague. This article was produced for the Next in Line project, which is co-funded by the European Union. The contents of this project are the sole responsibility of Respekt and Transitions and do not necessarily reflect the views of the European Union Translated by Lenka Rubenstein. Photos by Matej Stransky, except homepage photo, which is taken from a video uploaded by Ivan Milinkov.