How a Band of Serbian Revolutionaries Are Helping To Topple the World’s Dictators

Opinions about events beyond our borders.
June 7 2012 2:18 PM

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Every revolution is unique. But the men and women who brought down Slobodan Milošević are willing to show you how.

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What they will do is teach them how to think strategically. They will offer them tips. The will point out common mistakes and pitfalls that have tripped up others. They will draw on their own experience to discuss real-life examples of how to shift the loyalties of the police, how to diminish a dictator’s authority and ultimately make a regime turn against itself. “We are not here with a bag full of magic tricks to say do this, this, and this,” one of the Serbs says at the beginning of the workshop. “It’s a struggle using nonviolent methods. It’s like a form of warfare, only you won’t be using guns.”

Training Camp

The beginning of a workshop can always be a little rocky. As anxious as activists may be to learn new ideas on how to counter a regime, they are reluctant to believe that they have been approaching the job the wrong way. That is the mood on the second floor of the hotel.

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The 20 Middle Eastern activists are asked to break up into small groups to draw up what the CANVAS trainers call their “vision for tomorrow”—their vision for the change they want their movement to create. It’s a simple enough idea: Lay out your movement’s ostensible mission. But the Serbian instructors have put a twist on it. They have asked the activists to outline it in terms that five very different segments of society will find appealing. They need to express their goals for the future of their country in a way that will resonate with businessmen, religious scholars, teachers, students, and members of the media. “When Otpor became an organization credible in the eyes of the public, then our numbers grew,” says Aleksandar*, one of the trainers, a heavyset Serb with an expertise in political organization. “And numbers are what we are always seeking.”

It proves a tough assignment for everyone. When they report back to the main group, most haven’t been able to find common denominators across five different strata of society. Instead, they want to explain why making common cause among so many disparate people in their country is next to impossible. One of the older activists says, “Well, it’s complicated. We are unique.” Another chimes in, “We are a bit different.” A chorus of the activists starts explaining how there are many competing interests, divided opinions, different groups, and so on. The trainers look on and listen, as if are they expecting these excuses. Finally, one of the female activists, clearly frustrated by the whole exercise, blurts out, “It’s impossible.”

Dragana, the other trainer, a striking blonde with a wry smile, says flatly, “You cannot change anything if you remain a minority. It’s as simple as that.”

“I don’t think you understand,” says one of the activists, a young man with tattoos up and down his forearms. “How willing should we be to degrade our politics to widen our struggle?”

“Why do you see it as degradation?” replies Aleksandar. “It’s a beginning. They cannot rule the country without the people. But you need the people.”

The activists’ reaction to the exercise is a common one. The trainers anticipated it. Every movement thinks that its situation is wholly unique. People attending CANVAS’s workshops are always quick to point out why the Serbian example wouldn’t translate to their own political environment, or why the regime they are up against is unusually brutal, clever, or insidious. The Ukrainians said they had to worry about Russian interference, since Moscow was backing the regime. In Egypt, activists pointed to the fact that Mubarak could count on American support. They are usually quick to mention how large the regime’s domestic security budget has become or how many police or informants walk the streets. And, of course, no two situations are identical. If they were precisely the same, then the Serbs would have no problem telling people what to do. But the Serbs insist that the fundamentals are the same. Understand those building blocks, and you can build your own plan of attack.

*The names of the trainers have been changed. (Return.)