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

How To Make a Revolution

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

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It takes time for it to sink in. The activists admitted at the beginning of the workshop that one of their biggest problems is that the majority in their country does not view them sympathetically. They know they have a message problem. The Serbs acknowledge that it can be difficult to craft a vision that encompasses enough key groups. In the case of Otpor, they sent members out to various parts of the country to interview people about what they wanted. They spent time identifying who some of the most respected people in the country were. In some rural areas, it was the doctors. In other places, it was the teachers. Either way, the thinking was that if these people could be won over it would add even more numbers to their movement. Eventually, one of the Middle Eastern activists, one of the youngest in the room, says what is painfully obvious, “Well, we probably haven’t thought enough about how we could build supporters.”

“Finally,” whispers Dragana. It’s a start.

The Serbs now turn the discussion to what the activists are up against. They ask the group to identify the regime’s pillars of support—for example, the military, police, bureaucracy, educational system, organized religion—the main institutions from which it draws it strength. The next step is for the activists to make what they call a “power graph.” It’s an analytical tool developed by Slobodan Djinovic, one of CANVAS’s founders. “This makes us focus on who is with us and who is against us, and how we can influence them,” says Aleksandar.

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Again in small groups, the activists chart each institution’s reaction—along a spectrum of varying degrees of positive, neutral, and negative—to significant political events, protests, actions, or moments in a chronology going back roughly 10 years. Popovic told me that producing the power graph was always a key moment in the workshop. And so it was for this group of activists. What they found when they isolated the different pillars of the state was that their loyalty or attitude toward the regime had fluctuated over time. For example, parts of the educational establishment had been somewhat sympathetic to some of their actions, if only because students had participated. In other instances, the media had taken a slightly critical opinion of the government, if only slightly. By looking at the regime this way, the activists immediately understand two things: The regime is not a monolith, and its loyalties are malleable. “Loyalty is not carved in stone. It can be changed,” says Dragana. “Loyalties can be shifted.”

 The Serbs stress that if you attack a part of the regime, the natural reaction is for the rest of the regime to rally around that portion that has been targeted. They perceive their own interests to be more aligned with the regime under attack than with your movement. “The goal will be to pull the pillars of the regime, with persuasion, not to push them through attacks,” says Aleksandar.

Some pillars are obviously more susceptible to persuasion than others. The military and the police are usually the last to come around. But, then again, movements do not require the support of security services; they just require their ambivalence. And, as the Serbs explained, even the most thuggish cops can be neutralized.

During their struggle, the Serbs encountered one particularly brutal police chief. He operated with the impunity of a king in the small city where he was stationed. “He enjoyed beating people up, torturing them,” says Dragana, pursing her lips in disgust. “He got off on it.” So they figured they could not sway him, at least not directly.

Instead, they took photographs of him beating up young members of the movement. They had those photographs made into posters, and put his name and cellphone number on them. Then, they plastered them everywhere his wife shopped. They put the posters up on her route to the kindergarten where his child went to school. The posters asked people to call and ask him why he was torturing our children. His wife was appalled. The family would quickly become pariahs. “We didn’t attack him in uniform,” says Dragana. “We attacked him in his home through his wife. We weren’t going to let this bastard hide behind the system or the badge.”

The example resonated with the group. “There are these monstrous people, and they hide behind the seal of the regime,” one activist responded. “This gives the regime a face.” People nodded in agreement.

After each day’s session, the activists would meet in their own groups to digest that day’s lessons and analysis, debating what it meant for them. Clearly, the discussion was raising fundamental questions for some members of the group, very much the types of questions that the movement’s leadership wanted discussed. “It’s a shock for some of them,” one of the leaders says to me. “Like, whoa, you mean we weren’t doing everything right?” But the majority of the activists are engaged, and eager to learn more.