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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One of the key sources of power for any regime is authority. The perception of authority alone—and the fear of defying it—is the cause of most people’s obedience. So, if a movement wants to encourage people to withdraw their consent, to interrupt their obedience to the regime, then undermining the regime’s authority is a key objective. For Otpor, the answer was laughter. “Humor undermines the authority of the opponent. Humor is also the best cure against fear. Use it as much as you can,” says Aleksandar. “Try to surprise the enemy. Use as many combinations of actions as possible. That is our strong recommendation.”

Humor may, in fact, have been Otpor’s signature weapon. Members of Otpor came up with countless ways to reduce the authority of the regime through humor and ridicule. One example involved turkeys. Milošević’s wife, Mirjana, often liked to wear a white flower in her hair. Members of Otpor saw it as an opportunity. They got their hands on several turkeys and put white carnations on their head. Then, they released them in downtown Belgrade. The turkeys walked down the city streets. Anyone who saw a turkey with a white carnation would immediately know it was a reference to Milošević’s wife. (As Dragana points out, laughing, “In Serbia, calling a woman a turkey is one of the worst things you can do.”) Police were dispatched to apprehend the turkeys. Members of Otpor were at the ready to snap photographs of police officers desperately trying to corral the bird. When they eventually did, the turkeys were taken down to a local police station. Anticipating this, Otpor immediately issued a call for the turkeys’ release, saying that they had been unlawfully arrested and they had reason to fear for the birds’ safety.

CANVAS’s trainers call this and similar stunts dilemma actions. When done correctly, they are low-risk, and put the focus on what your opponent will or will not do. “The purpose of these actions is to create a dilemma for the adversary,” Aleksandar explains to the group. “The actions create a dilemma for the police, who are forced to choose between two unfavorable choices. They can’t let a turkey mocking the president’s wife walk around. But they know they look like fools chasing a turkey.” Anyone who is asked to chase turkeys in a city’s downtown is going to lose respect for the regime. And the regime itself hardly looks intimidating when its police are left herding birds. “At that point, we didn’t have a way to listen to their communications,” says Aleksandar, still laughing, “but I would have loved to have heard them call this one in to headquarters.”

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The Middle Eastern activists left the room to try to design some of their own dilemma actions. Meanwhile, I talked with Dragana about her time as a CANVAS trainer. Of the 40 workshops she had helped lead, she said a group of Bolivians was one of the most impressive. They learned fast, maybe too fast. “On the fourth day, we came into the room and they had put newspapers on all the chairs. The newspaper was reporting on the front page an action they had done that night, after the workshop! I came in and they said, ‘Look what we did!’ ’’ she recalled. “A lot of times [after the workshops], I find out later what they have done, and I say, ‘Oh my god, they were planning that all along.’ ”

Sometimes plans backfire, too. Dragana told me about one group of Iranians who failed to think through everything. There were shortages of gasoline in Iran at the time, and the group thought this was an issue they could exploit. “These guys planned to hold a silent protest at gas stations. The plan was to line up at gas stations holding empty containers,” she recalled. “What they failed to predict was how fast [bystanders] would join in. There were 200 people at one gas station in an hour. The number kept growing, and riots started. They burned 60 gas stations.” The problem is that the action quickly grew to include people who were not part of the movement, so there was no way for members to maintain nonviolent discipline. Later, Dragana heard from members of the Iranian diaspora who were happy with the whole episode. She was appalled. “No, no,” she said, “This is not what I taught them. Burning gas stations will not help their cause.”

Of course, there are some groups that CANVAS simply refuses to work alongside. In one instance, while in Johannesburg, CANVAS was contacted by a member of the British consulate. The official wanted to contract with CANVAS to work in the Kingdom of Swaziland, which has been ruled by the same corrupt family for decades. The problem was CANVAS wouldn’t have been working with a homegrown movement; it would have been nonviolent struggle by proxy. “He said money is no object,” recalls Dragana, laughing. “Well, that’s nice, but that is not how we operate. We are not mercenaries.”

As the seminar continued, the focus shifted to evaluating some of the movement’s own actions. The activists had achieved a number of successes. Through sheer persistence, they had won the ability to operate in certain areas and neighborhoods that would have been unthinkable 18 months earlier. They had also earned the support of several well-known and respected academics, who had lent their names and reputations to the cause. They had a strong brand, and the movement’s numbers had grown. But, after listening to the trainers, the activists realized another mistake they had made. They had operated with a siege mentality for so long, they had forgotten to declare their victories. It is not just a matter of morale boosting. Declaring victory is an important opportunity to communicate with the public and build credibility. “When we were accommodated, we never publicized it as a victory,” one of the activists said. “We never marked it with a big V. That was a mistake.”

The Serbs referred to it as “doing post-production.” “Everything you do should be capitalized,” says Aleksandar. “First of all, proclaim the victory. Second, be sure that potential members and supporters know about it. You need a victory every week, even small victories. If you are on the defensive, you lose.”

“You always need to be a step ahead. You need to answer the ‘what if?’ ” Aleksandar continued, reinforcing the need for advance planning, something that had become a mantra over the course of the week. “Do your homework, choose a target, and build a winning record.”

At the end of the seminar, the Serbs stayed for an extra couple of days for some sun and sand. They wanted to spend time relaxing on the nicer beaches, a world away on the other side of the island.

The activists had to get home. They took the short cab ride to the airport and caught one of the last flights out. A few weeks later their country had waves of marches and demonstrations. They were the largest protests in a generation.

Adapted from
The Dictator's Learning Curve by William J. Dobson Copyright © 2012 by William J. Dobson. Published by arrangement with Doubleday, an imprint of the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Random House.