The 50 Habits of Highly Effective Revolutionaries

The third wave of nonviolent revolt


When the Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosevic left office in October 2000, he was felled not by NATO's bombs but by his own police and soldiers' refusal to enforce his orders. For nearly a decade, a merry band of militants called Otpor ("Resistance") had been treating his regime to a mix of Gandhian disobedience and Yippie-style pranks, planting the seeds of rebellion across the country and helping assemble a broad, nonviolent anti-government coalition. When Milosevic refused to acknowledge that he had lost the 2000 election to Vojislav Kostunica, the opposition called a general strike.

For a taut description of what came next, turn to Nonviolent Struggle: 50 Crucial Points, a new book by three veterans of Otpor, Srdja Popovic, Andrej Milivojevic, and Slobodan Djinovic:

By October 5th, the country has come to a virtual standstill. Hundreds of thousands of protestors pour peacefully into Belgrade. The police, with a few exceptions, acknowledge their orders but refuse to obey them. By the end of the day, the protestors control the parliament building and the state-run television and radio stations. European leaders call for Milosevic to step down.

On October 6th, Milosevic acknowledges defeat, and the head of the Army congratulates Kostunica on his victory.

Nonviolent Struggle is a guide for dissidents in other countries who would like to replicate Otpor's success. The "crucial points" of the subtitle range from the sources of political power to the importance of time management. The volume is illustrated with photos from Serbian street protests, giving its pages a vaguely leftish flavor, but the text sometimes reads like a business book. (I don't think Che's Guerrilla Warfare includes a chapter called "What is Multilevel Marketing?") It was published with a grant from the United States Institute of Peace, an organization created and funded by Congress, but its authors can be harsh critics of American foreign policy, arguing that nonviolent people-power revolts are preferable to wars and embargos.

"You need to look at the repertoire of sanctions," says Popovic, who served three years in Serbia's parliament after Milosevic was ousted. "If the UN decides to freeze the accounts of a country's leadership or ban them from traveling, that's very useful for the movement. But if they decide to put an oil embargo on the country, it's the people they're sanctioning, not the leadership." The embargo against Serbia, he argues, was "a typical example" of a policy that actually helps the targeted dictator. "The regime had an excuse for the poor economic situation, mafia connected with the regime got loaded with money, and the people were poor, they were unhappy, and they had a great reason to hate the international community."

"Sanctions don't just mean less economic activity," notes Milivojevic, who is now studying history at Berkeley. "They have a real impact on young people. If you were born sometime from the early to the late '70s, you were reaching maturity just as the war was starting. That would be a period when you would start exploring more, through education, through travel, through the simple osmosis of people coming to where you live. That generation didn't have nearly as much access to outside ideas and information."

The isolation has had long-term effects, he argues, not just on the ability to overthrow Milosevic, but on the ideas influencing the country now that Slobo is gone.

And the bombing campaign? "Bombing countries and applying violence helps dictators to maintain power," Popovic argues. "When countries perceive a military threat from the outside, the people rally around the leadership. An obvious example of this is 9/11 in the United States of America. Bush's approval ratings were highest on September the 12th."

Milivojevic thinks the effect of the attacks was more mixed. "After the bombing, there was a marked shift in the Milosevic regime's methods. It just became more repressive. But a part of that repression was turned into increasing support for Otpor." In the short term, he adds, the bombing prevented political action. ("Society essentially shut down. You were principally concerned with self survival.") Afterwards, Otpor was able to adjust. "The movement appeared before the bombing. And it started to grow before the bombing. If it was a different movement, it might have been destroyed by this. Happily, it wasn't."

So the bombs were essentially a condition you had to react to? "Yes," says Milivojevici. "Obviously, all things being equal, it's a condition that most people would rather not react to."

On the face of it, it shouldn't seem surprising that the authors of a book called Nonviolent Struggle would speak so skeptically about war. But this trio—like their publisher, the Belgrade-based Center for Applied NonViolent Action and Strategies (CANVAS)—carefully eschews ethical arguments for avoiding coercion, preferring to stress the practical benefits. Nonviolence makes it harder for the government to demonize you, they argue, and it makes it easier to attract popular support. Besides, the government has greater firepower; if you use violence, you're fighting on its turf. And if you do manage to overthrow the state, it's better to approach the inevitable faction fights that follow with skills honed in nonviolent struggle than skills honed in gunplay.

The past century's advocates of nonviolence have come in three waves, each with a particular style. The first was represented by Mohandas Gandhi, the man who freed India from British rule. Gandhi was a canny strategist, but it was his role as a moral leader that captured the public imagination, to the point where many Americans now seem to believe that India was liberated through the sheer force of Ben Kingsley's personality. At their best, the activists who followed Gandhi fused a strong sense of morality with a sharp understanding of politics and public relations, a combination represented by figures like Lech Walesa and Martin Luther King. At their worst, they became more interested in asserting their moral purity than in actually accomplishing their goals, transforming nonviolence from a form of action to a passive, self-righteous lifestyle.

It was frustration with the latter group that fueled the second wave. The key figure here is Gene Sharp, author of 1973's three-volume study The Politics of Nonviolent Action. Interviewed by Peace magazine in 2003, Sharp complained that "there are many people in peace organizations who don't like conflict. A few years ago, I gave a talk about national defense by prepared nonviolent resistance. Someone in the audience was very shocked, and accused me: 'All you are doing is taking the violence out of war!'" Sharp himself had been a conscientious objector in the Korean War and an associate of the Christian pacifist A.J. Muste, but he was happy to adorn the backs of his books with endorsements by military figures and to draw former soldiers into his circle. When he collected examples of nonviolent tactics that had been used in the struggles of the past, he didn't have trouble, say, interposing examples drawn from the civil rights movement with examples drawn from the movement's segregationist foes. There's no doubt his own sympathies were with the black protesters, but he was happy to borrow tactical insights from forces he disagreed with, too.

Unlike Gandhi, Sharp has never led a revolution of his own—though he has advised dissidents in hotspots ranging from Burma to the West Bank to the Baltic states. But his work attracted attention just as the world saw a series of nonviolent revolutions whose leaders were rarely Gandhian: uprisings against the Shah in Iran, Baby Doc Duvalier in Haiti, Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines, the Soviet puppet states in Eastern Europe. Sharp's more hard-nosed style was ascendant.

And then there was Otpor. More to the point, there were the revolts that followed in Otpor's wake, led by groups that modeled themselves directly on the Serbs: Pora ("It's Time") in Ukraine, Kmara ("Enough") in Georgia, Zvakwana ("Enough is Enough") in Zimbabwe. This was the third wave. Otpor had learned from Sharp and his circle—retired Col. Robert Helvey, formerly of the U.S. Army and later of Sharp's Albert Einstein Institution, trained some of its activists a few months before the general strike—and it discovered useful tactics on its own, too. (When Otpor had its first exposure to Helvey's training and Sharp's books, the group already had 30,000 members.)

After Milosevic was deposed, the same faces started to surface in different countries, spreading potent tactics and skills as they created a sort of People Power International. Between the direct links, the similar slogans, the use of foreign funds, and the fact that so many of the target governments were friendly to Russia's nationalist regime, conspiracy theories began to fly, all of them hinging on the idea that these revolts were simply exported from the West.

When you look at those theories closely, they fall apart. Without any guns to fall back on, a movement needs strong local support to succeed; groups that depend on foreign patrons are the groups most likely to lose. "Belarus and Zimbabwe are very clear negative models," says Popovic. "If you have international organizations picking among the opposition, selecting their favorites, not cooperating among each other, and micromanaging—this is the worst way to help the organization."

But there is one grain of truth to those conspiracy yarns. There is a core group of activists using every method they can—how-to manuals, hands-on training, educational films, even a video game that simulates a nonviolent revolution—to spread the know-how necessary to overthrow a dictator. And for the most part, they aren't afraid to get help from western governments and NGOs, even if they're apt to turn around and oppose those same states' policies in other contexts. Their style is the style of a hip young entrepreneur, savvy to the power of buzz and branding. You can see it on display in Nonviolent Struggle: 50 Crucial Points.

Lest I take the business comparison too far, I should note that Milivojevic believes his book's "'business models' aren't actually business models. They're social science models that the business community had adapted," and which political rebels can now adapt as well. But the Otpor generation does have a more capitalistic cast than, say, A.J. Muste, who cut his teeth in the labor movement. It's no surprise that when The New Republic profiled Peter Ackerman, a Drexel Burnham trader turned co-founder of the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict, it headlined the piece "Regime Change, Inc."

No one will mistake Nonviolent Struggle: 50 Crucial Points for The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, but the authors hope it will reach an audience not ordinarily inclined to read tomes on nonviolent strategy. "The idea is to get the book into as many hands as possible, as quickly as possible," Milivojevic says. It is being distributed both in paperback and on disc—the latter form ideal for, say, quietly smuggling the text from South Africa to Zimbabwe—and it can be downloaded for free at the CANVAS website. Translations are on the way: Dissidents in other countries have already requested editions in Farsi, Russian, and Spanish. If Otpor-style revolts break out in Tehran, Moscow, or Bogotá, don't be surprised.