Popovic was a founding member of the Serbian youth movement Otpor! that overthrew the Serb leader Slobodan Milosevic. He is now Co-founder and Director of the Centre for Applied Nonviolent Action and Strategies (CANVAS). Popovic has devoted his life to understanding why some civilian-led struggles succeed, and others fail. He has always supported the idea that revolutions are not just reserved for political elites; indeed some of the most successful have been organised by “common people” using a variety of tactics.

One of the necessary components for a successful revolution, is a universal message that can capture widespread sentiment across socio-economic groups. Non-violent struggles need to have a membership and following from outside of the biggest cities in a country.

He explained that dictators have also experienced a steep learning curve in the years following the Arab Spring, applying some of the strategies he proposes in his recently released book, Blueprint for Revolution, against activists. This includes the manipulation of social media to promote their own narratives.

The primary reason for failure, he argued, is that mass demonstrations or tactics should always be at the end of a long-planned process, and activists should be wary of declaring “game over” for a dictator too early on; and identify clear, long-term goals.

Participants at the roundtable, including policy-makers and analysts, discussed what the international community can do to support pro-democracy movements. Popovic stressed that external actors, whether another country or NGO, should be careful their foreign policies don’t ‘push’ citizens towards the centres of power. Bombing campaigns or sanctions that affect normal working people rather than political elites, for example, can increase support for a dictator. On the other hand sanctions, he explained, are easy for governments to defend from a moral perspective and, if targeting the right people, can be an effective tool of non-violent struggle for both activists and governments.

A new challenge in the 21st century, Popovic recognised, is the tyranny of non-state actors, such as ISIS. He praised “mockumentaries” that ridicule dictators or terrorist groups for acting as a counter-narrative to their propaganda. While new communication technologies have a role to play in strategic nonviolence, Popovic was reluctant to attribute too much success to ‘clicktivism’, or activism through social media engagement. It can breed inaction and even result in mass movements or demonstrations before activists are fully prepared. He supported the idea that the theory of nonviolent resistance should be taught in schools, and spoke about plans for online courses about nonviolent action strategies with prestigious universities.

The conversation was moderated by Peter Pomerantsev, Senior Fellow to the Transitions Forum, Legatum Institute

Video Interview

About the Speaker

Srdja Popovic was one of the founders and key organisers of the Serbian nonviolent resistance group Otpor! Otpor!’s campaign to unseat Serbian president Slobodan Milosovic found success in October 2000 when hundreds of thousands of protestors converged upon and took over the Serbian Parliament, effectively ending Milosevic’s rule. After the revolution, Popovic served a term as a member of the Serbian National Assembly 2000-2003. In 2003, Popovic and other ex-Otpor! activists started the non-profit educational institution the Centre for Applied Nonviolent Action and Strategies. CANVAS has worked with people from 46 different countries, including Zimbabwe, Burma, Iran, and Venezuela, spreading the knowledge on nonviolent strategies and tactics that was used by the Serbian pro-democracy movement to other non-democratic countries. CANVAS has worked with the activists responsible for successful movements such as the Georgian “Rose Revolution” of 2003 and the Ukrainian “Orange Revolution” of 2004-2005. In 2012, Popovic gained the title Master of Biological Sciences. In November 2011, Foreign Policy magazine listed Popovic as one of the "Top 100 Global Thinkers" of 2011 for inspiring the Arab Spring protesters directly and indirectly and educating activists about nonviolent social change in the Middle East and in 2012 was nominated for Nobel Peace Prize. In February 2015, he authored Blueprint for Revolution (Scribe), a "handbook for anyone who wants to effectively (and peacefully) improve your neighborhood, make a difference in your community, or change the world".

The Transitions Forum is a series of projects dedicated to the challenges and possibilities of radical political and economic change.