Small Wars Journal

Nonviolent Struggle as Asymmetric Warfare: Interview with Srdja Popovic

Mon, 03/26/2012 - 5:50am

Motto: Even the smallest creatures can change the world.”

Frodo, The Lord of the Rings

Along with Gene Sharp, Srdja Popovic was one of the FP Top 100 global thinkers in 2011. “It is undeniable that these bold global proselytizers of nonviolence have helped change the world in a very real way” in 2011, said the magazine.

  • What would you advise the Syrians to do? Which are the Otpor’ lessons for them?

Each non-violent revolution is as different as the countries where they occur, and we can examine specifically a very complicated conflict in Syria from different ethnic, religious or regional patterns as it develops…. But one fact is a constant: violence is the kiss of death. It gives regimes the excuse to crack down, brings the risk of escalation, alienates the public and obscures the movement's message. Even worse, potential engagement of foreign military like in the case of Bombing Serbia in 1999. Foreign military intervention, as in Libya, quite rarely ends in democracy and stability – and often increases the number of innocent civilian witnesses. This is why, unlike popular and predominantly nonviolent uprisings in places like Tunisa, Egypt and Yemen, the Even if we take into consideration Gaddafi`s extensive use of armed forces against his own people, Libyan case study presents the WORST possible example how things MUST NOT BE HANDLED by both domestic movements, failing in nonviolent discipline and getting engaged in civil war and the international community launching military intervention. Despite millions of freedom lovers probably being proud of 2011 having been  a VERY bad year for bad guys, and following strongmen like Ben Ali, Mubaraak and Saleh stepping down, the barbaric assassination of Libyan dictator Quadaffi in front of a camera should remind us of a simple truth-violence gives birth only to more violence, and instability.

The power of “nonviolent struggle” lies in the mobilization of a great number of people around a common vision of tomorrow, building common strategy, followed by efficient nonviolent tactics and of course maintaining an offense and nonviolent discipline against your opponent. If those basic principles are successfully executed, nonviolent social changes (media preffer the word “revolution”) becomes possible, however tough conditions on the local battlefield may look.  So, together with UNITY (also a big challenge for the divided Syrian opposition), and Planning - Nonviolent discipline is the one of THREE KEY principles of success in nonviolent struggle. Once violence is unleashed, case studies say, the existing movements tend to lose numbers, momentum and credibility and the overall goals of original nonviolent struggle are in danger. Look at the example of Serbian nonviolent change occurred in 2000- It was so crucial for Serbs, labeled by majority of world media as “violent” during ‘90s to prove to themselves, but also to the world that we are more than capable of changing our government in a civilized manner, with elections and nonviolently protecting election results.

CANVAS never gives specific advice, but in fact points to powerful case studies. However unobvious it may seem, the best case study for understanding how Syrian conflict may end positively is actually the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa few decades ago. SA anti-apartheid movement faced similar obstacles (an oppressive government ready to shoot black people in townships by the thousands controlled by etnhical minority), growing NUMBERS of protesters, and thenwhat will occur to be huge mistake: to give up nonviolent struggle, and form the “spear of Africa” – a military guerilla movement, which has proven to be completely unsuccessful. Coming back to their nonviolent strategy, South Africans built on what they had achieved- NUMBERS. Once numbers are serious (and no doubt the protesters have built a huge supporting base , not only of Sunnis but of others also) strategic movements ESCALATE their activities from what dr Sharp calls tactics of protest and persuasion – to tactics of noncooperation. Strikes and various consumers and utilities boycotting was the “straw that broke camel’s back” in the case of the South African struggle. The Apartheid government – completely capable of defeating the poorly armed and trained ANC guerilla wing – was economically isolated and dependent on domestic commerce – and therefore vulnerable to widespread boycotts and strikes designed by the student wing of the ANC and lead by great innovative thinker Mkuseli Jack (recommend to your attention “A Force More Powerful – great documentary by Steve York).

  • To what extent and in what way did the ideas of Gene Sharp influence the Otpor strategy?

We met Gene in person only AFTER the Serbian revolution, and were first exposed to his ideas and books through another great mind in the field of People Power – Robert Helvey in April 2000 – at the point when OTPOR not only had its strategy done, but more than 40 000 daily active people. Sharp’s work didn’t necessarily influence this strategy building, cause most of strategic planning really has been done  back there in 1998 and 1999, but helped us think more clearly  how to distribute this knowledge in training our own ranks in post-revolution Serbia, and of course, made an important theoretical foundation for understanding and developing our own educational materials (manuals like “Nonviolent Struggle 50 crucial points etc.).

  • Insurgencies tend to be seen as “cognitive battles”, “battles for the minds of the people”. Can we speak in the Otpor case about a similar PR competition for winning “the minds” of core regime audiences in order to shift their loyalty away? How did Otpor persuade the key Milosevic constituencies to withdraw their support for the status-quo?

Spin doctors say “perception is reality” which definitely is not far from true. Having strategically in mind that regime propagandists will try to portray OTPOR as “mercenaries of the West”, “non-patriots” and “traitors”, (Escalating with government have used “Terrorist” label on OTPOR at May 2000) we  prepared for this early in the process. The leftist symbol, deriving from the old communist times of our grandfathers-the clenched fist, sound patriotic slogans, and bright young faces as the front-liners for OTPOR were similar to what MLK was using in his Nashville marches. The regime  spent a lot of time persuading the public that we were actually even worse-real terrorists, but seeing young bright faces wearing OTPOR t-shirts made this accusation look ridiculous, and at the end clearly backfired on them.

Even more importantly-if you apply the academic quote that “If people do not obey, rulers cannot rule” whether you attribute it to Gene, Hana Arendt or Thomas Hobbes, you come to the very essence of nonviolent struggle.  By understanding patterns of obedience and various reasons that people obey for (from habit, through fear and self interest all the way to helplessness and hopelessness – depending on the society you analyze the reasons vary, but it’s always a combination of some of these), you can learn about various “best practices” various movements have been using to break each individual pattern – habit with innovation, fear with humor and moral building, self interest with persuasion, helplessness with encouragement. It is all done by communicating with a variety of audiences – and successful movements throughout history ALL had successful communication strategies.

  • Tina Rosenberg highlighted in her excellent “Join the Club” that CANVAS adopted “tactics that are basic to any military campaign”. Should we understand nonviolent resistance, what you have called “democratic blitzkrieg”, as some sort of asymmetric warfare (a method of using a set of tactics “as a substitute for traditional military means to achieve an operational objective”)?

Absolutely –it is asymmetric warfare where one side doesn’t have a military option – and strategically picks the battlefield with better chances to win, which is popular uprising, people power or nonviolent struggle however you may want to name it. What were the chances of Chilean or Polish protesters back in the 80s against Pinochet’s military forces or the one-million strong red army’s manpower? Small or none.What was the chance a handful of Serbian students may win against Milosevic’s military and police on the armed struggle battlefield? Very small. What sense does it make challenging powerful strongmen like Pinochet and Assad on the military battlefield? Absolutely none.  Even better – according to a great study performed by Maria Stephan and Erica ChenowethWhy Civil Resistance works (see attached slides)- the chances of winning through nonviolent movement are TWICE as large as through violent uprising, even if it is followed by foreign military intervention.

Now about a great book by Tina Rosenberg – who pointed out quite well the connection between PEER PRESSURE as a positive force and people joining in various POSSITIVE TRENDS and movements. Yes, there was the important role of visual identity, design and branding the movement as not only pro-democratic and anti-regime, but also making it “funny”, “in” and cool – so if you didn’t join-you would be missing the best party in town. This cheerful atmosphere full of music, humor and political satire, which were OTPOR trademarks served as rallying points for people with great ideas, and once they had they could further contribute to the spirit of movement itself-making almost a “perpetual mobile” of bright activists’ ideas in a movement’s “melting pot” – complicated to control or even understand by the regime. The perception of OTPOR being “in” and supporting the regime being “out” with Serbian youth in 2000 was so widespread that participating in a movement or even getting arrested in some cool OTPOR activities was a COMPETITTION point for activists, and you would increase your social popularity or chances to date – if you were one of “cool troublemakers”. Once you achieve this type of social cohesion inside the movement, oppression becomes not only senseless but counterproductive for your opponent.

  • Using a Clausewitzian terminology did the Milosevic regime have a center of gravity on which the pressure of Otpor to be focused on? What was its Achilles’ heel, its vulnerabilities?

Our analyses showed that Milosevic relied heavily on nationalism, less educated and rural voters, and state TV and printed media propaganda. Developing “alternative nationalism” around the movement with its core program and communication messages, proving that in fact being anti-Milosevic is the REAL patriotism, mobilizing urban and educated, but also approaching Milosevic`s traditional electoral base outside city centers, and of course developing our own alternative media were logical steps in such a strategy.

  • Gene Sharp (for some observers called the Clausewitz/Galula of nonviolent civil resistance) argued that planning a strategy for a nonviolent resistance campaign is of crucial importance. What did “strategy” mean for Otpor?

OTPOR’s strategy can be easily explained through 5 key  points, many of which were taken from earlier strategic non-violent struggles and which can work in similar struggles:


Sun Tzu: You will never win by staying on a defensive position. If you want to win, you must take the offence!

  • From the very beginning, OTPOR opted for offence, making the regime respond to its provocations, and being “one step ahead” at all times.
  • As the movement grew, the offensive was also taken towards potential allies: domestically, by pressing divided political Parties and civil society to unite against Milosevic; and internationally, by cultivating external support of anti-regime forces.
  • Otpor successfully mobilized and recruited students and the youth, gaining in numbers from the very beginning. Other social groups were targeted as well from early 2000.
  • Numbers were constantly upgraded by using superior “Act-Recruit-Train model”, which enabled constant engagement of newly recruited activists, but also their upgrade in Nonviolent Action skills and knowledge.
  • Otpor defined 4 crucial target audiences within the divided Serbian society:
  1. Membership and supporters,
  2. Wider audience,
  3. Potential allies within oppositional parties and NGOs, and
  4. International community
  • Designing a superior communication strategy (branding, use of symbols and mass production of propaganda materials) OTPOR was able to defeat state propaganda apparatus.
  • Carefully planned, OTPOR activities created the overall perception of a successful movement based on following principles:
  1. Picking the battles you can win
  2. Knowing when and how to proclaim victories (building a winning record)
  3. “Capitalizing” on its growing popularity (recruiting new members and reaching  the grass-roots level)
  • OTPOR foresaw the regime’s upcoming oppression from the very beginning and prepared for it:
  1. Decentralized leadership based on clear operating principles with clearly developed tasks for low-profile and high-profile leaders enabled functionality
  1. Extensive training and preparation for activists potentially exposed to the oppression, as well as debriefing of those who had passed through “police procedures” helped OTPOR to avoid surprises and overcome the effects of fear
  1. Carefully crafted motivating messages, as well as use of humour helped in maintaining high morale of both membership and wider population
  1. Skilled actions of support for the arrested members (PLAN B – see it at, as well as making atrocities committed by the regime visible.  Preparation lowered the “costs” of repression for the movement, while increasing the “price” of using repression for the regime.
  • It is usually said that in counterinsurgency you must be able to learn and adapt: "the side that learns faster and adapts more rapidly usually wins. It is a learning competition after all”. How important was for Otpor to learn, adapt and counterbalance the Milosevic tactics? How did Otpor learn to outfight Milosevic?

Serbs used to be slow learners as we started our struggle in 1991-and couldn’t end it before 2000. That means we were learning by doing it-on our own example, 1992. We learned that students can’t do it alone, and that we need numbers. In 1996&1997, even after winning  local elections and learning how to protest for 100 consecutive days in harsh winter-we learned another bitter lesson – no victory without unity (seven months after winning in 32 towns in local elections, the opposition split and give Milosevic another chance to breed). 2000. We  learned that only a united coalition of political parties, NGO`s and independent media has a chance to win. And we have learned that training your own people is absolutely the best investment movement leadership can make (quote Gandhi: You must train the nonviolent army for so long-that battle becomes unnecessary).

Since its founding in 1998, OTPOR developed an extensive training program for it’s grassroots level activists and their local leaders:

  • Facing the dynamic CONDITIONS of the struggle, the movement developed SKILLS in order to survive and grow, and put them into “manual for activists” form.
  • Once developed, these skills were carefully distributed to the lower levels of the organization, using an extensive training program for more than 30 local branches.
  • OTPOR’s “Human Resource” centre organized trainings and workshops for over 300 local OTPOR leaders, investing in human resource upgrades down towards the grass-roots level.

Considering knowledge transfer, there is another progress from the time of OTPOR, back there at the end of last century… The good news is that a lot of this knowledge are available for online download, so LEARNING gets a little bit easier for groups.  Working for more than 8 years in knowledge transfer we have witnessed that providing groups with knowledge may well be the best support to the pro-democracy and human rights movement.

Consider, for a moment, what would happen if just 1% of the billions of dollars that have been spent in foreign military interventions on Serbia, Afghanistan, Iraq and, lately Libya, instead went to helping nonviolent pro-democracy movements through education, the translation of books, movies and video clips, developing innovative uses for new media like Facebook or Twitter, and trainings in nonviolent, civic mobilization. We know that knowledge transfer on how to mobilize thousands against the oppressor works. My organization, CANVAS, has worked with activists from more than 40 different countries– and we have seen the power of “nonviolent struggle education” at work in a number of places – to mention some: Georgia, Ukraine, Maldives, Tunisia, Egypt and Burma, as an example. A growing number of brave young and oppressed people around the world are seeing it work… and are realizing that there is immense power in nonviolent struggle. I know this because they are calling me every day from around the world and asking for help – and providing them with knowledge is CANVAS’ mission.

Some core readings in non-violent struggle:

  • Gene Sharp’ books
  • Mattew Colin: The Time of the Rebels (Serpent's Tail, 2007).
  • Kurt Shock: Unarmed Insurections: people power movements in nondemocracies (University of Minnesota Press, 2005).
  • Steve Crawshaw & John Jacskon: Small acts of resistance: how courage, tenacity, and ingenuity can change the world (Union Square Press, 2010)
  • Erica Chenoweth & Maria J. Stephan: Why civil resistance works-the strategic logic of nonviolent conflict (Columbia University Press, 2011).
  • Tina Rosenberg:  Join the Club: How Peer Pressure Can Transform the World (W. W. Norton & Company, 2011).
  • Srdja Popovic, Andrej Milivojec, Slobodan Djonovic: Nonviolent Struggle 50 Crucial Points-a strategic approach to everyday tactics. It can be downloaded here:



About the Author(s)

Srdja Popovic is Executive Director of the non-profit educational institution the Centre for Applied Nonviolent Action and Strategies (CANVAS) ( He was of the founders and key organizers 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. 

Octavian Manea was a Fulbright Junior Scholar at Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs (Syracuse University) where he received an MA in International Relations and a Certificate of Advanced  Studies in Security Studies.