April 27, 2012


A VELVET FIST: If you want to start a peaceful revolution, the person to call is a Serb with a passion for Tolkien. Srdja Popovic is advising rebels in 40 countries. (Emma Williams, May/June 2012, Intelligent Life)

Popovic is wearing jeans and sneakers now, at work. His day begins at 8am in a small grey cube of an office in New Belgrade. He is all energy, circling the room. He takes an emergency call from Syrian activists, speaking in Serbian. A response is needed on the Maldives. Other, more secret enquiries, follow. He reverts to English and mentions an American historian, Howard Zinn. "You know what he said?" he asks with a grin. "Education may and should be dangerous."

With the Arab spring, the nonviolent strategies in which he educates clients have leapt into the limelight. Canvas has been involved in revolutions in Georgia, Ukraine and the Maldives, and works with activists from 40 more countries, ranging from Soviet throwbacks (Belarus) to Asian giants (India and China), Middle Eastern oligarchies (Iran, Yemen) and small, brutal dictatorships (Zimbabwe, Burma).

"Canvas is unique," Popovic says. "In evolutionary strategy some species accommodate to their conditions..." He looks outside at the grey Belgrade tower blocks. "Like pigeons--they're everywhere." Others go for narrow specialisation. "Canvas is like those bacteria that can live at temperatures of 60°C--highly specialised."

Unique, specialised and, until recently, reluctant to be observed. Canvas "came out of the closet", as Popovic puts it, by way of an Al Jazeera documentary during the Arab spring (on YouTube). It's sensitive work. Canvas has been accused of being a tool of Western secret services. "There's a naive narrative in which these revolutions are a product of Langley or MI6," Popovic scoffs. "As if all you need is a wad of CIA  dollars, a bunch of crazy Serbs, send them to country X and boom, you have your revolution!" He laughs. "If it was a question of money only..."  

Canvas's curriculum, designed to be taken anywhere and adapted to any situation, shows how much planning goes into revolution. "We're constantly updating, building on lessons learned." He breaks off to describe a workshop. "One night back in 2006, we were on the beach in Sri Lanka, working long sessions with Maldivian activists. Instead of using flipcharts we were writing in the sand--only to discover that the sand was populated by newly hatching turtles. We had to help them find their way to the sea or they'd have followed the streetlights instead of the moon and been killed on the road. The session turned into a Discovery Channel type of 'saving baby turtles' experience--the craziest thing that has ever happened to a workshop."

More typically, workshops run for five to seven days, with up to 20 activists in the room. "We don't really give specific advice, but prefer people to develop their own tools--helping them to shape their own indigenous ideas. Normally, they finish the workshop with their own campaign plans and 'people-power toolbox' to use once they get back to their organisations."

The trainers, all former participants in protests, deliver the curriculum, usually in English. The trainees analyse and evaluate their country's situation, after being coached in the theory of nonviolent struggle and the three principles for its success: unity, planning and nonviolent discipline. They study the role of consent and obedience, and "pillars of society" (military, police, judiciary, bureaucracy), and how to lure ordinary people away from them and towards the nonviolent movement. Next come strategy and tactics, especially "low-risk tactics", such as co-ordinated banging of metal pans at set times across a city--actions in which all can join, and which keep people in the movement even under harsh oppression.

They focus on communications (targeted and channelled appropriately). They are taught the importance of humour: decorating a barrel, say, with a dictator's face, encouraging passers-by to bash it, and leaving police with a tricky choice--do nothing and look weak, or confiscate the barrel and look foolish. They are shown how to deal with fear. Having identified the pillars of their particular nation, participants design plans to win them over. "In other words, we give them a fishing rod and teach them how to use it, but the rest is up to them." The funny thing, Popovic claims, "is that every workshop starts with at least one smart activist saying, 'Well guys, congratulations, we all know about Otpor...Maybe this worked in Serbia, but it will never work in our country.' That's how they begin, and we try to see that they finish day five with a clear idea of what may well work for civil mobilisation in their own society. And the best part is that they reach this answer themselves."

Posted by at April 27, 2012 5:39 AM

blog comments powered by Disqus