10 Minutes with Srđa Popović (Serbian Activist)


By Chris C B Rogers

Before you were engaged in non-violent action, what was your background?

I was engaged in a rock band and this was very anti war and anti establishment at the time Milosevic was building his nationalist case, and then when I went to university I was engaged in the first year of my studies, which coincided with the first big student protest in 1992. In 1992 we cut our teeth, and in 1996-7 we were leading movements after the stolen elections. And in 2000 we won.

Was there a event that got you involved?

It was the mix of a few things: the being a young person in Serbia in the 90s, and especially coming from this generation which remembered the good old days. You look and there is this crazy guy who gives you guns and says: “go to Croatia and kill people because they are Croats” and you say, “that’s what I am”, and he says “no, you are a Serb”. Because nationalism didn’t really matter when I was a kid, and it only started to matter when I was 18 or 19. This was a very schizophrenic situation for my generation. So my generation was either sucked into war, or forced to emigrate. This was the biggest brain drain in history – 200,000 young people left the country. So for us it was more a matter of necessity than courage.

You were engaged in politics, what caused you to move one.

I was engaged in politics at a very young age. I was running for city council when I was 23 with the Democratic Party. I was also a member of the party of the Serbian opposition leader, and probably one of the cleverest people I’ve ever met Zoran Đinđić, and I went into parliament in 2000 and served as his advisor, but then he was killed in 2003. He was my biggest positive inspiration, and Milosevic was by biggest negative motivation. However, at this time he was in the Hague. So my two main motivations for getting involved in Serbian politics were gone. That was one half of the coin. The other half was the idea that other groups in the world might benefit form what we have done. And being more of an activist and revolutionary in a politician, I’m not a super person to sit in parliament.

One of the common problems groups face is the ‘collective action problem’ – how would you say you managed to get so many people to act together.

First you need a common cause, whether this cause is achieving a democratic society, fighting against the bad guy, or wining in the struggle for any racial rights, it is a common cause and then a set of values. After a set of values comes the strategy, and then the tactics. This is very important because it builds the identity of the group. And at one point the group becomes your second self. And you can’t imagine your life without this struggle.

So building all this stuff can sound very complicated. In Serbia it came organically because we effectively had this guy who was screwing our lives and from a very normal life we came to a point when we were at war with the whole world. My mother was almost killed in Nato bombing in 1999. Plus for young people it’s really thrilling. And young people are normally at the cutting edge of these revolutions because they are always trying to change the world, they have a lot of time and they don’t have a lot of things to lose: they don’t have families, loans, or property. So, I assume for a young person it is easier to turn the life to activism than for someone who is already established. However, young people by themselves are not enough.

What would you say was the single most influential thing that you did in the protest movement?

Several things were important; one of the things I think we did completely successfully was creating this idea of individual resistance. Serbs are a very individualistic nation and we are not very good at following leaders and authorities. And OTPOR itself means resistance, so it’s like the Serbs are very good at doing things in spite of things. So if you want to make Serbs do A, try to prohibit him form doing it. So, we were trying to structure the movement around the national mentality of being very tough towards authorities, and putting this into individuals really gave a boost to so many different ideas that mushroomed.

The Occupy protests in London did eventually fail, but what one thing would you tell them.

I would ask them “If you were the king for the day, what is the society you would imagine”. Meaning: have a clear vision of tomorrow. And second, please tell me how to get in three sentences. And for us it was easy, we wanted to be part of the European Union, part of the normal world, and we wanted freedoms. These are the three sentences.

How we are going to get there? We are going to defeat Milosevic in the elections. We’ll get young people to vote, so however much he stole, we’ll get more. And if we caught him stealing everybody will be on the street and we’ll throw him out

Occupy didn’t have this answer, I don’ think their issue was a problem of formulation, but it was about a lack of an idea. What do we want to achieve? I think occupy had another big problem: they were anti-structural. If you want to build a movement you need some kind of structure.

The Occupy movement continued re-questioning what they were going to do and why they were there which will led to endless debate. The problem is that then the normal people and the ‘cool people’ you really love in the movement are going to leave this senseless debate, because the world is changed by doers. Not by those who have opinions.

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