The Truth About Nonviolent Movements

Stephen Zunes December 17, 2013

Graffiti in support of the Serbian student-led pro-democracy group Otpor!, near the University of Novi Sad, Serbia, in 2001. (Wikimedia Commons)

Jour­nal­ists Carl Gib­son and Steve Horn have done an impor­tant ser­vice with their arti­cle out­lin­ing Ser­bian activist Srd­ja Popovic’s inex­cus­able col­lab­o­ra­tion with the glob­al intel­li­gence com­pa­ny STRAT­FOR, and his role in dis­clos­ing the activ­i­ties of move­ments and activists with whom he has worked. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, the arti­cle falls into a rather sim­plis­tic and reduc­tion­ist analy­sis of Popovic’s moti­va­tions and, more crit­i­cal­ly, mis­rep­re­sents the nature of the pop­u­lar upris­ings in Ser­bia and oth­er coun­tries. The arti­cle also con­tains a num­ber of fac­tu­al errors and mis­lead­ing statements.

Even pri­or to the recent rev­e­la­tions, Popovic’s activ­i­ties were being increas­ing­ly rec­og­nized as prob­lem­at­ic with­in the net­work of pro­po­nents of strate­gic non­vi­o­lent action, includ­ing many of us who had worked with him in the past. (Between 2006 and 2008, Popovic and I col­lab­o­rat­ed on a num­ber of work­shops togeth­er and he host­ed me when I served as guest lec­tur­er for the Polit­i­cal Sci­ence fac­ul­ty at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Bel­grade.) Among oth­er things, Popovic has received crit­i­cism for gross­ly over­stat­ing the role he and CAN­VAS have played in sup­port­ing var­i­ous pop­u­lar strug­gles, which many in the West­ern media were eager to exag­ger­ate as well. This, unfor­tu­nate­ly, fell right into the hands of auto­crat­ic regimes and their apol­o­gists which have tried to deny that pop­u­lar protests against them were based on legit­i­mate griev­ances, instead label­ing them the work of out­side agi­ta­tors.” Mean­while, in an appar­ent effort to dis­tract atten­tion from their sup­port for var­i­ous dic­ta­tor­ships and occu­pa­tion armies, some West­ern gov­ern­ments would also exag­ger­ate the sig­nif­i­cance of their lim­it­ed sup­port for some of CANVAS’s work and oth­er oppo­si­tion activ­i­ties against auto­crat­ic regimes they didn’t like. Iron­i­cal­ly, Gib­son and Horn’s arti­cle naïve­ly bought into this very nar­ra­tive of exag­ger­at­ing the impact of Popovic and CANVAS.

A more seri­ous prob­lem with Gib­son and Horn’s arti­cle, how­ev­er, is its mis­lead­ing and inac­cu­rate por­tray­al of non­vi­o­lent move­ments — both Otpor! and oth­er demo­c­ra­t­ic move­ments world­wide. Iron­i­cal­ly, Gib­son and Horn take a page from STRAT­FOR in over­es­ti­mat­ing the pow­er of out­side forces and under­es­ti­mat­ing the pow­er of pop­u­lar domes­tic upris­ings, the only real lever for demo­c­ra­t­ic change.

Otpor! and the upris­ing against Milosevic

Gib­son and Horn err in depict­ing Otpor! — the stu­dent-led pro-democ­ra­cy group in Ser­bia that emerged in the late 1990s to chal­lenge the mil­i­taris­tic and semi-auto­crat­ic régime of Slo­bo­dan Milo­se­vic — as some kind of West­ern con­spir­a­cy. The peo­ple of Ser­bia, par­tic­u­lar­ly those on the Left, had seri­ous prob­lems with Milosevic’s role in pro­vok­ing and pros­e­cut­ing the Balkan wars of that decade (which result­ed in the deaths of near­ly a quar­ter mil­lion peo­ple), as well as his dis­man­tling of Tito’s social­ist lega­cy for a cor­rupt crony cap­i­tal­ism, his alliance with far-right eth­nic chau­vin­ists and his sup­pres­sion of legit­i­mate dis­sent. In their descrip­tion of the 2000 pop­u­lar upris­ing against Milo­se­vic and sim­i­lar pop­u­lar upris­ings dur­ing that peri­od, Gib­son and Horn effec­tive­ly deny the domes­tic roots of these rebel­lions and gross­ly exag­ger­ate the role of the Unit­ed States. Not con­tent to leave well enough alone in their impor­tant and valu­able expo­sure of Popovic’s mis­deeds, they unfor­tu­nate­ly dis­tract atten­tion from these rev­e­la­tions and raise ques­tions about their own cred­i­bil­i­ty by effec­tive­ly rewrit­ing his­to­ry with a series of ques­tion­able and some­times demon­stra­bly false claims.

For exam­ple, Gib­son and Horn describe Otpor! sim­ply as the U.S.-funded Ser­bian activist group” and imply that Otpor!’s exis­tence was part of a U.S. con­spir­a­cy to bring down an anti-Amer­i­can régime. It was hard­ly that sim­ple, how­ev­er. As one Otpor! vet­er­an described the deci­sion to accept mon­ey from for­eign sources, It was a tough choice, but impor­tant choic­es are nev­er easy. These coun­tries bombed us – talk­ing to the rep­re­sen­ta­tives of their gov­ern­ments and heads of their foun­da­tions was not with­out dis­com­fort. But the deci­sion to look for sup­port abroad was informed by the under­stand­ing that the only peo­ple who had mon­ey in Ser­bia at that time were war prof­i­teers and war crim­i­nals. All mon­ey in the coun­try was bloody. Con­front­ed by that real­i­ty, for­eign sup­port seemed the less­er evil.”

Gib­son and Horn’s analy­sis of the upris­ings in Ser­bia and Ukraine essen­tial­ly denies human agency, com­ing across as a left-wing equiv­a­lent of Ronald Reagan’s insis­tence that Nicaragua, El Sal­vador and Guatemala expe­ri­enced left­ist rev­o­lu­tions because they were on a Sovi­et hit list” and not because of the oppres­sion and injus­tice of U.S.-backed mil­i­tary dic­ta­tor­ships. In real­i­ty, receiv­ing some fund­ing from the NED or oth­er U.S.-funded agen­cies doesn’t make a rev­o­lu­tion a cre­ation of Wash­ing­ton any more than receiv­ing Sovi­et bloc arms made a rev­o­lu­tion a cre­ation of Moscow.

To defend their down­play­ing of the Ser­bian uprising’s indige­nous roots, Gib­son and Horn quote Aus­tralian-based Trot­sky­ist Michael Barker’s asser­tion that the stri­dent­ly anti-Amer­i­can Ser­bian polit­i­cal leader Vojislav Kos­tu­ni­ca — who won the 2000 elec­tion against Milo­se­vic that the incum­bent unsuc­cess­ful­ly tried to steal — was actu­al­ly Washington’s favored can­di­date” cho­sen to pro­mote a neolib­er­al vision for Ser­bia.” In real­i­ty, the U.S. had actu­al­ly been cul­ti­vat­ing oth­er oppo­si­tion lead­ers who were far more sym­pa­thet­ic to U.S. polit­i­cal and eco­nom­ic inter­ests to replace Milo­se­vic. Kos­tu­ni­ca, by con­trast, was an out­spo­ken nation­al­ist who opposed NATO, the Unit­ed States and the Euro­pean Union. Fur­ther­more, Milo­se­vic was respon­si­ble for far more pri­va­ti­za­tion dur­ing his time in office than was Kos­tu­ni­ca dur­ing his pres­i­den­cy. Bark­er, who has nev­er been to Ser­bia and has lit­tle back­ground in the Balka­ns, is noto­ri­ous for his con­spir­a­cy-mon­ger­ing and has a long his­to­ry of false­ly accus­ing a num­ber of promi­nent left­ists (myself includ­ed) who don’t fol­low his line of hav­ing CIA ties. It is dis­ap­point­ing, there­fore, that Gib­son and Horn decid­ed to cite him instead of peo­ple who are actu­al­ly famil­iar with the region. (In addi­tion, Barker’s arti­cle from which they quote was not in Z Mag­a­zine, as they claim, but on the ZNet blog­gers’ space on which vir­tu­al­ly any­one can write with­out input from Z editors.)

STRAT­FOR doesn’t get it

The fact is that STRAT­FOR, like almost every­one else involved in U.S. mil­i­tary, intel­li­gence and diplo­mat­ic oper­a­tions, has lit­tle under­stand­ing of pop­u­lar strug­gles. Their view of pow­er is top-down and state-cen­tric, with lit­tle respect for the pow­er of ordi­nary peo­ple to cre­ate change. Indeed, it’s rather odd that Gib­son and Horn appro­pri­ate­ly depict STRAT­FOR as being duplic­i­tous, then rely on state­ments by the group’s offi­cials to make the case against Popovic and CAN­VAS. Like most mem­bers of the military/​intelligence com­plex, the ana­lysts at STRAT­FOR just don’t under­stand strate­gic non­vi­o­lent action or how it works. For exam­ple, the leaks reveal their sim­plis­tic under­stand­ing in their descrip­tion of CAN­VAS: They just go and set up shop in a coun­try and try to bring the gov­ern­ment down.” In real­i­ty, CAN­VAS nev­er has had more than one office, which has always been based in Bel­grade and employs less than a half dozen peo­ple. More impor­tant­ly, it is the oppressed peo­ple of the coun­try in ques­tion that are respon­si­ble for bring­ing down a dic­ta­tor­ship, not a hand­ful of outsiders.

STRATFOR’s igno­rance is fur­ther revealed in anoth­er quote Gib­son and Horn cite, in which they claim that the CAN­VAS train­ers basi­cal­ly go around the world try­ing to top­ple dic­ta­tors and auto­crat­ic gov­ern­ments (ones that U.S. does not like.)” First of all, out­side train­ers have nev­er been respon­si­ble for top­pling gov­ern­ments. Gov­ern­ments that fall to civ­il insur­rec­tions do so because of a com­bi­na­tion of their lack of pop­u­lar sup­port and the much stronger sup­port of oppo­si­tion move­ments. Good strate­gic think­ing is impor­tant in any strug­gle, and the CAN­VAS work­shops may have been help­ful in enabling some activists to think bet­ter along these lines, but it is not CAN­VAS that tries to top­ple gov­ern­ments; it is pop­u­lar social move­ments. Sec­ond­ly, nei­ther Popovic nor CAN­VAS cares if a dic­ta­tor­ship is liked or not liked by the U.S. gov­ern­ment. They have worked with activists oppos­ing both pro- and anti-Amer­i­can regimes, includ­ing Pales­tini­ans, West­ern Saha­rans, Egyp­tians, Azer­bai­ja­nis and others.

My stud­ies of unarmed insur­rec­tions indi­cate that out­siders real­ly don’t make much of a dif­fer­ence in the suc­cess or fail­ure of a move­ment. For exam­ple, the dozen or so Egypt­ian activists who attend­ed CAN­VAS work­shops were not sig­nif­i­cant fig­ures in the upris­ing against Mubarak and a num­ber of the oth­er activists I inter­viewed found their con­tri­bu­tions unhelp­ful in terms of the sit­u­a­tion in Egypt. Despite this, there are those who want to cred­it (or blame) Popovic and CAN­VAS for the Jan­u­ary 25 revolution.

Sim­i­lar­ly, I’ve come across two web­sites which, cit­ing a sem­i­nar which I helped lead in Cairo back in 2007, have claimed that I was per­son­al­ly respon­si­ble for the Egypt­ian rev­o­lu­tion! Like those who exag­ger­ate the influ­ence of Popovic and CAN­VAS in Egypt and oth­er coun­tries in the Glob­al South, such claims appear to be based on a racist men­tal­i­ty that peo­ple of col­or are inca­pable of orga­niz­ing or strate­giz­ing for their own lib­er­a­tion and it is only through the influ­ence or white peo­ple — intel­lec­tu­als like Gene Sharp, train­ers like Popovic or hybrids like me — can they sud­den­ly become agents of change.

And, while I am cer­tain­ly both­ered by the fact that CAN­VAS has worked with some of the right-wing oppo­si­tion­ists in Venezuela, I’m not par­tic­u­lar­ly wor­ried by it. The kind of non­vi­o­lent upris­ings that CAN­VAS advo­cates can only suc­ceed if the move­ment has a siz­able major­i­ty of peo­ple on their side. What­ev­er legit­i­mate com­plaints some Venezue­lans may have of Hugo Chavez and his suc­ces­sor, few want to return to the rule of the old oli­garchs. Doing a week­end work­shop for 20 or so young bour­geois Venezue­lans is no threat to the Boli­var­i­an Rev­o­lu­tion. In any case, in Venezuela or any­where else, infor­ma­tion on strate­gic non­vi­o­lent action is avail­able in plen­ty online, with­out rely­ing on Popovic or CANVAS.

Inac­cu­rate and mis­lead­ing statements

It is not just the analy­sis in the Gib­son and Horn arti­cle that is dis­ap­point­ing and dis­tracts from their impor­tant exposé of Popovic’s inter­ac­tions with STRAT­FOR, it’s the demon­stra­bly false and mis­lead­ing asser­tions that appear in the lat­ter part of the article.

For exam­ple, let’s look at their claim that Otpor! was so suc­cess­ful that it was ush­ered into Ukraine to help man­u­fac­ture régime change there in 2004, using the tem­plate applied orig­i­nal­ly in Ser­bia with $65 mil­lion in cash from the U.S. government.”

First of all, it was not Otpor! — which had been dis­solved by that time — that was invit­ed to Ukraine, but a small and now defunct Ser­bian group called the Cen­ter for Non­vi­o­lent Resis­tance (CNR). Sec­ond­ly, CNR was invit­ed to Ukraine by some ele­ments of the Ukrain­ian oppo­si­tion; it were not ush­ered in by the U.S. gov­ern­ment. Third­ly, the $65 mil­lion was the total giv­en to all oppo­si­tion activ­i­ties in Ukraine, not what was pro­vid­ed to the Ser­bian train­ers, which was no more than a few thou­sand dol­lars. More impor­tant­ly, the Decem­ber 2004 upris­ing in Ukraine was not a case of régime change;” it was a suc­cess­ful demand to have a new elec­tion after evi­dence emerged that that the pre­vi­ous elec­tion had been stolen. Final­ly, it was not man­u­fac­tured”; it was a pop­u­lar upris­ing in which mil­lions of Ukraini­ans took to the streets and braved sub-zero tem­per­a­tures to demand that their votes be fair­ly counted.

Mak­ing change

In light of a spate of bizarre con­spir­a­cy the­o­ries regard­ing non­vi­o­lent action the­o­rist Gene Sharp some years ago, a num­ber of promi­nent anti-impe­ri­al­ist schol­ars and activists — includ­ing the late Howard Zinn, Noam Chom­sky, Daniel Ells­berg, Fri­da Berri­g­an, Eliz­a­beth McAl­lis­ter, Paul Ortiz and Stephen Shalom, among scores of oth­ers — signed a let­ter in his defense. The sig­na­to­ries, while call­ing on pro­gres­sives to con­tin­ue to strug­gle against U.S. impe­ri­al­ism in all of its man­i­fes­ta­tions,” not­ed how those who attempt to dis­miss recent pop­u­lar non­vi­o­lent strug­gles against auto­crat­ic regimes as some­how being insti­gat­ed and con­trolled by West­ern pow­ers inval­i­date the abil­i­ty of the mil­lions of peo­ple who have placed their bod­ies on the line for free­dom and jus­tice to think for them­selves or play a deci­sive role in deter­min­ing their own nations’ future” and that no for­eign indi­vid­ual, orga­ni­za­tion or gov­ern­ment deserves the cred­it or the blame for their victories.”

It is unfor­tu­nate, there­fore, that the impor­tant rev­e­la­tions in Gib­son and Horn’s arti­cle regard­ing Srd­ja Popovic’s deal­ings with STRAT­FOR were so com­pro­mised by their lack of under­stand­ing of this phenomenon.

Stephen Zunes is a pro­fes­sor of Pol­i­tics and Inter­na­tion­al Stud­ies at the Uni­ver­si­ty of San Fran­cis­co. Read more of his work at stephen​zunes​.org.
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