Putin thinks people are sheep who cant rise without foreign intervention: Serbian activist Srda Popović, tells The Oslo Times
Srđa Popović is a Serbian political activist. He used to be a Serbian student activist in the 1990s and was elected to the Serbian parliament in 2000 to 2003. He was a leader of the student movement Otpor! that helped topple Serbian dictator Slobodan Milošević. After pursuing a political career in Serbia, in 2003 he established the Centre for Applied Nonviolent Action and Strategies (CANVAS), and has been its executive director since. CANVAS is committed to spreading skills and knowledge to activists worldwide on how to effectively build nonviolent movements. CANVAS has worked with pro-democracy activists from more than 50 countries, promoting the use of non-violent resistance in achieving political and social goals.
Popović in an exclusive interview with The Oslo Times International Network’s Editor in Chief Hatef Mohktar spoke about the Oslo Freedom Forum as well as political movement and human rights situation in Serbia.
Can you tell me about your present activities, who are you and what are you doing in Oslo? My name is Srđa Popović, I used to be a Serbian student activist in the 1990s and was elected to the Serbian parliament in 2000 to 2003. Since then I have been running a small non-profit based in Serbia, called The Center for Applied Nonviolent Action and Strategies, which is committed to spreading skills and knowledge to activists worldwide on how to effectively build nonviolent movements. In last 12 years or so we have worked with people from 46 different countries and 15 different universities, so our general idea is to make this knowledge on how to perform a successful non-violent movement struggle as accessible to people as we can, which is what I am doing in Oslo. This is my third year in Oslo, I was a speaker in 2012, I was announcing people last year and this year we have this idea that maybe having a workshop on non-violent tactics and how to design them. We want to discuss the reason behind understanding these tactics, picking them up, the benefits of the nonviolent tactics etc. These are the things that we will experiment with here in Oslo Freedom Forum. It is a workshop that normally takes five days, but we will squeeze it in to two hours, like we will do at our workshop here at the Oslo Freedom Forum. The idea is to get people start to thinking that there is a tool box that you can adopt in order to organize more successful nonviolent protests.
The Non-violent protest is a very big phenomenon. Many people say it is a copy from Gandhi, and that the non-violent protest no longer works. What do you think about this?
I think it is working always. I am coming from a country which was in a great friendship relation with India. So people in Yugoslavia learned about the Gandhian struggle in elementary school. So it was kind of inspiring when I was a kid. Basically what non-violent protests are is far more than something related to non-violence only. It is also a very effective way of mobilizing people. So, you can call it a protest because people probably call it that, and I think it is shaping the World dramatically. When you look at the last 100 years, there is a great study done by two Americans. It looked in 322 different cases of violent and non-violent campaigns. This study found that it is the non-violent campaigns which have twice that chnace of succeeding (than violent protests). It is very interesting that people are obsessed with wars. History books are full of wars and popular culture adores weapons and talking about foreign military interventions. But it is the non-violent protests that are actually bringing social change twice as effectively as violence. And it is not only the moral issue. It is also the issue of what delivers, when it comes to delivering your freedom and democracy. I think it is the non-violent struggle that we are looking at. But while groups are learning how to use non-violent protests, dictators are actually learning at the same time how to prevent non-violent protests, so this is going to be the struggle for who learns faster.
You talk about dictatorial and totalitarian regimes. What do you think about your own country? About the functioning system, specifically about corruption.
First of all, nonviolence is not limited to autocratic systems only. It has been a great tool for human rights, a great tool for gay rights, it has been a great tool for fighting corruption, and I think it is a technology that mobilizes people around the topics they care about. One of the reasons I am particularly interested in this stems from my own experience. Back there in 90s we had very clear goals, accepted values and people saw this as a struggle against the worship of the government or singular person. It was a struggle for free and fair elections, freedom of assembly, free media, it was struggle for peace with neighbors as opposed to war crimes and ethnic cleansings in which my country was involved. And it was also struggle for getting into your opinion, a struggle for social injustice, and against a bad education system, corruption etc. So you can fight all this stuff with the same tool box. It is a process, a cognitive process, which we guide people on at the workshop, which is what we do. First you need to imagine the vision of your country, like when Gandhi won against the British. But Anna Hazare is fighting against corruption in India now.
Speaking of Serbia, we are 13 years in transition now. It is interesting, mainly the values we were fighting for in the 90s are still there. We do have free and fair elections, and nobody will beat you if you protest on the street, unlike in the 90s. We have decent relationships now with Kurds, and I think the relationship with Bosnia is improving. I think there is nobody crazy enough to create ethnic conflicts in the future. And most important of all we have the predominant part of society looking at the European Union, with 57 per cent of people supporting it. Whether or not it will be a part of the EU is a completely separate topic.
How can third World countries implement, or learn from concepts that you have. How you can deliver the message to them?
Well I think they (people in third World countries) are learning fast. I do not think this is limited to first World or second World or third World or whatever World country. When you look at Latin America, when you look at Africa, when you look at even rural Asia, there have been so many impressive nonviolent struggles there. I think specially Africa is really hot in this regard the last few years especially.
So, non-violent struggles are occurring all over the place. What we are looking at more and more ways to help them happen. My dream or theme of this concept is to make us as successful as possible to the people. So that does not really mean that we need to go the universities.
What do you think of the Oslo Freedom Forum in general?
The Oslo Freedom Forum is for me first of all is a place for dissidents. Second it is a place for meeting people I admire. For me it is also a place for learning and appreciating the true values of democracy and importance of fighting for the cause. I think it (the Oslo Freedom Forum) should grow into a long-term network. I would be super happy if we can contribute to it not only in terms of training people but to work more effectively looking at the specific cases of the third World countries like North Korea.
So you support the Oslo Freedom Forum?
I do support the Oslo Freedom Forum, Yes. I think it is the only assembly in the World to bring together such prominent dissidents that I am aware of.
I want to know your own meaning for human rights. What do human right mean to you?
First of all when you are living in dictatorship like I was, you become very sensitive to this. We were living in a country where people did not have equal rights. I am probably very biased. For me it is like there is a list of freedoms we can talk about, but it is also about equality, the idea that a girl and a boy are equal not only in terms of gender but sexual orientation etc. I think we are born with the possibility to change things and empower people to change things, as well as understanding that it has to be you to represent what you want. In terms of freedoms I try to simplify as simply as I can. I think there are two type of societies in the World. One is the happy society where the government is afraid of the people, and the unhappy society where people are afraid of their governments.
What do you think about Vladamir Putin?
He is an increasingly autocratic leader of a big country, and is quite committed to staying in power.
Do you think he is a dictator?
I think he is growing way too autocratic.
Is he moving towards dictatorship?
Well the level of human freedom in Russia is tentative. I think he (Putin) learns fast and I think he is using the tools that we are teaching activists to prevent protests from happening. Putin thinks that the people are sheep and that his sheep can only rise up if somebody from abroad mobilizes them. So, whatever happens in terms his people asking questions like if he is stealing elections, it is always fomented from abroad.
Some Russian scholars claim that many human rights organizations are supported by intelligence services, which interfere in domestic issues. What do you think about this?
First of all, this sits on the position that people are stupid. Second, it relates to a very stupid idea that there are puppet masters of the universe who are shaping the World (the CIA, USAID and others are suspects). But basically this narrative says the people are obedient and should be obedient. They are too stupid to ever ask themselves questions like why my taxes are not fixing the streets that are full of potholes. In other words, why am I paying taxes and getting nothing back. So this narrative is very popular and I think Russia is investing an enormous effort into promoting its troops and its impressive propaganda machinery, like Russia Today (rt.com). The problem with this narrative is it is not how things are functioning. This is used for bringing down or labeling potential local opposition. So there is this level of labels that they put on you. If they label you as extreme or as a terrorist, no one will join your organization.
The Russian government went one step further. They say we will label the foreign NGOs as being funded by foreign governments with an anti-Russia objective. Because of this label, the Russian government can label and close down the NGOs for whatever reason they choose. Obviously Putin is trying to protect himself from potential opponents. The problem with this narrative for dictators and autocrats is that it can back fire in several ways. For example, two years after Milosevic fell in 2000 I got access to my files that the government kept on me. In my file were 186 pages of operational data, which outlined with whom I met, whom I was talking to, who my girlfriend was and who she was meeting, information about my parents and all this kind of stuff. The Milosevic government was so sure that people like me were the puppets of Washington that they were not aware of the things that were happening under their own chair. People like Putin play this game where they tell people that because everybody hates us we need to stick together with our chieftain protecting us. This is the psychology of a caveman. By keeping your inner population reading propaganda, the government was always in war with some other country or people, and that the people living under the chieftain need to be obedient because the country is in war with an entity that wants to destroy us. This is the same psychology that is at work in Russia now. And I saw the same thing in the 90s in Serbia.
The real problem is that when you start believing this, then you get really very bad things happening. You and your people start seeing enemies everywhere and you eventually become delusional. It is a really dangerous thing because it can bring people to actually hate freedom, social justice and democratic values in general.
And what do you think about the situation in Hungary?
Hungary is an interesting country. It is our neighbor and a member of the EU which means they stick to some EU standards. I met Hungary’s current Prime Minister, Viktor Orban, when I was 23 and he was 27. I wanted to be him. At 27 he was the most left wing leaning liberal you can imagine. I knew the guy back in 90s. You know everybody there wanted to be like him.
Under Orban’s current government though, without being too diplomatic, I think his main mistake is trying to rule the country with 50 or 53 per cent of the vote. Then the second thing is that I think he is facing the protest of the very constituencies that elected him to power, which happened last year and the year before with internet tax kind of stuff. These are urban, young, educated people, who were originally voting for the Fidesz party. And then last but not the least for the reasons that I am really concerned for Hungary is that the existing opposition is a non-factor.
I am not an expert in Hungarian politics but the thing is, the people in that country have been living in a democracy for too long to accept that certain freedoms are cut away. This is not in the national interest. People in Russia, however, are easily compromised because they have never really tasted a real democracy. There was a kind of period of democracy there, and it was unfortunately connected with a fallen economy. So the Putin regime can easily play this game of democracy equals chaos.
So, I don’t know what’s going to happen in Hungary, but there is definitely a huge potential of this population to oppose any ideas of the autocracy being involved on the one hand. On the other hand, 20 to 25 per cent of the Hungarian population votes for the far right’s party, which does not look too democratic where I am coming from.
What about Islamophobia in the World today. Many Muslims believe they are victims in a Western democracy. What do you think?
Theoretically speaking they are victims. When you look at the terrorist attacks in the last years and in the last century, only one small percent was carried out by Muslims basically. But I think this is very dangerous phenomena. With the ISIS phenomenon, where is it coming from? There is lack of positive social narratives or positive heroes for many young Muslim people, which makes ISIS kind of cool for them. Second there is a lack of delivery by state services many states are corrupt. When states deliver nothing, then they come in and create chaos, which is replacing one kind of chaos for another. The third is the lack of opportunities. If you are a Turk, North African or from another Muslim-majority country and you are an engineer living in European country who has the same qualifications as people born and raised in European countries who seem to be getting all the good jobs while you are left wanting, the chances increase that these kinds of people would look to join the safety of ISIS. So lack of opportunity for this people is what drives them to join into this crazy group.
I think Islamophobia is a very dangerous phenomenon. We had this same thing in Serbia where people we considered “enemies” because they were Kurds or Muslim in general. Labeling this segment of the population and making them an enemy is very dangerous. I think many politicians are playing with this, especially anti-immigration politicians. We see aggression across Europe, as it really shook recent European elections where more anti-immigration politicians were elected to national governments. I think these are narratives to collect more votes against the immigrants and at the same time we have the extreme group ISIS saying that you will never be recognized if you live there because if you are a Muslim, you are second class citizen, so come and join us and whatever crap I am offering to you. So, I think it (Islamophobia) is a big issue.
Is there anything else you want to share with The Oslo Times’ Readership about the Oslo Freedom Forum?
The Oslo Freedom Forum is super important because when we meet each other we understand that freedom fighters are facing very different problems, but that we can solve these problems together. And one of the reasons why the Oslo Freedom Forum is so important, and why you guys in Norway are doing very important work, is that this forum is perceived as a safe ground for people sharing their stories and experiences.
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