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The Myth of Nonviolent Revolution and the Tragedy of Syria

Zoran Cirjakovic
For many, recent images of Syrian refugees stuck alongside Serbian borders present the only link between Syria and Serbia. But the never-ending tragedy in the Levant also has some often neglected or misrepresented Balkan roots.

It has become something of a conventional wisdom that "nonviolent" overthrow of Slobodan Milosevic on October 5, 2000 - the mass uprising later dubbed the Bulldozer Revolution - provided both the blueprint and the know-how for subsequent "Colour Revolutions", a series of mass pro-democracy movements throughout the former Soviet Union, as well as the Arab Spring.
Zoran Cirjakovic
The suggested narrative is straightforward and compelling. A group of upper middle-class students - Gen X "Hobbits," used laughter to accomplish something that three months of NATO bombing failed a year before - to bring down the Serbian strongman that Time magazine called "the butcher of the Balkans".

"Want to start a revolution? All you need is Tolkien and Monty Python," a Guardian reviewer summarized the seductive message spread worldwide by Srdja Popovic, a disciple of Gene Sharp and a prominent figure in the leaderless Otpor (Resistance) movement that helped end Milosevic's rule.

Aided by some of his Otpor comrades, Popovic spent the past 15 years "galvanizing" democracy activists around the world. Jon Henley at the Guardian called him "the secret architect of global revolution," and Liel Liebovitz at The Atlantic described the Serb biologist as an expert in "rectification and reconstruction by nonviolent means."

When "the professor of revolution" was not holding training sessions with aspiring revolutionaries from 46 countries, he was busy busting "myths" about nonviolence and its perceived ineffectiveness (while promoting his book Blueprint for Revolution). Tina Rosenberg, The New York Times' "Opinionator," wrote that "Popovic cheerfully blows up just about every idea most people hold about nonviolent struggle."

Unfortunately, he shattered a few too many, including some sobering truths. For example, although the protracted resistance to Milosevic's rule was largely peaceful - often carnival-like and well thought out around the catchy slogan "He is finished!," the victory came only after the ranks of the protesters have been joined by columns of notorious “football hooligans” - well organized supporters of the largest soccer clubs.

In the previous decade, these fervent fans had been filling the ranks of some of the most notorious paramilitary units fighting in Bosnia and Croatia, especially dreaded Tigers, whose commander-in-chief was Zeljko Raznatović Arkan, the head of the supporters' association of the Red Star, the richest and the most popular club in the country.

Often long-time supporters of Milosevic's policies, those rowdy men chanted "Save Serbia, Kill Yourself Slobodan" and many were finally ready to do whatever it took to finish the reviled despot off. They set on fire the parliament and headquarters of the state television, the main pillar of Milosevic's decade-long reign. Some brandished their guns, probably souvenirs from the series of bloody Balkan wars; many more were throwing rocks and fighting with the police. Of course, there were other important actors, but Milosevic finally fell largely because the violent bunch on the much anticipated "D-day" took over the reins of the belated revolution from the uber-cool guys of Otpor.

It seems that very little of that uncool reality has reached Popovic's enthusiastic audiences, "activists interested in copying the Serbian model of bottom-up regime change" and western pundits looking for "good guys" in distant badlands. No wonder many still see Milosevic's ouster as an exemplary nonviolent change.

"My biggest objection to violence is the fact that it simply doesn't work," reads one of Popovic's most quoted lines. These words have been echoed in scores of articles, both those that glossed over the nonviolent strategies and those that attempted to explain why they stopped working in the Middle East. "Nothing is more tragic than contemplating what Syria could have been now, had the nonviolent activists in the opposition movement prevailed - and followed Popovic's blueprint," laments Tina Rosenberg.

But the heart of the problem is not that many Syrians later opted for wrong teachers or that "their protest movement was co-opted by violence," as The New York Times analyst has it. It seems that Popovic has been teaching his young students - who had "traveled to an isolated beach resort outside Syria to take a week-long class in revolution" - a flawed lesson in people power. It might be a sin of omission, but the eloquent Serbian tutor failed to warn them that "mobilisation, enthusiasm and humour" might not suffice in their struggle against Bashar al-Assad's regime.

For most autocrats, holding on to power is life-or-death issue and they are ready to do whatever it takes to crush the challengers. That is why on the eve of the final showdown, nonviolence, be it strategic or not, is over. As young Syrians have learned the hard way, ruthless official killers might not always disobey their shaken paymaster like they did to Milosevic.

Even in Serbia in 2000, what started optimistically "with wonderfully stylised raised and clenched fist" might have ended in years of bitter lives with clenched Kalashnikovs. This prospect was made clear to those of us who had witnessed trucks full of guns and ammunition being unloaded at the back entrance to the opposition-controlled Belgrade city hall a day before Milosevic was toppled.

Although useful and often instrumental, nonviolent struggles can only decrease the risk of a violent showdown or make it less bloody. As a rule, real, revolutionary change hinges on violence. Both Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and Ukraine's Viktor Yanukovych have been toppled relatively peacefully because they couldn't find enough police and army forces that were ready to keep killing.

Exceptions are relatively rare and often linked to the idea of "liberation from a foreign yoke" reinforced by strong nationalist sentiments, like loathing for Russia and Soviet domination throughout Eastern Europe. This was the case in the two glowing examples that today color the image of modern revolutions throughout the world: Mahatma Gandhi's "nonviolent resistance" in India that shook the foundations of British Empire and the gentle Velvet Revolution in the former Czechoslovakia in November 1989, when the demonstrators had been jingling the keys to tell the Soviets: "Goodbye, it's time to go home."

Unfortunately, these much celebrated examples of largely violence-free change can be deceiving. Furthermore, they helped turn nonviolence into a fetish, the strategy of change whose consequences shouldn't be debated or its effectiveness questioned. No wonder that all the hype and myths surrounding over a decade of worldwide promotion and, to use one of Popovic's favorite phrases, branding of "nonviolent action and strategies" might have blinded many enthusiastic young Syrians to the likelihood of an unspeakable tragedy with no end in sight.

When the revolution comes, in the 21st century as ever before, it is all about violence, willingness of people on both sides - forces of change and agents of the regime - to kill or be killed. Every lesson in how dictators can be toppled should start with this warning, especially if the mentor is "a believer in the transformative power of a nonviolent struggle."


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