The Yugoslav nonviolent revolution

By Jan Oberg

TFF PressInfo 99 – October 9, 2000

Originally published here.


Milosevic certainly did not even think the thought. The opposition had hoped for it but hardly foreseen it would happened just like that. Western leaders and commentators had predicted about everything else but this: that nonviolence by the many would sweep away the authoritarian power presided over and solidified by Slobodan Milosevic over 13 years.

It was a miracle unfolding, minute by minute, in front of our eyes. Unarmed citizens were stronger, finally, than Milosevic’ force.

They also achieved in about 24 hours what NATO violence could not achieve in 78 days. It’s yet another remarkable victory for non-violence. But do we see it like that?



The power of nonviolence

The Shah of Iran lost power mainly due to nonviolent struggle. The Marcos regime in the Philippines did too. Solidarnosc in Poland would not had won had it used violence. The Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia is yet another. The East-West bloc confrontation – the “hardest” conflict of modern times, imbued with nuclearism and militarism on both sides – dissolved, not in a nuclear war, as war statistics might have made us expect, but by the remarkable combination of nonviolent forces: the peace and women’s movements in the West and the dissident, human rights and church movements in the East and, of course, the towering figure of Michael Gorbachev who did what no other leader has dared, namely to work his way up to the top of a power system and then declare that it has to be thoroughly changed and that change has to begin here with ourselves, not with “the other.”

These fundamentally important events in contemporary history, like hundreds of smaller changes brought about by non-violence and civil disobedience around the world, have seldom been covered by the media or referred to in history books as victories of nonviolence the way military victories are seen as the result of violence. Nonviolent revolutions like that in Yugoslavia ought to be analyzed as a manifestation of alternative power, not just as a lucky chance.

On Sepember 25, 1999 I participated in the walking demonstrations against the government, arranged by the Alliance for Change in the streets of Belgrade. There were more than 10.000 people, one evening after the other. But it was not enough, it was not broad enough; at the time workers were not actively opposing the Milosevic regime. Opposition politicians were fighting each other while the people marched. But no one present could possibly miss the strength and the determination or the fearless, unrestrained hilarity.

The Yugoslav non-violent revolution is the final argument against the ignorant and popular thesis that Yugoslavia, due to its history and ‘Communism’ could not have and did not have a civil society. I believe that it was civil society in a broad sense that manifested itself on October 5 and 6 – with all its networks, solidarity and spontaneity, with its unconstituted leadership and tremendous energy. In full it displayed its anti-authoritarian and democratic character, its non-governmental-ness – also in the sense of being “non-governable.” It was people’s power, change by peaceful means – although, sadly, there were incidences of violence against human being such as the ugly beating up of the director of the radio and television station, RTS, many wounded and at least one young person killed.


Two types of power and Gandhi: why all rulers are dependent

We are used to perceiving power as power over others, the power to make somebody do what we want him or her to do or abstain from doing something. That type of power is offensive, projective and, by definition, violent whether exercized by force or threats or other means. It communicates: I decide your project for you and your project is an instrumental part of my project!

But there is another kind of power: that of regaining or otherwise securing power over yourself and your own destiny, in short the power to rise up against those who are trying to put you down, bully and control you or exercize power over you. That power is more pro-active, defensive and self-reliant; it opens up a wide spectrum of non-violent policies and actions. This merely communicates: I decide my project myself, please get off my back and do your own project without me!

So, we may ask: where does power come from, what is the source of power? There are many theories of power but the one we shall look at here is the one that can be drawn out of Gandhian thinking and action – so excellently analysed by one of the world’s eminent scholars in the field, Gene Sharp in “The Politics of Nonviolent Behaviour”(1973).


The sources of power

There are many sources, or roots, of power. One type is authority, the ability to set the agenda, symbols, titles, status. Another is the mobilization of human resources: the ability to get things done through, for instance, advisers, ministers, security services, prison guards, workers in factories and public institutions who produce what must be produced to solidify a power base. Another source is skills and knowledge and the control of information.

Yet another is less visible, intangible – reliance on certain values, ideology, faith and tradition, in short the ability to appear charismatic, hit something deeper in the minds of the subjects, create an allegiance, make it look like everything is being done for the sake of welfare, freedom and all that. Then of course there are material factors – someone in power must have various things produced, including weapons but also be able to deliver various types of goods in the shops, pay wages and keep people reasonably satisfied at the material level.

And finally, a power holder must control a series of sanctions – the ability to instill fear and punish, one way or the other, those who disobey, be it through courts, special guards, police, knocking doors at night, etc.

Thus not even the strongest dictator is all powerful. People in power are fundamentally dependent on others supporting them, carrying out orders, producing- in short, a whole structure. Milosevic could do nothing when the police went soft on demonstrators, some even joining them.

No statesman can start a war if soldiers ignore the call-up papers or disobey officers’ orders in the battlefield. To put it somewhat crudely: rulers are never autonomous, they are fundamentally dependent and virtually powerless without a structure of obedient people.


Why do people obey?

So the next question is: why do people obey? There are many reasons, 7 of which follow here:

• habit and ignorance (“somebody’s got to do the job” or “my father used to work for this government, too”);

• fear of sanctions (“I have a family, I have bank loans, what would my friends say, I could end up in prison if I go public with this”);

• moral obligation (“I serve my country”, “I must fight actively for the values/ideology of the ruler because I share them”, “I think we serve the people/protect the country”);

• self-interest (“I can make a career here”, “I have a good income”, “one day I may become famous”, “if only I can get a little more power I can do something good for my people”, “what’s wrong with power, we all want it and so do I”);

• psychological identification with the ruler (“I know that many speak negatively about him, but I know him, he is really not like that, he is great”);

• indifference (“I am just a little man in the big picture, doing my job”, “somebody must do this”, “I do research on this little technical detail, I know it is part of a nuclear bomb, but it’s up to the politicians to decide whether to use it or not, I am not responsible for that”);

• absence of self-confidence (“being close to power, where things happen is exciting for me”, “I am sure that I have managed to influence our leader, he listens to me”).

Gandhi’s – provocative – conclusion is that all these causes tell us one thing: obedience is essentially voluntary. The day people stop being obedient – and stop fearing what would happen to them if they did just that – authoritarian rule and dictatorships would fall. In short, all government, all power is based on consent: you could choose to do something else, but – of course – paying a price. Power structures consist of obedient people, and the moment the first person leaves or turn disobedient, the system has its first crack. When more do and finally the majority drop out or become disobedient, the ruler and the structure loses legitimacy, power and action capability.

The first few to blow the whistle and disobey or drop out of the power structure of course take a great risk. Repressive systems can handle a few or quite many, but not thousands or millions. The more people who follow, the less courage it takes. If the system is sufficiently surprised it could be paralyzed, and then disobedience starts snowballing and a critical mass is attained. That is the end of the ruler and his ruling.


Many reasons it happened now

It is difficult to predict when this de-legitimization of the government and Milosevic started in Yugoslavia. But one indication of it, for sure, was the free expression of discontent and disobedience in the streets during the last good year. Another was the humiliating material deprivation of the majority of citizens – “he has robbed us all” was a common expression.

Among other factors one may mention the increasing number of refugees, some having been there 7-8 years in the most miserable conditions, the rapidly increasing number of people coming to soup kitchens and, of course, the humiliating loss of Kosovo due, in part, to Milosevic’ belief in force rather than in negotiations – although I believe this factor was much less important to many and balanced by the citizens’ rightful pride over the fact that they stood up for so long against history’s strongest alliance.

I met virtually nobody during my visits the last year or so who expressed any enthusiasm for Milosevic, at best various arguments like: “we must wait and see”, “there are no obvious candidates to replace him”, “he still commands a lot of respect with people in the countryside”, “what can we do with this opposition?” and “the policies of the West just helps him, not us.” People in general were focusing more on how this would end than on the possibility of the regime to continue.

Two factors delayed a change that could probably have finished Milosevic’ rule earlier: a) the constantly split opposition under Zoran Djindjic and Vuk Draskovic, both mistakenly cultivated by the West, and b) the policies of the West itself. Sanctions, bombing, exclusion and demonization of a the country and its people made them, logically, stand more firmly together and behind an internal status quo, no matter how detested that status quo was by many.


Rulers isolate themselves and lose the grip on reality

And Milosevic himself? Imagine a person who during all these years has never been able to walk the streets or sit at a café, go to a church, a cinema or an art gallery or visit a hospital – and won’t be able to in the future either. A man secluding himself increasingly with a handful of loyal people and a wife who, to put it kindly, is not popular anywhere.

Imagine a person whose loyal informers probably only convey positive stories to him about the situation in the country and people’s attitudes to his leadership, whether true or false. Imagine someone who must have feared every day for a decade that someone would try to kill him. Imagine that a series of friends turned their backs, that the best brains politely declined to work in the administration or left the country, imagine the empty happiness of having appropriated a lot of money and knowing that you can go safely to very few countries with it, alternatively lock yourself up in a bunker-like villa for the rest of your life.

Even people in your home town (Pozarevac) despise you, laugh at you and loot the business of your son who has already fled the country.

Like many other authoritarian rulers, this one lost sense of reality. His last power manoeuvres were indicative of that, of a very exhausted chessplayer who is losing the game without noticing it. Trying once again to rig the elections, getting the Constitutional Court to issue two contradictory statements to the effect that he could sit until June next year, attempting to arrest labour union leaders and then obviously not having planned a way-out for himself should it all break down are other indications.

During the hours when the police indirectly and directly helped the revolution, the military allegedly forced Milosevic at gunpoint to meet with and recognize Vojeslav Kostunica as the new president. What more humiliating way for a ruler with such a self-aggrandizing mind-set?

Power is a drug. Like any drug it increases the distance between the person and reality. It seems to prevent Milosevic from acknowledging that it is all over now. He is hardly able to survive without that drug now.

His statement on October 6 that he will take a pause and then be politically active with the Socialist Party (SPS) indicates that he is overlooking the possibility of having to face charges within Yugoslavia.

The legitimacy of the new democratic Yugoslavia will increase with a trial being completely professional and fair. Kostunica has already emphasized that there must be no vengeance and that Milosevic will not be extradited to the Hague Tribunal (see next PressInfo) which makes sound policy.

A third element on the way to national reconciliation and democratic rule will be to respect the views of those who did vote for SPS. And to very soon hold new elections.

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