FSI09: Lessons from Serbia’s Civil Resistance

The fifth presentation at the Fletcher Summer Institute (FSI) for the Advanced Study of Nonviolent Conflict addressed the lessons learned by the Otpor student movement in Serbia. This presentation addressed the strategies and tactics that can lead to successful civil resistance.


Unity, Planning and Nonviolent Discipline are three main principles key to nonviolent struggle. These principles have obvious parallels with military principles. Nonviolent discipline is especially critical.

You can have 100,000 people demonstrating nonviolently in the streets but as soon as one person picks up a stone and throws it at the police, this is what the media will focus on and gives the regime the “excuse” to crack down. One participant noted that in their country, the regime sends criminals to pick fights and turn nonviolent protests violent. In this case, one tactic that could help mitigate this issue is to have women be on the front lines because police is less likely to use force against them.

Here are the 10 lessons learned from Otpor’s resistance in Serbia:

  1. Taking an offensive approach. The moment you start responding to what the regime does, you are losing your momentum. Keep moving, always, just like sharks.
  2. Understanding the concept “power in numbers”. Draw on the multi-level marketing model: “Act, Recruit and Train.”
  3. Developing an Effective Communication Strategy. There are typically 4 crucial target audiences: Members and supporters; Wider audience; Potential allies within oppositional parties and NGOs; and International community.
  4. Creating a Perception of  a Successful Movement. Pick the battles you can win; know when and where to declare victories.
  5. Investing in Skills and Knowledge of Activists. This is always appreciated by your members and helps foster group cohesion.
  6. Cultivating External Support. Solicit external support early but be deliberate as to whether you make that support public or not.
  7. Inducing Security Force Defections. Security forces are a key pillar of support to the regime. Most are not interested in acting with violence; they have families they need to feed. Those who take pleasure in torture have wives or girlfriends, find out where the latter shop, put pictures of their husbands with the question: “Why is X torturing our sons?” If you have the person’s phone number, add that to the poster and add “To find out, call X at #”.
  8. Resisting Oppression. Decentralize leadership and engage in extensive training to prepare activists to avoid surprises and overcome effects of fear. Share motivating messages (e.g., to the police).
  9. Using Elections as a Trigger. These create an atmosphere of “social referendum” while creating a wide coalition among political parties and broader consensus with civil society.
  10. Enabling Peaceful Transition of Power. Key state stakeholders need to be rapidly restored after “nonviolent revolution” to demonstrate democratic dividends right away.

I’ve found the past two days of conversations at FSI 2009 thought-provoking. There are many parallels between civil resistance tactics/strategies and the study of complexity science and complex systems.

One of the key challenges of nonviolent action is to scale the number of participants in the movement. Numbers matter. So how does one influence micro-motives so that they lead to macro-behavior—or emergent behavior. One way to influence micro-level motives in complex social systems is to create incentive mechanisms.

How does one communicate and synchronize these incentives? Enter the importance of communication technology.

Patrick Philippe Meier

3 responses to “FSI09: Lessons from Serbia’s Civil Resistance

  1. Althea Middleton-Detzner

    Great postings summarizing the FSI presentations – I feel like I am practically there! Also like your comments on connections with complexity science and complex systems. Looking forward to reading more as the week unfolds!

  2. Pingback: Brokekid.net » Monkey Vs Robot – My Weekly Idealist post

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