How Millennials Can Create Political Change, Now

Serbia and Otpor!

The former Yugoslavia was a country created in 1918. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, and during the 1990s, Yugoslavia fell apart due to corruption, brutal war, multi-ethnic tensions, ethnic cleansing, and genocide, and ultimately independence declarations by Serbia, Montenegro, Croatia, Slovenia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, and Macedonia.

Former Yugoslav President and Serbian communist leader Slobodan Milosevic became President of Serbia, and his regime was marked by corruption and violence. He refused to acknowledge the clear, democratic victory of an opposition coalition in the 1996 municipal elections, which defeated Milosevic’s party, and for the next 88 days, nonviolent protests brought Serbia to a standstill. Eventually, Milosevic capitulated to internal and international pressures. Yet, many coalition members turned out to be as corrupt as the communists, and the coalition fell apart, returning free rein to Milosevic.

In 1998, Milosevic introduced new laws restricting autonomy and freedom of expression at universities, and threatened independent news media. Outraged, a group of students led by Srdja Popovic founded the organization Otpor, meaning resistance, calling for the removal of Milosevic and the establishment of democracy and the rule of law. “Our ambition is to change the political consciousness of the Serbian populace,” said Popovic of Otpor’s goal to ultimately achieve transformation of political culture, by focusing on their primary objective first – removing Milosevic at the ballot box.

Otpor learned from the failures of other resistance movements, such as Tiananmen Square's democracy movement, which demonstrated you can’t win against military and police might. Like all dictators and tyrants, Milosevic maintained control of the populace through fear – the status quo of oppressive and corrupt societies. So Otpor employed the tactic of what they called “laughtivism” – enthusiasm and humor to combat fear and apathy. With irony and sarcasm, Otpor methodically mocked Milosevic’s power, from Jorge Luis Borges’ fundamental belief that "violence is the last sanctuary of the weak." Use humor to mock the oppressor, and mock their method of trying to discredit you.

Steve York, Bringing Down A Dictator documentary filmmaker, said of Otpor, "Every nonviolent movement has as its first obstacle the problem of overcoming fear. The Otpor kids were brave. They expected to be arrested, but they prepared for arrest with all sorts of publicity stunts and by training their activists how to behave when interrogated, by recruiting lawyers to help, by building solidarity. They calculated that their arrests, combined with their use of humor and ridicule, if sustained long enough, would persuade ordinary people to overcome their fear."

Otpor studied Dr. Sharp’s strategies for nonviolence and used them for the basis of their training manuals. Instead of protest marches and occupying plazas, Otpor used street theatrics – rock concerts, a lunar eclipse event featuring the eclipse of Milosevic's face, a New Year's Eve party in 2000 where the new year was rung in with the names and pictures of those who were killed in Milosevic's wars, and giving passersby’s on a busy downtown street a baseball bat to hit a wooden barrel with Milosevic’s face painted on it. They used lighthearted, low-risk tactics, to minimize the risk of violence, such as chasing officials while banging pots and pans, and offering police flowers to encourage defections. They tried a tactic used in Chile against military dictator General Pinochet, where people drove at half speed to slow the whole country down.

Srdja Popovich, one of the founders of Otpor! and the Centre for Applied Nonviolent Action and Strategies (CANVAS)

Srdja Popovich, one of the founders of Otpor! and the Centre for Applied Nonviolent Action and Strategies (CANVAS)

Not aligning with any political parties, Otpor organized a grassroots campaign against Milosevic for the 2000 election. Shamed by Otpor’s widespread grassroots support, the opposition coalesced around a law professor candidate, Vojislav Kostunica. On election night, Otpor and other independent groups had 30,000 trained volunteers at polling stations across the country to prevent fraudulent election results. Kostunica won, but Milosevic demanded a runoff vote, in an attempt to buy time and manipulate the outcome. Kostunica called for a general strike, and Otpor organized road blockades that brought the country to another standstill. Hundreds of thousands of Serbs gathered outside the Parliament building, and the police, whom Otpor convinced were Serbian citizens first, ignored orders to respond to the crowd. Milosevic admitted his defeat.

For over a year, thousands of Serbs had supported Otpor in their calculated strategy to undermine Milosevic’s legitimacy, turn the police and army against him, and force him to call an election. After the revolution, Otpor held the new government to account in its role as a watch dog, launching campaigns on government accountability, democratic reform, and fighting corruption. Otpor’s movement then turned into a political party, and eventually merged with the Democratic Party, with many of Otpor’s members elected to Parliament.

Otpor became a model for other youth-led movements across Eastern Europe, providing training in Georgia, Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia. In 2002, Popovic and other Otpor members founded The Centre for Applied Nonviolent Action and Strategies (CANVAS). This non-profit, non-governmental, international network provides educational work related to strategic nonviolent conflict, and has been instrumental in training groups beyond Europe.


Tunisia and the Dignity Revolution

The term Arab Spring was coined in 2011, following the successful Dignity Revolution in Tunisia, to describe the wave of anti-government protests, uprisings, and armed rebellions that spread across the Middle East. Unlike revolutions in other nations in the region, only Tunisia was successful in overthrowing their dictator and transitioning to a functional, democratically elected government.

Over the past few decades, the population of the Middle East has exploded, with two-thirds of people currently under the age of 30. Tunisians, like many in the Middle East, face high and increasing levels of poverty and unemployment, with political corruption and repression. The Dignity Revolution began when a 26-year old street vendor lit himself on fire, later dying of his injuries, in a public square in response to police harassment, sparking nationwide protests. Like many young Tunisians, his university degree was not enough for him to find a job in a country with high youth unemployment, so Mohamed Bou'aziz began selling fruit to support his family, when police demanded bribes and then confiscated his vending cart.

In the initial protests, armed forces fought back and dozens of protestors were killed. As protests spread, however, they became more difficult to control, and despite President Ben Ali giving concessions to protestors, clashes and protestor deaths continued. After a month, a state of emergency was declared and President Ben Ali fled the country when armed forces refused to crack down on the nationwide pro-democracy protests. Protestors did not support the interim government, which disbanded Tunisia’s secret police force several months later before a Tunisian court dissolved Ben Ali’s political party, liquidating their assets and banning them from running in future elections.

After nearly a year of interim government, the first parliamentary elections were held in late 2011 to select a new assembly and draft a new constitution.  At nearly 70% voter turnout, a moderate Islamist party and their coalition with two secular parties won more than 40% of the vote.

Tunisians demanded employment, freedom, and dignity. Six years later, young Tunisians are still waiting for poverty relief, job creation, and improved economic conditions, and a fresh wave of protests have begun against the democratically elected government leaders’ failure to implement tangible improvements. Unlike the spontaneous initial protests of 2010-2011, these protests are organized by mainly university graduates facing long-term unemployment. Protestors are camping outside of the governor’s office and main intersections in a southern region of Tunisia, where they have shut down a key oil pipeline. They demand a quota for jobs filled by locals at the oil companies drilling in the region, the creation of jobs at an environmental agency, and an investment fund for job creation programs.

Like Millennials everywhere, the protestors of this “Second Revolution,” as they’re calling their leaderless, democratic movement, distrust the mainstream media, and are utilizing social media to organize. They reject involvement and alignment with any political party.


Hong Kong and Demosisto

Hong Kong became a British colony in 1842, and the Sino-British Joint Declaration signed between the People’s Republic of China and the United Kingdom in 1984 led to the transfer of Hong Kong’s sovereignty back to China in 1997. Due to the vast cultural differences that had developed over 155 years, Hong Kong, in theory, exists under the principle of “one country, two systems,” whereby Hong Kong maintains political and economic independence from mainland China. This arrangement to maintain the existing way of life will continue for fifty years, until 2047. In practice, however, the Chinese government has been incrementally exerting its influence in Hong Kong.

Joshua Wong was fourteen years old when he started the student organization Scholarism in 2012 to protest the National Education curriculum the Chinese government wanted introduced in Hong Kong public schools, which Scholarism viewed as an attempt at brainwashing. After ten days of protests, Hong Kong’s Chief Executive announced schools would hold autonomy over the decision whether to implement the new curriculum or not. Scholarism had won the battle.

In 2014, Hong Kong’s Legislative Council was engaged with the Chinese government in an electoral reform consultation process, where the Chinese government decided its Nominating Committee would pre-screen and determine who the final slates of eligible candidates would be in Hong Kong elections. By the fall of that year, Scholarism was leading protests and strikes against the decision. Hong Kong citizens did not want to see the development of incremental conditions that had led to the Chinese military killing thousands of peacefully protesting students in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in 1989.

What became known as the Umbrella Revolution later that year, named for the movement’s supporters using umbrellas to shield themselves from tear gas, was an impromptu merging of Scholarism with Occupy Central, who were organizing in response to the Chinese government’s decision. For nearly three months, upwards of over 100,000 protestors peacefully occupied the city’s main financial and business district, including the main roads. Initially, the movement had the support of a huge proportion of Hong Kong citizens, but as time passed, with transportation blocked and businesses in the area losing revenue, support gradually slipped. People wanted to know what the movement was accomplishing, and the Chinese government knew they only needed to wait out the situation. Scholarism had won an early battle, but ultimately lost the war against the Chinese government when police cleared the protestors and their encampments.

Regardless of the outcome, Scholarism had applied the principles of nonviolence in their movement successfully. Wong and his fellow activists announced Scholarism was folding, and in its place, the launch of their Millennial-led, pro-democracy political party called Demosisto. In the 2016 Legislative Council election, 23-year old Nathan Law, one of the founders of Scholarism, was elected. He is Hong Kong’s youngest ever legislator. Like Otpor in Serbia, Demosisto realized societal change occurs through the political system, not occupying streets. Demosisto is calling for a referendum to take place in 2047, to determine Hong Kong’s future.


Nonviolence in Established Democracies

There are issues in this world bigger than ourselves and our opinions about them, bigger than the circle of people and corner of the world we identify with. Everyone who supported Otpor, the Dignity Revolution, and Demosisto is as varied within their nation as they are compared across regional lines. Political polarization, partisan bickering, and ideological hatred is antiquated and, frankly, boring. This is not what humanity is meant to be or to be focusing on. Millennials have so much potential available to us to create the future, not destroy and divide. Variety and diversity of thought, opinion, and experience is an invaluable element of humanity. When we first unite in what we share, then the differences among us are much more understandable and can be addressed in a positive way.

The mainstream media often reports revolutions as spontaneous uprisings, but successful movements only occur after years of a shift in societal consciousness and organization behind the scenes.

Building a movement takes time and must have the buy-in and support from all segments of society. Successful social movements appear to be, and often are, led by youth. But success only comes when the rest of society supports those youth, because essentially youth leaders are the face of a society’s sentiment, and have the energy, and even at times naivete, to take on threats older generations have fought before or didn’t have the opportunity to. The people of a society must be capable of engaging in the movement, not too busy just trying to survive to be able to mobilize. Revolution itself is also not enough, we must be prepared for the work that comes afterward to retain the gains and continue to move forward, toward new goals.

What do these successful examples of nonviolence movements in Serbia, Tunisia, and Hong Kong have in common?

  • Internal resistance, not external intervention, is the best driver for political change.

  • The core principles of nonviolence are unity, planning, and nonviolent discipline.

  • Don’t be predictable or confrontational.

  • Have a vision and clear plan of action, with tangible goals for supporters to build a strategy around.

  • Target the right pillars of support – the turning point in every successful nonviolent movement is flipping certain key institutions in your favour.

  • Expand the battlefield and pull third parties toward your goals.

  • Join forces with religious institutions – the church has been an important pillar in many successful movements.


When Nonviolence Fails

The leaders and supporters of the nonviolence movements in Serbia, Tunisia, and Hong Kong, and many others, made their decisions to organize with the expectation they would meet a violent response. There is no guarantee of success, or that there won’t be arrest, torture, or death. Dictators don’t give up without a fight, especially in societies where democracy and personal freedoms are not the cultural norm.

In the case of terrorist movements, research by political scientists Audrey Cronin and Max Abrahms shows these almost always die off without achieving any of their strategic aims, such as the failed independence movements in Puerto Rico, Ulster, Quebec, Basque Country, Kurdistan, and Tamil Eelam.

You have the choice to accept continuing to live in a system that does not meet your democratic expectations and needs, or you can do something to change it. What options for change do you have – meet violence with violence, guaranteeing violence, or meet violence with nonviolence, reducing the chance of violence?

Assuming the World Health Organization’s definition of violence as "the intentional use of physical force or power, threatened or actual, against oneself, another person, or against a group or community, which either results in or has a high likelihood of resulting in injury, death, psychological harm, maldevelopment, or deprivation," it could also be argued that our democratic government and capitalist societies are already nonviolent, so if we don’t like the way things are, what use is more nonviolence?

Abuse and neglect are also forms of violence, and the non-physical psychological application of violence also aims to exert power and control, whether intentional or as result of incompetence, which leads to both mental health and physical health problems. The impact of psychological violence can be just as significant as that of physical forms of violence, where the actions humiliate and degrade, limit or monitor access to things or people, and threaten or exploit vulnerabilities, leading to anxiety, stress and stress-related physical pain and illness, and depression. If you’re underemployed or unemployed, possibly for an extended period of time, with limited or no future prospects despite your best efforts, you’re likely to criticize the negligence of your government in creating those poor economic conditions. Even moreso if you question the abuse of power by politicians and bureaucrats who continue to benefit while you continue to suffer. 

In their book based on their 2011 study, Chenoweth and Stephan found almost three-quarters of nonviolent movements get either some or all of what they demanded, compared with only a third of the violent ones. They also show that the success rate of nonviolent protest movements has steadily climbed since the 1940s, while that of violent movements has fallen since the 1980s.

There are no guarantees in life, about anything. At least the odds with nonviolence are in your favor.