Center for Applied NonViolent Action and Strategies

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"The Serbian capital is home to the Center for Applied NonViolent Action and Strategies, or CANVAS, an organization run by young Serbs who had cut their teeth in the late 1990s student uprising against Slobodan Milosevic. After ousting him, they embarked on the ambitious project of figuring out how to translate their success to other countries. To the world's autocrats, they are sworn enemies -- both Venezuela's Hugo Chávez and Belarus's Aleksandr Lukashenko have condemned them by name. ("They think we are bringing a revolution in our suitcase," one of CANVAS's leaders told me.) But to a young generation of democracy activists from Harare to Rangoon to Minsk to Tehran, the young Serbs are heroes. They have worked with democracy advocates from more than 50 countries. They have advised groups of young people on how to take on some of the worst governments in the world -- and in Georgia, Ukraine, Syria-occupied Lebanon, the Maldives, and now Egypt, those young people won." (



"the global clash of ideologies is over, and plenty of dictators remain -- so what do we do?

The answer, for democratic activists in an ever-growing list of countries, is to turn to CANVAS. Better than other democracy groups, CANVAS has built a durable blueprint for nonviolent revolution: what to do to grow from a vanload of people into a mass movement and then use those masses to topple a dictator. CANVAS has figured out how to turn a cynical, passive, and fearful public into activists. It stresses unity, discipline, and planning -- tactics that are basic to any military campaign, but are usually ignored by nonviolent revolutionaries. There will be many moments during a dictatorship that galvanize public anger: a hike in the price of oil, the assassination of an opposition leader, corrupt indifference to a natural disaster, or simply the confiscation by the police of a produce cart. In most cases, anger is not enough -- it simply flares out. Only a prepared opponent will be able to use such moments to bring down a government.

"Revolutions are often seen as spontaneous," Ivan Marovic, a former CANVAS trainer, told me in Washington a few years ago. "It looks like people just went into the street. But it's the result of months or years of preparation. It is very boring until you reach a certain point, where you can organize mass demonstrations or strikes. If it is carefully planned, by the time they start, everything is over in a matter of weeks."

CANVAS is hardly the first organization to teach people living under dictatorship the skills they can use to overthrow it; the U.S. government and its allies have funded democracy-promotion organizations around the world since the early years of the Cold War. Living under two dictatorships -- Chile under Augusto Pinochet and Nicaragua under the Sandinistas -- and visiting perhaps a dozen others, I had seen armies of them at work and served as an election monitor myself. But I had never seen anything like CANVAS.

Traditional democracy-promotion groups like to collaborate with well-credentialed opposition parties and civil society groups; CANVAS prefers to work with rookies. The theory is that established parties and organizations under a dictator are usually too tired and tainted to be able to topple him, and that hope rests instead with idealistic outsiders, often students. The Serbs are not the usual highly paid consultants in suits from wealthy countries; they look more like, well, cocky students. They bring a cowboy swagger. They radiate success. Everyone they teach wants to do what the Serbs did.

If CANVAS has torn up the old democracy-promotion playbook, it's because the group's leaders have drawn up a new one, taken from their own firsthand experience. The group traces its roots to an October 1998 meeting in a cafe in Belgrade, where Popovic, a tall, sharp-featured man, then 25 and a student of marine biology at Belgrade University, had called several of his fellow students together. At the time, Milosevic had been in office for nine years and was firmly entrenched in power. He had started and lost three wars and was in the process of launching a fourth, in Kosovo. Popovic and his friends had been active in student protests for years. They had marched for 100 days in a row, but their efforts had yielded next to nothing. "It was a meeting of desperate friends," Popovic says. "We were at the bottom of a depression."

The students christened themselves Otpor! -- "Resistance!" in Serbian -- and began rethinking revolution." (

More Information

The prehistory of CANVAS: Otpor in Serbia