Ten simple steps for the people to take

In Belgrade, protesters are putting into practice new methods to mobilise support and fight tyranny. Independent writers analyse the key techniques
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The Independent Online

Don't kid yourself that people are prepared to revolt in large numbers for democracy alone. The concept is too abstract, especially in societies with little experience of what it means.

To succeed, you have to tap into more tangible feelings of discontent and offer very basic promises of improvement. Serbians are not generally too bothered by the autocratic, corrupt nature of Milosevic's regime; rather, they are at the end of their economic rope and deeply disillusioned at the way every promise Milosevic made has been broken or betrayed.

When they bang on their pots and pans to drown out the state television news every evening, they are basically giving their version of Peter Finch in Network: "I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it any more!"


The regime will blame you for being terrorists, bombers, madmen, everything. You must give them the minimum of ammunition, so that they, not you, will look dodgy when they make the accusations.

Discourage violent or anti-democratic rhetoric. Serbian opposition leader Vuk Draskovic's wife, Dana, appeared early on in the crisis raving about blasting the way to victory. She has been sent to media Coventry ever since.

When a bomb explodes at a pro-establishment building or organisation - as happened in Belgrade recently - it will be obvious to everybody that this is just another provocation by the regime. If they get violent, it just strengthens your hand.

As one previously cautious Czech said, after going on a demonstration in 1989 and being beaten up: "As I lay on the ground, I felt free." In general, good behaviour wins you points. During a 1989 strike in Ukraine, marshals made sure that miners did not step in the rose beds.

If you are in a country where people like to get drunk, you could try banning alcohol altogether, as, for example, happened in Gdansk when Solidarity was first formed in 1980.


The revolutionary hero is a cliche - and one that needs to be carefully considered. On the one hand, a hero, or a figurehead, can be a real asset, especially if they have international profile. It helps to make the movement more than just a group of faceless, nameless people. Think of Aung San Suu Kyi, Lech Walesa, Vaclav Havel. The international media knows their faces, their names, their history. Indonesia's Megwati Sukarnoputri and the Philippines' Cory Aquino are no great political thinkers - but their lineage gives them respect and legitimacy and their gender gives them a power against military governments which no man can have. It is much harder to arrest or execute a woman than a man.

But there comes a time when you need to say: it isn't your movement at all. In people's revolutions, the leader - the figurehead - is nothing, by comparison with the brave but undirectable people who have put themselves on the line. Unless you are Mandela or Havel, don't think you're that special. In Serbia, for example, many of those on the street have got more moral fibre in their little fingers than the people who prance around in front of the microphones.


All the most successful movements have been superb at using entertaining ideas to get people smiling and keep them that way, even when the going gets tough.

Solidarity has to be a cheerful business. In Prague, people rang little bells and jangled keys. In Romania, they cut the holes out of the flag. In Serbia, they do everything from blocking the traffic to banging pots and pans during the television news.

Co-opt the best designers, the most popular actors, the funniest joke- writers. Badges or clothing with subversive messages become enormously popular: in Poland, they sold T-shirts saying "I am an anti-socialist element".

In general, it should be remembered that every successful revolution has at least half a dozen brilliant badges to be remembered by.


Keep your energy up. Serbia's students have been very smart in avoiding too many all-nighters and pacing themselves. Dictators, and political leaders in general, never get tired (as Italy's Giulio Andreotti once said, "power tires only those who do not have it"), and they are infinitely vigilant and patient (as Francois Mitterrand once said, "like cats, we sleep with one eye open"), so flagging can be fatal.

And don't ask people to do very much. The best East German demonstrations were in Leipzig, where you could attend a weekly church service, walk down the road, then go home. Like going to an exercise class, but much more fun. Sleepovers can be enormously effective (as in Moscow during the 1991 coup, or in the parliaments of the Baltic states, earlier that year), but they are best suited for defending a fragile democracy.


Keep the media spotlight on you. In the Baltic republic of Estonia, one of the most astonishing moments in the peaceful revolution was a live television debate, organised by a sympathetic producer. TV news is vital, especially for all those stuck out in the provinces. Foreign media are even more important. Be amenable to foreign journalists, and find spokesmen who speak foreign languages. Foreign journalists are lazy so court them, even do their work for them. East Timorese activists run into embassies to seek asylum during international summits - foreign correspondents love to get a real story as a break from boring briefings. The more interested newsdesks get, the more information will be beamed back into the country via foreign radio, and these days in a surprising number of countries via satellite TV. English-language slogans get good play on TV and in photographs. Think about pictures: Korean demonstrators hurl lit newspapers at police in lieu of petrol bombs - they look great but do no real damage.


Build a broad-based movement, and avoid creating divisions that you will only have to heal once (if) you take power. Serbian demonstrators have understood this as they encourage the police, army and even members of the ruling party to come over to their side.

Persuade bits of the establishment to crack. All dodgy regimes love the trappings of respectability. They cosset the establishment. If you can persuade the establishment to seem publicly disloyal, you're in clover. Strikes by actors, orchestras, pro-test letters from writers' unions - all of these have played an important role as early warning signs in the past. Students and dissidents can be written off as troublemakers.

But when theatres are dark or the concert halls closed, that gets embarrassing. If the army cracks, too - as it has in Serbia, to some extent - that's a bonus. You may think that old general or ancient apparatchik is a vile racist. But if he also wants the regime to go, put your feelings to one side. Your mum may think he is the best thing ever.

Unlike in democratic elections, where dodgy individuals lower the tone of an entire party, you need a bit of everything in people's power, to let your movement reflect the rich tapestry of life.


Be seriously gradual: only ask for things which the mad totalitarians have already signed up for, thinking the commitments can be ignored. Thus, in the Soviet Union, the much-mocked Helsinki agreement was powerfully used by dissidents. They insisted they were not against Soviet Communist power as such (usually a lie; they were against it, with good reason), but were merely protesting against the flouting of a particular article in the Soviet constitution or the Helsinki final act.

Similarly, in Serbia, the demonstrators have not fixed their sights on Milosevic but have instead focused on the refusal to accept the results of an election which he himself allowed to proceed. Emphasise your respect for the rule of law - bring detailed legal actions before adopting quasi- legal or illegal methods.

Each little concession helps you to win. Ryszard Kapuscinski, in his account of the Iranian revolution, Shah of Shahs, calls it the "zigzag to the precipice". It is just a matter of whether your society is ready to boil. Press home concessions by asking for another little change.


Prepare the ground for when the basic victories are won. If demonstrations have the desired effect, a protest movement can very quickly become an embryo government - and that is when the real problems start, as Vaclav Havel, Lech Walesa and plenty of others found in the 1990s.

Without proper planning, your brave new government could quickly become deeply unpopular and then the bastards you worked so hard to overthrow might just come back again before they have had a chance to be properly reformed. It takes a long time for fully functioning democracy to take root, and vigilance must be maintained (ask any Bulgarian about this). Right now the opposition in Serbia is making all the right noises, but what will happen if they get into power?

In Serbia's case, start thinking about an international rescue plan to get the economy out of the doldrums. Think about aid to set up independent radio and television stations and international monitors to advise on and watch over free elections.

Think about equipment and training for new businesses and municipal services. Seek advice on which industries are viable and which are just clogging up the atmosphere.


Don't settle for any compromises and don't be conned. Once you compromise, you are lost. The bastards always try to squirm their way out of trouble, but you should always push for total capitulation. Remember: they think democrats are mugs, and they are comfortable with brazen lies. Get any agreements in writing, or (better) get the Prime Minister or President himself to read out the agreement in a humiliating televised climbdown. A promise is not a promise until it has been read out on the main evening news - midnight late news, another trick they sometimes try, is emphatically not good enough. The East Germans didn't stop when Honecker resigned and they didn't stop when the wall came down; only once the opposition was invited on to a round table with the government and elections were called did they consider the battle to be won. By contrast, in Belgrade in March 1991, anti-government demonstrators allowed themselves to be conned by Milosevic's promises that he would meet their various demands; the fizz then went out of the protests and the government rapidly recovered control. This time around, Milosevic is being equally slippery; but the opposition and the students seem to understand that it ain't over till it's over.