Thoughts from Belgrade

I’m visiting Belgrade on family matters, and have been reading through the guide book in the apartment. Up the road is the huge Kalemegdan park and the Belgrade Fortress standing on a bluff overlooking the confluence of the Sava and Danube rivers. There is a huge column with a statue of the Messenger of Victory at the top, staring out over the rivers with a falcon on one arm and a sword in his right hand. The falcon, says the guide book, represents Serbian freedom and the sword is the sword of peace.  There’s an oxymoron for you.

It took me back to Mark Kulansky’s accessible and popular 2006 book on nonviolence, subtitled The History of a Dangerous Idea, and a quotation from Gerard Winstanley of the Diggers, “We abhor fighting for freedom. Freedom gotten by the sword is an established bondage to some part or other of the creation. Victory that is gotten by the sword is a victory that slaves get one over another.” It’s still a very common belief that sustainable social change, equality and social justice can be established by physical force and causing suffering.  The idea of persistent negotiation and persuasion with respect for and acknowledgement of the other, the refusal to use violence as a tool, the use of Gandhi’s “truth force”  is still seen as both weak and ineffective despite much evidence to the contrary.

This evidence is now gathered in a brilliant book by Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan Why Civil Resistance Works It’s not as easy a read as Kurlansky’s as it’s a substantial piece of thorough academic research but it really is worth the (for me!) struggle with statistics and tables.  The website of the International Centre for Nonviolent Conflict is also worth a look.

And, being in Belgrade, I want to find out more about Otpor, the student-led civil resistance movement that through nonviolent tactics – blockades, occupations, poster and sticker campaigns, humorous stunts – brought about the removal of Milosevic in 2000 and inspired some young Egyptians to set up a nonviolence movement for political change in 2006, the Academy of Change, which resulted in the events of Tahrir Square in spring 2011.

So have a look at this inspiring video of Srdja Popovic, one of the organisers of Otpor, who now runs the Centre for Applied Nonviolent Action and Strategies here, even though the statue with his “sword of peace” still stands high above the rivers in Belgrade.