CANVAS: Centre for Applied Non Violent Actions and Strategies
The Centre for Applied Non Violent Actions and Strategies (CANVAS) is a non-profit, non-governmental, educational institution focused on the use of nonviolent conflict to promote human rights and democracy. It was founded in 2004 by Srdja Popovic and Slobodan Djinovic, former members of the Serbian youth resistance movement, Otpor!, which played a key role in the successful overthrow of Serbian dictator, Slobodan Milosevic in October 2000. Drawing upon the Serbian experience, CANVAS seeks to educate pro-democracy activists around the world in what it regards as the universal principles for success in nonviolent struggle.
Established in Belgrade, CANVAS has worked with pro-democracy activists from over 50 countries, including Iran, Zimbabwe, Burma, Venezuela, Belarus, Palestine, Western Sahara, West Papua, Eritrea, Belarus, Azerbaijan and Tonga and, recently, Tunisia and Egypt. It works only with groups with no history of violence and only in response to requests for assistance.
CANVAS’ training and methodology has reportedly been successfully applied by groups in Georgia (2003), Ukraine (2004), Lebanon (2005), The Maldives (2008) and Egypt (2011).
The core of CANVAS’s work is rather to spread the word of “people power” to the world than to achieve victories against one dictator or another. Our next big mission should obviously be to explain to the world what a powerful tool nonviolent struggle is when it comes to achieving freedom, democracy and human rights.
CANVAS was established in Belgrade in 2004. Its founding members, Djinovic and Popovic, were leaders of the Serbian youth resistance movement Otpor! (Serbian for Resistance!), which played an instrumental role in deposing Milosevic in 2000. CANVAS says it sees itself as the successor to a host of non-violent campaigners from India’s Mohandas Gandhi to Martin Luther King. CANVAS has become known for its work with nonviolent democratic movements worldwide through the transfer of knowledge on strategies and tactics of nonviolent struggle.
Its founder`s dream seems to be: a world where political change comes through nonviolent struggle. It says it brings a more rigorous, strategic model and skill-set to the process, as well as an encyclopaedic knowledge of recent global protest history.
Established in Belgrade in October 1998, Otpor! emerged as a response to the introduction that year of repressive laws relating to the universities and mass media. Following the war inKosovo and NATO air-strikes in 1999, Otpor! began its political campaign against Milosevic throughout the country. Espousing the principle of nonviolence, it used an array of tactics, from slogans and chants to rock concerts and Monty Python street humour, to galvanise the Serbian population against Milosevic. Otpor! adopted as its symbol of resistance a clenched fist, black on white or white on black – a subversion of the communist imagery of a red fist which was favoured by Milosevic. Duda Petrovic, who designed the symbol explained “I never knew it would be so important […] I drew it not out of ideals, but because I was in love with the Otpor girl who asked me to do it.
Authors credited Otpor’s methods for stripping away the fear, fatalism and passivity that keep a dictator’s subjects under oppression as well as turning passivity into action by making it easy — even cool — to become a revolutionary. The movement branded itself with hip slogans and graphics and rock music. It was influenced by nonviolent struggle leaders like Mohandas Gandhi, Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King, but also a pop-culture and humor like famous UK comedy “Monthy Python`s Flying Circus”. Otpor’s unified message and diverse membership proved much more attractive to young activists than the deeply divided opposition parties of the time. Instead of long speeches, Otpor relied on humor and street theater that mocked the regime.
Over a period of two years, Otpor! grew from a dozen or so students to a grassroots movement of over 70,000 people.Otpor! became one of the defining symbols of the anti-Milošević struggle and his subsequent overthrow. By aiming their activities at the pool of youth abstainers and other disillusioned voters, Otpor contributed to one of the biggest turnouts ever for the September 24, 2000 federal presidential elections with voters turnout of more than 4,77 million or 72% of total electorate.Its campaign called “He Is Finished!” against Milosevic was seen by many as a key factor in his electoral defeat in September 2000 and subsequent overthrow.
Following Otpor!’s success in Serbia, civic activists in other countries contacted Otpor! leaders with a view to emulating their success. One of Otpor!’s leaders, Djinovic, traveled to Belarus on a number of occasions to meet with a student movement. However, the student movement was reportedly infiltrated soon after and it collapsed.
Otpor!’s counterparts in Georgia, Ukraine and Lebanon were more successful. In Georgia, Otpor! leaders had begun working with a student movement called Kmara (“Enough!”) in 2002. Kmara went on to play a prominent role in securing the resignation of President Eduard Shevardnadze in November 2003 during the Rose Revolution. In Ukraine, Otpor! worked with the Pora (“It’s time”) youth movement – a key player in Ukraine’s Orange Revolution, which took place between November 2004 and January 2005.The decision to set up a training centre was taken in 2003, while Djinovic and Popovic were in South Africa working with Zimbabwean activists. Popovic was a member of parliament at the time, a position he gave up in 2004 to concentrate on revolutionary activism. Djinovic had set up Serbia’s first wireless internet provider in 2000. He currently funds approximately half of CANVAS’ work.
Headquartered in Belgrade, CANVAS is run by Djinovic and Popovic. It has four and a half members of staff who are paid as contractors and operates a network of international trainers with experience of successful democratic movements.
CANVAS emphasises the importance of “unity, discipline and planning” as the keys to success in nonviolent resistance.
CANVAS teachings can be summarised in a few simple principles: Power in the society is not fiexed, it can shift very swiftly from one social group to another. It can become fragile and can be redistributed, especially in non-democratic regimes. Ultimately, power in society comes from the obedience of the people. And those people – each of whom is individually a small source of power – can change their minds, and refuse to follow commands. In addition to that essential principles for the success of the movement are unity, planning and non-violent discipline. There must be a shared vision of tomorrow and a grand strategy for how to attain it. No movement can succeed if it bites off more than it can chew; instead, successful movements win small victories and build on them.
Preparation is seen by CANVAS as paramount. Former CANVAS trainer Ivan Marovic was quoted as saying in a February 2011 Foreign Policy article, “Revolutions are often seen as spontaneous… It looks as if 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 organise mass demonstrations or strikes. If it is carefully planned, by the time they start, everything is over in a matter of weeks.”
As part of the planning process, CANVAS teaches activists to identify “pillars of support” – institutions or organisations such as the police, the army, organised religion and the educational establishment – to be won over. “It is crucial for nonviolent movements to pull people out of the pillars of support like the police or military, rather than push people inside these pillars and appear threatening or aggressive to them” Popovic was quoted as saying in an article published in Sojourners Magazine in May 2011.To disarm the police in Serbia, Otpor! deployed such tactics as delivering cookies and flowers to police stations.
CANVAS also views the creation of a strong brand with the potential to attract widespread support as key to a movement’s success. Slogans, songs and identity symbols – such as Otpor!’s clenched fist – all play an important role in this regard. Together with clear articulation of a movement’s aims, CANVAS teachings are covering topics of nonviolent movements` group identity, clear communication strategy with its target audiences and developing solidarity among its activists in case they are arrested, detained or fired from their work. Important part of curiculum is focused on how movements facing the oppression can overcome fear and its adverse effects on people`s moral and build enthusiasm.
For CANVAS, special attention should be given to developng movements` nonviolent discipline as “a single act of violence can destroy the credibility of a nonviolent movement”. Accordingly, it teaches its students in techniques to avoid violence and how to face violence, particularly from the police and security forces.
Methods for knowledge transfer
CANVAS disseminates its knowledge through a variety of media, including workshops, books, DVDs and specialised courses. Its workshops have reportedly been attended by over 1,000 people from 37 countries.
In 2007, CANVAS published its book for students, “Canvas Core Curriculum: A Guide To Effective Nonviolent Struggle.” It has also published a handbook manual for activists entitled “Non-violent struggle – 50 crucial points”, which has been translated into Arabic and Farsi. The publication has been downloaded some 20,000 times in the Middle East, mostly by Iranians. CANVAS has also released an education film, “Bringing down a dictator.”
In January 2008, CANVAS started a joint graduate program at Belgrade University’s Faculty of Political Science named Strategies and Methods of Nonviolent Social Change. The certified course is based on CANVAS’ core curriculum.Canvas members regularly teach and present an academic version of their Core Curriculum and hold workshops on strategy and organization of nonviolent struggle at variety of educational institutions worldwide, including: Harvard (Kennedy School Of Law), Fletcher school of law and diplomacy (TUFTS, Boston, MA), John Hopkins (SAIS), Columbia University, Rutgers (NJ), Colorado College (CO)…
CANVAS has attracted publicity for its work with dissident groups in various country. The clenched fist symbol was flying high on white flags in 2003 in Georgia, when nonviolent protesters stormed the country’s parliament after the election fraud in an action that led to the toppling of former autocratic President Eduard Shevardnadze. Recently, more substantioal media attention was given to their successful work with groups from the Maldives and, more recently and most notably, in Egypt.
In the Maldives, CANVAS gave training to the local opposition group and helped them end Maumoon Abdul Gayoom’s 30-year presidential rule in 2008.
In Egypt, it emerged that Mohammed Adel, one of the leaders of the April 6 Youth Movement, which became one of the most important organisers of the uprising in Egypt that led to the resignation of President Hosni Mubarak in February 2011, had received training from CANVAS. Adel traveled to Belgrade to attend a 5-day CANVAS course in the strategies of nonviolent revolution in the summer of 2009. As he informed Al Jazeera English in an interview on 9th February 2011, he “got trained in how to conduct peaceful demonstrations, how to avoid violence, and how to face violence from the security forces, and then how to train others in how to demonstrate peacefully and how to organise and get people on the streets.”
CANVAS is a non-profit institution which relies solely on private funding; there is no charge for workshops and revolutionary know-how can be downloaded for free on the Internet. CANVAS’ biggest individual funder is its founding member and media mogul, Slobodan Djinovic. Djinovic privately funds about half of CANVAS’ operating costs. CANVAS does not accept funding from individual governments.
In November 2010, CANVAS was awarded the Paul Lauitzen Award for Human Rights.
In November 2011. Foreign Policy Magazine credited Srdja Popovic, Executive director of CANVAS as one of their “Top 100 Global Thinkers” for his role in spreading the idea and educating activists about nonviolent social change.
Various organisations and individuals, including the governments of Belarus and Iran, as well as Hugo Chavez, have accused CANVAS of being a “revolution-exporter”. CANVAS denies this, emphasising its role as educator and empowerer of peaceful methods. CANVAS leaders often stress that “in order to be sucesfull, nonviolent movements must avoid taking any advice from foreigners, must be home-grown” and that “nonviolent revolutions cannot be exported-or imported”.