Thursday, February 4, 2016

When Dictators Cry Conspiracy

Srdja Popovic,

uncaptioned image from article
I was the leader of a revolutionary student movement that sought to unseat Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosevic — a movement that, in 2000, was growing day by day as Milosevic’s nationalism carried the country on an ever more destructive path. One warm spring day, during a government press conference on state TV, three senior ministers appeared on the screen and announced the existence of a “high-level CIA conspiracy to overthrow Milosevic by using well-paid student activists.” They meant me and my organization, OTPOR. My phone rang. It was my girlfriend. She laughed and said, “My foreign mercenary! I wonder when that fat check from Langley is coming, so you can finally take me skiing?”“My foreign mercenary! I wonder when that fat check from Langley is coming, so you can finally take me skiing?”
Labeling his opponents puppets of a foreign conspiracy became a mainstay of Milosevic’s propaganda. We were described as “seduced students,” pawns of Western powers. Later, when I became an advisor to non-violent revolutionary movements across the world, I would frequently see similar conspiracy theories used by other authoritarian regimes against pro-democracy activists. ...
[D]emocratic governments need to apply some of the street-level lessons activists have learned to the arena of geo-strategy and public diplomacy. Don’t be intimidated and stand up for your cause — but also don’t let yourself be dragged into endlessly trying to debunk the dictator’s fantasies. Instead, focus on developing an alternative vision that would enable a country like Serbia or Russia to flourish by treating its civil society as a legitimate partner, developing positive relationships with its neighbors, and joining the international community.

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