Video review: Bringing Down a Dictator

By John Bacher

At a time when the prospects for nonviolent solutions to the twin problems of war and dictatorship appear bleak, especially in the Middle East, it was refreshing when on April 3, 2002 the Public Broadcasting System (PBS) broadcast the remarkable video, "Bringing Down A Dictator." This details the remarkable success in the nonviolent destruction of the dictatorship of Slobodan Milosevic, by the courageous youth organization, OTPOR (resistance).


The power and impact of "Bringing Down A Dictator" is further enhanced by the excellent choice of Martin Sheen, an actor familiar to millions as the presidential star of the fictional political drama series, West Wing. As narrator, Sheen's message is hammered home quite appropriately in a brief final update at the end of the video. Here he stresses that after September 11th, the nonviolent destruction of dictatorships is more important than ever before because of the role that repressive countries play in provoking terrorism. As one would wish the real President George Bush would indicate, Sheen stresses that there are simply too many dictatorships for the United States to invade and conquer, so the US has to orchestrate more nonviolent defeats for them around the world.

The video "Bringing Down A Dictator" is the second triumph in promoting strategies for nonviolent democratizing change by partners Jerry Ackerman, a dedicated scholar and author, and film makers Steve York and Miriam A. Zimmerman. Earlier these important apostles of peace collaborated on the equally remarkable film, "A Force More Powerful," which was broadcast on PBS last year. This featured little known successes in nonviolence, including how these tactics were used in the most difficult circumstances, such as in opposition to Nazi Germany's occupation of Denmark.

The value of "Bringing Down A Dictator" is further enhanced by the excellent web site produced by PBS that complements the video. This provides links to ongoing movements for enhancing democracy in Serbia. It also is full of extensive bibliographic references to other literature on the success of nonviolent strategies in overthrowing Milosevic. The study questions and bibliography would provide a fine basis for courses in political science and peace studies.

What is so astonishing about OTPOR is that after its founding by only a dozen Serbian students in 1998, it would succeed in its goal of bringing democracy to Yugoslavia in only two years. In the beginning the group simply improvised, using good instincts. Later, they studied nonviolent strategy, primarily through the writings of American scholar Gene Sharp. They immediately adopted Sharp's ideas as the basis for their training manuals, combining them with a clever flair for both humor and courage.

In "Bringing Down A Dictator," Miljenko Derata, the director of a Belgrade group called Civic Initiatives, explains how he received funding from the US human rights organization, Freedom House, to print and distribute 5,000 copies of Gene Sharp's book, From Dictatorship to Democracy: A Conceptual Framework for Liberation. OTPOR also got hold of Sharp's main three-volume work, "The Politics of Nonviolent Action." They translated this into a Serbian language notebook, which was called the "OTPOR User Manual."


Srdja Popovic, who is interviewed in the video, was key to shaping OTPOR's nonviolent strategies. In a typically humorous reference to Yugoslavia's communist heritage, he was sometimes called OTPOR'S "ideological commissar." This was an appropriate label for Sharp's Serbian translator who developed OTPOR's training manuals.

"Bringing Down A Dictator" shows astonishing details as to how OTPOR brought together the key elements for the nonviolent destruction of the Milosevic regime. The video shows how its demonstrations successfully persuaded the Yugoslavian opposition to run one presidential candidate against the dictator, ending the destructive bickering among opponents that had helped Milosevic cling to power. It also details, through an interview with Daniel Serwer, director of the US Institute for Peace's Balkan Initiative, the successful meetings between himself and OTPOR, which resulted in American and European funding of $25 million for nonviolent resistance.

The details in "Bringing Down A Dictator" are surprising and revealing. The Yugoslavian democratic opposition was assisted in a remarkably non-partisan way, receiving funding and advice from two sources. These were the National Republican Institute, an external foundation for the Republican Party, and the National Democratic Institute, a similar organization for the Democrats.

Viewing this video will make Canadians more critical of the way foreign and defence policy options in this country are considered. Generally, they are conducted in the sterile fashion of either lining up with the US to overthrow a repressive government, or doing nothing to foster democratic change. "Bringing Down A Dictator" shows that there are realistic ways to foster the destruction of such terror states without recourse to war.


Another immediately important insight from "Bring down A Dictator" is how the American mass commercial media, through its appetite for violent imaging, distorted the reality of this remarkable triumph of the power of nonviolence. The PBS course guide notes that following the success of OTPOR's occupation of the Yugoslavian parliament buildings with a peaceful army of 250,000 protesters who had gathered from all parts of the country, the lesson was lost through media manipulation. It notes that "[u]nfortunately the smoke that billowed out of the parliament and state television buildings when rooms were set afire encouraged CNN and other television networks to use seemingly violent images as the visual emblems of their coverage, even though only two people were killed in unrelated incidents in Serbia. (One was an elderly man from a heart attack - the other was killed through a traffic accident.) As usual, the world media focused on the frenzy, not the patient movement that produced change."

John Bacher is a Toronto -based writer.

Peace Magazine Jul-Sep 2002

Peace Magazine Jul-Sep 2002, page 28. Some rights reserved.

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