Steve York talks “Bringing down the Dictator”

Steve York talks “Bringing down the Dictator”

 CAIRO: Steve York is the director of the documentary “Bringing Down a Dictator”, which focuses on the fall of Slobodan Milosevic, beginning with his stepping up of violence in Kosovo in 1998 and ending with his defeat in 2000 largely by the efforts of non-violent student group Otpor! (resistance in Serbian).

Bikya Masr: How did you research this for this documentary?

Steve York: I had been watching the situation in Serbia starting in fall of 1996, when the Zajedno coalition won the vast majority of municipal elections but the results were nullified by Milosevic. Street protesters came out at that time, and after 100 days of continuous protests, led mostly be students, the regime backed down and allowed the true election results to be re-instated. Those protests were the precursor of what began two years later, with the formation of Otpor and wider opposition political activity. I paid close attention during the summer election campaign in 2000, and traveled to Serbia in early October 2000, to talk with the key people in order to decide whether to make a film. I met with opposition political leaders, many civil society activists, Otpor, and journalists and decided to go ahead. We began production a few weeks later, including an intensive search for archival video recordings.

BM: The beginning of Milosevic’s escalation in Kosovo in 1998/1999 is cited as the start of his downfall. If he did not use violence in Kosovo, would he still be a political player in Serbia?

SY: It’s impossible to answer such a speculative question. Milosevic had become very unpopular by spring of 1999, but it’s difficult to know how things would have played out without his Kosovo campaign. There is no doubt that he benefited, at least in the short term, from the NATO bombing, which rallied Serbs around him against an external aggressor.

BM: How important was Otpor’s non-violent protests to Milosevic and what would have happened if Otpor used violence to protest against Milosevic?

SY: Otpor was one of many elements in this story. No one of the elements was more important than any other. If the political parties had not united and supported a single candidate in the 2000 elections, Otpor’s actions might not have been as effective. But on the use of violence, I’m fairly sure that it would have been counterproductive. If the opposition, including Otpor, had taken up violent methods, they would have been fighting on turf favorable to Milosevic, and that would have been a terrible mistake. By maintaining nonviolent discipline, they forced the regime to fight on terms which favored the opposition.

BM: We go through much of our lives not seeing important developments in the world because there is no violence to accompany the story. What does this say about the West?

SY: This problem is not confined to the West. I’m not a scholar, but it seems to me that everywhere in the world there is a bias which either accepts or actually favors the use of violent tactics in profound conflicts. Simply stated, it’s a popular belief that authoritarians and dictators can only be defeated militarily. History has shown this argument to be false, many times, but the myth persists. Films like this one are a very small effort to gradually provide evidence that nonviolent options are viable, that nonviolent struggles do succeed, more often that is commonly understood, and against all kinds of adversaries.

BM: Do you think another crisis in Serbia with elections might occur again in the future?

SY: I’m not competent to answer this one.

BM: Otpor’s tactics helped to expose the brutality of the regime and eventually bring down the dictator. Do you think these tactics are universal and can be applied to different countries?

SY: It would be a mistake to think success in other contexts can be achieved by simply copying Otpor’s tactics. At the same time, some of the ideas and principles which were the foundation of Otpor’s approach are fairly universal. More broadly speaking, the Serbian opposition (Otpor, opposition parties, civil society, and the independent media) understood the basics of nonviolent civil resistance. They used many forms of non-cooperation, they were unified, they were organized, and they were disciplined. How to translate those principles into a strategy that will be effective in a specific conflict, in a specific culture, and develop tactics that are effective — that’s for local opposition and resistance leaders to decide for themselves.

BM: Is non-violent protest ultimately more powerful than violent protest when bringing about a change?

SY: I resist making broad generalizations and it’s wrong to make exaggerated claims for civil resistance strategies. I’m not sure that a nonviolent strategy could have defeated Nazi Germany. But there is no doubt that nonviolent campaigns have been successful throughout recent history, and that movements such as Solidarity in Poland, the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa, the pro-democracy movement against Pinochet in Chile (there are many other examples) were more successful using nonviolent methods than they would have been using arms.

BM: One intellectual has described Egyptians as being trapped in a Stockholm syndrome against the regime. How can people become mobilized when they are in lethargy and apathy?

SY: I’ve visited and filmed in Egypt many times (though not since 1991) and I know of nothing that would prevent Egyptians from adopting some variation of the nonviolent methods that have been effective in other situations. Apathy and lethargy have existed and been overcome in almost all previous civil resistance movements.

BM: Naomi Klein wrote a book called ‘the shock doctrine’, do you think that the bombing in Kosovo brought about a type of shock that allowed the youth and resistance movement to capitalize?

SY: Serbian activists had begun to organize and were well established long before the NATO bombing. And as I indicated earlier, the NATO bombing initially increased popular support for Milosevic. In fact, Otpor had to stop its activities during the bombing and for a while afterward, because of the backlash against the bombing.

BM: When the film came out do you think it received enough attention or showed Americans that they need to pay more attention to non-violent movements and that violence is in the way the world often makes changes?

SY: I doubted that any film maker thinks his films attract enough attention. I’m not the right person to judge whether this or any film influences enough American audiences (or any other audiences) in the ways I hoped. As a general principle, I think people are more aware of the potential for civil resistance today than 20 or more years ago. News and information flow more freely, thanks to the internet and satellite television, with the result that ordinary people can access information more easily, and that has made a difference. Oppostion groups in other countries hear about Otpor, or about the student groups which were so effective in Ukraine and Georgia, and they say to themselves, “why can’t’ we do that?”

BM: What are the key ingredients to successful civil disobedience? Are there key characteristics that can be applied to different countries? Do you think a similar movement to Otpor! could be found in the Middle East?

SY: I think I’ve already answered this, but I’ll repeat: the main points are unity, organization, and nonviolent discipline. I have no doubt that successful nonviolent movements can emerge in Egypt and throughout the middle east.

BM: When NATO bombed then former Yugoslavia in 1999, it generated a lot of anger towards western powers. Does this anger still exist and how is it effecting Serbia’s current relations with Western Europe and America?

SY: I’m not competent to answer this, but there is no shortage of factors driving anti-Western sentiment; from what I’ve seen, anti-Western feelings are much more affected by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan than by what happened in 1999.

BM: How important was bringing Slobodan Milosevic to justice in The Hague? Was it symbolic or was it more, and with his death, did the Serbian people loose a chance to bring him to account for his actions?

SY: I can’t say.

BM: Would you agree that violence can maintain a regime only for a short amount of time, and eventually, it will lead to its downfall? Or are things more complicated than that?

SY: Regimes cannot hold power solely by the use of force — at least not in the long term. Consent is the only basis on which any government can hold power. That means that people have to obey — they have to do their jobs, sweep the streets, produce goods, all the things that are necessary for ordinary life. When they stop obeying, the regime can’t exist for very long. Force can produce fear, and it can compel people to do their jobs, but only for a limited time — not forever.

**The Cairo Human Rights Film Festival runs from December 17-23 at al-Balad Library downtown Cairo.

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