On November 27, 2021 Marina Pavlić and her team were stopped by around 40 police near Gazela, Belgrade’s most important and now blockaded bridge. Her phone was lighting up, notifications were flying in, thousands of people were blocking roads and bridges across the country. They were protesting the government’s attempt to seize private land for international mining companies as well as limit the public’s right to referendums.
This mass action was organized by Kreni-Promeni (Go Change) – of which Pavlić is the executive director – together with a coalition of other grassroots organizations. The blockades went on for weeks and forced president Aleksandar Vučić to withdraw the expropriation law and amend changes to the referendum process.
The fight against lithium mining in Serbia continues, but we should ask ourselves: how were the Serbian people able to achieve success so far? And what made an overbearing president back down in the face of protests?
We look past the streets to what happened at small gatherings and thoughtful actions throughout Serbia to understand what it takes to build people power. Kreni-Promeni’s strategic and creative community organizing – incorporating the five five practices of storytelling, relationship building, strategizing, structuring teams, and acting – enabled the movement to adapt to changing conditions and build power for change.
Continuous planning, action, and reflection strengthened these practices. The practices are rooted in a long tradition of organizing, further formalized by Marshall Ganz and his associates. But it is not a rulebook, rather a framework that enables the creative capacity of people to emerge. We’ll look at the significance of each of these and how KP worked with them.
Community organizers start with the stories that carry people’s purpose for coming together and build relationships rooted in those values. Here we start with strategizing, because it tells this story as it unfolded over time.
Strategizing requires understanding 1) the people who are impacted, 2) their problem and why it hasn’t been solved, 3) a goal that can be achieved by altering power dynamics. This is about turning what you have (your community’s resources) into what you need (power) to get what you want (change). Because these variables are never static, strategy and tactics must constantly iterate on one another and build capacity and power over time.
Kreni-Promeni’s theory of change was that if they could build enough constituent support, they could hold the government accountable to rescind plans for two laws on: 1) Expropriation and 2) Referendum & People’s Initiatives.
From a counter-ad going viral to mass mobilizations, Kreni-Promeni knew that it was important to seize the growing interest in their campaign and meaningfully engage their constituents in holding those in power accountable, every step of the way.
Building initial support and exposing corruption
In late 2020, they posted an online petition (English translation) addressed to Prime Minister Ana Brnabić and Minister of Mining and Energy, Zorana Mihajlović. So far it’s garnered almost 300,000 signatures.
While the government disregarded local discontent as the campaign evolved, Kreni-Promeni shined a light on corruption and communicated it back to their followers, in real time across its online channels. They explained how people in power were changing rules to protect their positions, like when Radio Television of Serbia (RTS) withdrew its commitment to show KP’s counter ad to Rio Tinto’s project TV. Here’s how it went:
In October 2021, KP launched a campaign that raised over 1/2 million dinars (over 4,000 euros) to produce a counter ad and pay for the rights to broadcast it. When discussing the commercial terms with the taxpayer funded RTS, the tone of the conversation immediately changed once RTS understood it was about Rio Tinto. Breaking the initial agreement, the station revoked its offer to show the commercial. It was clear that the multinational corporation and power brokers were colluding for their own self-interests.
The following day on November 9, Kreni-Promeni organized a rally outside of RTS and aired the banned video; two thousand people showed up. Overnight the counter ad went viral and was viewed more than 1 million times across the organization’s social media channels.
It was at this time that the government announced plans to adopt two controversial pieces of legislation the following week, including the Expropriation Law that would allow the state to confiscate property in the name of “public interest” projects like the one proposed by Rio Tinto to remove lithium and jadarite from the Jadar Valley. The other was to impose bureaucratic and financial hurdles to civic participation through a Law on Referendums and People’s Initiatives.
Escalating blockades and clarifying demands
Together with representatives from frontline mining communities, Kreni-Promeni declared that if the government was to adopt these measures, they’d escalate through bigger interventions.
With allies they held actions everyday in the leadup to the parliamentary vote on 2nd December. While the People’s Initiatives law passed and included some hurdles to participation, the vote for the Law on Expropriation was postponed. So KP followed through on their public commitment and organized a series of escalating blockades.
Days after the second massive blockade, the government changed its stance in response to massive disapproval and withdrew the expropriation law.
As the movement swelled and as they were not the only organizational player, it became increasingly important for the groups to align. The values of setting a clear and measurable goal emerged as a sort of teaching moment when in a televised discussion, the campaign director of Kreni-Promeni, Savo Manojlović, and Nebojša Zelenović from coalition partner Akcija (Action) disagreed about next steps.
Manojlović insisted that the movement stick with their two demands regarding the removal of the Expropriation Law and the Law on Referendums. He argued that expanding their objectives would actually dilute them, enabling the opposition to move the goalposts, as seen in other movements time and again. Observers like Bojan Klačar of Belgrade-based pollster CeSID agreed, attributing the success of the protest to the fact that they had “clear, achievable and non-divisive demands.”
All of this was happening against the backdrop of a looming April re-election campaign for president Aleksandar Vučić, whose administration had been promoting the Rio Tinto project. Naturally, civil society groups knew not to trust any pre-election commitments. And naturally, he proved unreliable as he continued to support the Jadar Project, despite retracting the expropriation law.
Less mobilizing, more organizing
That’s when Kreni-Promeni and coalition partner SEOS (Association of Environmental Organizations of Serbia) invoked a fourth tactic, the democratic device civil society was fighting to protect, the People’s Initiative.
By April 1, they gathered 32,000 signatures needed and 70 days ahead of the deadline, demonstrating support to ultimately ban Rio Tinto from doing business in Serbia.
Historically speaking, the ability to tell stories has always distinguished homosapiens from our other ancestors. Through stories we learned to build the trust needed to form cultures and civilizations. And community organizers are no different today! To build relationships and movements rooted in shared values and commitments to a common future, effective organizers use the craft of public narrative to motivate others to join their cause. Stories rich in values are told in all contexts, from one-on-one conversations to public announcements.
In order to overcome potential divisions among their constituents, KP understood the importance of calling for solidarity under a banner of what unites: a desire for clean air, water, and land. Kreni-Promeni’s emails were inviting people to join their actions “regardless of their religion, whether or not they support vaccines … If they don’t want to gather on the same corner [as others], pick a different corner. But come, because it’s important for all of us to have clean air, water and land.”
It’s been said that “organizing is a fancy word for relationship-building.” Relationships rooted in shared values and mutual commitments are the foundation for building collective power. Organizers draw leadership from within their constituency of people impacted by the problem.
Kreni-Promeni traveled to towns throughout the country and met with people on the frontlines, like an older man in the town of Valjevo who approached Marina and showed her the remains of cows who died from drinking water contaminated by boron. In another village, they met with a cancer survivor whose well was poisoned with 300 times more boron than expected to be naturally occurring.
Pavlić explained that an ethos where supporters and leaders know “that they [KP] have their backs” is important to Kreni-Promeni. So when a leader from the northwest city of Sambor was having issues with local police, there was someone from Belgrade calling the authorities every day to check on her. Such acts of solidarity are transformational in relationships.
Commitments are central to community organizing because power relies on voluntary actions. Commitments are made through “asks” to play bounded, stable, and interdependent roles which strengthen organizational development. Since the successful collection of signatures for the people’s initiative, Kreni-Promeni has more than 50 people who’ve signed volunteer contracts for six months and one year.
Movements are made up of people and the structures through which they act are the scaffolding that can determine its effectiveness. In the snowflake model of organizing, leaders represent the nodes of the branches of the flakes. It’s their responsibility to develop teams with a shared purpose, interdependent roles, and community guidelines. This enables them to deepen relationships and commitments to action. As organizing is about enabling the agency of others who take on greater responsibility, organizers find ways to guide supporters into becoming leaders through a “ladder of engagement.”
Kreni-Promeni used a version of the self-organized snowflake for the blockades. They announced their plans and volunteers reached out telling them where they’d be situated. KP then placed those locations on a map so that others would know where to find fellow blockaders.
KP benefited from the growing interest in their movement through the blockades. So when they began to organize for the people’s initiative to ban lithium mining, they put out a call for local coordinators in frontline and other communities. Over 70 towns across Serbia were represented in the mobilization for the initiative. Pavlić recalled how two days before the deadline, a woman from the small town of Kosjerić called them, eager to show local support, and collected 10% of signatures from her town.
Importantly, coordinators were equipped to take their shared purpose to the next level. Kreni-Promeni provided the tools and support they needed to organize locally, through easy to follow guides, regular meetings, communications through Viber, and trainings on how to canvas and talk to neighbors about the initiative.
Sun Tzu, the fifth century BCE Chinese military general contended that, “Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.” Pavlić described how it’s been important for Kreni-Promeni to be able to explain the direct impact of every action and the logic behind how they built capacity one after the other, over time. Each action was aimed at developing the necessary additional capacity (power) to effect change.
Organizers put strategy into practice through tactics that build capacity over time. To date, the campaign could be seen through three phases: 1) response to the counter ad that was censored, 2) escalating blockades in response to the government’s proposed legislative changes, 3) organizing support for a people’s initiative against lithium mining. The last phase required commitments at various levels, pulling from the base of supporters they’ve been working with over time. This is how the campaign was able to gather 38,191 signatures in 90 days across 70 towns. And they’re still waiting to be processed.
The petitions are still waiting to be processed, so whether this is another stall tactic is TBD. KP and SEOS are preparing an appeal to the Constitutional Court, claiming the National Assembly of Serbia violated the Law of Referendum and People’s Initiative by not verifying the signatures within 30 days.
Through the five practices of community organizing, we’ve seen how the role of citizens can be transformed. By shining a light on corruption and building people power, this movement has given new hope to many Serbs. Their example shows how community organizing can change national narratives. And this story is one we can all believe in.
This text is a contribution to the Berliner Gazette’s “After Extractivism” text series; its German version is available on Berliner Gazette. You can find more contents on the English-language “After Extractivism” website. Have a look here: https://after-extractivism.berlinergazette.de
Masha Burina is a social movement organiser and educator. She holds a master’s in public policy from Harvard University and has experience as a labor and community organiser. Currently, she is a strategist with an international group that trains community organizers.