Interview: Srdja Popovic, Serbian activist and candidate to be Rector

The Saint interviews Srdja Popovic, one of the candidates to be the 53rd Rector of the University of St Andrews.

Photo: Sammi Ciardi

Srđa Popović is a Serbian political activist running to be the next Rector at the University of St Andrews. Born in 1973, he helped found the movement Otpor! in his home country to topple the Serbian dictator, Slobodan Milošević.

Following the successful movement, he pursued a brief political career before going on the found the Centre for Applied Non Violent Action (CANVAS) in 2003.

CANVAS works with pro-democracy activists to pursue their causes through nonviolent actions.

In response to The Saint asking him why he wants to be Rector, Mr Popović said, “It’s an amazing question; in order to understand that you have to understand what me and my organisation do. So for 14 years now CANVAS has been orientated around empowering activists, so this is what we do.

“I started as a student activist, got stuck in politics for a few years, now I am launching this organisation which basically deals with activists. Like from here [St Andrews] I am going to Burma, this is my normal scope of work, seeing people fight for human rights and democracy on the ground. And then we developed our second branch which is university courses. So we do teach a lot of university courses, so we started in Colorado College in the US, it will be eight years now, then we moved to grad level at NYU, global affairs programme.”

He continued, “so I see this as a chance, the Rector of St Andrews should be the loudspeaker of students.”

Mr Popović then explained how he came to run for the position of Rector. “It started when [my current campaign manager] contacted me,” he said. “I have a book called Blueprint for a Revolution, I did something weird: I put my real email in it, and said ‘if you have a cool plan then please email me.’ And then someone from St Andrews [emailed] me and said ‘we would like you to run a campaign for Rector.’ I was like ‘wow, what? Are you sure?’

“I said that I have no serious credentials for this at all, I am a Serb, can you run if you are not a UK citizen?

“And then I figured out that this would be a really great opportunity to create a student movement, because what I’m really passionate about is teaching people how to make movement for change. And talking to [my campaign manager] and his team and a bunch of people here there is a good human potential for this.

Mr Popović went on to describe his manifesto and the process that went into its creation. He asserted that the issues raised in it were not his and the issues that students had presented to him. “It is [students] talking for other students and then we say it together,” he said. “I don’t even pretend to know this stuff, and I won’t pretend because I don’t.”

the Rector of St Andrews should be the loudspeaker of students

Mr Popović and his family reside in Belgrade despite his work requiring him to frequently travel across the globe. The Saint then asked Mr Popović if he felt that his distance from St Andrews put him at a disadvantage when it came to pursuing the role of the Rector.

I told this to my campaign team and I’m telling this to every student I meet here: this is not going to be my rectorship, this is going to be yours. The general idea is that if we get elected the job starts and the job is creating the student movement. And then once you have trained the students to campaign for topics in the manifesto it is very easy to meet with them and coach them online.

“It possible to coach people online and it’s possible to teach them how to do their own jobs. So rather than pretending that I’ll be here, I’ll just say that I won’t be here.

“When I’m here, I’ll be here to represent you in front of the court, and then of course sign things that you have prepared. In the meantime, all of the topics covered in the manifesto will be campaigned by you. It needs to be,” he said.

Many may assert that Mr Popović’s campaign has populist undertones, however he contended that he did not believe this was the case, “I don’t see it as populist, the movement came through a very specific methodology, and the difference between politics and social movements is that the successful movement listen.

“So what we did is went to the student clubs, student societies, […] and tried to listen to the people and see what was important, we tried to find the smallest common denominator between what the different groups want, but we also want to focus on the things that are feasible and doable.”

The Saint further inquired about Mr Popović plans for accommodation in St Andrews, as it is featured prominently in his manifesto. “When I talked to my team they explained the situation. They told me that there were two forms of accommodation, the affordable accommodation meaning £4000 per year or less,” he said. “There is a lack of facilities for this type of accommodation built by the University.”

To address the manifesto’s pledges regarding accommodation, Mr Popović said, “I’m not going to say to people that I’m going to do it, you can say to the people that I’m going to try and do it. So it’s not a promise its a ‘lets try to do it.’”

On the topic of campaigning for housing Mr Popović said, “It’s a doable thing in St Andrews, like 20 people can knock on every door within the range of a month or two, so you don’t really need a million people to do this.”

He further asserted that his work with CANVAS would help the campaigning for better housing, “You work with people, you go back, you look at the progress, you come back you give more training, you look again at the progress, this is the way that CANVAS operates.”

Mr Popović is running against Liberal Democrat MSP, Willie Rennie. Of his rival, Mr Popović said, “I don’t know this gentleman at all. Everything I’ve heard of him is super positive, the people I talk to say he is funny, he is normal, he’s cool, he’s not the typical boring politician.

“I mean whomever I ask about him, I get a positive answer, plus he stands in the Scottish Parliament for one of the three main points in my manifesto, so I’m looking forward to meeting him tomorrow, maybe going for lunch or a beer or whatever.”

Mr Popović nonetheless said that his close work with other Universities made him ideal for the position of Rector, “I spend a lot of my time with students and professors, some of them coming from very liberal and laid back schools like Colorado.

“I think I know the environment, I think I know the students and I think I enjoy the academic environment even though I’m not a real academic myself, I have an MA, I never did a PhD because I was too lazy. I don’t read footnotes that’s my problem. I can’t read things with footnotes.”  

“The Rector needs to be the voice of students and the or organiser of students, this is what I do for a living,” he said. “I train young people how to do movements, this is what I have done for a living for about 12 years now.”

The Rector needs to be the voice of students and the organiser of students, this is what I do for a living

Given that there is significant debate surrounding the Brexit negotiating currently, Mr Popović says it is “hard to say” exactly for what he would be fighting, “because it is difficult to predict how this will influence student life here.

“Taking into consideration that 37 per cent of St Andrews students are not UK citizens, and they are coming from abroad. Taking into consideration that nearly half of our campaign team are foreigners. Like I was amazed, I was sitting with an American, a Syrian, and a Russian. It’s very diverse.”

Photo: Sammi Ciardi

He continued, “I know there is this concern over what will happen to them when they graduate. I also understand the fact that it is out of the hands of the University, it’s happening in the corridors of London and Brussels and wherever this thing is.

“But the thing is, the clever countries keep the people that study and graduate to work there. There is a direct correlation between the success of the country and the attractiveness of its schools. A big part of this is not only people come there to study with their money, but when they graduate, they stay there. And then they become the taxpayers and the human capital and the decision makers in the country where they studied.”

“This is what made relatively small cities like Boston in the United States amazingly successful. It’s not really about the architecture, it’s about Harvard and MIT that really makes Boston an amazing place. And all these people coming through the University with their amazing ideas.”

Mr Popović further asserted that he would not “take a stance” on Brexit himself, as he admitted a “bias” in favour of the European Union. As he said, “I am very biased on the Brexit-EU thing. Taking into consideration that I come from the country that was intentionally isolated from the rest of the world, which was intentionally isolated from the rest of Yugoslavia.

“Where nationalism put us in five different wars with our neighbours along with ethnic cleansing and all those terrible things. And having the EU as a lighthouse being a movement of change. So my position towards this is very different from someone who lives here. I’m sure I’m biased.”

He nonetheless concluded that “you look at 37 per cent of the people here, a lot of them want to stay here, a lot of them are a precious resource for this country and marvellous people.

“So what we can do is be loud about it, and making sure that this University and the Rector of this University understands the value of these people and appreciates their wish[es] to stay.”

Despite what some may perceive to be radical demands of the University and a radical campaign slogan (“Let’s start a revolution”), Mr Popović emphasised the importance of working with the University.

“One of the first things that you teach your groups when you work on movements or you teach your students on your course is that you need to look at your spectrum of allies, you need to mobilise the allies.

“You need to find the smallest common denominator between the groups and this is how you push forward. So building a coalition between the students and the academic body is probably something that we should start working on on day one. We need this unity to make it happen.”

He continued, “I think that things function when you have strong institutions and demanding people, and this is the happy mix. The best thing I can do is try to build a bridge.”

However, to some Mr Popović and CANVAS are seen as controversial figures both personally and as a company. CANVAS has even been listed as a terrorist organisation by the United Arab Emirates.

Furthermore, stories of unsavoury correspondence between intelligence company Stratfor and CANVAS were alleged as a result of Wikileaks.

To this, Mr Popović responded, “If I was given a penny for every conspiracy theory that has appeared about CANVAS’s work […] in the last 10 years, and if I could be given a pound for a story coming from Russia I would probably own one of these beautiful stone buildings around us.

“The propaganda and especially the narrative in which our work is put in the context of espionage and secret services dates back to Milošević’s times. So there is this one single pattern that the guys who don’t want to be accountable to their people use.”

He continued, “So whenever people call you a CIA operative or a terrorist that means that you are super effective you’re on the top of this scale … I’m not running for a beauty contest.”

I don’t know much about St Andrews but I’m trying to learn

“This is one of many stories, it is also a funny one because if you go and look at these emails, what’s in it? But then the story is like ‘oh we have this link!’. So all these conspiracy theories rely on the link and this is not going to stop, actually I would be very concerned if it stopped. That would mean that we are not effective.”

Finally, Mr Popović concluded of St Andrews, “I’m amazed by the human potential and the number of interesting and potentially super active people that I met over the course of the day.

“I don’t know much about St Andrews but I’m trying to learn. Some of these people can be amazing movement leaders in the blink of an eye. Trust me, I know that, I work with movement leaders, I know how to recognise one when I see them. So there is tremendous human potential, it’s really fun.”


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