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Russian and Belarusian nationals join an antiwar protest in Tbilisi, Georgia, on May 8, 2022

You can’t end wars with antiwar movements, but you can hasten the end Croatian-Bosnian human rights activist Igor Blazhevich recalls his own personal reconciliation with Serbs and explains the merits of activism against armed aggression

Source: Meduza
Russian and Belarusian nationals join an antiwar protest in Tbilisi, Georgia, on May 8, 2022
Russian and Belarusian nationals join an antiwar protest in Tbilisi, Georgia, on May 8, 2022
Denis Kaminev / Meduza

According to the Kremlin-controlled media, the overwhelming majority of Russians support the war against Ukraine. There is no mass movement against the invasion, the state’s propagandists argue, and yet the authorities tirelessly track down and prosecute ordinary people for criticizing the “special operation” on social media and at small protests with banners that read, “No to the war!” But can these statements against the invasion change anything? Are they worth the risks? What’s the point of such actions if the war continues regardless? Maria Sereda at the Greenhouse of Social Technologies (Teplitsa) discussed these questions with Croatian-Bosnian human rights activist Igor Blazhevich, who’s assisted with deliveries of humanitarian aid to conflict zones and helped found the charity group People in Need. With Teplitsa’s kind permission, Meduza republishes Blazhevich’s remarks in full.

Igor Blazhevich
Igor Blazhevich’s Facebook page

First, I should clarify that I’ve never been an antiwar activist exactly. During the war in Bosnia, I lived in Prague, and there weren’t that many Bosnians there. So, what I had to do, as I understood it, was something basic and fairly straightforward: On the one hand, I helped transfer as much aid as possible from Europe to Bosnia, and on the other hand, I aimed to present evidence collected by Bosnian witnesses to the Europeans. My role was only “facilitation,” really, but somebody had to do it.

But what you’d like to know is whether civil society is capable of more than “facilitation.” What I can tell you is based on the antiwar campaigns I’ve monitored over my lifetime: in Croatia and Serbia during the Bosnian War, in Russia during the First Chechen War, and in the U.S. during the Vietnam War.

Incidentally, when I checked on Google, expecting to find dozens more such movements, I saw almost nothing! I don’t understand why: there are so many wars in the world, but so few antiwar movements. Maybe it’s just that English-language sources don’t capture that.

Stopping the war isn’t the goal

Antiwar campaigns don’t end wars. Not one of the wars I mentioned above ended because of an antiwar campaign. Wars end for other reasons — either the aggressor suffers a major military defeat, or the number of casualties becomes too high. Or, if the opponent’s forces are comparable, the war might become a stalemate that lasts for years, until both sides have exhausted their resources.

That’s how wars end.

If that’s the case, though, what’s the role of an antiwar campaign? Intuitively, it seems like an antiwar movement’s goal should be stopping a war. If it can’t do that, it’s pointless, right? No. To avoid the crushing disappointment that sets in when you realize you are powerless to stop a war, it’s vital to understand up front what the real purpose of an antiwar movement is.

Stage one: Solitary voices

The first thing an antiwar movement can achieve is to create space for the expression of alternative viewpoints, where people who don’t applaud the war can think, speak, and act. At the beginning of any war, the vast majority of the population cheers, “Hooray!” So, the first thing you can do is to show that not everyone sees things that way. All you have to do is show that another perspective exists, and that’s all.

This might seem like an utter trifle, but it’s a crucial step because these solitary voices against the war will create an opportunity to change the public mood in the future. When people’s moods begin shifting, they’ll be more ready to join an antiwar movement. If everyone’s silent and there’s no movement in place, however, there won’t be anything to join.

The thing to realize here is that this first stage of “solitary voices” could last for years. That was the case in Serbia and Croatia: for several years, only isolated individuals opposed the war, and most people despised them for it. The authorities there didn’t even need to crack down on those antiwar movements — the propagandists in the media were perfectly capable of handling it themselves.

In other words, don’t expect to change any minds during this first stage. That becomes possible only later. At this point, the priority is getting antiwar statements into the public space — simply so they exist there.

Police officers at an antiwar rally in Moscow on February 24, 2022
Denis Kaminev

Stage two: small communities

The second stage in building a movement is the formation of small communities of people who oppose the war. This is only possible once antiwar statements exist in the public space. Without that presence, those who oppose the war will be unable to recognize each other among the pro-war majority.

These communities don’t need to be big; sometimes, they’re literally self-help groups where people just come to support each other. But that support is vital because each person who experiences the war as a tragedy also feels totally isolated, lonely, and powerless. In this state, it’s especially important to find likeminded people. It’s important to know: “Okay, I’m in the minority, but I’m not alone! I’m not crazy — there are others who think like I do.” This matters because you can’t act while you’re unable to cope with the trauma of war and the trauma of isolation.

Stage three: shifting public opinion 

To understand this stage, you need to look at how public opinion operates in relation to wars. There are always several groups within a society.

“Active supporters” comprise the first group. They’re the majority. At the start of a war, they actively signal their support with words and actions. Many of these people also willingly mobilize others, convincing them that the war is something good. This kind of mobilization is critical for the political regime, and the authorities zealously encourage this process through propaganda because it’s impossible to wage a war for very long without popular support. At the start of a war, this support is always massive, with up to 90 percent of a population cheering along.

The next group is also pretty big: the “passive supporters.” These are the people who don’t really like the war, and they’re uncomfortable cheering along, but they lack the clarity of thought, civil determination, and basic human courage to form a negative attitude about the war. So, they support the war but passively. If they have to wave a flag at a rally, they will, but at home, around the kitchen table, they’ll say, “I feel like something is off here.”

“Passive opponents” of the war make up the third group. They quietly avoid participating in active support for the war. If someone demands that they appear at a pro-war rally to wave a flag, they devise some excuse not to go. Some people in this group might express an antiwar position openly, but only in relatively risk-free situations. If it’s safe to do something like sign a petition, they’ll sign it.

And then there are the war’s “active opponents.” These are the people who express themselves firmly, even though it provokes most people’s indignation and risks persecution. Sometimes, they do this through peaceful protests, and other times they do it through acts of sabotage, like pouring sand into the gas tanks of tanks.

As a rule, people don’t typically jump multiple groups — they shift between neighboring groups, as their opinions change. So, you can think of changing opinions like connected vessels: if you convince a significant part of one group to move to another, it can create a movement of people from that latter group to the next group.

Admittedly, this movement becomes more difficult when risks are associated with a change in attitudes about a war, for instance when people could face persecution or ostracization. But that doesn’t mean it’s impossible to move people into more antiwar groups — it only means that the transition must occur more incrementally.

The pro-invasion “Z” symbol on display in the St. Petersburg subway, May 16, 2022
Dmitri Lovetsky / AP / Scanpix / LETA
An antiwar sign posted in a pedestrian underpass in Moscow, February 26, 2022
Denis Kaminev / Meduza

And what goal should an antiwar movement in its third stage pursue? I think it should be to recruit active supporters of the war into the passive resistance. Because it’s unrealistic to think you can convert everyone into daring, courageous antiwar activists. If you can move people away from active support for the war, it significantly weakens the regime’s ability to fight for very long.

You could also attempt to move people from “passive support” to the “active resistance” group, but it’s important to remember that both these groups represent a minority of the population. If this “active resistance” minority is 1,000 people and you manage to grow it to 10,000, that’s great, of course, but it’s still just a drop in the bucket in a country with 145 million people. A more meaningful transformation would be sowing doubts among the majority who cheer the war. And this is entirely realistic. More than once, we’ve seen it happen in different countries.

To some extent, these changes in public opinion will happen on their own. The public will feel the costs of war more and more, and propaganda will lose its effectiveness, causing support for the war to decline gradually. But an active antiwar movement can accelerate this process dramatically.

Accepting responsibility and creating space for the future

An antiwar movement has another important task, as well. The timeline for this work runs into the distant future, but it’s closely related to what’s happening right now. When the war is over, in many areas of public life, there will be a need for the people who opposed the war from the start — people with the moral right to say, “This nightmare is over. Now we need to take responsibility for what happened and use this responsibility to build a new country and new relations with our neighbors.”

People like [former West German Chancellor] Konrad Adenauer, who laid the foundation for a new democratic state on the ruins of Nazi Germany, working with a population that had until recently cheered Hitler and his war. People like [former West German Chancellor] Willy Brandt, fought Nazism actively during the war while in exile and famously kneeled in Warsaw [in 1970].

In other words, an antiwar movement actually creates a pool of people who one day can lead the country into the future. This is critical. Today, in both Serbia and Croatia, every public figure has to answer the question: “What were you doing during the war? Do you have any blood on your hands?” This issue will remain important for years to come, and not just for politicians. In all institutions and spheres of life, culture, mass media, and education, there will be a need for people with the moral right to say, “Let’s take responsibility for what happened and begin to build a new state that excludes criminals from power.”

The voices of an antiwar movement

Every antiwar movement has at least two types of voices. First, there’s the voice of those we might call the moral elite — the intelligentsia. These people are from civil society, from the world of alternative art and music. Their voices are usually the first to be heard because they are able to take responsibility for what is happening. But the degree of influence these people wield is always modest.

That’s why the turning point in any antiwar movement is when it attracts the voices of a second type of people: those directly affected by the war. These are the veterans who have returned from the frontlines, and the mothers and wives of those who didn’t return at all or came home crippled. These people are also in the minority, but their voice is hard to ignore once they join an antiwar movement.

It’s easy to discredit a punk musician who sings an antiwar song by saying that he was paid for the performance, or that he’s just a coward and a traitor. When it’s a veteran in a wheelchair who’s against the war, however, it’s simply impossible to dismiss completely what he says. It’s important for the intelligentsia that initiates antiwar movements to take this into account. As soon as possible, you need to involve people in the movement who have been affected by the war, and you need to help them be heard. This can change the dynamics of an antiwar movement completely.

Keep it selfish

For an antiwar movement to have a chance of succeeding, you need to refine the arguments you use to appeal to the public. As a rule, the first people who speak out against a war are people driven by moral indignation and a sense of responsibility for crimes committed in their name. The first antiwar statements are usually in this vein.

But talking about responsibility, guilt, and shame isn’t the best way to win public support. For that, you need to discuss people’s self-interests. People don’t want their children to die in war. They don’t want a ruined economy. They don’t want a nuclear bomb to fall on them. Awareness of all this can reduce the public’s desire to continue fighting. Right now, the cost of the war is hidden from people [in Russia], and those cheering it don’t really understand what it costs them. If you want their support, make the war’s costs obvious to them.

Talking about war crimes and taking responsibility for the damage wrought by the aggressor country is crucial, too, but that’s a separate task. In Serbia, they handled this well: Multiple human rights organizations committed themselves to documenting what they called “crimes committed by our side.” They stubbornly repeated: “No, we’re not going to talk about what the enemy did. That’s their business; it’s for their human rights activists to discuss. We’re part of this society, so we’re going to investigate the crimes committed by our side.” And they did amazing, vital work to document the crimes committed by the Serbs. But this didn’t make them popular in Serbia, and it didn’t contribute to the growth of antiwar sentiment, either. If the goal is getting people to stop cheering the war, you won’t succeed by forcing moral responsibility on them. They’re not ready for that.

With that in mind, I think civil society in Russia should also divide its activities in two directions. First is documenting [Russia’s] crimes and taking responsibility for the damage inflicted on Ukraine. Second is changing the mood inside Russia. Obviously, the human rights activists and journalists who are documenting crimes and advocating responsibility will never be popular in Russia.

At the same time, those who argue that the war weakens Russia, destroys Russian families, and impoverishes the population will never get the support of Ukrainians and Europeans. That’s because both Ukraine and Europe naturally expect you to talk about guilt and responsibility. But that approach will never allow you to shift the mood of the majority from active support of the war to passive resistance.

Graves near a residential block in Mariupol, April 13, 2022
Alexei Alexandrov / AP / Scanpix / LETA

When to reconnect

I’m a pretty mellow person. And I’m good-natured. For a long time after the Bosnian War, however, I wanted nothing to do with the Serbs — even with Serbs who spent years fighting the Milosevic regime. I just wanted Serbs to be out of my life for a while. And this was despite the fact that the war affected me far less than those who experienced it, living in Sarajevo. I barely had any psychological trauma. So, you can only imagine how radical other Bosnians came to feel about Serbs.

All this is to say that Russians should probably just leave Ukrainians alone for a while. Just stop being a factor in their lives. The Russians who opposed the regime and the war might expect some kind of understanding from the Ukrainians, but it won’t be the right time to demand any understanding. I think the best thing for both sides after the war will be to leave each other alone for a few years, to let time do its work. And then you can start rebuilding ties. Today, I have many friends in Serbia, and I’m happy to hold all kinds of events there.

Text by Maria Sereda

Translation by Olga Tarakanova and Kevin Rothrock