The Year Life Won in Serbia: The Otpor Movement Against Milosevic

Vision and Motivation

In the 1990s, citizens of many of the Balkan states were suffering from political repression, economic hardship and sanctions. Slobodan Milosevic, the President of the Socialist Republic of Serbia, who had risen to power in 1990 on a wave of nationalist Serbian feeling, inflamed tensions between Serbs, Bosnians, Croats, and Albanians. As brutal inter-ethnic conflicts raged throughout the former Yugoslavia, Milosevic bolstered his regime by expanding the reach of the military and secret police to crack down on the opposition.

On November 17, 1996, elections were held for local public offices, and in an unprecedented blow to Milosevic, the opposition coalition, Zajedno, won in 32 municipalities, including the capital of Belgrade. After years of consolidating his power, Milosevic was not about to let the political defeat stand. He swiftly annulled the election results on the basis of “irregularities.”[1]

Outraged by Milosevic’s attempted electoral fraud, thousands of Serbs poured into the streets of Belgrade and other cities to demonstrate against this political injustice. Belgrade university students organized marches in the capital, which quickly spread to other cities as both students and Zajedno leaders led massive protests for the next three months. The international community began to put pressure on Milosevic to recognize the election results, and finally, in February 1997, Milosevic announced that he would allow the winners to take office.[2]

Despite a setback on the domestic political front, Milosevic, who was constitutionally limited to two terms as the Serbian president, ran for and was elected president of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (which constituted both Serbia and Montenegro) on July 23rd, 1997. Later in 1998, the Serbian Parliament passed two laws designed to sharply curtail independent media and academic freedom.[3]

In October 1998, a group of Belgrade university students formed Otpor, meaning “resistance” in Serbian: an opposition movement with a vision of a democratic Serbia that would be free of Milosevic’s rule and able to integrate into the rest of Europe. As Davorin Popovic, Otpor activist and pop musician, put it, “We want to be like everyone else: work, have jobs with value, be governed by intelligent people rather than illiterate thugs, live under the rule of law.” [4]

Goals and Objectives

The members of Otpor were diverse, but all were able to agree on one common goal: to bring down Milosevic. While the movement’s ultimate vision was for a democratic country with free and fair elections, as Ivan Marovic, one of the movement’s founders explained, “The goal was change of the regime first and then reform of the system later.” [5]

But regime change was a lofty goal for a group of students who were “small and powerless in the beginning, compared to the regime.” [6] Marovic explained, “We couldn’t use force on someone who…had three times more force and weapons than we did. We knew what had happened in…Tiananmen, where the army plowed over students with tanks.” [7] Furthermore, Otpor wanted to take a different path than Milosevic’s violent one; through peaceful actions, the movement could “prove that Serbians are civilized.” [8] So Otpor decided to challenge the regime through nonviolent actions and through elections, by uniting the Serbian opposition behind a single candidate to face Milosevic.

Armed with knowledge of the regime’s playbook, Otpor began preparing for the 2000 elections two years in advance. First, they needed to unite Serbia’s fragmented opposition behind a single candidate. Then, when that candidate won, they needed to mobilize supporters to defend his victory. Otpor decided that the best means to accomplish this would be a general strike, hoping that it would bring the country to a standstill. [9]

Leadership

Among the many nonviolent democracy movements that emerged in post-Soviet Eastern Europe, Otpor was unique in that it had no official leadership. There was a group of activists who played key roles in Otpor’s founding and operations; for example, Ivan Andric oversaw the development of slogans and marketing, Padrag Lecic ensured printed materials were distributed, and Slobodan Homan handled international contacts, but no one was designated as a leader.

Since the regime would not hesitate to intimidate and imprison any leaders, Otpor’s lack of a definitive leadership structure made the movement more resilient to pressure; according to an Otpor activist, “The idea was, cut off one Otpor head, and another 15 heads would instantly appear.” [10] It also provided a measure of safety for Otpor members; as one member explained, “What got me excited was that there weren’t any leaders, so there was no risk of being betrayed.” [11]

From the beginning, Otpor enjoyed a substantial level of support because, Marovic said, “We were seen as the future of Serbia, and in that sense, people liked us.” [12] However, these supporters were reluctant to join the movement because of disillusionment from a history of failed attempts to fight Milosevic. [13] Otpor needed to convince these people to become active participants who would join the planned general strike.

Marovic described Otpor’s plan for expanding its base: “What we had to do is to show with our personal example, through small victories, that progress is possible.” [14] By working on a local and regional level to publicize and solve civic-minded problems such as lack of electricity or a corrupt mayor, Otpor convinced Serbians that the movement could be effective. Moreover, Marovic explained, “People started connecting these local problems with the overall problem, which was the Milosevic regime. So [while] we gave visibility to these local problems, these local problems also gave visibility to the overall struggle.” [15]

Civic Environment

Serbia had already been involved in four wars, and in March 1999, NATO began a bombing campaign in response to Milosevic’s refusal to withdraw troops from Kosovo. A huge influx of refugees poured into Serbia because of the war; meanwhile, the Serbian economy suffered historic levels of hyperinflation. [16] On top of these economic and societal hardships, the Milosevic regime remained repressive and corrupt. According to Marovic, "The state itself became criminalized" as death squads organized by the secret police carried out political assassinations. [17] However, the Milosevic regime was not totalitarian; it allowed a certain amount of political opposition and freedom of assembly, which gave Otpor the necessary margin of freedom to succeed. [18]

As the Otpor movement gained footing in Serbia, Milosevic attempted to smear the activists as traitors – a threat to state security. [19] A government official described the young Otpor members as “terrorists, fascists, and NATO’s infantry.” [20] In January 2000, the regime launched an assault on the press, shutting down TV and radio stations and fining media outlets huge sums for infractions such as providing coverage of Otpor activity. [21] In May of the same year, the government used the murder of a Milosevic ally as an excuse to crack down on Otpor; the group was declared a terrorist organization, and the police stepped up their arrests of activists, detaining thousands for reasons like wearing Otpor t-shirts, and launching raids on Otpor headquarters at which they seized crucial materials such as posters and banners. [22]

Despite the regime’s efforts to stifle the opposition group, Otpor responded to the crackdown with “Plan B.” The first step was fear control: preparing activists so that they knew what to expect if they were arrested. Next, Otpor continued to develop long term strategies of strategic nonviolence; at each of its demonstrations, a “witness” was posted to observe the proceedings and, in the case of arrests, call other activists to alert them. In reaction to arrests, Otpor would immediately launch their response mobilization strategy: the press team would contact local media outlets, NGOs, and opposition parties to spread the information of arrests and other unjust government acts. They would also notify lawyers, who would be first to arrive at the police station where activists were held. [23]

Finally, Otpor and its allies would call on citizens to gather in front of the police station where activists were detained. [24] These gatherings were an important way to demonstrate and exert pressure on the state. The activists outside the station would use nonviolent, lighthearted activities to maintain a spirited atmosphere. They listened to music, sang songs and played volleyball. As one Otpor activist said, “Passersby found this funny and the police found it irritating – but what could they do? They could hardly arrest people for standing on the sidewalk and listening to music.” [25]

Between the active pursuit of justice by human rights lawyers, the pressure of the public gatherings and a growing media presence, police were inevitably compelled to release the detainees, who had been unjustly arrested in the first place. Upon their release, activists would issue identical statements using a famous quote by Jorge Luis Borges: “Violence is the last refuge of the weak.” This sent the message that the regime was on its last legs, and that the repression was simple proof. [26]

Humor was a key element of Otpor’s response to the regime; for example, to lampoon and undermine the regime’s propaganda, activists wore t-shirts reading “Otpor Terrorist”. According to Otport activist Srdja Popovic, Otpor gained popularity with the people “because I’m joking, [while] you’re becoming angry. I’m full of humor and irony, [while] you are beating me, arresting me, and…that’s a game you always lose, because you are showing only one face, [while] I’m always again with another joke…another positive message to the wider audience.” [27]

Ultimately, the repression backfired; the arrests made the Otpor movement into “the national victim number one”, which attracted sympathy from the broader public, who thought it was senseless and brutal to arrest young activists for playfully benign and nonviolent actions. [28] Public sympathy was so great for Otpor that it even inspired the outright defection of some members of the regime, creating opposition within Milosevic’s own ranks. [29]

Message and Audience

Otpor communicated the simple message of resistance through its symbol of a black-and-white clenched fist, found spray-painted on walls in cities around the country. The movement wanted to convince the people that they were the key to regime change, and as such, its slogans were intended to motivate Serbians – “Resistance until victory!” “Resistance, because I love Serbia!” – and to represent the movement’s growing power – “It’s spreading!” and “The people are Otpor!” [30]

Otpor used graffiti, posters, handouts, and stickers to communicate these slogans, always accompanied by the black-and-white clenched fist to solidify “brand recognition” so that everyone identified the logo with the movement. [31] The spread of Otpor symbols and slogans unnerved the regime; one activist who spray-painted the Otpor fist on a local police station noticed that the next day, security officials photographed the graffiti and “stayed for a long time [examining it]. I noticed their fear of it [and] I understood that through these small actions, I could do much more than by any violent actions.” [32]

As Otpor’s campaign spread, the public anxiety about Serbia’s future became an anxiety of the regime itself, planting doubt in the minds of police and military about how long Milosevic could last. As an opposition leader explained, “Milosevic could resist only with support from the police and army. We knew if we can affect [the] police and army around him, and bring them to think, should they support Milosevic or not…that he cannot survive.” [33] Meanwhile, as the regime’s accusations about Otpor grew more extreme, and as more young activists were arrested, Otpor seized the opportunity to contradict the regime’s propaganda by telling police the truth about their movement. This way, according to activists, “The police got to know the enemy and found out that the enemy was a bunch of kids that wanted peaceful change and to rid their country of a non-democratic regime.” [34]

By the final phase of Otpor’s campaign, even some police officers had Otpor stickers on their cars, and a top police official told a leading opposition politician, “Please defeat Milosevic already, even I feel sick of him.” [35] At the same time, local mayors allied with Otpor made deals with the army and police, so that “they would not disobey [orders], but neither would they obey…So they said yes when Milosevic asked for action – and they did nothing.” [36]

Otpor held massive public demonstrations that included class walkouts, rock concerts, and long protest walks, such as one lasting the 80 kilometers from Belgrade to Novi Sad. [37] On January 13, 2000, the Orthodox New Year’s Eve, Otpor organized a huge rally in Belgrade with a rock concert, but at midnight, instead of celebrating, Otpor members ended the party by reading out the names of Serbs who had died in Milosevic’s wars as their pictures were projected on a screen, sending people home with the message that a change must take place: “This is the year life finally must win in Serbia.” [38]

It was that year in September that Otpor launched its next campaign, strategically timed with Milosevic’s call for early elections in an attempt to bolster his legitimacy. Otpor was prepared; it had been working to unite the opposition for a year, and it was able to swiftly mobilize both Otpor members and the opposition parties behind a single candidate, Vojislav Kostunica. Otpor then flooded the country with two million stickers bearing the central message of the campaign: “He’s Finished!” [39] Otpor sent the message, “We are not asking you to vote for us, but before going to cast your vote, ask your children for whom you should vote, and then do just as your children tell you.” [40]

During the campaign, Otpor launched a get-out-the-vote campaign called “It’s Time”; the movement mobilized young people to vote by organizing rock concerts and getting the endorsements of celebrities who toured Serbia. [41] Eventually, according to one Otpor activist, “Everyone started to feel that the ‘He’s finished’ message was real – that it really would happen.” [42] Otpor used US funding and support to train 30,000 election monitors and send them to 10,000 polling places on Election Day, September 24, 2000. [43] They helped prevent the election from being stolen by keeping track of the results, which showed a clear victory for Kostunica. Two days later, Milosevic admitted that he had placed second but called for a run-off election. Protestors in Belgrade waved baby rattles to mock Milosevic’s refusal to admit defeat, and Otpor finally launched what it had been planning for years: a general strike for October 2.

Citizens blocked bridges and roads, students boycotted classes, and tens of thousands of miners and textile workers joined in the strike, as the police and army stood aside. [44] “Within ten days,” Marovic says, “the general strike spread and totally crippled the whole country. Nothing was working. The roads were blocked, every railroad was blocked, all the big companies stopped working, and the regime couldn’t do anything to stop it.” [45] On October 5, 200,000 people marched into Belgrade in a convoy of bulldozers, cars, and buses, chanting “Save Serbia, kill yourself, Slobodan!” – but no one resorted to violence. [46] “We had the nation trained not to attack the police, not to use violence, to be organized,” says Popovic. “As Gandhi said…you must train the nonviolent army for so long that the battle becomes unnecessary.” [47]

Outreach Activities

For years, Serbia’s opposition parties had been weakened by infighting. “The one thing they all had in common,” says Marovic, was “that they all wanted to be in charge.” [48] Otpor’s major challenge was to bring these divided groups together in preparation for the 2000 election campaign. Instead of using old methods of “bringing everyone to the table and then…trying to come up with a common strategy and goal,” the original core group of Otpor founders had gathered to first find a single goal that everyone could agree upon: removing Milosevic. [49] Then they determined the method they would use to achieve that goal – a “general strike and civil disobedience in response to electoral fraud” – and only after that went to different groups to “persuade them that this is the formula that deserves support. Slowly over time…we managed to bring all relevant organizations and individuals to support this plan.” [50]

In April 2000, the two primary opposition leaders appeared together for the first time since 1997, and the next month, 18 political parties united to form the “Democratic Opposition of Serbia” coalition. [51] Meanwhile, from early on in the process, Otpor established links with different trade unions, local-level organizations, and municipalities, to prepare for the planned general strike. [52] By election day, Serbia’s opposition was united and prepared for the strike. “The most important thing,” Marovic says, “was that we prepared…in advance, [so] this general strike wasn’t something that would incorporate [a small percentage] of the society, but something [that] the majority of the population participated in, and that is what made it so effective.” [53]

On April 1, 2001, Milosevic was arrested, and his trial for war crimes began the next year in the Hague, but ultimately ended without a verdict when he died on March 11, 2006. Although Serbia continues to suffer from corruption, Serbia today is an electoral democracy with free and fair elections, as the founders of Otpor originally wanted. [54] “[Milosevic and his regime were] preachers of death, [with] their hatred, their propaganda,” Popovic says. “And we won because we loved life more. We decided to love life and you can’t beat life. So this is what Otpor did…and this is why we succeeded.” [55]

Learn More

News & Analysis

Braxton, Jesse. “Life Finally Must Win: The Otpor Movement and the Fall of Milosevic.” 24 May 2006. PDF.
Cevallos, Albert. “Whither the Bulldozer? Nonviolent Revolution and the Transition to Democracy in Serbia.” United States Institute of Peace. August 2001. PDF.
Chiclet, Christophe. “Otpor: the Youths Who Booted Milosevic.” UNESCO. March 2001.
Cohen, Roger. “Who Really Brought Down Milosevic?” The New York Times Magazine. November 26, 2000.
Dobbs, Michael. “U.S. Advice Guided Milosevic Opposition.” The Washington Post. December 11, 2000.
Garton Ash, Timothy. “The Last Revolution.” Hoover Digest 2001:1.
Ilić, Vladimir. “The Popular Movement Otpor: Between Europe and Re-traditionalization.” Policy Documentation Center. 2000. Word document.
Jovanovic, Milja. “Rage Against the Regime: The Otpor Movement in Serbia.” People Building Peace II: Successful Stories of Civil Society.
Marovic, Ivan. “Concrete Tactics for Nonviolent Change in Serbia.” Gozaar. 1 July 2007.
Partos, Gabriel. “Analysis: Otpor’s Challenge to Milosevic.” BBC News. May 15, 2000.
Popovic, Srdja. “An Analytical Overview of the Application of Gene Sharp’s Theory of Nonviolent Action in Milosevic’s Serbia.” CANVAS. 31 Jan. 2001. Word document.
Rozen, Laura. “Milosevic’s Media Blackout.” Salon. May 18, 2000.
“Serbian Case Study.” CANVAS. 2004.
Smiljanic, Zorana. “Plan B: Using Secondary Protests to Undermine Repression.” New Tactics in Human Rights. PDF.
Traynor, Ian. “Young Democracy Guerrillas Join Forces.” The Guardian. June 6, 2005. PDF.

Books

Ackerman, Peter and Jack DuVall. A Force More Powerful: A Century of Nonviolent Conflict. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2001.
Bujosevic, Dragan and Ivan Radovanovic. The Fall of Milosevic: The October 5th Revolution. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003.

Video

Bringing Down a Dictator. Dir. Steve York. Prod. PBS. 2001. Available in Persian on YouTube in four parts: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4
Marovic, Ivan. Interview with Tavaana. Tavaana.org. March 2010.

Footnotes
[1] Ackerman, Peter and Jack DuVall. A Force More Powerful: A Century of Nonviolent Conflict. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000. Pg. 478.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Marovic, Ivan. Interview with Tavaana. Tavaana.org. March 2010.
[4] Cohen, Roger. “Who Really Brought Down Milosevic?” The New York Times Magazine. November 26, 2000.
[5] Marovic.
[6] Marovic.
[7] Ackerman and DuVall. Pg. 485.
[8] “Otpor’s rationale for action and humor.” Bringing Down a Dictator. PDF.
[9] Marovic.
[10] Cohen.
[11] Chiclet, Christophe. “Otpor: the Youths Who Booted Milosevic.” UNESCO. March 2001.
[12] Marovic.
[13] Ibid.
[14] Ibid.
[15] Ibid.
[16] Ibid.
[17] Ibid.
[18] Garton Ash, Timothy. “The Last Revolution.” Hoover Digest 2001:1.
[19] “Chronology of Events, 1996-2000.” Bringing Down a Dictator. PBS.
[20] Popovic, Srdja. “An Analytical Overview of the Application of Gene Sharp’s Theory of Nonviolent Action in Milosevic’s Serbia.” CANVAS. 31 Jan. 2001. Word document.
[21] “Chronology of Events, 1996-2000.”
[22] Ibid.
[23] Smiljanic, Zorana. “Plan B: Using Secondary Protests to Undermine Repression.” New Tactics in Human Rights. PDF.
[24] Ibid.
[25] Ibid.
[26] Popovic.
[27] Popovic, Srdja. "On Otpor's strategy." CANVAS.
[28] Popovic. "An Analytical Overview of the Application of Gene Sharp’s Theory of Nonviolent Action in Milosevic’s Serbia."
[29] Ibid.
[30] Ibid.
[31] Ibid.
[32] Ackerman and DuVall. Pg. 486-7.
[33] Ibid. Pg. 487.
[34] Marovic, Ivan. “Concrete Tactics for Nonviolent Change in Serbia.” Gozaar. 1 July 2007.
[35] Andric, Ivan. “How Did We Succeed: Superior Propaganda for Advertising Freedom.” CANVAS. Ackerman and DuVall. Pg. 488.
[36] Cohen.
[37] Smiljanic.
[38] Bringing Down a Dictator. Dir. Steve York. Prod. PBS. 2001.
[39] “Surprise Elections.” Bringing Down a Dictator. PBS.
[40] Ackerman and DuVall. Pg. 487.
[41] “Otpor Campaign 1999-2000.” CANVAS.
[42] Jovanovic, Milja. “Rage Against the Regime: The Otpor Movement in Serbia.” People Building Peace II: Successful Stories of Civil Society.
[43] Ackerman and DuVall. Pg. 488.
[44] Ibid.
[45] Marovic. Interview with Tavaana.
[46] Ackerman and DuVall. Pg. 489. Garton Ash.
[47] Ackerman and Duvall. Pg. 489.
[48] Marovic. Interview with Tavaana.
[49] Ibid.
[50] Ibid.
[51] “Chronology of Events, 1996-2000.”
[52] Marovic. Interview with Tavaana.
[53] Ibid.
[54] “Freedom in the World 2009 Report: Serbia.” Freedom House.
[55] “Otpor’s rationale for action and humor.”

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