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Hope on the Balkans
Waking up a sleepy Serbia

By Dragan Stojkovic

In Yugoslavia, the average citizen does not feel oppressed, suppressed, or repressed, but overwhelmingly depressed. In the last 10 years, Yugoslav citizens have had few chances to develop a sense of civic responsibility something the country desperately needs. Despite a colorful parade of assassinations, media closures, and libel suits, Yugoslavs are apathetic. Otpor a loosely organized grouping founded by Belgrade University students in October 1998 is trying to awaken Serbia from its stupor. In the run-up to elections, Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic's regime has cracked down even harder on the movement and police attacks on activists have increased across the country.

The group's office, situated in downtown Belgrade, was once a hive of activity. On 4 September, police raided Otpor's office in the center of Belgrade, seizing printed materials and computers. The police did not have a warrant and left no receipt for the confiscated material. Only last week, was the group permitted to return to its headquarters. They found that the phone lines had been cut, the furniture ransacked, and all the computers that were confiscated have not been returned.

The group was founded by "young people who saw through the regime and despised the opposition," says 23-year-old Milan Samardzic, a law student and Otpor activist. The catalysts were a combination of the 1996-97 student demonstrations after Milosevic had ignored municipal election results and the passage of two repressive laws in 1998 that introduced strict media legislation and curtailed academic freedom. Initially, Otpor activities were mainly confined to the university, with little more than a spattering of night-time graffiti. There were concerts and some meetings in 1998, but the response was not overwhelming. At the beginning of 1999, the movement adopted the logo of the clenched fist. Samardzic says that the logo, inspired by J.R. Tolkein's "Lord of the Rings" trilogy, is a nonviolent symbol of unity the fingers joined together to represent the quiet strength of resolve. The movement has campaigned on a nonpolitically affiliated platform, demanding free and fair elections, an unfettered education system, and an independent media. It is presently estimated to have over 50,000 activists.


Perhaps as a hangover from the post-World War II socialist Tito era, Yugoslav organizations tend to cluster around personalities but Otpor is different. The movement has no leader; activities are coordinated through committees, and authority is diffused. All decisions are made by consensus. When members speak informally they always emphasize that they cannot speak for others a refreshing approach compared to most Yugoslav politicians who presume to speak for all.

Once NATO's bombing of Yugoslavia began in March 1999, Otpor's political activities were placed on hold. The group's members continued to disseminate information, but like many Yugoslavs, were disappointed with Western policies and approaches toward their country. After the NATO bombing and subsequent occupation of Kosovo by KFOR troops, Otpor began to move more aggressively, becoming more active in the regions.

Activists have used disarming humor to highlight the daily concerns of citizens and the absurdity of the regime. Some have waited in store lines with customers, carrying banners that read: "Nothing is out of line in Serbia." Others have held sports rallies, cleaned out flower beds in schools, and recently even signed up to play football at games sponsored by the Yugoslav Left, the party of Mira Markovic, Milosevic's wife. Activists registered for the tournament, and almost made it onto the field until police arrested everyone wearing Otpor T-shirts. Without a playing uniform, they could not field a team. When the regime sponsored a marathon on 16 April, activists in Pozarevac countered by "running backwards" to show the direction life was going for most citizens.


More than 1,200 Otpor activists have been arrested since October 1998. At first, members were rarely beaten and just taken into custody for interrogation. "It's a big thing for us no one wants to be beaten or arrested but I am more afraid of what will happen if circumstances are not changed," says Samardzic. Some members have spoken openly about their time in jail, and in some cases have commended the police for their professionalism. Otpor has sometimes talked of creating a dialogue with the police. In a March interview with, Otpor activist and press spokesman Ivan Marovic pointed out that police are also people trying to do their job and make a living.

But as elections have drawn closer, such understanding doesn't seem to be reciprocal police brutality has been gaining in momentum. In Milosevic's hometown of Pozarevac on 2 May, Otpor activists were severely beaten by workers at a discotheque owned by the president's son. Two of the activists are still in jail and have been charged with attempted murder. Both are reported to have serious health problems resulting from injuries sustained during the beating. On 8 September, six activists had a confrontation with drunken policemen in Vladicin Han during which the activists were hanged upside down and beaten repeatedly, according to Otpor.

But clamping down on the movement as a whole has proven a tough challenge for the regime. Part of Otpor's appeal has been its grassroots approach: Activists tend to work in the areas in which they live, thus making likely confrontations more personal. They are not seen as unknown troublemakers, but are recognized as locals as the sons and daughters of friends and neighbors. In many cases, when activists have been arrested, citizens have formed lines outside police stations demanding their release.

Dastardly accusations about Otpor don't seem to wash with most civilians, and the regime is often left clutching at straws. Attacking the movement's source of funding has been the authorities' primary weapon against the group. But calling them "foreign mercenaries" has failed to catch on. Otpor has spoken openly about its financial backing, some of which is received directly from Serbian citizens, some from the Serbian diaspora, and small amounts from foreign foundations. The only organization that has publicly announced such funding is the U.S.-based Center for Democratic Changes.

Otpor says it is working hard to keep costs to a minimum, and it works with printing offices that offer discounts or donations. And as Samardzic puts it: "Our strength is in our numbers rather than our pocketbooks. The opposition forces are easy to shut down because they rely on press announcements and media presentations once their media outlets are shut down, they are decapitated." When such a time comes, says Samardzic, you won't see opposition leaders such as Vuk Draskovic or Zoran Djindjic plastering posters on throughout Belgrade. "But we have 30,000 activists willing to do such things."

Dragan Stojkovic is TOL's stringer in Belgrade

Source: Transitions Online ©2000

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