Tuesday, January 23, 2001
The end of Otpor?
Will the movement which contributed to the overthrow of the dictatorship ultimately "devour itself"?
One of the phenomena that marked the decade-long demise of Serbia was the utter incompetence of the anti-Milosevic opposition forces. Citizens' discontent rose after the collapse of the Zajedno coalition, because it became clear for the first time that a wide mass civil movement was necessary to bring an end to autocracy.
This position was resolutely upheld by student activists of the 1996/97 protest. In their view, leaving the initiative to the political parties would have been a serious mistake. Enormous positive energy and optimism of citizens were scandalously wasted by the leaders of the three-month-long protests, Zoran Djindjic and Vuk Draskovic, while other "political leaders" did nothing to strengthen the faith that Milosevic could be deposed. Vojislav Kostunica, for instance, was persistently scribbling his party's press releases which invariably boiled down to giving lectures on "democracy with a national countenance."
Pitch dark before dawn
Horrors of Milosevic's rule in Serbia reached a climax by the end of the nineties. Since 1998 the regime's grip on power was maintained mainly through repression of political opponents, and in 1999 war finally came to Serbia. This was also the year marked by the culmination of the opposition's impotence. The alliance between Radicals and Socialists, formed in early 1998, brought about a series of scandalous laws, most notably the Public Information Act and the Law on University, followed by their even more scandalous enforcement. The ridiculous Serbian Renewal Movement in the parliament and even more ridiculous "boycotters" outside the parliament stood by and "helplessly" watched the students being beaten and the media that dared to "write and speak differently" being draconically fined.
In October 1998, Otpor (Resistance) movement was founded. At the time rebellion was smoldering at the Faculties of Philology, Electrical Engineering and Law, journalists of repressed media were gathering in the Pasic Square, and Milosevic manages to get away with it all after the first NATO ultimatum.
The first team of Otpor movement was composed of the activists of various student organisations (Student Union, Student Federation and Serbian Student Movement) co-ordinated by Srdja Popovic, a prominent member of the Democratic Party, who called first meetings and provided the necessary infrastructure support. All twenty founding members of Otpor were companions from the 1996/97 protests who had not entered the Student Political Club, a sort of passageway for student leaders towards the political careers, founded by Cedomir Jovanovic and Cedomir Antic after the protests had ended. During the first two years, many founding members left the movement, but this issue deserves a separate analysis.
Aware of the detrimental effect of fame on young leaders, the Otpor founding members based the new movement on two crucial principles - no leaders and no elitism. The principal objective of Otpor was not to allow that resistance be confined to the university, but to expand it to all segments of the society. Promoting Otpor as a nationwide movement which would deliver Serbia from the grip of a malignant regime and as a way of life were twin leitmotifs of the initial campaign. Clenched fist was chosen as Otpor's symbol, a symbol of determination to persevere until the ultimate aim is fulfilled. To put it simply, "velvet teddy bears" could not succeed, at least not in Serbia.
The appearance of Otpor on the public scene was of vital importantance for the young people in the countryside, in all those boroughs and villages that were previously untouched by the splendour of the student protest. Those were the places where the youth (the elderly people as well) lived with internal depression and under external repression, where the idea of forming a local branch never occurred even to the "big" opposition political parties, and where local strongmen were free to do whatever pleased them. The notion and symbolism of Otpor allowed room for defiance, a personal struggle which each hapless individual needed so much, a sense of not being alone in the fight against the system.
Otpor, in fact, was never very popular with the Belgrade student population. No more than a few thousand students were gathering for protests in the Student Square in front the Faculty of Philosophy building, even when attractive rock concerts were organised. However, Otpor's strengths were precisely those that contributed the most to the victory over evil personified by Slobodan Milosevic. It awakened the people's need to put up resistance and helped apathetic Serbian populus realise that the struggle was worthwhile.
Enormous support for Otpor was provided by independent media which rightly recognised that their survival also depended on the ultimate success of the Otpor idea. Every performance and action was covered on front pages of the highest circulation newspapers or through reports broadcast by local radio stations which in turn encouraged supporters and activists to persevere and convinced them of their own strength. Opposition parties found themselves in an uneasy situation (at least this was the case with some of them), as they were forced to accept the Otpor "kids" as equal partners and allies. To the public opinion Otpor was a guarantee that the who-knows-how-many-times united opposition bloc would not abruptly fall apart once again.
The regime had no answer to this. It was certainly much easier to "uncover" Vuk Draskovic's luxury villas on the banks of Lake Geneva or some "evidence of Djindjic having committed high treason" but what to do with a girl presenting flowers to a policeman? Arrests of Otpor activists spraying graffiti on the walls throughout devastated Serbia or distributing leaflets at street corners only additionally aroused sympathy of the public. The regime was scoring negative points on account of its arrogance. This match ended on the first Thursday in October of the year 2000, and at long last the new political elite was consecrated on December 23, 2000.
Has this story come to an end? The story where it was sufficient to pin a badge on your shirt to become an Otpor activist certainly is finished. All the way, Otpor was emphasising that it was not an organisation but a movement with no leaders and no hierarchy. However, it was obvious that there was a core group of activists which made crucial decisions. Whenever there is a straightforward objective to be accomplished, strategy is bold and crystal-clear regardless of adverse circumstances. Problems arise once the Enemy disappears.
The basis for Otpor activities were public campaigns with direct messages. Particularly successful was the campaign "He's finished" launched for the September elections. Nonetheless, December campaigns "We're watching you" and "Verify" provoked mixed reactions. Guerrilla campaigns with urban graffiti and amusing stickers, leaflets and banderols were replaced by grandiose billboards more suitable for multinational companies than a grassroots social movement. From all directions threatening words were coming typical of the worst criminals' slang, and one could gain an impression that any moment now bulldozers would run over Belgrade public transport buses from which we timidly stared at warnings saying that we were "under surveillance."
"Milosevic has been ousted, but our goal is to change the system." These are the new big words of the leaders, pardon me, the leading activists of the Otpor movement. Whether bulldozers might help bring about changes in mentality and the system of values is a highly contentious issue. If only nationalistic contamination, incessant poltroon-like need for state patriarchate and susceptibility to corruption, both mental and material one, could be eradicated from the minds of ordinary Serbs with the help of a clenched fist! If Otpor intends to grow into a social movement for cultural transformation and education of our society, then it will have to come up with more subtle methods.
Although a public ceremony of presenting Otpor activists with "medals" has not actually taken place, one could easily discern this pattern of awarding them "in accordance with their merits." A group of young people, increasingly alienated from the revolutionary network of Otpor activists, now have at their disposal all possible resources, ranging from media to financial ones, but they simply have no contents needed to put these resources to use.
In the post-Milosevic era, Otpor activities are characterised by a illegitimately occupying influential posts. The new government is generously appointing Otpor members to key posts in student and youth institutions, supposedly as a reward for their contribution to the overthrow of the former regime. And idealism, the essential ingredient of the movement's "moral superiority," is gradually fading away, being consigned to the realm of memories and nostalgia.
In the course of the past two years a parallel between Otpor and Polish Solidarity movement has often been drawn. Although these movements sprang to life from different milieus (Solidarity from a workers' environment and Otpor from an academic one), the circumstances under which they were fighting against dictatorships and the way in which they achieved ultimate victory through prior transformation into mass civil movements were strikingly similar. Further parallels, however, if it is not too late already, should be avoided. Solidarity and its leaders failed to realise that they had to protect the movement by declaring that it actually ceased to exist. Consequently, Solidarity is now a political party with about one per cent of support among the electorate, while Lech Walesa became a caricature of his own self instead of going down in history as a legendary figure.
Otpor (Resistance) was the resistance to Milosevic. Now Milosevic is gone. Original Otpor members possess sufficient knowledge and skills to fulfill their dreams and ambitions, which no one can deny them, through political parties and non-governmental organisations, where they belong. Otherwise, they might someday regret it.