A Serb lion awakes

After years of complacency, a younger opposition is challenging Slobodan Milosevic's hold on power


Tuesday, May 30, 2000

It isn't so much heavy-handed oppression, murder or disappearances in the night that allow repressive regimes to survive but rather apathy, lack of popular will, and self-retreat. Serbia has been going down this destructive road for awhile. People wait, people hope, people accept.

But recent demonstrations following Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic's clampdown on the country's independent media have revealed a new force capable of waking up the slumbering Serbs.

Otpor (which means resistance in Serbo-Croat), a loosely organized grouping founded by Belgrade University students in October, 1998, is beginning to gain widespread support. Now numbering about 50,000, the membership is reaching from the capital into the provinces and small towns. The regime is rightly concerned.

Mr. Milosevic had hoped to stymie such unrest by tightening his grip on the country's independent media. In a New Year's interview with the regime's mouthpiece "Politka," Mr. Milosevic called on the authorities to implement the draconian Public Information Act that gives the police the power to fine and close down media organizations within 48 hours. His henchmen took him at his word. On May 17, the government closed down the prominent Belgrade broadcaster Studio B -- controlled by veteran opposition figure Vuk Draskovic, the head of the Serbian Renewal Movement -- and pulled the plug on independent Radio B292.

But the measures only fanned public opposition. Mass demonstrations -- some brutally suppressed by police -- followed, most notably one protest with some 30,000 people gathering in Belgrade.

The widespread disillusionment of young urban Serbs and their frustration with the impotence of the opposition prompted the birth of Otpor. The movement has campaigned on a non-partisan platform, demanding free and fair elections, an unfettered education system, and an independent media.

What gives Otpor a potentially broad appeal -- and the regime sleepless nights -- is the age of most of its activists. Mr. Milosevic's usual tricks of accusing opposition leaders or the independent press of treason and being in the pay of NATO or other dastardly figures, don't seem to wash when it comes to dealing with 20-year-olds. Accusing fresh-faced Otpor activists of being sophisticated "NATO mercenaries" is implausible, if not laughable, to most Serbs.

By adopting a non-partisan stance, Otpor has escaped one of the traps that hamstrung the Serbian opposition in the 1990s. Mr. Draskovic's movement, for example, has always identified with the Chetnik Royalist Movement -- one of the two main warring factions that fought in the civil war that ravaged Serbia between 1941 and 1945. Memory has a long lifetime in the Balkans, and such historical identification has disqualified Mr. Draskovic's party for large segments of the population. In this respect, Otpor -- both popular and populist -- transcends historical and political divides. For a Serbian population fed up with chameleon communists or nationalists in democrats' clothing, Otpor is a breath of fresh air.

Talk of civil war or overthrowing the regime is premature. Serbia has been rocked by student demonstrations before. In 1991, students protesting the arrest of Mr. Draskovic took to the streets; in 1996 and 1997, students braved the cold for three months after Mr. Milosevic had ignored municipal election results. The President tottered but the regime remained intact. Furthermore, it is unlikely Otpor would wage war on the regime. Unarmed and preaching a policy of passive resistance, the movement would be no match for Mr. Milosevic's police and paramilitary units fresh from action in Kosovo.

But passive resistance may work wonders here. It could also prove to be disarming. Otpor activists, despite running battles with police last week, are calling for calm. The movement has attempted to build a relationship with police with characteristic humour and charm. Earlier this month, on State Security Day in Serbia, Otpor sent a letter of congratulations to the Interior Minister and individual students delivered flowers to police officers, who days earlier were beating them. When arrested, activists generally have preferred to go quietly -- for this they have received beatings and imprisonment for up to 72 hours, without charges being brought.

Such tactics won't overthrow the regime but they might instill a much-needed sense of civic responsibility in Serbia. Jokes from kids with megaphones won't cart Mr. Milosevic off to the war-crimes tribunal in The Hague, but they might kick-start the opposition into actually doing something.

And that, essentially, is what Otpor wants. Its logo -- a clenched fist -- is deliberately provocative, designed to gain a reaction, to rudely awaken a somnolent Serbia, rather than fire a bloody revolution. The essence of their message is don't wait: Don't wait for Draskovic, don't wait for the West, don't wait for things to change by themselves because they won't. Or, according to their manifesto: "The Messiah will not appear on a white horse to solve all our problems."

The summer will be the true test for Otpor. The authorities are hoping the movement will run out of steam and the kids will go back to, well, being kids. Mr. Milosevic is hoping that the youngsters will lose interest, find another fad, and concentrate on the Euro 2000 football championship. Serbia can only hope that the kids find the business of overthrowing Mr. Milosevic far more exciting than football and sex.

Original article