Otpor: The Youths Who Booted Milosevic

Article excerpt

It took a generation of 20 year-olds without a manifesto or leader to shake Serbia out of its lethargy. Armed only with slogans and spray paint, they dealt a fatal blow to the dictatorship

Slobo, say Serbia: kill yourself," chanted a band of youth in the streets of Belgrade, Yugoslavia's capital city. Defeated in the presidential election on September 24, 2000, Slobodan Milosevic--Slobo for short--kept clinging to power. On October 5, the dictator fell.

Opposition parties, international pressure and mass demonstrations contributed to Milosevic's doomsday. So did Otpor ("Resistance" in Serb), whose story is unique in the annals of eastern European protest movements. Without leaders or a clear cut political ideology, the group played a decisive role: like a termite colony, Otpor gnawed away at the regime's foundations before the top realized that the whole edifice was rocking.

Founded by a handful of libertarians in October 1998, Otpor counted 4,000 members by the end of 1999, a number that has swelled to 100,000 today. The overwhelming majority can't even remember when the movement was born.

Vague memories of the war's early days

All it takes to meet them is a visit to 49 Knez Mihajlova Street, Belgrade's most stylish pedestrian thoroughfare, where anti-NATO demonstrators sacked the French, British, German and American cultural centres during the March 1999 bombing campaign. Otpor squatted an old, run-down Belgrade university annex there. In this tiny beehive of activity, covered with stencils of the resistance movement's famous black fist and jam-packed with files, leaflets and posters, initiatives were hatched that brought a 13-year-old mafia-ridden political system to its knees.

Sofia, Ana, Milos and Mihailo are between 17 and 24 years old. When a western journalist arrives, many of their friends in the office join in the discussion, held in a small, narrow room. Soon the tiny desk is cluttered with cups of Turkish coffee. Everyone serves each other and trades cigarettes in a good-natured atmosphere. The first observation is that all those present come from the same social background. Like most Serbs, their parents get by on $40 to $80 a month, working occasional odd jobs. Their grandparents, who still live in the countryside, send a little food to help out.

It doesn't take long for the conversation to switch to recent history. In 1989, nationalism of all stripes was tearing the Yugoslav federation apart. In June 1991, war broke out in Slovenia, spreading like wildfire to Croatia and, in spring 1992, to Bosnia. The Yugoslav army was made up of draftees, and an entire age group was mobilized. By the end of 1991, Belgrade's youth were in the streets, and the police brutally cracked down on the protests. Otpor's young activists only have vague memories of these events. Barely 10 years old at the time, they were living in a climate of war, deprivation and impoverishment.

On November 17, 1996, Slobodan Milosevic lost the municipal elections and annulled them. Tens of thousands of Serbs took to the streets in Belgrade and other cities. Students, who spearheaded the protests, demanded that the results be recognized. Eventually, after three months, Milosevic made concessions and the movement ran out of steam.

Recruiting the disenchanted

Sofia Jarkovic, 17, is in her penultimate year at a Belgrade high school. She took part in these demonstrations alongside her parents. Their failure made a lasting impression on her, and on March 20, 2000 she joined Otpor, whose sole aim was Milosevic's overthrow. Ana Vuksanovic, 24, who is working on her master's degree in French literature, participated in every day of the 1996-97 protest marches. "The problem was, we had set our sights too low," she says. "We were demanding recognition of the voting results, when in fact we should have been demonstrating for new municipal, legislative and presidential elections, under the supervision of international observers. …