The student-driven Otpor movement was unquestionably the star of the October Revolution in Belgrade. But now that Milošević is gone, the movement is floundering in its attempts to define what it is and what it must become.
In November 1998, Otpor burst onto the scene with a graffiti campaign across downtown Belgrade. The movement's members prided themselves on the fact that Otpor had no single leader or hierarchical structure, which made it virtually impossible for the state to effectively repress them. After years of public campaigns, it was their Gotov je (He is Finished) pre-election campaign that was their crowning moment. The campaign sought to mobilize as many voters to the polls as possible and clearly contributed to the opposition parties' surprise win.
The first thing Otpor did after the opposition parties' rise to power was to launch a new ad campaign, which turned the bulldozer that helped protesters storm the parliament building in October into a symbol of the power of the common man. The black-and-white ads show a stylized bulldozer with the text Samo vas Gledamo (We are just watching you).
The idea is to remind the new leaders that the citizens of Yugoslavia brought down one bad leader and would gladly do it again. The movement seemed to be steadily assuming the role of watchdog.
In the lead-up to the election, several Otpor members were asked in interviews whether the movement would change its name if the opposition parties won. The unanimous answer was that the name would remain, since they are not "resisting" Milošević the man but the mind-set of the people. But just a couple months after the defeat of Slobodan Milošević, Otpor members are no longer so certain.
Financial questions answered, unfortunately
All along, questions about where Otpor was getting its funding have abounded. Spokesmen never denied they were getting help from abroad, but when pressed claimed that they accepted it out of patriotism.
Ostensibly, the movement accepted Western aid to promote their goal of a purged, democratized Serbia. When it became clear, however, that Western governments were involved, many in Yugoslavia and elsewhere began to wonder what sort of return those generous governments will want on their investment in Otpor.
The New York Times Magazine featured Otpor members on the cover of their 26 November 2000 issue. In an approving and even congratulatory tone, the accompanying article details millions of dollars as well as training seminars and other support that the United States government had provided to Otpor members.
Aside from the question of "repayment," there is the fact that in trying to control Otpor's activities, Milošević and his people ran an anti-Otpor ad campaign featuring the famous Otpor fist clenching American dollars to insinuate corruption and Western propaganda in the movement. With the revelations about Otpor's Western benefactors, many are left wondering just how far off the ad really was.
The second congress
Otpor's image was further tarnished on the occasion of the movement's second congress on 4 February 2001. The event was held in Belgrade, and aside from activists, several politicians and members of the government attended. The centerpiece of the congress was a screening of what Free Serbia called a "brilliant propagandistic film" about the history and activities of the Otpor movement.
The congress was apparently the swan song of the famous fist logo; it was Otpor member Ivan Marovic who told those assembled that the fist was being retired. The radio station B92 quoted him as saying, "We needed a fist as a weapon against Milošević. It would be like a mine against a mosquito against the new authorities."
Not everyone was convinced; some applauded the move, but many booed and hissed. But the biggest expressions of dissent came later.
Vlada Pavlov, a leading figure in the Novi Sad branch of Otpor, gave an address to the congress in which he detailed a new vision for the movement. This new vision is termed Novi Patriotizm (New Patriotism), which Pavlov defined as "open patriotism, understanding and love for the native country, universal solidarity and a civil state."
A young activist from Valjevo screamed out across the congress hall, "Vlado, who stands for the people's movement Otpor? Ten people?! Present are fifteen hundred Otpor members! Why aren't they consulted about anything, but are simply told the decisions made in advance?"
It is key that the voice of dissent came from an activist from Valjevo, a provincial town far from Belgrade. In the capital, the movement was not particularly popular and Otpor-organized events were poorly attended. But the pain of life under Milošević and under sanctions was felt hardest outside of Belgrade, and the solidarity and vision of a brighter future offered by Otpor was like a magnet.
In recent weeks, spokesmen from the provincial branches of Otpor have been widely cited in the press as being overwhelmingly disappointed by what occurred at the congress. They see a small group of cocky, big-city Belgrade activists trying to impose a leadership structure on a movement that prides itself on having no formal hierarchy or leaders.
Ivan Jočić, an Otpor member from the southern-Serbian center of Niš, told the daily Danas: "At the second congress, a small group of people abused the name and idea of the entire movement." Jočić was not only opposed to the directives put forward at the congress but to the very congress itself. "Otpor's first congress was conceived as a parody of the congress of the Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS). But the second congress truly surpassed any SPS congress directed by Slobodan Milošević and his crew."
Otpor's Niš branch announced soon after the Congress that they intended to resist the centralizing tendencies of "a group of activists with political ambitions from Belgrade," their vision being an Otpor composed of local units formed into a decentralized non-governmental organization. Local groups from the Vojvodina are also discussing decentralization and regional cooperation to fight the centralizing forces in Belgrade.
Activists from Požarevac agreed that the congresses of the SPS were more democratic than Otpor's second congress, given the fact that the new mission of "Novi Patriotizm" was presented as gospel even though virtually none of the delegates had heard of the concept.
It was activists from the central Serbian city of Kragujevac who have gone the furthest. To protest the second congress, they have suspended the activities of their branch of Otpor entirely.
On the door to their headquarters, they have written the old slogan Gotov je. Before the September election, those words were translated as "He is Finished," referring to Milošević; but now they must be translated as "It is Finished," referring to Otpor...
A new mission?
Otpor was born as a resistance to the rule of one man, Slobodan Milošević. Now that he is squarely out of power, the question of whether there remains a need for Otpor arises. The initial idea that the movement could serve as a watchdog over the new government as expressed in the Samo vas Gledamo campaign seemed worthy enough, but now some feel it is insufficient.
The Belgrade branch sees Otpor's future as a political party. The Niš branch sees it as an NGO. Many others, however, see no future for Otpor and are convinced that if the movement wants to preserve its good name, it must disband.
An article on the Free Serbia website pointed out some interesting parallels between this movement and the old Polish Solidarity movement. Both movements fought the powers that be and each won its war by transforming from a small group with a narrow membership into a mass social movement.
The article uses the fate of Solidarity to warn about the dangerous path Otpor is now treading. "Solidarity and its leaders did not realize that they had to protect the movement by declaring that it actually ceased to exist. The consequence: Today Solidarity is a political party with about one per cent of support among the electorate, while Lech Wałęsa became a caricature of his own self instead of going down in history as a legendary figure."
The concerns surrounding the foreign aid accepted by the movement, the peculiarities of the second congress and the political ambitions of the Belgrade group are all tarnishing the once-pristine image of the movement, which is already on the cusp of a schism. Once the break between the politically motivated and civil society-oriented factions is formalized, the inevitable bickering about who can claim the legacy of the movement that did so much to bring down the man who ran Yugoslavia into the ground might well be enough for both new groups to be stillborn.
The old idealism seems to have worn off with the last moments of the euphoria of revolution, and that loss is a hard thing for most to accept. With each passing day, more and more people—both within Otpor and without—are reconsidering the idea and meaning of Otpor, and the movement's leaders must realize this before it is too late.
Brian J Požun, 26 February 2001
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