Otpor! (Serbian Cyrillic: Отпор!, English: Resistance!) was a civic youth movement that existed as such from 1998 until 2003 in Serbia, employing nonviolent struggle against the regime of Slobodan Milošević as their course of action. In the course of two-year nonviolent struggle against Milosevic, Otpor spread across Serbia and attracted more than 70,000 supporters. They were credited for their role in the successful overthrow of Slobodan Milošević on 5 October 2000.
Otpor boasted tremendous leverage in the months following Milosevic’s resignation, but failed to focus it into permanent political or social structure in the new transitional and more democratic reality of Serbia. An intensely heterogeneous movement of leftists and conservatives, monarchists and republicans, nationalists and cosmopolitans, after Milosevic’s departure, Otpor had lost the most important glue that bound it together. It was unclear whether the movement should continue as a watch-dog political party or just dissolve after its 2000 triumph. Acting against Milošević earned them wide praise, but when the time came to channel popular support into a clear ideological position, a definite disconnect occurred. In short, it was always clear what Otpor was against, but it was less clear what this movement represented in a new political era.
When three years later Otpor! eventually emerged as a political party, it failed to resonate with voters and received less than 2 percent of the national vote. This was not helped by wide media exposure of broad overt US support for the regime change in Serbia.
Revelation of U.S. involvement
Information started appearing about substantial outside assistance Otpor received leading up to the revolution. Otpor was a recipient of substantial funds from U.S. government-affiliated organizations such as the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), International Republican Institute (IRI), and US Agency for International Development (USAID).
In a November 2000 article from the New York Times Magazine, Times journalist Roger Cohen talked to various officials from US based organizations about the extent of American assistance received by Otpor. Paul B. McCarthy from the Washington-based NED stated that Otpor received the majority of US$3 million spent by NED in Serbia from September 1998 until October 2000. At the same time, McCarthy himself held a series of meetings with Otpor’s leaders in Podgorica, as well as Szeged and Budapest.
Just how much of the US resources appropriated in the year 2000 by USAID, for democracy and governance, which included support to groups that worked to bring an end to the Milošević era through peaceful, democratic means, went to Otpor is not clear. Donald L. Pressley, the assistant administrator at USAID said that several hundred thousand dollars were given to Otpor directly for “demonstration-support material, like T-shirts and stickers”.
Daniel Calingaert, an official with IRI, said Otpor received “some of the US$1.8 million” his institute spent in the country throughout 2000, but didnt specify the concrete figures. He also said he met Otpor leaders “seven to ten times” in Montenegro (then Yugoslavia), and Hungary, beginning in October 1999.
From Diana Johnstone, Fool’s Crusade
- The U.S. NED provided millions of dollars and training in “methods of nonviolent action” to a network of young activists calling itself Otpor (resistance) with no political program other than the desire to “be normal” on Western terms. Otpor youth plastered walls with posters of clenched fists and tried to get arrested in order to denounce the “regime” as repressive.
In the first round held on 24 September 2000, Milosevic failed to gain re-election. Official results gave Kostunica over 48 per cent of the vote in a five-man race. This fell slightly short of the 50 per cent required to win, but indicated an almost certain landslide in the runoff against Milosevic, who trailed by some ten percentage points. (Yugoslav electoral law calls for a second round if no candidate wins an absolute majority in the first round.) Not satisfied with this prospect of a certain victory at the ballot box, DOS (democratic opposition of Serbia) claimed a first round victory and announced it would boycott the second round. This heightened tension and provided an opportunity for the Otpor agitators to take matters into their own hands. The DOS thereby moved the contest from the ballot box onto the streets. The result was the spectacle of the 5 October ‘democratic revolution’, when a large crowd stormed the Skupstina, the parliament building in the center of Belgrade. Presented to the world public in the as a spontaneous act of self-liberation, the event was staged for television cameras, which filmed and relayed the same scenes over and over again: youths breaking through windows, flags waving, flames rising, smoke enveloping the parliament building, described as “the symbol of the Milosevic regime”. —Fool’s Crusade, p. 257.
Training and the players
The training and organizing of the Otpor agents was a lengthy and costly operation. This article summarizes how it was done and who was involved:
- While NDI worked closely with Serbian opposition parties, IRI focused its attention on Otpor, which served as the revolution’s ideological and organizational backbone. In March, IRI paid for two dozen Otpor leaders to attend a seminar on nonviolent resistance at the Hilton Hotel in Budapest, a few hundreds yards along the Danube from the NDI-favored Marriott.
During the seminar, the Serbian students received training in such matters as how to organize a strike, how to communicate with symbols, how to overcome fear and how to undermine the authority of a dictatorial regime. The principal lecturer was retired U.S. Army Col. Robert Helvey, who has made a study of nonviolent resistance methods around the world, including those used in modern-day Burma and the civil rights struggle in the American South.
Helvey, who served two tours in Vietnam, introduced the Otpor activists to the ideas of American theoretician Gene Sharp, whom he describes as “the Clausewitz of the nonviolence movement,” referring to the renowned Prussian military strategist.
Support from George Soros
On October 5, 2000, in the “Bulldozer Revolution“, a movement funded partly by George Soros, swept Slobodan Milosevic from power. The LA Times reported on Soros’ role, noting the problems it would cause if he were to get too much credit for his activities. By providing lots of money to already existing but struggling groups that Soros believed to be “pro-democracy”, including the student group Otpor, Soros was able to topple that country’s government.
In a 2003 news conference, Soros acknowledged his involvement, not only to the revolt in Yugoslavia but other countries, as well.
- “It is necessary to mobilize civil society in order to assure free and fair elections because there are many forces that are determined to falsify or to prevent the elections being free and fair,” Mr. Soros said. “This is what we did in Slovakia at the time of Vladimir Meciar, in Croatia at the time of Franjo Tudjman and in Yugoslavia at the time of Milosevic.”
Funding Sources and Training (alpha order)
- Freedom House (Mowat, op. cit.)
- International Republican Institute (IRI) (Mowat, op. cit.)
- National Endowment for Democracy
- Open Society Institute
- USAID – Financed T-shirts, stickers, spray-paint (Ackerman, quoted in Mowat, op. cit.)
- United States Institute of Peace (Dobbs, op. cit.)
The pop-culture component of Otpor’s activities became especially pronounced in this period. On 16 November, little over a month after the overthrow, Otpor! received the Free Your Mind award at the 2000 MTV Europe Music Awards. In their search for lessons learned from other activist movements, the April 6 Youth Movement in Egypt consulted with Otpor members and adopted some of their strategies in their rallying for the 2011 Egyptian revolution.
In interviews, the leaders and consultants of Otpor! have described their involvement in the planning, coordination and implementation of the 2011 “Arab spring” revolutions.
Srdja Popovic and Ivan Marovic
In terms of media exposure, Srđa Popović is Otpor’s best known member. Outgoing, extroverted, and media savvy with decent command of the English language, he features prominently in various Western television news items and documentaries about the movement such as PBS’ Bringing Down A Dictator as well as numerous international print and Internet media pieces about the direct and indirect influence of former Otpor members on various post-2000 revolutions around the globe.
Shortly after the 5th October 2000 revolution, he left Otpor! to pursue a political career in Serbia, becoming a Democratic Party (DS) MP in the Serbian assembly as well as an environmental adviser to prime minister Zoran Đinđić. In essence, it was 27-year-old Popović’s return to the DS since he was active in the party’s youth wing since the early 1990s.
During the summer 2003, along with several other DS MPs, Popović was implicated in the so-called “Bodrum affair” – a political scandal that occurred in Serbian parliament when it was discovered that DS MPs severely violated the parliamentary statute by using the voting card belonging to another DS MP Neda Arnerić (who was on vacation in Bodrum, Turkey at the time) to enter a vote on her behalf despite her not being physically present during the vote for the new National Bank of Serbia governor. The public scandal soon erupted with opposition party G17+ being the most vociferious in its criticism of the DS and even presenting evidence such as a video recording of the vote. During one of G17+ press conferences, Popović got singled out by the G17+ spokesperson Ksenija Milivojević. As the issue got investigated by authorities and as it eventually went before courts, Popović avoided persecution, however two of his party colleagues – DS MPs Alen Selimović and Vojislav Janković – ended up getting charged by the public persecutor in December 2004. In 2006, the municipal court conditionally sentenced Selimović to 14 months, but the sentence got overturned at the district court a year later. The case was re-tried at the district court and this time the original 14-month sentence for Selimović was upheld. Several years later, Ksenija Milivojević left the G17+ party and joined DS, becoming an adviser to Serbian deputy prime minister Božidar Đelić, a position where she worked alongside Popović.
Simultaneous to his political engagement, Popović, together with former colleagues from Otpor! Predrag Lečić and Andreja Stamenković, founded the environmental non-governmental organization named Green Fist. Conceptualized as an “ecological movement”, it attempted to transfer some of Otpor’s mass appeal into environmental issues by using similar imagery, but soon folded.
Centre for Applied Non Violent Actions and Strategies
In 2003, Popović, with another prominent former Otpor! member Slobodan Đinović, co-founded Centre for Applied Non Violent Actions and Strategies, (CANVAS), an organization focused on the use of nonviolent conflict to promote human rights and democracy, and eventually quit actively participating in Serbian politics.
In 2006, Popović and two of his former Otpor! colleagues, now CANVAS members – Slobodan Đinović and Andrej Milivojević – authored a book called Nonviolent Struggle: 50 Crucial Points, a how-to guide to nonviolent struggle, which can be can be downloaded for free in six languages from their website. A how-to guide of sorts, the book’s publishing was financed with a grant from the United States Institute of Peace (USIP), an organization founded and funded by the U.S. Congress. The book has been downloaded some 20,000 times in the Middle East, mostly by Iranians.
Due to their involvement in regime changes all around the globe, CANVAS has been labeled “Academy of Revolution” while Popović and others involved in the organization have been referred to by various media outlets as “professors of revolution”, ”revolution consultants”, ”professional revolutionaries”, and “revolution exporters”.
In 2007 Popović became adviser to Serbian deputy prime minister Božidar Đelić.
Today, in addition to their revolution-consulting and training activities through CANVAS that according to one report take up a third of their year, Popović is active on the speaking engagement circuit throughout various Western countries where they’re frequently hired by universities, institutes, and think-tanks to give lectures and hold workshops on strategy and organization of nonviolent struggle. Since 2008. Popović and Đinović have also launched CANVAS-related graduate program in cooperation with University of Belgrade’s Faculty of Political Science.
Popović additionally heads the Ecotopia fund, the non-profit organization dealing with the environmental issues, financially backed by various Serbian governmental institutions as well as the private sector. In 2009, the fund organized a wide environmental campaign featuring well-known Serbian actors and media personalities with television spots and newspaper ads. On top of that Popović is a board member of International Communications Partners, a media and PR consulting company.
Since October 2011, Popović holds the status of visiting Scholar at Columbia University’s Harriman Institute, an academic center devoted to the interdisciplinary study of Russia and the Soviet Union as well as at one of the most prestigious graduate schools of public policy in the world School of International and Public Affairs also at Columbia University.
In November 2011, Foreign Policy magazine listed Srdja Popović as one of the “Top 100 Global Thinkers” of 2011 for “inspiring the Arab Spring protesters directly and indirectly and educating activists about nonviolent social change in the Middle East”.
In addition to Popović, Ivan Marović is another Otpor! activist with significant media presence, both before and after Milošević fell. During the movement’s activist days leading up to the overthrow, his appearances in the anti-regime Serbian media were in the capacity of one of the movement’s spokespeople.
He stayed at Otpor! even after the transformation into the political party and was its MP candidate at the December 2003 parliamentary election. In the years since the creation of CANVAS he got involved with that organization in some capacity and also became active on the speaking engagement circuit, mostly in the Unites States,where like Popović he gives lectures on his experiences from Otpor! days. Additionally, Marović is one of the designers behind A Force More Powerful and People Power: The Game of Civil Resistance, video games that promote nonviolent struggle as a political tool. During mid 2000s he moved to the United States where in 2007 he got his masters degree from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts. In the late 2000s he came back to Serbia. Since the mid 2000s, he maintains a blog on B92.net, the website of B92, Serbian commercial television network with national coverage.