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Yugoslavia: Serbian Youth Movement Breathes New Life Into Resistance

As the regime of President Slobodan Milosevic increases its repression, a student anti-government organization is gaining ground as the country's most viable resistance movement. RFE/RL correspondent Alexandra Poolos looks at what the movement stands for and how it hopes to bring democracy to Serbia through civil disobedience.

Prague, 19 May 2000 (RFE/RL) -- It has no formal structure and no doctrine. Its members are mostly students in their 20s. Its symbol is the clenched fist of defiance. But Otpor, or Resistance, is one of the few Serbian opposition groups whose stature is rising: a sign that more and more of those people who want change are looking away from the established opposition parties.

Otpor is gaining ground as Serbia's latest hope to topple the regime of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic. A grassroots movement, it began two years ago in response to repressive media and university laws enacted by Yugoslav authorities.

The movement advocates a policy of civil disobedience. The movement organizes rallies and distributes leaflets that ask Serbian citizens to blatantly ignore the law and act in non-violent resistance to "stupidity, violence, civil war, and poverty."

Otpor activist Ivan Marovic says total disobedience is the only way to get rid of Milosevic:

"We are trying to spread the civic disobedience and to try to preach the idea of non-violent resistance. By that we want to involve as many people as possible in this project and to try to cut off all the arms and legs of the government so they cannot function. We are trying to block the government by encouraging people to disobey the orders."

With that simple message, Otpor is gaining popularity among average citizens. Marovic says the movement is Serbia's only alternative to the country's rusty opposition.

"In the last 10 years, [the opposition] proved to be very inefficient, partly because this is not the atmosphere for political parties but also because they were quarrelling amongst themselves. They were putting their internal problems as a priority and their disputes that exist between the political parties were more important to them than disputes they have with Milosevic. So this brought much disappointment, and that's why people probably support resistance movements more than opposition parties."

Still, Otpor is working with the opposition. Marovic says opposition parties can still be a powerful tool against Milosevic.

"We are trying to press on [the opposition] to start being efficient, more efficient then they were. So we are pressing the opposition as much as we press the regime."

Otpor members say their power lies in their youth. The students' relative lack of experience in Serbian politics makes them more trustworthy in the eyes of Serbs who are tired of the same old faces in politics. Zagorka Golubovic is a cultural anthropologist based in Belgrade. She says that Serbs are looking for a movement that is not tarnished by the past.

"It (Otpor) is very popular because these are young people and in all the investigation in Serbia it is shown that respondents ask for something new, because they don't believe in the existing political parties, because they have no respect for them. So they ask for something new. And they believe that these young people who are mostly interested for the future of Serbia and Yugoslavia might be the new force which can mobilize more people round themselves in order to procure social changes." The Yugoslav government regards Otpor as an illegal and destructive organization. Federal Information Minister Goran Matic says Otpor is not even registered.

"Otpor is not a registered organization in the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, and they have not been registered as a political party or a citizens' group. We checked all the registers we have, and at this moment, nobody is entitled to call themselves a political party or a citizens organization if they have a fascistic policy, fascistic symbols, terrorism, and violence in the streets."

Clearly, the Milosevic regime is threatened by the growing popularity of Otpor. In the past weeks, hundreds of Otpor activists have been arrested. This week brought the most severe crackdowns on Belgrade's independent media with the closure of Studio B television and other private radio stations. Rallies in Belgrade against the takeover of Studio B yesterday were violently dispersed by police with teargas and batons.

Golubovic says that the crackdown could backfire. She says people who wouldn't normally be active in a resistance movement may support Otpor precisely because they see it as persecuted.

"Another [part] of the population is not ready to be included in this movement. They wait to see what will be done. So I don't know whether in this moment it is realistic to believe in this total disobedience, but still the regime is taking such steps that might mobilize people to such activities of total disobedience."

Otpor now boasts a membership of over 50,000 and has strong footholds in 120 towns across Serbia. But Serbia has a history of protest movements that went nowhere. Three years ago, tens of thousands of Serbs protested daily in the streets of Belgrade but still failed to topple Milosevic.

But Marovic says it is the small steps that count now: "It's a small effect if you look at any particular case, but if you put all the cases together it is an effect. We are the only group that has police officers in it, [and] judges are disobeying orders when there is a trial against our activists. So we are having an effect, especially in small towns where everyone knows everyone."

Marovic says it will not take a bloody uprising to dispose of Milosevic. He believes that with civil disobedience, Milosevic's presidency will just evaporate. To some, Otpor's message is too naive and idealistic. But Marovic says the movement's truth lies in its simplicity: the purpose of the movement he says is to show Serbs that they themselves hold the reigns of Milosevic's power.