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Yugoslavia: Otpor Launches Get Out the Vote Campaign

Serbian police in Nis and Sabac detained 16 activists for questioning yesterday, several of them minors, accusing them of putting up posters for the opposition youth movement Otpor (Resistance). RFE/RL correspondent Jolyon Naegele spoke with Otpor and other opposition activists at a recent conference in Bratislava. They say they hope to tip the balance in elections later this year and bring down the Milosevic regime.

Bratislava, 18 July 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Yesterday's brief detentions of Otpor activists in Nis and Sabac are merely the latest in what Otpor says are more than 1,500 detentions and interrogations of its activists in recent months.

The parents of one of the detainees have filed a complaint against a policeman for hitting and slapping their 8-year-old son in the head and stuffing a crumpled Otpor leaflet into the child's mouth.

Serbia's justice and interior ministers have repeatedly accused Otpor of being a Western-sponsored "terrorist-fascist" organization.

But its activists say Otpor is a state of mind rather than an organization, a loose association of 40,000 members with no hierarchical structure. They say they want to ensure nonviolent democratic change in Serbia.

Otpor's role has become all the more vital since the Yugoslav parliament two weeks ago adopted constitutional changes enabling President Slobodan Milosevic to serve up to two more four-year terms. The changes also increase the likelihood that the regime will call early elections, banking on the lack of unity among opposition parties.

The group's main goal now appears to be to persuade young people to vote for change. Activists have already pasted up some 2 million Otpor posters across Serbia this year.

Otpor activist Milan Samardzic is a law student in Belgrade. He says the group wants to mobilize all Serbs who want change.

"We see it as our task to get as many people as possible out to vote, because 80% of the population is willing, is actually asking for a change of this regime. And even though they are not all oriented towards the opposition, they know they are not supporting the regime of Slobodan Milosevic either."

Samardzic says Otpor is particularly targeting the some 500,000 young people who have not voted in previous elections, many because they were not yet 18, others because they felt alienated from the system.

The Otpor activist says defeating the ruling coalition at the polls depends on the opposition parties being united. He adds that Otpor's strength gives a very strong signal that he says dissolves fear and apathy and shows people that their votes can make a difference.

"The elections are the only way for a peaceful solution to this crisis and the elections are only way for our final victory."

Srbijanka Turajlic, a leading opposition activist of a nongovernmental group called the Alternative Academic Network, says Otpor's star is rising because in contrast to the opposition parties, Otpor is not handicapped by the past.

"Otpor is definitely the future of Serbia, the political future of Serbia. It consists of young people who are not filled with our prejudices resulting from the harsh communist times. We are people who grew up without democracy, without any elections. We had never participated in elections, and any political experience we have we got in the Communist Party."

Turajlic says the opposition parties are nervous because they do not enjoy the trust of Otpor activists. Otpor at this stage in its development will not field candidates but rather concentrate on persuading young people to vote. But Turajlic predicts that once Otpor matures, its activists will make a bid for power, saying in effect, "O.K., now we'll show you what real democracy is and how to run the country."

Opposition Democratic Party activist Slobodan Vuksanovic says Otpor is more popular than any political party in Serbia.

"Otpor is an organization that enjoys the greatest confidence of the citizens. It is a group of young people who certainly are not trusted for their experience. They cannot be experienced. Rather, they are trusted because they are clean."

University professor Stevan Lilic says the opposition parties must take a serious look at how diligently Otpor is working as the elections approach. In his words, "These are not just more elections, but a general plebiscite, a referendum for change -- and change means a real change in the orientation of the system." Lilic:

"Above all, this basic strategic orientation of Otpor has already made its mark on the political processes in Serbia. If you look at the next elections, you'll see. Otpor is not a political organization. Otpor is a way of thinking, which says that one must not live as one has lived until now."

Lilic notes that the other essential characteristic of Otpor is that its methods are nonviolent. That, he says, represents a clear alternative to Serbia's current system.

Nis Deputy Mayor Toplica Djordjevic, an opponent of Milosevic, says Otpor's strength is far greater than the numbers of its activists would suggest.

"Organizationally, how many people are in Otpor in Nis I cannot say. But how strong are they as an idea, as a movement -- that is easy to say. Otpor is everywhere. Otpor is an idea that young people embrace and struggle for with full force and full legitimacy."

The grande dame of Serbian human rights activists, Sonja Licht is equally upbeat about Otpor, saying pessimism can not be tolerated at the moment. In her words, "We must win this battle."

"I think they will have the role of attraction -- attracting the voters to get out to vote. I hope they will have a mobilizing role to the same end. And I also think that they will, in a way, insert a new hope that there is a chance for another Serbia, for a democratic Serbia."

Licht says hope is probably the most important weapon Otpor has. She predicts that if Otpor and the opposition succeed in working together, then change will indeed come to Serbia.