In defense of Otpor

When they claim that Otpor was an American operation to unseat Milosevic, they do not bother to explain why all these other organizations were fighting Milosevic, some for years before Otpor joined the fight. Were they all American puppets?

A spectre is haunting the Internet it seems – the spectre of Otpor. Many powers of the blogosphere have entered into a holy alliance to exorcise this specter: Putin’s media outlets, crackpot conspiracy theorists, even some people on the left (very disturbing to me). They’ve spent the last decade deconstructing a movement that hasn’t existed since 2004. It is easy to butcher a corpse because it cannot fight back. But I feel an obligation to defend Otpor; it was a movement I belonged to, so let me deconstruct this “deconstruction.”

A few facts about Otpor. It was a movement that existed in Serbia between late 1998 and early 2004. It played an important role in the fall of Slobodan Milosevic in 2000; it was a laboratory out of which came some new and original organizing concepts and it has inspired social movements worldwide ever since. It doesn’t exist as an organization anymore, but still influences the world. And with every passing year, the criticism of Otpor and its legacy seems to be growing – not just in Serbia, but around the world.

There are different critics of Otpor and the motivations behind their criticism are not the same. Media outlets sponsored by different autocrats want to discredit Otpor because they are afraid of their own populations; they worry their people may use civil resistance against them. Discrediting popular movements as not genuine, as imported, seems like a good idea to them. But in the end it never works. Blaming foreigners for you internal troubles is like blaming your mother-in-law for your marital problems. It does not save the marriage.

The motivation of conspiracy theorists is not very clear. Maybe it is safest to say that there is a global conspiracy of conspiracy theorists to discourage dissent by persuading everyone that any rebellion is part of a conspiracy. Let’s just leave it at that.

The motivation of critics on the left is to expose the American Empire and its role in the world. So, if they see US involvement, however small, in a country experiencing unrest – they totally disregard the local context and put it in the American context. Now that’s what I call an imperialist state of mind.

There are a number of formal problems with such critiques of Otpor I wish to address before I get to the essence of my deconstruction. Critics often conflate former Otpor members with Otpor itself; so you will often find criticism of ‘Otpor’ mixed with criticism of individuals who were once part of that movement.

The most popular target, back in vogue thanks to a recent expose by Carl Gibson and Steven Horn, is Srdja Popovic and his organization CANVAS (Center for Applied Nonviolent Action and Strategies). Otpor and CANVAS are two different entities – Otpor was a mass movement, its goal was to bring down Milosevic; CANVAS is a small NGO with a mission to disseminate knowledge about nonviolent action. CANVAS was founded only a year after Otpor had ceased to exist, and Srdja himself left Otpor years before launching this organization.

But I don’t want to defend Srdja and CANVAS here – they are more than capable of countering criticisms on their own. I want to defend Otpor because Otpor, being long dead, cannot fight back; not just Otpor, I wish to defend the struggle of the Serbian people against Milosevic.

Herein lies another formal problem: it was not just Otpor. Critics ignore the fact that Otpor was but one part of a much larger front fighting against Milosevic and his regime – an alliance of political parties, trade unions, independent media and NGOs. When they claim that Otpor was an American operation to unseat Milosevic, they do not bother to explain why all these other organizations were fighting Milosevic, some for years before Otpor joined the fight. Were they all American puppets?

Even Vojislav Kostunica, the politician who defeated Milosevic in the 2000 presidential elections – elections Milosevic attempted to falsify, provoking nationwide civil disobedience and the general strike which brought him down – was he too an American puppet? Kostunica is well known for his anti-American views, as well as his opposition to NATO and the EU; some even claim (though personally, I find it unlikely) that he was responsible for setting the American Embassy on fire during the riots which shook Belgrade after Kosovo declared independence in 2004. Some puppet.

Even those members of Otpor who were veterans of the 1996-97 student protest which lasted for four months without any western support? Back then Milosevic was called a ‘factor of stability’ in the Balkans and a guarantor of the Dayton accords which ended the Bosnian War a year earlier. Otpor was founded by these students and operated without any external assistance during its formative phase. We didn’t have an office for the first year – and when we got one, it wasn’t Bill Clinton who offered us a small apartment, but an activist’s mother.

Otpor did receive foreign support in the end, from the US, but also from Europeans and others. In fact we asked for it. It was a tough choice, but important choices are never easy. These countries bombed us – talking to the representatives of their governments and heads of their foundations was not without discomfort. But the decision to look for support abroad was informed by the understanding that the only people who had money in Serbia at that time were war profiteers and war criminals. All money in the country was bloody. Confronted by that reality, foreign support seemed the lesser evil. Looking back, this turned out to be the correct decision.

Now let me get to the point and I’ll put it bluntly: you can’t criticize Otpor without endorsing Milosevic and his fascist regime. If you are brave enough to say Otpor’s role was negative then you should be bold enough to say Milosevic’s role was positive. And while you’re at it, maybe you should also say a word or two about Srebrenica. Eight thousand people were killed there, you know. You can’t have it both ways.

Of course, critics of Otpor already know this – that’s why they dodge it over and over again whenever it is brought up. They don’t put things into context; they just mention US support to Otpor while never talking about what kind of regime Otpor was up against. Talking about US support to Otpor without mentioning Milosevic is like saying Stalin and Churchill were allies without mentioning Hitler. Without Hitler, this alliance would be the most sinister of pacts, both from the Tory and Bolshevik point of view. But mention Hitler and it all makes sense.

The same goes for US support for our struggle against Milosevic, a fight which had been going on for nearly a decade before western countries finally decided to step in and help. And they deserve credit for that aid as much as they deserve criticism for treating Milosevic as a partner for the majority of his reign. The most important thing then, as now, is what Otpor was fighting against.

Of course, ten years later many things didn’t turn out the way we envisioned. What we fought to achieve is not what we got in the end. In other words, we didn’t fight for this, we fought against that, and we always should. And should we be disappointed? We should be disappointed in ourselves – in what we are or are not doing today, not in what we did back in the nineties. The fight against Milosevic was a good fight, and I dare any critic of Otpor to come out and say it wasn’t.

About the author

Ivan Marovic is an organizer, software developer and social innovator from Belgrade, Serbia. He was a student organizer and one of the leaders of Otpor, a resistance movement which played an important role in the downfall of Slobodan Milosevic in 2000. Ivan holds a BSc in Process Engineering from Belgrade University and an MA in International Relations from the Fletcher School at Tufts University. He currently lives in Nairobi with his wife and son.

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