Even in the 20th century - rife with genocide, institutionalized thuggery, ethnic cleansing, and demagogues - the regime of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic stands out. An ex-Communist bureaucrat with modest intelligence and a cold eye for an opportunity, he reinvented himself after the dissolution of the Soviet Union as a Serbian patriot in order to hold onto the presidency in 1989, launching an 11-year reign that ranks among the century's bloodiest.
While Milosevic's overthrow was widely reported as a spontaneous revolution, most of the world's news organizations missed the real story - a year-long battle involving thousands of Serbs in a calculated strategy to strip the tyrant of his legitimacy, turn his own police and army against him, and force him to call for elections, which he lost and then tried to steal.
By the mid-1990's the brutality and corruption of Milosevic's regime were affecting most Serbians. In 1996, a coalition of opposition political parties won a clear victory in municipal elections, but Milosevic refused to acknowledge his party's defeat. For 88 days, nonviolent protests brought normal Serbian life to a standstill. The building of the Electoral Commission was covered in toilet paper, and when the administration cited a mosquito infestation in the Parliament building as an excuse not to convene the legislature, crowds armed with aerosol cans of insecticide marched on the building. Finally Milosevic capitulated to pressures both internal and international and allowed the opposition to be seated.
Deprived of the urgency that had temporarily united it, the coalition fell apart; some of the new representatives proved as corrupt as the people they had replaced. In December of 1997, Milosevic - constitutionally barred from another term as president of Serbia - won election as the president of Yugoslavia.
Milosevic's popular support was declining even in 1998, when a dozen students met to form Otpor, Serbian for "resistance." Analyzing the mistakes of 1996-97, they realized they needed much better organization, a strategy, planning, recruiting, and all the other ingredients necessary for a sustained fight. Galvanized by outrage over new laws that imposed political control of their universities and harassed the independent media, the Otpor students called for the removal of Milosevic and the establishment of democracy and the rule of law.
Declining popular support had no effect on Milosevic's command of a massively corrupt system, with the despot's usual instruments of repression, secret police and informers. But the Otpor kids had seen what happened to other resistance movements, and learned from their failures. The fate of Tiananmen Square's democracy movement taught them not to challenge the armed might of their opponent. Seeing that Milosevic maintained control by fear, they chose a kind of cheerful insolence, methodically mocking the state's power and renouncing any ambition to political office themselves.
At the start, Otpor simply improvised, using their wits and good instincts. Later, they studied nonviolent strategy, primarily through the writings of American scholar Gene Sharp, and discovered they had intuitively done the right things. They immediately adopted Sharp's ideas as the basis for their training manuals, combining them with a natural flair for marketing - evidenced in their catchy slogans and wry humor - and the creation of a sophisticated bilingual website launched even before officially opening an office.
By choosing irony and sarcasm as their means of confrontation, Otpor's student activists not only achieved the moral and political high ground; they also clung to a fundamental belief, quoted by one of the organization's leaders from a story by Jorge Luis Borges, "Violence is the last sanctuary of the weak."
By mid-1998, the time was ripe for the tactics of Otpor. While most Western powers continued to deal with Milosevic as an elected president - even as horrific evidence was uncovered of massacres of ethnic Albanians - these young people began to challenge the autocrat. Their spray-painted symbol, a clenched fist, started to appear on buildings throughout Serbia. While the outside world recoiled at Milosevic's brutality and intransigence, and NATO air forces began a bombing campaign to stop the ethnic cleansing, Otpor's appeal grew.
Says filmmaker Steve York, who began thinking about Bringing Down A Dictator in the unsettled period while Milosevic was still in power, "Every nonviolent movement has as its first obstacle the problem of overcoming fear. The Otpor kids were brave. They expected to be arrested, but they prepared for arrest with all sorts of publicity stunts and by training their activists how to behave when interrogated, by recruiting lawyers to help, by building solidarity. They calculated that their arrests, combined with their use of humor and ridicule, if sustained long enough, would persuade ordinary people to overcome their fear."
In place of barricades, Otpor staged raucous rock concerts and guerrilla theatre in the streets: a lunar eclipse observation featuring the gradual obliteration of Milosevic's image; a New Year's Eve party in which the year 2000 was rung in with the names and pictures of those who were killed in Milosevic's wars; a public parody of Milosevic's socialist party congress.
Otpor's ideas caught on quickly among young people, who had little to lose and saw a bleak future under Milosevic. In just over a year, Otpor's membership list grew to 70,000, mostly in the provinces where discontent was strongest. Their symbol - the clenched fist - and their slogans - "Bite The System" and "Resistance, Because I Love Serbia" blanketed the country on stickers and leaflets. Otpor became a ubiquitous brand-name, as familiar as Coca-Cola and Nike.
A self-proclaimed nonviolent movement, Otpor's stated goal was to remove Milosevic at the ballot box, not an easy feat against a regime that controls the electoral machinery. In the spring of 2000, with scheduled elections a year away, Otpor mobilized its national network, using neighborhood kids as organizers, building an email network, distributing leaflets, drafting quick response plans to meet the repression and arrests which they expected. Increasingly threatened by Otpor's successes, the state information minister went on national television to declare Otpor a terrorist organization. Otpor responded by sending out thousands of clean-cut kids, well-known in their communities, wearing T-shirts with the words: "Otpor Terrorist."
Against Milosevic's traditional weapons of oppression and control, Otpor used intelligence, creativity, and irony, preserving its unblemished image by refusing to align with any political party. Meeting in cafes and communicating by cell phone and e-mail, against a government apparatus that was technologically hapless, they organized a sustained and disciplined effort to create a nonviolent army.
In the meantime, opposition political parties, whose bickering and rivalries had strengthened Milosevic, came under intense pressure - from Otpor and others - to join in a unified front. In the summer of 2000, as Milosevic saw his popularity slipping badly, he called for elections ten months ahead of schedule. Seeing their chance, the opposition formed a coalition behind a single candidate, a law professor and the leader of a small party, Vojislav Kostunica. Otpor went into action, with a national organization far superior to anything the political parties had. And Otpor's marketing department came up with a slogan - "Gotov Je" or "He's Finished!" - that took off like wildfire. Printed on stickers, "He's Finished" was attached to cars, walls, traffic signs, even faces. Otpor distributed six tons of the stickers in seven weeks. The regime tried frantically to choke off free expression, but Serbia's scrappy independent news media, especially in the provinces, refused to be intimidated.
By the September 24th election, independent groups had trained 30,000 volunteer election monitors assigned to some 10,000 polling places to prevent fraud. By midnight, independent tabulations showed that Kostunica had won.
When a desperate Milosevic demanded a runoff vote, a transparent ploy to buy the time needed to manipulate the official count, Kostunica called for a general strike. As more and more workers joined, and as Otpor mobilized to build road blockades, the country ceased to function. Ten days after the election, hundreds of thousands of Serbs - miners, farmers, men and women from all walks of life -- converged angrily on the capital, in convoys that clogged the highways in every direction. Police, with whom Otpor and the opposition had quietly worked for months, acknowledged their orders but refused to carry them out. On October 6th, Milosevic conceded defeat and stepped down. He was "finished" at last. In his victory speech, Kostunica declared, "We have answered their violence with nonviolence!"
On April 1, 2001 - April Fool's day - Milosevic was arrested. He was extradited to The Hague for trial by the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia. His trial began February 12, 2002.