Otpor's Origins

This narrative is adapted from excerpts of "The New World of Power" in A Force More Powerful: A Century of Nonviolent Conflict, by Peter Ackerman and Jack DuVall (Palgrave, 2001).

The despair and alienation of the young, which the violent cauldron of Milosevic's Serbia had brewed, proved critical to the dictator's undoing. On October 10, 1998, a handful of student veterans of the 1996-97 protests founded Otpor ("Resistance") as a vehicle for a new kind of defiance — choosing as their symbol a black clenched fist, a deliberate parody of the bloody fist that was an old Bolshevik symbol and a favorite image of Milosevic. Unlike the communists, however, they formed no centralized or hierarchical leadership but instead focused on grass roots organizing. They turned their back on the dictator's power as the first move in a struggle to take it from him.

Otpor Students at a protest march in downtown Belgrade.

Among Otpor's first demands was repeal of the recently-passed University Law, which abolished academic autonomy, giving government direct control of faculties at Serbia's six universities. Weeks after Otpor's founding, the Law on Public Information was passed — leaving the independent press defenseless against government defamation charges and heavy fines — handing Otpor another potent organizing issue.

After the NATO bombing, which had helped the regime suppress opposition, Otpor's organizing took hold with a quiet vengeance. It was built in some places around clubhouses where young people could go and hang out, exercise, and party on the weekends, or more often it was run out of dining rooms and bedrooms in activists' homes. These were "boys and girls 18 and 19 years old" who had lived "in absolute poverty compared to other teenagers around the world," according to Stanko Lazendic, an Otpor activist in Novi Sad. "Otpor offered these kids a place to gather, a place where they could express their creative ideas." In a word, it showed them how to empower themselves.