Interview: Stanko Lazendic
Stanko Lazendic was the leader of the Otpor branch in the city of Novi Sad.
On why young people joined Otpor:
The young people who came to the Otpor offices were all only 6 to 8 years old in 1990 and 1991 when the breakdown of Yugoslavia started. Now these are boys and girls, 18 and 19 year olds, who lived their childhood in absolute poverty compared to other teenagers around the world, especially Europe. Otpor offered these kids a place to gather, a place where they could express their ideas, where they would have friends they could talk to about something other than nightlife and day-to-day life. There was something that drew them to Otpor, and to each other. It was Otpor — it was the idea of Otpor (resistance).
Since the breakdown of Yugoslavia, there have been constant wars and fighting in our country. People were dying and blood was being spilled. We, the young people, wanted to resolve the situation differently. We staged nonviolent protests. Those protests expressed the students' wishes as citizens of this country, peacefully, while marching in the street or whistling or carrying humorous propaganda materials, all of which characterized us as creative young people. We knew that we couldn't use force on someone who was three times stronger and who had three times more force, more weapons than we did.
We knew that if during a protest we went up against police carrying bats, the police would not only use the batons, but all their other weapons, even their armored vehicles — all in order to break us. We knew what had happened in China, in Tiananmen, where the army plowed over students with tanks. We knew what had happened in Indonesia where 20,000 students were killed. It was the military who committed that crime because of their dictatorial regime. We did not want that for ourselves. We couldn't allow more blood to be spilled in order to change the regime.
On the repression of Otpor by the police:
Our way of non-violent fighting was organizing actions and performances on the streets which were to poke fun at, and satirize the government. We also handed out propaganda material, flyers. We put up posters on the walls which were clearly critical of the government. The police tried to label us as a terrorist organization, criminals, hooligans — as worthless. But, the more the police repressed us, arresting us for wearing Otpor t-shirts, or Otpor pins, the more impossible it became for the police to make bad guys out of us.
For example, I was arrested in Backa Palanka, in February of this year, for putting Otpor posters on the wall that said, "Otpor — because I love Serbia.” The chief inspector of the criminal department questioned me. I asked him what criminal activity I had performed and why they were arresting me. He then just looked down, and couldn't answer. So, they couldn't behave toward me the same way they did towards a criminal. I was not letting them insult, molest or beat me in the police station. I was aware that my only sin was putting posters on the walls, and in the places I was allowed to by law. It was then that the police understood that we would not use violent methods, and that we were simply expressing our own opinions.
On the risks of being an Otpor member:
I knew what could happen to me from the beginning, and what the consequences would be for expressing my opinion. I was aware that I belonged to a so-called "illegal" organization, since we weren't registered. I knew what I was doing was a nuisance to the regime. That's why I knew I could have been arrested, taken into custody, convicted, beaten. I was ready for all of these things. I believed in what I was doing, I was doing it the right way. I knew I was not using "dirty" methods the regime was using. Not even once did I think of using weapons and expressing my negative feelings towards the regime that way.
When people started joining Otpor, young and older ones, I would always say to the ones I had chance to talk to: "Your being here is your personal choice." We did not want to push anyone against his will to come and join us, and then later if captured by the police have them say: "Well I don't know anything... They've made me do it." We did not want that to happen. Whoever joined Otpor had to be aware of the risks and possible consequences. I did that, and the rest followed. They knew that they could lose their jobs eventually, and that their loved ones could also lose their jobs. At the same time, they knew if we managed to show our beliefs in the right way, if we managed and performed our tasks, and convinced people to vote, that this government could be brought down. On September 24th, we showed that it could happen.
On being accused of killing Milosevic ally Bosko Perosevic:
Police and national TV issued a warrant for Milos' [another Otpor member] and my arrest, accusing us of being organizers and accomplices in the murder of Mr. Perosevic. We did not believe that they would go as far without gathering any proof against us. We came back from Republic Srpska (the Serbian-controlled area of Bosnia), on September 15th, just before the elections. We came back to show the people that even though they could arrest us or convict us on the basis of that warrant, and even beat us or torture us, we were ready to go back, to prove our innocence.
When asked whether the actual murderer was connected to Otpor, I responded that he was not connected with Otpor. He was never in Otpor, nor was he a member of our organization. The police said, "Yes, but we recovered Otpor's propaganda materials in his apartment." Almost every house was covered with Otpor propaganda material, as we were handing it out to the people on the streets or dropping them in to the mailboxes. I asked them whether a flyer found in the murderers' apartment proved he was an Otpor activist? Was this their way of performing the actual investigation? If it was, "Then," I told them, "What an excellent job you have done."
Again, they just looked down. The interesting thing was, when they released me from the police station that same day, after holding me for 18 hours, they asked me: "Will we be able to keep our present jobs if you take over the government?"
On the police:
You could see they too were not satisfied. They could not say it though, because they were afraid for their jobs. Police officers who came to take me in asked me what were they taking me in for. I told them that they of all people should know what they were arresting me for. They responded that they did not know. Then I told them that I was putting the posters on the walls. They said that they could not believe that was the reason they had to take me in. Then one whispered in my ear: "I don't like Milosevic either, but I have to do this in order to keep my job." So I told him that it was good if he performed his job this way, but if he took a baton and start beating me for having a different opinion, then it would not be right and could not be tolerated.
On fear and the impact of Otpor actions on members' parents:
Fear was really enormous within people. It took a lot of time for a person to break that fear, within himself, to resolve ot be brave, to say, "Enough... I cannot stand this anymore... I have to voice my opinion... I have to say out loud if I don't agree with something." The majority of people said, "Be quiet — you have a job," or when talking to people about why they were not complaining, why they were not saying something we would get answers like, "Wel,l I have a job. I have a small kid. I have this or that." There would be different excuses, and it was all because of fear. Believe me, it was not a pleasant sight for your neighbors to watch police coming and breaking down your front door at 3 o'clock in the morning.
It was not easy for our parents to deal with all that they had to deal with. Their sons were being labeled "terrorists," their sons were being accused of actions they did not commit, and police would come to their homes almost daily just because their children had been expressing their political opinion in a different way. Parents had to go to their jobs; they had to look their colleagues in their eyes.
Each and every one of us had lived our youth in a very negative way. Having had such a hard time, and having an unclear picture of our future, we had nothing to lose. We could either react and take part in creating our own future, or get out of here, or simply keep quiet, give up, and pretend it did not concern us.
Excerpted from an interview with Steve York: Novi Sad, November 29, 2000. Note: This interview was translated from Serbian.