Friday, March 16, 2012

Fifteen years ago

It was a sunny day in March 1997 when I transcended, together with my friend Manda, from the physical into the metaphysical world. Before we stepped into the twilight zone, Manda turned around and shouted:

"Mechanics, where are you!?"

"Here we are!", shouted back students of Mechanical Engineering, few hundred of them, occupying the street and the sidewalk in front of the agency "Star Eye", owned by Clairvoyant Branka, a famous Belgrade psychic. As soon as we entered the premises of the agency, the staff told us that Clairvoyant Branka will receive us immediately. The waiting room was filled with about twenty people, mostly elderly women, who were waiting for the prophetess. Regular checkup costed 50 Deutchemarks, special 100, but we got a free session. "Patients" in the waiting room were looking at the two of us and whispering to each other:

"These are the students, they are protesting for months. What are they doing here?"

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Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Spread the "Epidemic"

The following article of mine was published in Vreme magazine on June 3rd 2000, four months before Milosevic stepped down. 

Change is necessary in Serbia; not only a change of the current regime, but a thorough change of the political system. Fundamental change will follow the removal of ruling political parties, which can only be seen as the obstacles in the way of change. So far, the regular activities of the opposition political parties have proved to be insufficient to reach this goal.

Political parties are organizations which, in order to function at their full capacity, require a stable political system. In order to initiate public debates about questions of interest to the society, they need access to the media as well as cooperation with influential institutions. It is hardly necessary to repeat that these conditions do not exist in Serbia. For this reason, as it has been pointed out before, there is a need both to establish a common consensus regarding the questions of systematic change and to engage all levels of society in a movement based on consensus. Unfortunately, after long and strenuous debates, all attempts to reach a consensus have so far reached a dead-end. 

There is, however, another way to organize individuals and groups - within the framework of a social movement. It is first necessary to highlight a broad, yet sufficiently clear, demand for change in the existing system and, in time, encourage all of society's participants to take a stand regarding the political situation. This request would be represented by a line that would be drawn through all layers of the society. Every institution and all political parties, even those in power, would be asked to decide on which side of the line they wanted to be.
Therefore the key to replacing the regime in Serbia is primarily tied to the awakening and reviving of the people, because their passive participation in politics is no longer sufficient. In the torpid quagmire of the Serbian political system Otpor! falls like a massive rock, causing waves that spread in concentric circles.
(Otpor!'s Manifesto, pg. 13)
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Wednesday, February 22, 2012


He who thus domineers over you has only two eyes, only two hands, only one body, no more than is possessed by the least man among the infinite numbers dwelling in your cities; he has indeed nothing more than the power that you confer upon him to destroy you. Where has he acquired enough eyes to spy upon you, if you do not provide them yourselves? How can he have so many arms to beat you with, if he does not borrow them from you? The feet that trample down your cities, where does he get them if they are not your own? How does he have any power over you except through you?
Étienne de la Boétie (1548)
This question struck me some fifteen years ago when I read it together with the rest of the Boétie's Discourse on Voluntary Servitude and realized how we had got it all wrong. At the time I was a student organizer and one of the leaders of the 1996-97 Student Protest which forced Milosevic to accept defeat at the local elections, but failed to force him out of office. This was because we focused on him - we protested every day for four months trying to persuade him to accept defeat. And he did finally give in, because this was a defeat he was willing to accept, municipal power in some twenty or so towns was not so important for running a country. And later that year we learned that this had been in fact just a tactical retreat because he stroke back, stronger than ever, winning parliamentary elections against a divided opposition.
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Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Intermezzo and Then the Fun Part

In the last five posts we focused on the big picture: the role of Otpor in the broad movement and decade long struggle against Milosevic, how the plan of the opposition played out on October 5th, and what role did the movement turned civil society play in the immediate stabilization period. That was the big picture, but devil is in the details, or, as Slobodan Milosevic used to say, big door swings on a small hinge.

This is why from now on I am going to focus now the little picture and answer the question how to become this hinge, how does a small marginal group grow to make a difference. Once you’re big and strong everything is easy, but most failures happen in the first stage of organizing and, while everybody shares stories about successes, as well as spectacular failures, nobody talks about the graveyard of flops - small marginal groups that never made it out of the political margin.

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Wednesday, February 08, 2012

What happens after?

"Dictatorships don’t always die when the dictator leaves office." wrote Mohamed Nasheed today in the New York Times. He learned it the hard way, he was toppled yesterday, four years after he became president of the Maldives in the historic 2008 election which ended the thirty year long rule of Maumoon Abdul Gayoom. In the op-ed titled The Dregs of Dictatorship, President Nasheed warns that "... long after the revolutions, powerful networks of regime loyalists can remain behind and can attempt to strangle their nascent democracies."

We will see what happens to President Nasheed (and what happens to Democracy Island), but now we can ask ourselves why some democracies get strangled and some don't. Is there something in the way struggle is fought and won that guarantees (or at least increases the likelihood) of the survival of the newly established order?

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Wednesday, February 01, 2012

How did the plan play out?

(this is the fourth and final part in the "What happened on October 5th" miniseries, with parts one, two and three posted earlier)

October 4th

Kostunica won the elections on September 24th and Milosevic tried to falsify ballots. He was caught with his hands in the ballot box and people were outraged. The opposition organized series of strikes and blockades, but more popped up spontaneously. The tension rose day by day and finally the opposition put up the deadline for Milosevic to accept Kostunica’s victory for 3:00 PM on October 5th and called for a rally in Belgrade in front of the Federal parliament.
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Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Why didn't they shoot?

(this is the third part in the "What happened on October 5th" miniseries, with parts one and two posted earlier)

The strategy of the DOS coalition of opposition parties was in a nutshell to win the presidential election, expose the fraud if it happens and organize protests to counter it and to make sure these protests are not crushed by the armed forces loyal to Milosevic - the Army, the Police or the Special Forces.

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Wednesday, January 18, 2012

What was the plan?

(this is the second part in the "What happened on October 5th" miniseries, part one can be found here)

In its Declaration on the Future of Serbia, adopted on July 30th 1999, Otpor advocated the strategy for transition of power through free and fair elections, with the idea of united front against Milosevic. Otpor also stressed the importance of mobilizing the population to vote, but also of promoting “individual resistance” i.e. nonviolent methods of civic disobedience in order to counter possible electoral fraud. This strategy was slowly embraced by the opposition parties in the months to come, but at the time nobody had taken it seriously.

The strategy was based on two assumptions:
  1. that the opposition had to be united, to have one presidential candidate in a run in order to get more votes than Milosevic
  2. that Milosevic would never accept the defeat at the elections (that he would falsify ballots and even use armed forces to defend his power)

The strategy was derived from a decision to use elections as a tool of change, since legitimacy of the opposition could only be established in the election process. Opposition needed to unite, to have one candidate in order to maximize its chances. Otpor and the resto of the civil society, on the other hand, would mobilize the population to “get out and vote” in order to raise voter turnout and opposition’s chances of victory.

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