Wednesday, January 04, 2012

Striking (in)significance of Otpor

Otpor played a marginal role on October 5th 2000, the day Milosevic fell, marching down Marshal Tito Street while the real action was in front of the Parliament building. And I played an even more marginal role in Otpor, because on that day I was on the opposite side, as a sailor drafted into the Yugoslav Navy few weeks before, I was defending Slobodan Milosevic, my commander-in-chief (and I failed him).

There is a bigger and bigger disconnect between what happened and what is being said about Otpor as the time passes. And I'm not talking just about conspiracy theorists like Alex Jones whose web site Infowars says that Otpor "was a key organization in the Serbian Wars in the 1990s and was also an influence in the Egypt uprisings." Serbian Wars!? Silly indeed, but this page is in the top five when you google Otpor.

Even some more mainstream media outlets simplify the story to the extent where Otpor appears, brings down Milosevic and goes on to teach others to foment their own revolutions. For instance, last year Reuters ran a special report on Egyptian revolution in which authors Marwa Awad and Hugo Dixon call Otpor a group which "brought down Slobodan Milosevic through non-violent protests". Similar stories appeared after the Rose Revolution in Georgia and the Orange Revolution in Ukraine, like the 2004 Time article by Andrew Purvis in which he claims that Otpor "played a role in all three movements" - Serbia, Georgia and Ukraine.

When this narrative started appearing I was glad that Otpor, an organization I belonged to, was being given such a huge credit: not just that we overthrew our own dictator, but also autocrats in distant corners of the earth. But although flattering, this exaggeration actually destroys the real story which is more interesting, but less spectacular. Otpor was just one of the organizations fighting against Milosevic regime. It had an important role, but that role was very specific. And Otpor grew from a small group into a huge movement and as such it cannot be defined by a single narrative. But before I give my version of the story (which I hope will encourage others to do the same), let me try to unearth the origins of this exaggeration.

The article which introduced this exaggerated story was "Who Really Brough Down Milosevic?" in which New York Times correspondent Roger Cohen claims that the overthrow of Milosevic "came through a provincial uprising stirred in large measure by Serbian youth acting through a grass-roots movement called Otpor." This article appeared less than two months after Milosevic was overthrown and it also introduces two main fallacies, later repeated elsewhere: extensive financing from the United States and the seminar in Budapest about techniques of nonviolent resistance.

The problem with these fallacies is that they attempt to fit a complex story of Otpor and the larger story and even more complex story of the decade long struggle against Milosevic to a series of connected or disconnected facts, like the seminar in Budapest.

Why are these fallacies so powerful? They exploit emotional triggers in the reader who has strong feelings about the US, either positive or negative. Cohen wanted to make Americans proud of the role of their government in bringing down Milosevic as "the butcher of the Balkans" and forget the previous support for Milosevic as "the factor of stability in the Balkans". In other words, Americans wanted to believe their government was doing the right thing (and indeed, after ten years of doing the wrong thing the US government finally did the right thing in 2000). What Cohen gave them was not just the notion that their country's role was positive, but also decisive: it gave the money, it gave the know-how, so the answer the the question asked in the article's headline would be: the US brought down Milosevic.

The media outlets supporting different authoritarian regimes repeated the same fallacy, but this time exploiting negative feelings towards the US, with the aim to discredit movements which operated in their countries. Take for example the Pravda article titled "The Otpor factor in the Ukraine" published in at the beginning of the Orange Revolution in Ukraine in 2004:
"First it was Georgia, now it is the Ukraine. Pro-western factions ready to sell out to the Washington camp, orchestrated by their foreign masters, sweep to power on the crest of a wave of popular revolt, hooliganism and riots. The Otpor factor."
This article uses the same two narrative fallacies, but now with a negative twist, it too mentions foreign financing ("selling out") and foreign know-how ("orchestrated" revolt). The mentions of "hooliganism" and "riots" just make the story totally bizarre, but understandable, given the goal of the article: divert attention from a one problem - electoral fraud - to a different problem - foreign interference (but not mentioning Russian interference). This article also shows how amateurish Pravda looks in comparison with Cohen and the New York Times, when it comes to spinning the story.

So is there a problem here? Are these fallacies something we should be worried about? Yes and no. The good thing about these fallacies is that some authoritarian regimes believe in them and overestimate the importance of external interference. As a result they may waste their resources looking for links local dissident groups have with foreign organizations and individuals and trying to disrupt them. But the problem is when, influenced by these fallacies, a movement leaders believe that foreign support is key in winning the political contest in their country and waste their resources lobbying the US Congress instead of organizing in the local school or factory.

But if this is all false and if Otpor played a marginal role on October 5th 2000, as I suggested at the begining of this post, why should you waste your time reading my blog? I even admit I wasn't in Belgrade on that day, so what's I will answer this in my next post.


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