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)

Therefore, it is not enough to support such a movement; one ought to join and work within it to make change possible. The lack of leaders and organizational hierarchy in such a movement enables individuals, on principles of personal initiative and responsibility, to contribute to the cause at their maximum capacity. Every single example of personal resistance blends into universal resistance, which again gives power to each individual act. The wearing of a badge with a clenched fist distinguishes an individual from the passive crowd, and meeting others with the same symbol gives power to the distinction.

But let's return to the drawing of a line as a generator of a social movement. In order for the undertaking to succeed it is necessary to keep attention away from the individual by emphasizing the group. This makes it impossible for the regime to manipulate the undertaking. Namely, if the movement were based on individuals, i.e. the leaders of the movement, the movement itself would be severely threatened. Individuals can be bribed, blackmailed, threatened, discredited and, as a last resort, murdered, while the ideological arena is a slippery battlefield for the regime. Therefore, one should not be guided by this or that politician, but rather by a desire to live in a normal country.

The model of a spontaneous spreading of the idea makes it possible to draw a line through society even if regular political activity is not possible. This line even tears at the regime itself. To extinguish this epidemic, the regime has to resort to violence. But that creates a counter-effect. Instead of smothering the epidemic, the regime is only expediting it. It is only a matter of time before this epidemic reaches the dictator's immediate surrounding. Institutions will chose between the two sides of the dividing line due to the circumstances with which they are faced. The arrests of innocents in Pozarevac was the circumstance that pushed the local court. Other examples will follow. As a last resort, a panicked order to shoot at peaceful demonstrators is the circumstance that will eat at the army and police, and the regime knows that. In the end, the only one who can not position himself on either side of the line is the dictator himself. He is the one who is on the wrong side of the line from the start.

For all of this to happen, it is first necessary to draw this line in circles that are not so close to the pinnacles of power; people should be asked to align themselves, to join, and not just support, so that the movement can grow and gain in strength and numbers. The process is perhaps slow, but unrelenting, and most importantly guarantees a peaceful solution to the political crisis.

The line is here. Decide for yourself

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.

Boetie's question was illuminating: why focus on the dictator who is just one man? If all around him withdraw their support he will be powerless, because they give him power. So instead of focusing on him, we should focus on the people, persuade them to withdraw their support.

This disobedience starts at the margins and spreads to the center of power, the process sluggish and unnoticeable at start, but unstoppable once it reaches the inner circle, when even close aides of the dictator start shifting their loyalties. This idea was born in many minds after the failure of the Student Protest and it was the idea present in Otpor since its very founding. It took Otpor almost another year to formulate its strategy in the Declaration on the Future of Serbia in July 1999, but as early as October 1998 it was clear that Otpor was going to be spreading the "epidemic" of individual resistance until Milosevic is abandoned by everybody.

In my next post I will illustrate how Boetie's thought materialized in Otpor's modus operandi, I will post an article which I wrote in June 2000, four months before Milosevic stepped down and where you can see how this "epidemic" was about to be spread throughout Serbia.

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.

Read more »

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?

Read more »

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.
Read more »