Serbia: Reviving Resistance
April 17, 2008
Transitions Online, by Damian Murphy
Young Serbians need better role models. It's time for a return of the Otpor generation.
The popular Serbian rock band Darkwood Dub named a hit CD Life Begins at 30, in homage to their 20s, lost to the war-torn years of the Milosevic regime. In 2000, a generation of Serbia’s youth, angry at losing those years, courageously and nonviolently fought in perilous circumstances for change. In Belgrade and far flung towns like Kragujevac, Kraljevo and Kikinda, the youth-led Otpor ("Resistance") movement and other civil society groups catalyzed the country to unite and take down Slobodan Milosevic.
Since then, these Serbian youth have become a model for nonviolent resistance and have supported their counterparts around the world struggling against similarly repressive regimes. Their work is cited in university courses on civic organizing and their leaders are invited to speak at forums around the world.
Back at home however, the tide of democratic change and European integration has unfortunately receded. In January, the right-wing Serbian Radical Party leader Tomislav Nikolic was only narrowly defeated in presidential elections by the pro-Western Boris Tadic. While the democratic forces were able temporarily to stave off a return to the Milosevic era, the Radicals have a newfound momentum fueled by Kosovo’s recent declaration of independence.
WHITHER THE ACTIVISTS?
At this decisive moment in Serbia's history, where did Serbia's youth go and what can be done to encourage a new wave of democratic youth activism in the country?
First, many of them have gotten older and have gone on to other things. On a recent trip to Belgrade, I met with Milan, a former Otpor activist from Pozarevac, the hometown of Milosevic. Like many activists in Serbia, Milan sacrificed his early 20s to the struggle against Milosevic and postponed his academic studies. Having finally acquired academic degrees, many former activists have moved beyond a political scene that grew more complicated after Milosevic’s ouster. The broad governing coalition was subject to crippling internal compromise on important issues and failed to address an entrenched culture of corruption. Milan and many others saw better prospects in the private sector and decided to take their organizational skills there.
Second, young people today are different. First-time voters in the presidential election were children during the wars of the 1990s and did not fully comprehend the repressive political environment under the Milosevic regime. Nor did they share the sense of victory felt by the courageous citizens who stormed the parliament on 5 October 2000 to demand change; some were no more than 10 years old at the time. As they came to political awareness after 2000, they were subjected to the media’s steady barrage of reports portraying the democratic forces as divided, ineffectual and unable to resolve complicated economic and institutional transition issues. Moreover, since 2000, these youth saw very little of the West that motivated the Otpor generation.
Finally, there's Kosovo. Serbia's Western-leaning political parties – including Tadic's Democratic Party – took a convoluted stance calling for a Kosovo that remained in Serbia. At the same time, they promoted integration with the same European countries that supported the province’s independence. In contrast, the clarity and simplicity of the Radical Party message on the embattled province may have resonated more loudly with the young people who questioned the credentials of the democratic forces to defend Serbia.
In past Serbian elections, get-out-the-vote efforts were generally targeted toward youth, with the understanding that they disproportionately supported democratic forces. High turnout meant a democratic victory. This is no longer the case. Pre-election surveys by the Belgrade-based Center for Free Elections and Democracy show that youth were poised to support the Radicals in higher numbers than in past elections, marking a disheartening break with the progressive politics of the past.
POCKETS OF HOPE
Despite these dismal trends, there are pockets of hope. A movement of youth organizations, called No Alternative to Europe, has come together to show support for European integration. While they are the new vanguard against increased radicalization in Serbia, these young people are considerably outnumbered and unfortunately don’t command public support. Only about 1,000 activists turned out for a demonstration on 11 February, a pale comparison to the hundreds of thousands who protested Kosovo's independence on the streets of Belgrade a few days later.
According to a leader of the movement, a rally planned in early April was cancelled under threat that ultranationalists planned to throw Molotov cocktails into the crowd. The central challenge for these young activists will be to create a market for their ideas among some pretty skeptical consumers.
In addition to these efforts, the older activists have a responsibility to inspire a new generation of Serbian youth on the dangers posed by the Radical resurgence. They need to responsibly explain why the positive values of European integration, anti-nationalism and freedom of speech embodied in the pro-democracy movement of the 1990s are still worth fighting for today.
Yesterday's activists braved the tear gas and beatings of Milosevic's special police, while today’s are tear gassed protesting in front of Western embassies. There is a serious disconnect in a key country of southern Europe. Serbia's venerable democratic activists sacrificed a lot for their country in the 1990s, and may indeed believe that life begins at 30. But Serbia needs them once again, and it can't afford to wait.
Damian Murphy is the senior program manager for Europe at Freedom House. He spent two years working with youth in political parties in Serbia after the fall of Slobodan Milosevic.
Freedom House is an independent watchdog organization that supports democratic change, monitors the status of freedom around the world, and advocates for democracy and human rights.