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Volume 10, No. 6 - September 2000  
Table of contents for this issue

Rage Against the Regime
Serbian Students Fight Milosevic
By Laura Secor

STROLLING DOWN KNEZ MIHAILOVA, the pedestrian thoroughfare at the heart of Belgrade, you would almost think you were in a normal European city. Modest but respectable-looking storefronts line the street; ice cream and popcorn vendors hawk their wares from metal carts; women saunter past in the latest fashions. But something is not quite right. Outdoor cafés remain empty on a sunny June afternoon, and pedestrians mill around listlessly. The former French cultural center now sports a spray-painted swastika and the words 1939 NATO 1999 -- equating the Nazi invasion of Serbia with last year's bombardment. A block or two farther on, the American cultural center is a boarded-up ruin, tagged NATO KILLERS on the outside, reduced to rubble inside.

Across from the remains of the American cultural center lies the University of Belgrade's Faculty of Philosophy, the site of massive student protests both in 1968 and in 1996-1997. Today the faculty's dissident professors work under constant threat of losing their jobs. A surly guard keeps watch at the main campus building, which even students are currently forbidden to enter. The faculty's plaza, known as Plato (not after the philosopher but after the word for "plateau" in Serbian), is obstructed by a plywood wall that conveniently bisects one of Belgrade's most open and visible gathering spaces.

Some of Belgrade's old-timers say they can no longer bear to visit this part of town. They remember Knez Mihailova as the hub of a cosmopolitan city, not the core of a provincial police state. On a winding side street of crumbling stone buildings, an ominous message adorns a dingy wall: MILOSEVIC=CEAUÇESCU. Slobodan Milosevic is rumored to be hiding in a bunker somewhere. But the greatest threat to his power these days is not the Hague Tribunal, the local opposition parties, or even the likelihood of an assassination attempt. It is the burning discontent of Serbian youth.

Just a couple blocks from Plato on Knez Mihailova, a second-story office above a bustling café streams with college students. Unlike just about everyone else in Belgrade, these kids look like they have places to go and things to do. Their cell phones abuzz, they hit the streets with boxes of buttons, stickers, and posters. They organize "actions" that resemble 1960s street theater with a sardonic Serbian edge. The movement is called Otpor -- in English, resistance. Its symbol is a stylized drawing of a clenched fist. In just two years, Otpor has grown from a nucleus of fifteen college students into a movement of thirty-five to forty thousand. Its message is simple: "If there is a way to remove Milosevic without force, then Otpor will do it," explains Marko Djuric, a lanky seventeen-year-old with glasses and a grave manner. "In the future, when we bring down Mr. Milosevic, we would like to be the conscience of Serbia."

To their elders, the Otpor activists are cause at once for hope and for concern. Sonja Licht, president of the Fund for an Open Society Yugoslavia, says she is watching the students' activities with great excitement. "The fact that someone, and it could only be young people, has the strength and the potential, the courage, to create a movement in itself is a miracle," says Licht. "This is exactly what we need." But other observers are less certain. Otpor's strategy combines absurdist street theater with an effort to build the broadest possible anti-Milosevic coalition. As a result, Otpor has opened its doors to nationalist intellectuals and to the Serbian Orthodox Church -- two sets of elites that many in Serbia see as responsible for the rise of Milosevic in the first place. It may be that no grassroots movement will succeed in Serbia without the blessing of these groups. But some critics wonder how much Serbia can benefit from a movement that includes them.

AT THE TIME OF MY VISIT to Belgrade, Otpor is the target of a relentless, government-sponsored propaganda campaign. Depicting the hated U.S. secretary of state, posters around the city decry the students as "Madeleine Youth" and show the Otpor fist crammed with dollar bills. The official television news intercuts footage of activists in Otpor T-shirts with images of World War II - era Croatian fascists raising clenched fists -- then with pictures of dead bodies in Bosnia, and long, still shots of Zagreb's central square. Political assassinations, now commonplace in Serbia, are officially blamed on Otpor. According to the government, Otpor activists have even called for armed struggle and for Milosevic to be hanged. "We are terrorists, we are traitors, fascists, we are everything bad in this world," says Marko Djuric, laughing.

But ludicrous as the state propaganda seems, it carries an implicit and serious threat. This summer, Milosevic's ruling party, the Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS), drafted a law against terrorism that left members of any organization unregistered with the state vulnerable to sweeping acts of repression, including life imprisonment. Denied recognition by the authorities, Otpor was undoubtedly the proposed legislation's main target. The law's language sent a shiver up the spines of many Serbs: The killing in Kosovo had been justified on the grounds that the Albanians, too, were "terrorists."

Every day, dozens of Otpor activists are hauled into police stations for "informative talks." Activists estimate that more than a thousand of their number have been interrogated: The police photograph and fingerprint them, grilling them about Otpor's sources of funding and its leadership structure. The authorities open dossiers on the students and then release them. Those who are apprehended at demonstrations and street actions are often badly beaten or imprisoned.

None of this has stopped the students from staging their exuberant, symbolic, and sometimes cryptic street performances. Students play Monopoly and Risk on the street "to tell the authorities to stop playing with our fate," Djuric explains. When Milosevic ceremoniously named himself a National Hero, Otpor activists decorated themselves and passersby with badges that read I AM A NATIONAL HERO. Members of the Otpor chapter in the southern Serbian town of Nis were arrested when they awarded Milosevic their own "Alleged Hero" decoration. In Zajecar, activists have planned a follow-up performance in which they will attempt to join Milosevic's SPS en masse. Participants explained that "after awarding the medal to the president of the republic for his merits in defending and reconstructing the country, this will be another move toward repentance by the People's Movement Otpor." (Because the activists are "terrorists," the ruling party can be expected to reject their bid for membership.)

Otpor's irreverence and plain old silliness have confounded the authorities, who respond at times like playground bullies who know they are being mocked but don't quite get the joke. Since Yugoslavia's soccer team lost to Holland in the Euro 2000 football tournament, for example, Otpor has been calling for the resignation of Yugoslav coach Miljan Miljanic. An activist informed B2-92, Belgrade's independent radio station, that Miljanic is "a personification of all those guys ruling our destiny and our lives for all these years.... I think Mr. Miljanic is the only man who could get more signatures on a petition than Slobodan Milosevic himself." Demonstrating the pervasiveness of the Yugoslav president's influence, activists staged a soccer game between a team called Milosevic, after Slobodan, and another team called Milosevic, after the Yugoslav soccer star Savo Milosevic. The players were not only arrested but thrown in jail.

Performances like Otpor's Milosevic-Milosevic soccer match reflect a spirited refusal to take Milosevic seriously, and they infuriate a regime that cultivates and thrives on fear. From the outset, recalls the Otpor activist Milja Jovanovic, "We saw ourselves as some kind of annoying insect that bites all around the body of the regime. Those were the proportions at the time -- we were very, very small, and a large man stood before us. We stung him a couple of times, and those small insects grew larger and more numerous."

IF OTPOR'S ANTIPOLITICS have proven popular, a look at Serbia's squabbling opposition politicians may explain why. As much as 80 percent of the Serbian public disapproves of Milosevic, but the people's preferred candidate for the Yugoslav presidency is "none of the above." Vuk Draskovic, head of the Serbian Renewal Party (SPO), and Zoran Djindjic, head of the Democratic Party (DS), are widely believed to have squandered Serbia's antigovernment energies with their infighting, corruption, and periodic cooperation with the regime. When Otpor representatives attend rallies organized by the SPO or other parties, they win thunderous applause for demanding accountability from the opposition leadership. "If you betray us again," an Otpor spokesperson is reported to have announced at one opposition rally, "next time we will bring ten thousand of our people."

"You're looking at the same faces in the opposition for the last ten years," says Slobodan Homen, a twenty-eight-year-old Otpor activist. "All these politicians are politicians of the Milosevic era. And our main strategy is that to get rid of Milosevic, they have to become part of the past. Of course not in the same moment, but two or three years after Milosevic, they have to be history for this country." In the short term, however, Otpor plans to support the opposition in the next elections. The students do not seek power for themselves; they just want to make sure the opposition answers to the demands of its own constituency.

The opposition will need its tough young allies, not least because Otpor has studiously cultivated an image of incorruptibility, a rarity in today's Serbia. Leaders can always be seduced or blackmailed by the regime, the students reason. So although Otpor has an advisory board of prominent professors, the group makes its decisions by consensus among committee members in each of its local chapters across Serbia. Says Marko Djuric, "You can blackmail one activist. Or you can blackmail two or five. But you cannot blackmail thirty-five thousand." Homen points out that youth also works to Otpor's advantage. "You can lose everything if you have a family and children. The regime can blackmail you; maybe you have something dirty in your past. But with somebody eighteen or nineteen years old, it's difficult to find anything. The big accusation is that somebody is a NATO spy, NATO infantry. But if you're talking about an eighteen-year-old, he would have had to have started working for the CIA when he was sixteen."

ALTHOUGH OTPOR HAS GROWN into its role as political gadfly, it was originally conceived for the specific purpose of resisiting Serbia's draconian 1998 University Act. The Act allowed the Serbian government directly to appoint deans and rectors, who would then oversee faculty appointments. It also required professors to sign new contracts that many saw as oaths of loyalty to the regime. Since the law was enacted, more than 150 professors have been fired.

Belgrade's largest faculty, the Faculty of Philology, which houses the university's literature and foreign-language departments, was one of those hardest hit by the University Act. The neofascist Serbian Radical Party, one of three parties in Serbia's ruling coalition, appointed an ultranationalist dean, who fired most of the faculty's world-literature department. Philology students revolted, staging months of demonstrations at the faculty. Among the demonstrating students was a knot of maybe fifteen young activists who called themselves Otpor.

Otpor and its allies succeeded in ridding the philology faculty of its appointed dean and reinstating the fired professors. Says Branko Ilic, a philology student and a member of the original core of Otpor, "After five months of protest on the Faculty of Philology, the dean, Radmilo Marojevic, was dismissed. It was the first victory of Otpor. We are trying to say to the Serbian public that there is another dean of this country, and his name is Slobodan Milosevic. And just as we were successful, the Serbian people can be successful in dismissing Slobodan Milosevic."

But despite the students' victory at the philology faculty, and despite the movement's burgeoning ranks, fierce repression still governs the University of Belgrade. This May, a chilling incident at the architecture faculty exposed the severity of the university's problems. The regime had just seized control of Belgrade's only independent television and radio station, Studio B, and four hundred protesting Belgraders had been beaten by antiriot police. On May 24, 150 students massed at the architecture faculty in protest, pledging to spend the night on the premises. At ten o'clock, the faculty's street went dark: Electricity had been cut. The students, who had gathered in a third-floor lecture hall, started down the stairs. A formation of thirty young men, wearing surgical masks and sweatpants and wielding batons, rushed at the exiting crowd, beating everyone within reach. "It was a really organized unit, not a group of ragtag bullies trying to intimidate us," says economics professor Goran Milicevic, who was there. The fact that electricity was restored to the block directly after the incident supports most observers' suspicion that the beatings were ordered by the government, possibly through the SPS-appointed architecture dean.

Milicevic, who also chairs the Coordination Committee for the Defense of Universities in Serbia, was badly shaken by the episode. "The most terrifying thing is, I felt, that when you are beaten by the antiriot police it is a risk you calculate. To be beaten in the faculty -- the first association that came to my mind is Latin American dictatorship. Pinochet." Other concerned professors tried to organize a strike in response to the incident, but only the visual arts, drama, and philosophy faculties managed to mobilize. Soon enough, even these activities would come to a halt: On May 26, several weeks before final exams, Yugoslavia's minister of higher education pronounced the entire university closed.

HIP AND CONFIDENT, twenty-year-old Branko Ilic seems to draw from an endless well of energy. On pain of arrest, he cannot return to his hometown of Arilje: He has been falsely accused of bombing a café there. On a sweltering June afternoon, he and Marko Djuric agree to meet me and a colleague at the café below the Otpor offices. To our surprise, the students openly discuss the group's activities outdoors, in English, with a tape recorder in plain view. Their fearlessness makes us nervous, but it is consistent with the movement's outlook and strategy. "Okay, they probably listen to everything we are doing," says Djuric. "And they probably infiltrate some people in our rolls. But they cannot stop the actions. It is almost impossible to stop our activities except to use force. Brutal force."

Indeed, despite the recent round of arrests, Otpor's indefatigable activists stencil the clenched fist onto buildings; affix stickers with slogans in public places; wear T-shirts and buttons emblazoned with the Otpor fist; and plaster posters to city walls. The movement's imagery, produced by Otpor's "marketing" department, is bold and contemporary, combining a digital-age sensibility with a wink and a nod to 1930s propaganda poster art. The raised fist is an ironic reference to both fascism and communism. One Otpor poster features the bruised face of an opposition activist who was beaten by the police, along with the words, THIS IS THE FACE OF SERBIA.

Lately, activists have been visiting Serbia's long lines for milk, bread, sugar, and oil, handing out leaflets printed with an expression that means both "Are you okay?" and "Are you in line?" in Serbian. One such queue was overtaken by Otpor activists holding a banner that read NOTHING OUT OF LINE IN SERBIA. Accosted by the police for holding an unregistered protest, the students said they had no time to discuss the matter because, like the rest of the Serbian populace, they had to wait in line for basic food products. "We told them that, as far as we knew, we were not required to register with police to wait in queues," one spokesman told Radio B2-92.

Ilic points out a popcorn cart, just across from the café where we sit, bearing several Otpor stickers. The popcorn vendor has an excellent view into the Otpor office windows, and activists once spotted him entertaining a secret service agent at length. Could the vendor be an informant? During the night, activists spray painted the wall next to his cart, "This popcorn vendor works for the police." The vendor appeared in their office the following morning, assuring the students they were wrong and taking their stickers to prove it. Later, we notice that the block's ice cream vendor also displays Otpor stickers. They are proliferating, slowly, up and down Knez Mihailova.

OTPOR'S SPIRIT, SAYS DJURIC, smiling, is "like a virus. It spreads." True enough. But privately, some skeptics worry that Otpor, which defines itself only as a movement against the current authorities and not as one in favor of any particular political program or ethical principle, lacks a constructive goal.

Such concerns are not allayed by Otpor's acceptance of high-profile nationalists as members -- among them, the novelist and former Yugoslav president Dobrica Cosic, who is widely cited as the original visionary behind the drive for a Greater Serbia. The activists have also enlisted the support of the Serbian Orthodox Church, an institution with few admirers among Belgrade's antinationalist intellectuals. Biljana Srbljanovic, a twenty-nine-year-old playwright and drama professor, worries that Otpor does not advance a real alternative to the current system. But she adds that "it is normal, because these kids were ten or eleven years old when the whole mess started, so they don't know what to do." Says Sonja Biserko, head of the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in Serbia, "Young people have no idea who Cosic really is, or how bad the church is. They grew up with this model." Nonetheless, nagging questions remain about the movement's agenda for the future. "Who will replace Milosevic?" Biserko wants to know. Serbia needs a "credible leader with moral values. Moral values are important."

With allies like Cosic and the Church, is Otpor drawing from a poisoned well? Although it broke with Milosevic as early as 1991, the Serbian Orthodox Church is widely distrusted due to its early advocacy of Serbia's territorial ambitions. But according to Sonja Licht of the Fund for an Open Society, the Church is a heterogeneous institution that also includes sharp critics of Milosevic's adventures in Bosnia and Kosovo. "I don't mind that some of those kids are close to the Church," says Licht. "Why wouldn't they be?" Otpor's Branko Ilic explains, "We invited our patriarch to our student meeting on Plato because we were expecting the police would beat us, so we invited him to come before his children and protect us." The patriarch gave Otpor his blessing but did not attend the rally.

According to Otpor activist Milja Jovanovic, the movement not only tolerates but welcomes the support of former Milosevic allies: "Our tactic is to take everything that Milosevic was great for and that Serbs adored him for -- to take it away from him and [his wife] Mira Markovic." Indeed, Otpor activists are wholly aware that Dobrica Cosic, popularly known as the "father of the Serbian nation," belongs to the cadre of intellectuals who, says Branko Ilic, "made Slobodan Milosevic because they pushed him as a god here." Nonetheless, Ilic insists, Cosic's registration as an Otpor member does not alloy Otpor's purity: "We won't change our opinion because Dobrica Cosic came to us. Probably that means Dobrica Cosic changed his mind about nationalism."

The idea of Cosic's conversion is certainly attractive. But embracing Otpor's one avowed goal -- the removal of President Milosevic -- is not the same thing as abandoning the politics of ethnic nationalism. After all, Otpor has not itself articulated an explicitly anti-nationalist platform. According to Jovanovic, there are pragmatic reasons for this: "In the nationalistic atmosphere, saying nationalism is crap just provokes an immediate backlash of nonacceptance." Otpor prefers to project a forward-looking image of optimism and strength, Jovanovic argues, rather than "rubbing our noses in the idea that we are killers, that we are responsible, that we have collective guilt and so on. I don't think that works on the general level. I would rather say that we are guilty because we let Milosevic stay in power and do all those horrible things."

OTPOR'S STRATEGY HAS PROVEN savvy, but it sometimes lures the students into dangerous waters as well. One day, in the café below the Otpor offices, four activists spotted the notorious Bosnian Serb general Ratko Mladic, who is widely presumed responsible for the worst bloodletting in the Bosnian war. The former general was surrounded by eight bodyguards. Recalls Milja Jovanovic, "Somebody recognized him, and we just came up to him and said, 'Hi.' He said, 'Hi.'... We offered him a T-shirt, and he said he didn't want to accept it because he treats Serbian youth as a whole and not as a specific, politically engaged group."

Offering an Otpor T-shirt to an indicted war criminal, says Jovanovic, was "ironic and serious at the same time.... What can you say to him?" she asks. "If you say 'you are a killer' or 'you are a hero,' you do not say anything. Because in the end you would have to choose one of those two things, and I don't feel any as my -- " She breaks off. "There were four of us, and we were really confused, and he was more confused."

What if Mladic had requested a registration form? Jovanovic says Otpor would accept his membership. But she doesn't think it was a real possibility. "I would see it as, he doesn't know who we are. Or, Milosevic's people are joining Otpor. I would say that either we are very strong or we send a very confused message."

Otpor activists seem incredulous at the suggestion that they could shut their doors to any potential member. "You can either be completely tolerant or not at all," says Jovanovic. "I can't be a hypocrite and say, okay, I will let somebody gay in Otpor, but I won't let a nationalist in Otpor." Indeed, Sonja Licht concurs, ideological orthodoxy of any sort is dangerous for Serbia: "I know that some people criticize Otpor because they say that there are some nationalists among them. And my question is, and what about pluralism?" Nonetheless, Licht does not believe that pluralism necessitates an indiscriminate policy of inclusion. "My opinion is that one should go into the broadest possible coalition now, making absolutely sure that you don't let into that type of coalition people who are chauvinist, racist, fanatics, fundamentalists of any sort."

Surely, such a coalition shouldn't include the likes of Ratko Mladic. But what about Dobrica Cosic? At what point does too much pluralism dilute a movement's message? After all, membership in a political movement is normally limited to those who subscribe to a shared set of political principles or moral values.

In response to such concerns, Otpor activists protest that theirs is not a political movement. Dusan Bjelic, a sociologist at the University of Southern Maine, concurs: "Every movement has a head and a tail; there is a certain organizational structure in a movement. Otpor is more of a collective performance. They've invented political art that has real political consequences."

FOR OTPOR, AS FOR the rest of Serbia, the most vexed political question remains that of Serb-Albanian relations. Asked why Otpor does not speak out on behalf of Albanian students currently jailed in Serbia as terrorists, Milja Jovanovic replies that this is one political issue among many on which Otpor declines to espouse a party line. "We are not addressing the inflation issue, we are not addressing Montenegro using the deutsche mark as its currency, because we are not professionals for that, and the Albanian issue is one of the issues and one of the problems caused by this regime." She concedes that "one human life is more important than the currency in Montenegro. I mean, I cannot stand the moral aspect of it. But politics is a tough game."

Nowhere is it tougher than on the subject of Kosovo. Slobodan Homen recalls that Otpor tried to make contact with Kosovar Albanian students in 1998. "And they had only one demand, that was an independent Kosovo. And I said, sorry guys, but I can't give you independent Kosovo. You have your politician, Mr. Rugova, he should negotiate with Milosevic. But I am a student from Serbia. I can't give you independent Kosovo. 'No, no, no -- we want independent Kosovo.' I'm sorry, guys, wrong address." As for today, says Homen of the Kosovo Albanians, "They can't recognize the difference between bad Serbs like Milosevic and some who are maybe not so bad.... We are open for discussions when they are ready. But I think that for any serious talks with Albanians, we have to get rid of Milosevic first."

Perhaps Homen spoke too soon. Not a month after our conversation, a group of Serb students that included six Otpor activists boarded a bus to Ohrid, Macedonia, where Sonja Biserko had arranged a July 6-9 meeting with Albanian students from Kosovo. Southern Maine's Dusan Bjelic was one of the conference's speakers. At first, he recalls, the Otpor students hung back; and Biserko adds that the Albanians seemed to regard them with suspicion.The discussion should begin, some Albanians felt, with a Serb apology for the devastation Albanians had suffered in Kosovo. Some of the Serb students agreed. But one Serb protested that she was herself innocent and had in fact opposed the war. Why should she apologize? An Albanian student replied, "How do I know your brother wasn't involved?"

The most fruitful dialogue began, says Bjelic, the second night, when Otpor kids "stayed on the beach with the Albanian students until four or five in the morning, drinking and talking about everything that had happened." By morning, the two groups had agreed to perform a joint Otpor action, in which Serb and Albanian students would together arrest a locally stationed NATO soldier. At the last minute, the Albanians withdrew, saying it was still too early for such united gestures. Nonetheless, final evaluations of the conference from both groups of students were overwhelmingly positive.

Both Bjelic and Biserko recall with pleasure that the spectacle of their mixed Serb-Albanian entourage left onlookers baffled and moved. (The group's Serb driver was stunned -- then asked if he could attend the conference. He did.) "These two communities have lived in parallel worlds," says Biserko. "They've had no chance to meet each other in the last twenty years." And despite the ethnic stereotypes relentlessly promoted in both communities, Biserko marvels that it took the students "only half a day to start finding their own ways of communicating."

THE OHRID MEETING AUGURS well for Serbia's young. But before much can change, Serbia needs free elections, and this will be a fight. Indicted for war crimes, Milosevic is "a lunatic, a wounded animal frightened for his own life," says one professor. In July the president finagled a change to the Yugoslav constitution that will allow him to serve another term. The election, which has again divided the opposition, will take place September 24.

Things could be worse for Otpor. Back in June, Branko Ilic told me that if elections were not scheduled for fall, Otpor would "organize chaos here in Belgrade." By chaos, he meant massive civil disobedience: Otpor would stop public transportation and other city services, "but the most important thing will be if the people of Serbia realize that they must stop paying bills, taxes -- then there is no state." The opposition leader Vuk Draskovic, says Ilic, balked at this idea. His response was, "Oh guys, if we do that, if we stop all those systems, that means revolution. Are we powerful enough for a revolution?" Says Ilic with disgust, "What can we do in that situation besides leave the meeting?"

Now Otpor is busy recruiting voters -- twenty per activist, in order to bring the anticipated turnout to four million. The students particularly hope to lure young, first-time voters to the polls. But the support of older activists, some of them still wary of Otpor's motives, remains important to the students as they consolidate what is Serbia's most energetic and untested force for change. When Otpor needed a thousand signatures on its application for legal status (the application was denied), student activists approached Biljana Srbljanovic and her friend and mentor, the distinguished novelist and literature professor Filip David. "We signed for Otpor. We didn't want to, actually. But then they asked us, and we said 'okay,'" says Srbljanovic. "If they are beaten, let's be with them."

Indeed, perhaps Otpor's most valuable asset is the revulsion of the older generation at the thought of violence against the young. The students have some reason to suspect that this mechanism is not functioning completely normally in their society -- Marko Djuric says of Milosevic, "He has produced wars in Croatia, in Bosnia, in Kosovo, with hundreds of thousands of deaths. Why wouldn't he kill, for example, thirty thousand Serbian youths? I mean, I think he is capable of doing that." But at the same time, the Otporasi are counting on their elders to refuse to cooperate with such a state. They know that Yugoslav soldiers are being read a statement informing them that Otpor kids are fascist terrorists. So they send care packages to the soldiers -- cigarettes, cakes, newspapers, crossword puzzles -- in the hope that, says Ilic, "in the key moment when he orders them to shoot on us, they won't listen."

Otpor has been extraordinarily successful in enlisting support from activists' parents, who have started to organize their own activities. Bjelic notes that because Serbia's cosmopolitan middle class has mostly emigrated, Otpor members "are the kids and grandkids of Milosevic's constituency" -- and state repression against them is alienating the ruling party's original power base. Belgrade's Radio B2-92 reports that in front of the Nis military headquarters, on July 13, 2000, a father destroyed his son's posthumous military decoration. The father, Dusan Vukovic, announced, "My son was a soldier, but he did not want this war, he wanted peace. He was a member of Otpor who went to Kosovo to fight terrorists. Now they have proclaimed the children terrorists. On behalf of those terrorists, I cannot accept this token from Slobodan Milosevic, who did not once visit my son's grave."

In small cities like Nis and other villages across Serbia, the presence of even one activist and that activist's family can have a profound impact. Branko Ilic's mother used to work in the Arilje police station, but she lost her job because of her son's political activities. Ilic's brother, who is in primary school, is also an activist. While we are wandering around the Otpor offices, Ilic gets a phone call. His father has been arrested, held for two and half hours, and interrogated about his son's activities. I ask Ilic if he plans to go home to Arilje, where there is a warrant for his arrest. Soon, he says. The police are his mother's former colleagues. They remember him from infancy. "I'd like to see their faces and their eyes when they say, 'You are the one who bombed that café.'"

This is where Milosevic's true problem lies, as Otpor spreads across Serbia. For how long will his shock troops continue to obey orders that pit them against their own children? The innocence of youth may be a hackneyed fairy tale. But whatever Serbia's youth, reared in an environment of moral toxicity and international isolation, reveal themselves to believe, they belong to their society's only demographic segment that by generational definition does not have blood on its hands. This is no small matter, considering that, as Filip David points out, in twelve years Serbia has passed through "what in Europe people passed through in the last seventy years. We have fascism, we had communism, we had four wars."

Could a fifth be brewing? Although the regime's first draft was shot down in Parliament, according to a recent Otpor press release, Serbian justice minister Dragoljub Jankovic still pledges to enact a terrorism law that will "cut the great evil at its roots." Judges who support Otpor are being routed out of Serbia's courts. Meanwhile, out on the streets, demonstrators sing a popular new ditty whose chorus runs, "Save Serbia and be a man, kill yourself Slobodan."

Under such circumstances, can a nonviolent student movement achieve that rarest of ends -- a peaceful transfer of power in the Balkans? Nobody has more riding on this question than Serbia's youth. "Ninety percent of us students weren't born when Tito died," says Branko Ilic. "We believe we have the right to create something new."

Laura Secor is a senior editor of LF. Her article "Testaments Betrayed: Yugoslavian Intellectuals and the Road to War" appeared in the September 1999 issue. This story was reported in collaboration with Kira Brunner, assistant editor of Dissent.


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