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Nonviolent revolution? Perhaps not, but certainly one of the biggest nonviolent grassroots movements to contribute to radical political change. Ippy met the OTPOR activists from Serbia.
Bring on the bulldozers!
Personal responsibility is the key to the OTPOR movement in Serbia a movement which has been credited with contributing to the fall of Milosevic. With up to 80,000 activists, a wide variety of tactics and a belief in nonviolence, OTPOR has continued to keep the pressure up on the new incumbents. Since Kostunica took office he has been warned that only the removal of corrupt power-bases in the police, military and government will be enough to stave off future mass action.
At the end of 2000, two young activists from OTPOR Sonja Papak and Aca Radic visited Britain as guests of Amnesty International (UK). They had come to talk to university students about their experiences as part of Amnesty's Student Speakers Tour, focussed on its campaign to Stamp Out Torture.
Peace News caught up with both activists at the Amnesty UK office in London and chatted to them about life, the revolution and everything
Are things easier for OTPOR since Milosevic departed?
The main thing for us is that there's better access to the people through the media since Kostunica was elected. Prior to that we had to make and distribute all our own information through badges and posters. We had some practical support from sympathetic printing presses and got financial support from Serb exiles. OTPOR is a volunteer network.
What kind of support did you get from outside Serbia?
Well, we got great support through Amnesty people wrote letters and stuff, and from students in Tirana and from lots of NGOs. Some students in the US raised money for us by making t-shirts and other merchandise.
So what's with the bulldozers?
We brought one bulldozer to Belgrade during the protests [the big ones!] and took it to RTS [state television]. We see it as a symbol of our potential power and of unity.
And what about nonviolence?
We have a semi-agreement on this. There is no policy, we are not that kind of group [in that they don't have any policies]. But we believe that too many people have already been killed. We want peace and freedom which cannot be achieved through violence. Also, the police are not sure what to do [in the face of nonviolence]. Some people didn't understand what we were doing but it worked in the end, and we had fun too. Many people were afraid of police violence especially after the experience of the 96/97 protests, and OTPOR activists had previously been arrested for wearing our badges. But teenagers confronting the police nonviolently confronting fear, that really motivated people.
What do you think about the election process?
There was a lot of corruption in the election. For example in state run companies employees were forced to vote for Milosevic under threat of being fired. Truckloads of ballot papers went missing.
Has Kostunica surprised you?
Well, he has been quite slow on the issue of corruption, but we are pleased about the amnesty he has given to political prisoners. We will see what happens after the public [parliamentary] elections in six weeks time [which have since happened with the DOS coalition winning an overwhelming victory]. OTPOR will be campaigning for people to use their vote in the coming election. Not to vote for any particular party but against Milosevic [Socialist Party]. We are not saying who people should vote for but in reality who is left to vote for?
What role do you think OTPOR played in the fall of Milosevic?
We think OTPOR played a unifying role because we had a purpose but we did not attack anyone. We believe that you have to do things for yourself no-one will do them for you. The key OTPOR principle is that you have to be responsible for your acts.
What about sending Milosevic to the Hague?
We have a lot of evidence against him, but it might be even worse for him to stay and be tried at home [in Serbia rather than at the Hague]. He may not be held responsible for everything if he was tried at the Hague, especially because the west has supported him on certain issues in the past. Look at what happened over the NATO bombing America isnt being taken to the Hague is it?
What do you think will happen with the economy?
It will improve if we can get help from outside. At the moment we are subject to power cuts, are using old technologies and have a lot of work to do. We think NATO countries should help to fund the reconstruction work after all they caused lots of damage.
And what about the relationship with Kosova?
Well, we dont feel there is democracy with only Albanians participating [in the local elections]. But better Rugova than Thaci [Ibrahim Rugova, former leader who employed nonviolent strategy, Hasim Thaci, political leader of KLA/UCK]. There is a lot of corruption and problems in northern Kosova [along border with Serbia].
There are also a lot of problems with so many NGOs for example giving computers to people who are illiterate children need basic education first.
And the relationship with RS (Republika Srpska Serb areas of Bosnia)?
As president of Yugoslavia, Kostunica has to follow the will of the people. There are minimal sanctions imposed by the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia against RS, but closer relations particularly economically may well develop. Kostunicas party states that Serbs should live in one country [a unified Serb state], but they arent doing anything to work towards that goal
So what about the future for OTPOR?
We will be observing the new government, monitoring them especially for corruption then they cannot steal as much [as previous incumbents]. We have a lot of work to do. Maybe we will try and get NGO status.
We have a new campaign with our co-workers aimed at bringing out the truth. We will collect evidence against people who misused their position [in government and other positions of power] and the police who were involved in harassment [six OTPOR activists, including Aca were severely beaten while in custody prior to the presidential election. Their case has been taken up by Amnesty International]. We will talk with the Ministry of Interior and also to the courts. We believe these people should be held accountable this is a core aspect of OTPOR philosophy. Maybe this way we will achieve some real democracy.